Images & Illustrations

Images & Illustrations

Images & Illustrations


We’re taking a break from tools again to discuss research. While studying mills we rely on a variety of sources of information, but illustrations, prints, and drawings have often been the most useful. They can provide information on construction, technology, layout, clothing, people, and practices, all of which are often glossed over in written accounts. Of course, these images need to be taken with a grain of salt, but they can still shed light on the operation and appearance of mills in the period.

I wanted to share a few images and some questions they might raise. We don’t always know the answer to these questions, but they help researchers to determine what we’re looking at. As you look at these images, what do you see? What questions come to mind? Everyone notices something different, and every question is valid.

Let’s start with this image of the interior of a French mill in 1767.[1] This is one of the few interior views of a mill, and it provides us with a rare glimpse into the labor needed for a mill to operate. Two men are pouring grain into the hopper, while a third carries a sack up a flight of stairs. This is the grinding floor of the mill, and, presumably, underneath the two men is the drivetrain, a large arrangement of gearing which transmits power from a waterwheel up to the grindstone.

But as always, there are unanswered questions: who are the two men by the grindstones? They both appear to be adults, perhaps in their late 20s to 40s. Are they a miller and a laborer? A miller and apprentice? Who is the man carrying the sack? Another laborer, or an older apprentice? There are also two figures in the doorway, seemingly a woman and young girl, but who are they? How would this scene be different in an English mill of the same period? Some of these questions will never be answered, but asking them helps us to start thinking critically about what these images can show us.

This is an illustration of the Pembury Mill from 1796.[2] While this is outside of our normal interpretive period, I wanted to include this one as it’s associated with a specific mill and still raises some interesting questions. There are two millstones laying immediately outside of the door, and farther down the hill, a gear is laying out of use. Inside the building there is clearly some gearing, though the perspective is off.

But is this gear under repair? Or is it a replacement that’s waiting to be put into use? Additionally, who are the two people feeding animals? Are they apprentices? Laborers? Or millwrights working on the gearing? Are the stones out front fresh and ready to be put into use, or are they worn out and discarded? As always, more questions than answers.

This is another one slightly outside the normal scope of the blog, as it focuses on a windmill.[3] But like the previous image, it raises some interesting questions about mills in this period. There are two gears suspended under the walkway. Just below them lay two millstones next to a stack of barrels, some with broken or open heads. To the right of the mill, there’s even more gearing and equipment laying about, in front of a large wooden building.

Now we have to ask, why is that gearing being stowed under the catwalk? Is it being kept out of the weather to preserve it for later use? Or is it being stowed there to be disposed of later? Are those millstones fresh or worn? What about that gearing in the back? Are they replacement pieces, or are they worn out and waiting to be broken down? What is that building in the background? Is it storage? A warehouse? It’s hard to say without further study.

I’m stopping at three images for now, but there are many more out there. Mills were a common facet of life, and with a little digging, it’s not too difficult to find images of them. Asking these questions is how we as researchers develop hypotheses and make inferences, which can then change how we understand milling in this period. It’s a never ending process, and we’re always learning something new. I’ll likely be sharing more images like these as I uncover them, so stay tuned!

As always, I would normally invite everyone to come visit us in the Millwright Shop, but it’s currently closed due to COVID-19. We will be continuing to post here on the blog, and we’ll be doing more Facebook Live videos, so be sure to follow us on Facebook. Stay safe and check back here next week!

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[1] Jean Jacques de Boissieu, Drawing, 1767, The British Museum, Accessed, June 23, 2020

[2] Joseph Mallord William Turner, Drawing, 1796, The British Museum, June 23, 2020

[3] Paul Sandby, Drawing, 1750-1780, The British Museum, Accessed, June 23, 2020


Jean Jacques de Boissieu, Drawing, 1767, The British Museum, Accessed, June 23, 2020

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Drawing, 1796, The British Museum, Accessed, June 23, 2020

Paul Sandby, Drawing, 1750-1780, The British Museum, Accessed, June 23, 2020

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