Social graces and etiquette vital for Carl Linnaeus

4 June 2020

Annika Windahl Pontén in Linnaeus’ professor residence in Uppsala. Portraits of him wearing clothes from Lapland appear in the background. This allowed him to show he was widely travelled.

What would have become of Carl Linnaeus if he had remained single? Would science have missed out on one of its major lodestars without his well-functioning household? And was his son, Carl Linnaeus the Younger, really the ne’er-do-well he was reputed to be?

Adapt to all conceivable social situations. This was an absolute necessity for those who wanted to pursue a career in the 18th century. It was absolutely crucial to know the social codes that applied in the social strata in which you wanted to move. Carl Linnaeus, the son of a clergyman, knew this. In his professional role as a physician and later a professor at Uppsala University, he learned how to fit into even the finest salons. He also developed his own way of signalling his position as a professor and scientist.

“On one occasion when Linnaeus visited Ulriksdal Palace, he was offered an audience with the Queen, but he declined because he was dressed for travel. This provides a glimpse of his awareness of social codes,” says Annika Windahl Pontén, who has written a thesis on the household of Carl Linnaeus.

Vest with sequin buttons and embroidery that once belonged to Carl Linnaeus the Younger. Embossed silk dress (gown a la française) believed to have been worn by Linnaeus’ eldest daughter, Elisabeth Christinas, at her wedding to Carl Fredrik Bergencrantz in 1764. The Linnaeus Museum. Photo: Mikael Wallerstedt.

This was also a time of fresh ideas in the natural sciences. Scientists made many great discoveries, and Uppsala University experienced a heyday, thanks to Linnaeus. He attracted students from far and near. And the private talks he held in his home for interested visitors were expensive but were still well attended.

Dressed in simple clothes

To teach students about wild flora, Linnaeus took them on “herbations” – or excursions, as we would say today – out into the natural environments of Uppland. This represented a relatively new teaching method. Linnaeus urged his novices to dress in simple, loose-fitting linen clothes for the excursions. Not everyone appreciated this. Baron Carl Hårleman – one of the leading architects of the day who had designed, among other things, the Gustavian Academy Garden – reacted with shock. In a letter to Linnaeus, he wrote:

“Many of our best friends are offended by the acceptance of clothing and a new way of life that turns the mind of youth away from all other obedience and industriousness...”

Hårleman and his kindred spirits considered the casual dress style problematic because class affiliation could no longer be distinguished when everyone dressed the same. A society based on class could eventually be threatened if a nobleman, for example, could be mistaken for a peasant or vice versa.

The household fulfilled a very significant function

In other respects, Carl Linnaeus carefully adhered to the social codes that existed so he could build up the image of himself as an academic person of high social standing.

The household fulfilled a very significant function as a way of denoting his status as a professor. Carl Linnaeus and his wife Sara Elisabeth began to establish their household in 1743, when they moved into the newly renovated professor’s residence in Uppsala. They ordered china with twin flowers (Linnaea genus) from China, purchased other lavish articles and hung portraits on the walls. The household served as an extension of the university, and Sara Elisabeth assumed responsibility for ensuring that everything ran smoothly. Without her work, he would not have been able to do his.

Parts of china place setting with twin flower vines (of the Linnaea genus). Museum Gustavianum.
Photo: Michael Wallerstedt

“They had quite large collections of natural history specimens, and the collections certainly also involved the others in the household,” Windahl Pontén says. “There were consignments to be unpacked; he carried on an incredibly amount of correspondence. When the university received a large seashell cabinet (mollusc collection) as a donation, it placed it in Linnaeus’ home. In connection with this, the Linnaeus family hosted a gathering. This underscores the importance of doing everything right and observing the proper social codes. The university also benefitted from this.”

Linnaeus the Younger succeeded his father

Carl Linnaeus the Younger wearing the national
costume. Portrait of Jonas Forsslund. Museum
Gustavianum. Photo: Michael Wallerstedt

Carl Linnaeus made sure that after he died, Carl Linnaeus the Younger would succeed him in the post of professor, not a popular appointment in all circles.

“He has been described as a much inferior edition of his father, even as a failure by some. Linnaeus the Younger’s death after five years makes comparisons of him as a professor difficult. Through his contributions to botany, Linnaeus the Elder became exceptional in many respects. It is hard to do something comparable. But I think his son was a competent scientist,” says Windahl Pontén.

An event that came to shape the image of Carl Linnaeus the Younger occurred during his stay in London. There he spent time with Daniel Solander, one of the best known Linnaeus students and a client of the influential Joseph Banks. Both Solander and Banks had taken part in James Cook’s voyage of discovery with the ship HMB Endeavour. Banks, a wealthy and influential naturalist and botanist, amassed collections that later became a base for the Natural History Museum in London. He also served as president of the Royal Society and often arranged breakfasts to which carefully selected people were invited. Linnaeus the Younger was among the lucky ones who received an invitation, but it created some concerns...

“He wrote home to Abraham Bäck, a good friend of Carl Linnaeus the Elder, complaining that he did not have clothes. He had clothes, of course, but not the right clothes. Solander and Banks then helped him since he could not present himself in just any clothing. His reputation as a researcher could have been damaged,” says Windahl Pontén.

Reputation of being a dandy

it adds new perspectives for studying the
immediate environment of Carl Linnaeus, says
Annika Windahl Pontén. Photo: Mikael Wallerstedt

This gave Linnaeus the Younger the reputation of being a dandy, more interested in superficialities than in science. To cast aspersions on someone by criticizing his vanity was common at that time, she says. It could be used to discredit someone, and in Linnaeus the Younger’s case, she thinks it is particularly interesting because the criticism of his appearance also became criticism of his qualities as a scientist.

“I find it interesting, and it adds new perspectives for studying the immediate environment of Carl Linnaeus. By combining artefacts, texts and other documents, we learn new things about how science worked at the time. Calico coverings, silk vests and china were important parts of everyday life. We hope this also gives us perspectives on how science works today, because naturally there are also contemporary equivalents to the self-presentation exemplified by the Linnaeus household,” says Annika Windahl Pontén.