Consumers and Luxury: Consumer Culture in Europe 1650-1850.
Drawing attention to the "meaning of possessions" raised in Brewer's and Porter's renowned collection, Consumption and the World of Goods, this volume explores the consumption of luxuries and the attraction of novelty in consumer culture from the seventeenth to the early nineteenth centuries. Furthermore, many contributors describe how the value and definition of luxuries altered during the eighteenth century. The collection represents an interdisciplinary collaboration among historians of art, economics, science, and culture begun in 1996 at a workshop hosted by the Eighteenth Century Research Centre at the University of Warwick. As in the workshop, this study seeks to expand the boundaries of scholarship on consumption beyond appraisals of inventory collections to investigate contemporary perceptions of the market, luxury, and novelty.
In their introduction, editors Maxine Berg and Helen Clifford contend that recent scholarship on consumption often neglects insights raised by contemporary observers of consumer culture. They argue that contemporary accounts provide rich description and, more importantly, incisive analysis of the psychological assumptions, aesthetic choices, and social rituals of their consuming peers. Their attention to the historical context of consumption serves as a useful reminder to scholars who measure consumer behavior based on income distribution, industrial growth rate, and foreign exports. The first essay by economist Neil de Marchi explores the reticence with which Adam Smith treated consumer culture despite his dictum, "consumption is the sole end of all production." He contrasts Smith's moral and personal skepticism about unnecessary acquisitions to his appreciation of durable goods and product "ingenuity." He concludes that Smith regarded consumption within an ethical, aesthetic, and economic framework.
The following essays by Colin Jones, Rebecca Sprang, and Maxine Berg challenge traditional historiographical interpretations and underscore the fluid relationship between luxuries and necessities in eighteenth-century France and Britain. Jones and Sprang reject historical caricatures of a stagnant French economy characterized by recent scholarship as "miserabilism." Instead, they focus on the significant growth of middling urban consumers in their study of sugar and coffee consumption. They describe the metamorphosis of coffee and sugar from luxury exotic goods, to medicinal products (prescribed as necessities), to common staples (in the form of cafe au lait) by the end of the eighteenth century. They argue that the revolutionary crowds in Paris ultimately took to the streets not so much to secure bread for their starving families, but rather to protest in outrage that cost of such "necessities" as sugar and coffee exceeded accepted norms. Jones and Sprang conclude that "even in the tough times of Year II, di scourses of virtuous republican austerity provided only a deceptive guide to a transformed realm of popular expectations (56)," asserting a scholarly reappraisal of contemporary understandings of necessity and luxury in eighteenth-century France.
Maxine Berg likewise highlights urban middling consumers in her examination of the relationship between identity formation, civility, and the consumption of semi-luxuries in eighteenth-century Britain. Berg, like Jones and Sprang, insists that the distinction between ordinary and luxury consumption was "as much about a shift in ideas ... as it was about the proliferation of consumer objects (68)." She explores the complementary associations between luxuries and semi-luxury goods in the production processes and marketing strategies of their producers. Decorative furnishings, mirrors, and rococo watch frames, marketed alongside of candlesticks, cutlery, and tea pots shared complex networks of manufacture and retail, as well as popular appeal as symbolic and useful possessions. Furthermore, imitative products like varnish which substituted for lacquer generated new industries and created distinctive products. Berg concludes that contemporary appreciation of novelty fueled an industry of imitations of ancient and exotic designs and materials rendering semi-luxury goods available for broader middling consumption. Studies on popular interest in tulips, both the plants and painted images, and the production of specific colors by Marina Bianchi and Sarah Lowengard further highlight the consumption of novelty and the science of imitation.
Well-crafted analyses by Marcia Pointon and Helen Clifford provide case studies of the transformation in the meanings and material value of jewelry and precious metalwork. Pointon's essay on the "display culture of jewels" examines both their exchange and symbolic value. Rather than focusing on visible and ostentatious displays of jewels like diamond buckles, her comparative study on mourning rings and night earrings relates consumption to the intense privatization of eighteenth-century life and suggests that "the ultimate in luxurious consumption" consists of great expenditures on items for private use (138). Helen Clifford also examines how people valued objects in different ways. Her tightly argued essay examines how the intrinsic value of precious metal objects shifted from recyclable sterling silver plate to highly elaborate designs fashioned from fused plate (a combination of thin copper and silver). This essay, like its predecessors, examines the growing desirability of imitative wares and novelty, ass esses the value assigned by contempories to creative and skilled workmanship, and associates these new decorative commodities with modes of conduct in display and use at the tea table. Her study asserts that novelty and variety as indicators of taste and social status competed successfully with traditional quality recyclable metals in the consumer market.
The final essays of the volume address displays of wealth in food, fashionable clothing, sentimental objects, and fine art. Emma Spray examines gastronomic writings and traces the social meaning of food from the criticisms of the First Republic to the Restoration's obsession with antiquity and lavish displays of wealth. She concludes that the consumption patterns that fueled the restaurant trade and created "gastronomic spaces" in private homes during the nineteenth century evolved from public discussions on the "science of taste." Fiona Ffoulkes describes high quality fashionable clothing and its consumers in her study of marchand de modes Louis Hippolyte LeRoy, as he outfitted the court from Marie Antoinette through the Restoration. Associating popular Romanticism with tourism and materialism, Stana Nenadic discusses the commerce of romanticism in Scotland, underscoring that consumer objects lent material substance to romantic identity as in the case of Walter Scott. Charlotte Klonk's analysis on the origin s of the National Gallery of London as a setting for spiritual and intellectual consumption concludes the volume. Tracing contemporary visions on the instructive role of public art and the cultivation of taste, Klonk contends that by the nineteenth century the consumption of art in the public gallery had become "intellectually exclusive" to the learned bourgeois citizen despite the rhetoric that advocated the use of the museum for working class instruction and as a space that would forge communal bonds across different groups in the nation.
Many of the essays in this volume provide helpful and solid historiographical introductions and offer new insights on their respective subjects. Overall the results of these endeavors, though, are uneven. Some of the essays lack convincing and well-defined conclusions, and still more are needlessly complicated or circuitous in exposition. Generally the essays pull together as a volume; the first three sections complement each other far better than the last. For historians of luxury, consumption, and eighteenth and nineteenth-century sociability, several essays highlighted in this review should prove useful and provocative.
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|Author:||Aaslestad, Katherine B.|
|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2001|
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