Gender, Taste, and Material Culture in Britain and North America, 1700-1830

October 2, 2008

By Weber, William

Gender, Taste, and Material Culture in Britain and North America, 1700-1830. Edited by John Styles and Amanda Vickery (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007. viii plus 358 pp. $65.00). This is an extremely important book for providing a window into the lively recent thinking about material culture, consumption, and gender in England and North America between 1700 and 1830. It is an attractively produced collection of thirteen contributions, introduced by editors John Styles and Amanda Vickery, that offers a sophisticated array of pieces, illustrating how the study of consumption has developed since Neil McKendrick, John Brewer, and J. H. Plumb published The Birth of a Consumer Society: The Commercialization of Eighteenthcentury England in 1982. Aided particularly by Brewer’s leadership of conferences at UCLA’s William Andrews Clark Library, research on England and North America in the early modern period has been in the forefront of study of consumption, as Peter Stearns suggested in his review article on the subject.1 What began in using wills to figure out how houses were furnished now ranges widely in the reconstruction of spaces and domestic responsibilities influenced by gender, social, class, taste, and regional cultures.

The field of Atlantic studies comes to the fore in this collection, since almost half of its contributions involve North America. The Atlantic framework ends up suggesting more similarities than differences between provincial and capital cities, showing a grid of influence rather than a hierarchy of control. While most of the contributors are historians by training, the interdisciplinarity of approaches blurs the lines between them and contributors in art historians and cultural studies. In fact, historians Bernard L. Herman and Robert Blair St. George go the farthest in theoretical directions, applying the concept of social imaginary to space and habitus. Herman takes the tabletop, featured in William Hogarth’s drawings, to bring material objects and conventional sociability together conceptually. He argues shrewdly that Philadelphians designed their houses with a manner of taste “cultivated not through acts of imitation and confrontation, but acts of conversation” (p. 57). St. George stretches conceptual unity farther by bringing passages from novels together with the small, personally-defined room, the “closet”: “Material objects and narrative strategies are thus mutually constitutive; there are strings that tie things to texts, and then lash texts back and into things” (p. 102). Karen Lipsedge looks more closely into treatment of the closet by Joseph Richardson in Clarissa. Such a room served as a refuge, a privately “owned” space, it nonetheless was thought also to be shared with others in the daily social life.

Shopping is now seen as a collaborative process during the early nineteenth century. Ellen Hartigan-O’Connor shows how in well-off South Carolina families slaves, servants, or relatives obtained goods by credit in “proxy” for man or wife of the household. She concludes that “[acknowledging that discourses of consumption were shared across divisions of race and class does not slight the inequalities that existed in late colonial and early national urban society” (p. 146). Similarly, Claire Walsh defines shopping as social interaction between members of a household and between them and the merchants, done through a learned “art of decision-making.” Some readers may be surprised to find that the majority of shops were not workshops into which a counter had been placed. Ann Smart Martin argues that such a set of relationships between merchant and shopper lasted well into the twentieth century in some regions of the United States. She shows women and men sharing these roles in a subtle interaction, allowing “myriad, flexible ways in which women had connections to and experience with the workings of cash economies” (p. 188). Amy H. Henderson illustrates an equalitarian relationship between a husband and wife planning a townhouse in Philadelphia in the 1780s: “women participated to an ever greater degree in building and furnishing their domestic environment and frequently worked alongside men” (p. 267). Amanda Vickery likewise makes a sophisticated argument that, for all the obsession with decorum in fitting a house, taste in wallpaper did not seem to vary significantly between choices made by men and women. Much cheaper than stucco or wainscoting, wallpaper quickly acquired a culture of choice after its arrival in the late seventeenth century.

No longer does one hear of people degrading themselves by “aping” the fashions of those superior to them. Just as Martin speaks of “conversations” rather than “imitation,” so Hannah Greig portrays the beau monde of eighteenth-century London as including the nobility, the parallel bourgeois elite, and professionals working with them all. She perceptively sees fashion as “a creative response to the changing conditions of elite existence” that had something of a democratizing effect upon upper-class life. Fashion therefore was a group process rather than a trickling-down in the social hierarchy. I have found similarly that the opera halls in London and Paris did not separate bourgeois and nobles, as was done by a wood partition in Vienna’s Kartnertortheater.2 Linzy Brekke likewise critiques the “great renunciation” thesis that sees men eschewing sumptuous clothing in the late eighteenth century. She finds instead a political discourse regarding dress surrounding President George Washington in his balancing choices for “republican simplicity” and fine foreign tailoring. Art historian Kate Retford looks at portraiture in a new way in showing how families promoted dynastic heritage with portraits they hung in their stately homes. Arranged by women as often as men, these galleries were seen as genealogy rather than art, and indeed sometimes involved self-serving misidentification of the persons portrayed.

While most chapters concern the upper classes, John Styles dexterously coaxes what furnishings ordinary families possessed from records held at the Old Bailey. He demonstrates that many furnishings were provided by others through “nonmarket, semi- market, or indirect mechanisms”(p. 62). Plebeian men and women nonetheless played active roles in expanding the range of their possessions, especially in regard to clothing, which might include considerable color. Jonathan White explores how writers on political economy began taking these working-class homes seriously. Higher wages were potentially in the interests of the business community because workers were functioning as consumers, though they naturally needed to be discouraged from the temptations of luxury or dissipation.


1. John Brewer and Roy Porter, Consumption and the World of Goods (London, 1993); Peter N. Stearns, “Review: Stages of Consumerism: Recent Work on the Issues of Periodization,” Journal of Modem History, 69 (1997), 102-117.

2. “Musical Culture and the National Capital: The Epoch of the Beau monde in London, 1700-1870,” Concert Life in Eighteenth’Century Britain, edited by Susan Wollenberg and Simon McVeigh (Aldershot (UK), 2004).

California State University, Long Beach William Weber

Copyright Peter N. Stearns Fall 2008

(c) 2008 Journal of Social History. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.

comments powered by Disqus