Women's consumption and the industrial classes of eighteenth-century England.
Recent research on the origins of industrialization in Britain and Europe has opened new questions on the role of demand, consumption and foreign trade. Did a growth in demand for consumer goods provide a stimulus to industrialization? Social historians are accumulating evidence of an expansion of consumption of marketed commodities among the broad part of the population from the seventeenth century.(1) Few of these historians, however, have identified the social and economic significance of different consumer groups and the commodities they were buying. Gender and class, though apparently obvious factors in any study of consumerism (and certainly recognized to be important from the nineteenth century),(2) have not been specifically investigated for their impact on consumption and the economy in the eighteenth century.(3) This paper builds on points made in recent cultural history of elite women's consumption, and on parallel research on the consumption of the middling orders in the early modern period. It argues for the special, but hitherto neglected significance of the consumption of urban middling women in Britain's expanding industrial towns.
Historians of consumption have frequently appealed to the role of home demand and mass consumer markets. They have gathered evidence of fashion and luxury consumption among the metropolitan elites; they have sometimes asserted that women wage earners played a part.(4) Until Lorna Weatherill's path-breaking work there was little systematic evidence broken down by region and social status as well as specific consumer goods. Her evidence gathered on the ownership of goods in the seventeenth and early eighteenth century suggested that tradespeople in urban areas were the most innovative consumers.(5) Weatherill and later Carole Shammas based their findings on probate inventories, but both found little of significance in gender differences in their analyses. Weatherill did find that higher proportions of women had new and decorative goods than did the men from similar classes, but found the differences in possessions of men and women too small to warrant the suggestion of a women's subculture in the ownership of goods, concluding that women saw themselves first and foremost as part of a family and household.(6) Shammas's position was even more negative. She dismissed both the possibilities of establishing sex differences in the accumulation of consumer goods, and their significance. She argued that inventories and wills did not exist in sufficient numbers, and for those which she did count, women inherited more household goods than productive capital, another indication of the "inverse correlation between widowhood and wealth."(7)
Does this story change if we move the analysis of consumption from the early modern period specifically to the eighteenth century, and if we look at Britain's industrializing towns? Do gender differences appear more prominent if we look not just at inventories, but at bequests made in wills and the attitudes these expressed?
The women and men of my study are drawn from two major industrial towns of industrializing Britain, Birmingham and Sheffield. These were among the most dynamic of eighteenth-century towns; the population of Birmingham rose from 8,000 in 1700 to 74,000 in 1800, that of Sheffield from less than 5,000 in 1700 to 46,000 in 1800. Both towns produced a significant range of new consumer goods. Birmingham and Sheffield with their cheap hardwares, guns, swords, knives and nails had provided one of the early props of the Atlantic trade. Both, but especially Birmingham, moved quickly to the "toys"(buttons, buckles, japanned ware, stamped and engraved ornamental goods), table-ware, cutlery, silver and silver-plated ware, candelabra and small furnishings made in brass, and cut and coloured glassware which provided the household decencies and semi-luxuries of the expanding middle classes of early industrializing Britain and her settler colonies.
Did their inhabitants also consume these and other new commodities? There was a substantial retail and trade component in both towns. Birmingham had more drapers than edgetool makers listed in its Directory in 1767, and in both towns more than half the firms insured in the 1770s and 1780s were outside the manufacturing sector.(8) By the last third of the eighteenth century most of the provincial centres had substantial numbers and a great diversity in their types of shops, with proportions following the London pattern.(9) These provincial towns were able to service a population ranging over the social spectrum, and bourgeois and genteel society had access to theatres, clubs, and assemblies.(10) Even for more modest middling residents, these towns like many other provincial centres had much to offer the consumer.
To what extent did the women of these towns, as workers and as tradeswomen, as wives and single women fit the models set out for them by elite women as leaders in the consumption of semi-luxuries and ornamental goods? How much did their consumption patterns and attitudes differ from those of the men in these towns? To what extent did their consumption differ from those of women in the previous century, and from contemporary rural women or women of other social classes?
The women discussed here are drawn from a sample of widows and spinsters from these towns who left wills, for few women were identified with occupational categories. Nevertheless the information left in women's wills on a range of commodities, along with the expression of the emotional and familial value of such goods provide insight into the diffusion of such goods among women. It is also the case that many of these women would have had a close industrial or commercial connection with the characteristic consumer goods trades of these towns. Neither place was a major centre for women's trades, though Birmingham had a large and diverse metal working sector. Women and girls acounted for 40 per cent of those employed in the buttonmaking trades in the town in 1841, and 12 per cent of those in other metal trades. Sheffield's manufactures were more specialised in trades related to the cutlery manufacture, and there were fewer women employed as such in these trades. The important place occupied in both cities by the metal trades did, however, ensure widespread kinship and close friendship connections with those involved in the trades. Women's family connections in the metal trades were as important as these trades were in the general occupational structures of the towns. Systematic breakdowns of the population according to occupation were not available before the 1851 census - then the metal and related trades including guns, buttons and jewellery accounted for 34.15 per cent of Birmingham's working population and 45 per cent of Sheffield's.(11)
An approximation to this breakdown is available from amongst those who left wills during the eighteenth century. The occupations stated in these wills, all of which I have accessed, indicate that at least 25 per cent of men who left wills in Birmingham were from the metal trades; 41 per cent of those in Sheffield were from such trades. Much of the rest of the population took part in a range of other industrial activities, and in mercantile, transport and professional occupations.(12)
The women of both towns featured prominently as both will makers and propertyholders. Women in Birmingham and Sheffield left 22.8 percent and 18.1 percent respectively of wills over the course of the century; women in other parts of the country left approximately 13-20 percent of wills.(13) How did these women's wills compare with those of the men of these towns, and with those of women in other towns and rural areas of Britain? Bequests of goods in the wills of 471 men in the metalworking trades in Birmingham and 613 in Sheffield were gathered, together with a sample of 141 women from Birmingham and 158 from Sheffield. These women's wills constituted 23.6 per cent of all women leaving wills in Birmingham (597) and 48 percent of women in Sheffield leaving wills (329).(14) Women stand out prominently among consumers: first simply because of the numbers of wills they left, which were at the top end of the proportions of women who left wills in other parts of the country, and also because of the character of the bequests in their wills. Where probate inventories were left, these have also been examined.
There are special problems attached to the use of both wills and inventories as historical documents. Women as widows bequeathed their property at a later stage of the family life cycle; men leaving wills had already left some family possessions or property to children and other relatives before or at the time their wives inherited. But many men left their property and their possessions to their wives. By looking at bequests in wills it is difficult to separate out what women had accumulated themselves from what had been passed down to them by their husbands or fathers. Objects described in women's wills may well have been owned by their husbands beforehand, but not singled out by them in bequests. It was also the case, however, that men often mentioned the informal bequests they had made before their wills, and women drew attention to items regarded as heirlooms or family property, distinguishing these from items they had clearly chosen or bought themselves. It has also frequently been argued that property was more important to men; they owned more and they drew status from their propertyholding. But women were also propertyholders, and described their properties in their bequests in equal detail to men.(15) Inventories are also problematic; inventories were much less commonly left for the period after 1720 than before, and there were thus a relatively small number of these in comparison to wills. These inventories have, hitherto, been drawn on almost exclusively to describe consumption patterns in the early modern period, but their patchiness in the early industrial and industrial revolution period precludes reliance on this source alone.
The information conveyed by wills and probate inventories is also different. Probate inventories provided a listing with valuations of all goods in an individual household, though goods were frequently grouped in categories or only given the barest description by valuers. The inventories provide no information as to whether the goods itemised were inherited or bought by the individual concerned.(16) For the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, inventories provide the broadest available coverage of ownership of goods.(17) The bequests made in wills, by contrast, provide a much more selective picture of an individual's possessions. The goods mentioned in bequests were singled out for attention by the individual, and thus endowed with some emotional, familial or material value.(18) They were frequently accorded much more detailed description including design, pattern, colour, type of material, "quality," that is "best," "second best," or "everyday," as well as a history which described their source as heirlooms, as markers of major occasions in family life cycles, or as consumer novelties. They are also much more literary sources than probate inventories, rarely providing valuations and difficult to quantify systematically. But large numbers of wills were left by those from all walks of life right through the eighteenth century, and many of the bequests were made in great detail. They are our only major source for evidence over a broad section of the population and in substantial numbers over the course of the whole of the eighteenth century. Means were thus sought of extracting from the texts of the wills themselves details of many particular types of goods left by men and women, and to whom they were bequeathed. The wills were also examined for literary detail on the qualities of commodities and relationships with kin and friends.
We should turn first, however, to probate inventories to see what we can learn. There were only small numbers of these left in Birmingham and Sheffield in comparison with wills, and especially for women over the period between 1700 and 1800. The breakdown of goods by gender in these cases is not very meaningful, but for the cases we have, women's inventories contained higher proportionate numbers of individual goods than did men's for all goods except furniture and clocks. In Weatherill's account of probate inventories across the country, higher proportions of women in the trades owned new and decorative goods as well as silver, linen especially table linen, looking glasses as well as pictures and prints.(19) The differences in most cases were small, as for example those between the 36 per cent of women who had looking glasses and the 32 per cent of men. The biggest difference was in the case of silver where 34 per cent of women had silver, but only 22 per cent of men. In my much smaller group of inventories, women stood out in the ownership of most goods. Inventories used by themselves, however, may mask differences.
A different picture is conveyed in the bequests made in wills. Table 1 gives a general breakdown of the types of goods left in wills by men and women in Birmingham and Sheffield between 1700 and 1800. At the very general level, women in both towns left more bequests per person of cash, clothing, silver, [TABULAR DATA FOR TABLE 1 OMITTED] jewellery, linen and china than did men, while the men left more stock, shop goods and tools than did the women. While a substantial proportion of women in both towns did bequeath real property (46.8 per cent), it was nevertheless the case that much higher proportions had goods and cash to bequeath - 89.4 per cent for Birmingham and 98.7 per cent for Sheffield; these latter proportions were, however similar to those for men.
A more detailed analysis was then made of bequests. The dissemination of goods was analysed in two ways. First goods were considered in lots - one lot of goods coincided with each bequest, just as it was itemised in the text of a will. One bequest of goods might be made to more than one beneficiary. Equally a lot of goods might contain several different types of goods. Second, goods were quantified in units to measure the occasions on which particular goods were mentioned. Lots containing various categories of goods are not the same as the total number of lots left. Women left significantly more lots per person than men containing clothing, glassware, jewellery, linen, plate and silver, and the differences were especially striking for clothing, jewellery, linen and silver. Men's bequests did, however, stand out in the number of lots per person containing general household goods and utensils. The meaning placed upon such findings, however, relates not simply to differences in possessions between men and women, but to their significance in perceptions of what was worth singling out for individual bequests, and in what detail. I will now turn to this.
Table 2 Types of Goods Left in Wills: Analysis by Gender of Testator, Birmingham and Sheffield, 1700-1800 Birmingham Sheffield men women men women % (*) % (*) % (*) % (*) apparel 15.64 26.98 7.21 25.64 furniture 17.77 19.84 22.14 28.85 glassware 0.24 0.79 1.06 1.92 household goods 40.52 18.25 24.61 20.51 jewellery 4.74 16.67 1.76 9.62 books 3.32 3.97 1.41 0.64 linen 14.22 21.43 10.72 19.23 china 5.69 6.35 2.11 5.13 ornaments 1.90 1.59 0.53 0.00 plate 1.66 8.73 5.62 6.41 utensils 12.08 5.56 3.69 0.64 silver 12.08 15.08 6.68 15.39 pewter 1.42 3.97 0.35 0.00 brassware 0.95 3.17 0.53 0.00 clocks 0.00 3.17 0.35 1.92 (*) This means: the testators who left this type of goods in their wills, taken as a percentage of those testators who left goods at all. Source Analysis of testatory documents of metalworkers and women in Birmingham and Sheffield, 1700-1800. The documents are in the Diocesan Record Office, The Friary, Lichfield, and in the Borthwick Institute of Historical Research, University of York. Sample Testators who left goods in their wills: 422 male metalworkers from Birmingham, 126 women of all trades from Birmingham, 569 male metalworkers from Sheffield, and 156 women of all trades from Sheffield: period 1700-1800.
The women's wills in both Birmingham and Sheffield showed an immensely detailed presentation of items which were accorded special significance, along with a wide network of family and friends included in legacies. Detail within these wills left by relatively ordinary people indicates the women presented a carefully coded inventory of their things embedded in statements about their networks of family and friends. The description of commodities was a statement of the emotional quality of connections to particular relatives and friends.(20) Clothes, light furnishings, marked and table linens, tea ware and china were for women personal and expressive goods, conveying identity, personality and fashion. Things were only rarely mentioned in any detail by men, who though they did bequeath their clothes, rarely left any details of them, apart from describing some of them as mourning suits, and who appeared to own only a dull range of beds and chests with the occasional mahogany table, as well as clocks. If we follow the descriptions of these goods in a small group of wills we can go some way to identify the personal qualities attached to commodities, as well as their family and friendship significance. The wills of 36 individuals were singled out for analysis of the description of the commodities they bequeathed. This group of wills covered the whole range of the middling orders from bourgeois consumers who owned several houses and had over [pounds]1000 to leave down to very small artisans, journeymen, widows and spinsters with no real property and inventories or bequests of less than [pounds]20.(21)
Clothes were of very special concern. They were valuable items, ranking with furniture as the most expensive of personal and household items in household accounts, insurance records and some inventories.(22) But clothing was often poorly itemised in inventories, and Weatherill found it was not mentioned at all in about twenty per cent of her inventories. She consequently omitted it from her analysis of probate inventories, and dealt with the issue separately through the evidence of several household accounts. On the basis of these, she has emphasised the practical and symbolic motivations for buying clothing, and has stepped aside from a crude theory of social emulation which has been applied to consumption generally, but was largely based on the consumption of clothing.(23)
The wills indicate that women left considerably higher proportions of clothing among their bequests than did men. 10 per cent of women's goods lots in Birmingham and 8 per cent in Sheffield contained clothing, as compared with 6 per cent of men's in Birmingham and 2 per cent in Sheffield.(24) Nearly 27 per cent of women in the Birmingham sample left clothing compared with 15.6 per cent of men; 25.5 per cent of women in Sheffield left clothing, while only 7.2 per cent of men did.(25) But the descriptions left of these goods together with those of the legatees provide us with insight into the value placed upon clothing by particular women. It seems clear from the description in these wills that clothing was particularly singled out by women for the elements of personal identity it conveyed. Women bequeathed their clothes to their close female relations and female friends as a way of passing on something of themselves, a token and a memory. Each item of clothing so bequeathed was intended to convey some special significance to its recipient. It was either "best," or "everyday," or something that had been worn on significant occasions, or most often it was some individual item of clothing, carefully described and intended to convey something of the various aspects of the woman's personality to her friends and relations.
Friends featured prominently. In Birmingham Prudence Bryan, a widow of the middling classes with an inventory valued at [pounds]120.27 and a piece of pasture land near Coventry, left her "best long scarf" to her loving friend Mrs. Taylor.(26) Sarah Birch who had an inventory valued at [pounds]256.70, but no real property, left one friend her best suit of silk clothes, her first suit of mourning and her new hood and scarf; another received her suit of second mourning clothes and her green silk quilted petticoat; yet another friend received her white worked petticoat.(27) In Sheffield Sarah Furniss who had no real property, and made cash bequests totalling only [pounds]20, left her friend her damask gown, a quilted coat and a long cloak.(28) Ann Cart, a spinster with no house or land, and a modest [pounds]120 in cash legacies left one friend her silveret gown, a "linnen" gown, a black quilted petticoat and under petticoat, and to another she left a grey poplin gown, a linen gown and a light coloured printed petticoat. Yet another received a crape gown, a callimancoe gown and a camblet cloak.(29) Ann Ibbotson, another widow of small wealth, with an inventory valued at [pounds]148, but no real property and less than [pounds]40 in cash legacies, left one friend her black crape gown, her callimancoe quilt and red flannel petticoat, and another her best muslin apron.(30) Katherine Bragg who lived at a similar social level, with no property and cash bequests of only [pounds]35.00, left one friend a crimson silk damask night gown, another a black silk night gown, another a silk gown, another two friends two unspecified gowns, and the daughter of a friend a black silk negligee and petticoat.(31) Ann Waterhouse, a relatively wealthy spinster had 4 houses and [pounds]1700 in cash to leave. She left her friend and house companion a garnet gown and petticoat, a suit of laced linen and a suit of mourning.(32)
Female relatives were also singled out by women of all social classes. There was a definite protocol between older and younger daughters, and sisters. Nieces and goddaughters were also frequently remembered with smaller items of clothing.(33) Elizabeth Lynes, the widow of a metalworker, had neither house nor much cash (less than [pounds]3.00) to give, but left one daughter two of her shifts and her black and white gown, another daughter her silk spotted gown, and two of her shifts, and a daughter in law her camblett gown, and yet another her gray silk gown, her scarf and black hood with the caps to it, and two shifts, and her sister her old gown and petticoat.(34) Later in the century, Hannah Owen, a poor Birmingham scalebeam worker and widow with no house and only [pounds]5.6s in cash legacies, left her granddaughter one fine shift which was her mother's, and another granddaughter two pieces of rough dried lace for caps and one ruffled shift.(35) Sarah Dunn, a married woman from Birmingham who made a will during her second marriage, was able to leave cash legacies of [pounds]180, but had no real property. She left her niece her chintz gown, and her two sisters parcels of unspecified wearing apparel.(36) Sarah Skidmore was a well-off tradeswoman and widow, a china dealer. Her will was valued at [pounds]600 and she owned a house and coach house as well as leasing five other houses. She left her granddaughter her two best silk gowns and petticoats and one light cotton gown. Her two daughters were to share the rest of her wearing apparel.(37) In Sheffield Ann Allen, a widow with an inventory valued at [pounds]600 left her sister her best gown and black callimancoe petticoat, six shifts, two black and two coloured silk handkerchiefs, her stays, her black silk cloak, three check and three white aprons, six caps, two common hats, two pocket handkerchiefs and two white handkerchiefs. To her great niece she left two shifts, one black and one coloured silk handkerchief, two caps and one white handkerchief.(38)
The description of this clothing together with the relationships underlined in the bequests indicates the personal as well as the material value of clothes. These goods were not just seen as fashionable items of the moment to be disposed of by whim from year to year. They were certainly valuable items, and there was an active market in second hand clothing.(39) The best items were not necessarily fashion leaders, or novelty fabrics. Silk was the traditional luxury material. These clothes were also of value to their legatees. The style of clothing did not change rapidly from year to year, despite the place which fashion has occupied in discussions of consumption in the eighteenth century. Gradations in apparel and fashion were more often expressed in finishings and accessories, and clothes were often altered. Indeed Birmingham's own industrial expertise lay in producing those dress accessories and ornaments which allowed such alterations and updating. Lemire cites one mid eighteenth-century invoice which listed eight types of shirt-buttons and fourteen sorts of gilt, plated, tin and horn buttons. It also listed seven types of buckles along with thirty-two types of stockings.(40) At the beginning of the century men's clothing in London for the better-off apprentice was worth between [pounds]10 and [pounds]20 for three suits and accessories; those of the wife of a well-off tradesman were worth between [pounds]15 and [pounds]20, and annual expenditure on clothes constituted about one quarter of outgoings.(41) Clothing was personal and was passed on to friends and relations as both valuable goods and as personal tokens. There were, moreover, many different contexts for wearing particular clothes - old clothes passed to friends and relations might not be used for "best wear," but they might be worn on special occasions such as family anniversaries, thus taking on a special place in the "celebrative" and the routine course of life.(42)
The men who left descriptions of their goods in their bequests only rarely left any details of them. They were generally described only as woollens and linens, or best and second suits. Only one of the men covered, Joseph Leech, an early eighteenth-century Sheffield scissorsmith with a middling inventory of [pounds]118, but no property, itemised the clothes he left to his brother, and then only in basic terms as a best suit, coat, waistcoat, breeches, hat, stockings, shoes, one shirt and one cravat.(43) Several men left their dead wife's clothing either to female relatives or servants. Isaac Stretch, a comfortable Birmingham watchmaker of the early part of the century with an inventory of [pounds]276, but no real property, left his servant his late wife's suit of clothes that she wore commonly on working days.(44) Three decades later, Richard Coleburne, a Birmingham hingemaker, owned a tenement and left less than [pounds]30 in cash legacies. But he had a servant and left her a number of things, and among these was his late wife's black silk suit usually worn by her in her life time.(45) If friends figured commonly among the detailed bequests of clothing by women, they featured only rarely for bequests of any goods by the men. John Smith, a Sheffield cutler who wrote a will in the middle of the century had five houses and various pieces of land. He left his friend his best suit of clothes. Towards the end of the century, John Vaughan, another Sheffield cutler had an inventory valued at [pounds]270.00, but made no mention of any property. He left his friend his best coat and waistcoat and doe skin breeches.(46) In these and other cases of friends' legacies, there were either no kin to inherit goods, or only relatively distant kin. In the case of women, even if they had female relations, they frequently remembered their friends as well in their bequests.
This does not mean that the men of Birmingham and Sheffield were not conscious of their clothing and its value. James Bisset, an aspiring apprentice sent to Birmingham by a tenant-farming family in Perthshire recorded the clothing he was sent off with in 1776 in great detail. On a visit first to London "I was dressed that day in a white kersymere vest and small clothes, a light blue coat, white silk stockings, a pair of light pumps with silver buckles, a light stock (sword) with a stock buckle set with Bristol stones, a ruffled shirt & frill of lace worked by my sisters of which I had six others in my dressing trunk (exclusive of half a dozen other shirts with plain muslin ruffles, which were then generally worn by every person the least genteel). My hat was a small cock & pinch."(47) A. year out of his apprenticeship, and expecting a legacy which did not materialize, Bisset found himself in debt for over [pounds]20, virtually all of it for clothes he had bought.(48) Men also took some trouble to insure their clothes. Among the 178 insurance policies left by men involved in the metal trades in Birmingham during the eighteenth century 27 insured their clothes; ten of these insured their clothes for [pounds]50.00 or more.(49) Despite evidence of recognition of detail and style in clothing, as well as the value of these goods, few men appear to have attached personal identity to their clothing significant enough for them to make individual bequests of items of apparel. Women's clothing, on the other hand, was densely described and left to favoured friends and relations. These were valuable goods, but the bequests were deeply personal, and closely tied to a passing on of something of the identity of the testatrix to those closest to her.
Decorative furnishings were similarly described in great detail by women, and bequeathed in the main to their friends and female relations. There is little in the bequests to indicate the novelty of these goods. Among the women of these manufacturing towns, there was very likely a combination of furniture passed down through generations, along with some newer items, just as there was among the smaller Lancashire gentry.(50) Small tables, painted and cane tables and chairs and tea tables and chests were especially identified in bequests. Women left proportionately more bequests of furnishings than did men, but the differences were not as substantial as they were for clothing or linens. This differs from the pattern indicated by the small number of inventories left for both places at the time, and from the earlier inventories surveyed by Lorna Weatherill.(51) Men over a broad range of areas in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries appeared to own proportionately more tables and clocks than women, while women owned more looking glasses.(52) Inventories for eighteenth century Birmingham and Sheffield indicating ownership of luxury furnishings, clocks, curtains, and mirrors also favour men as owners. But the bequests made by men and women differed in detail as much as did those for clothing. Male descriptions of furnishings bequeathed were frequently simply lumped together with "household goods," and otherwise consisted of an unimaginative listing of beds and chests, with an occasional mahogany table or bureau, and several clocks.(53) The women's wills, by contrast, listed numerous items, a number of them small items, especially tea tables, chairs and mirrors. A number of these smaller items were designated for female friends and relatives; they were most likely chosen by the testatrix herself, and likewise left to those she chose; they were not conveyed as part of a family patrimony.
Eleanor May, a Birmingham widow who died during the first quarter of the eighteenth century had a relatively small inventory valued at [pounds]81 listing only pewter, candlesticks and curtains as her luxuries and decencies. But she left her daughter a chamber table, four stuff chairs and one little oval table.(54) Elizabeth Lynes, a few decades later, as we have seen, was only the widow of a metal worker with no real property and little cash to pass on, and was meticulous in the description and disposal of her clothes. No less so did she treat her household furnishings. She left her daughter the great "oval" table and the little square table in the house along with the table in the summer house and six cane chairs.(55) Sarah Loome, the widow of a smith, died mid-century owning a house and shop and leasing two other houses. She left to a "loving kinswoman" her square table and looking glass standing in her best chamber.(56) Elizabeth Farquharson, the widow of a refiner, at the end of the century, left to her sister for use during her life four painted chairs, a mahogany wash hand stand and night table, along with a beststead mattress and linen damask bed hangings, but after her sister's death these were to go to her friend.(57) In Sheffield, Grace Genn left no other evidence of her wealth apart from her special bequests. She left her daughter a mahogany tea table and tea chest, and Sarah Furness, another Sheffield widow, a few years later, left her friend her chest of drawers in the parlour chamber.(58) Towards the close of the century, Elizabeth Anderton, also a widow, though with an inventory valued at [pounds]300, left her female companion half a dozen "leather bottom'd" chairs, an arm chair, a round oak tea table in the sitting room along with the usual bed and bedding. But these were distinguished from the smaller bed and necessary furnishings which she left to her former female apprentice.(59)
The much more wealthy Isabella Dawson who owned a house, and dispensed cash legacies of [pounds]320 provided detailed descriptions of her bequests and careful divisions among her relations. She left her niece the "large pier glass with walnut frame in my back room" and sedan chair, and her nephew received her large pier glass with gilt frame in the parlour. Her husband's nephew received a mahogany oval table standing in the parlour as well as a chair and pier glass, an oak oval table in the back room, her old clock and bureau, a settee and a double chest of drawers in the red room, and a blue silk damask chair. Her husband's niece on the other hand received her tea things, including mahogany table, chest and tray, tea china, red and white enamelled china plates, blue and white china plates, silver plated candlesticks, a swing-glass lacquered with gold, and a yellow silk fire screen.(60) The meticulous care with which these items were described and distributed do indicate women's aspirations in the accretion of domestic possessions for their households, and some of the significance they attached to this.
Tea utensils, chests, trays, tables and silver teaspoons and tongs were bequeathed by both men and women. The same was true of china. Weatherill argued that there was little gender divide in the possession of china and utensils for hot drinks, and that men were interested in collecting china and formed the clientele of coffee houses.(61) But as with furnishings, it was still the case in eighteenth century Birmingham and Sheffield that proportionately more women than men singled out such items for bequests. Moreover, the men who had these objects bequeathed their china and their tea things to their female relations or the wives of their friends.(62) The women who bequeathed tea furnishings, silver tea things and china left these on the whole to female relations and friends.(63) Dorothy Ridgeway died a spinster in Sheffield in the last quarter of the century with over [pounds]1000 lent out. She left her nephew two silver candlesticks, but her nieces and sister received all the silver table and tea ware as well as a best set of nantz china and another set of tea china.(64) The gender divisions on what was appropriate to bequeath were starkly drawn by Grace Genn of Sheffield in 1769 when she left her daughter clothes, linen, her tea table and chest and her jewellery, but her son her black horse and clock.(65) Clothing, light furnishings, marked and table linens, tea ware and china as conveyed in the details of bequests made in wills were personal and expressive goods, conveying identity, personality and fashion, in the description and brand naming of items as well as the choice of individuals to whom they were left.
Two other luxury items frequently bequeathed by a broad range of individuals were silver and linens. Both were specifically collected, and in the case of linen embroidered or marked to pass down to younger relations. Silver was bequeathed in a remarkable array of items in both men's and women's wills, but family and dynasty were uppermost in the meaning conveyed by these goods. Others have indicated that men rather than women bought silver, and chose on the whole a very conservative range of items.(66) But the Birmingham and Sheffield women added a new dimension to this. They bought a range of new items in silver, many of them small novelties, coffee and tea pots and spoons, pepper casters and buckles, to bequeath over a range of younger relations. Silver spoons were frequently apportioned among several children or nieces and nephews as a form of family keepsake.(67) In other cases, a range of silver items - cups, spoons, pepper caster, tea tongs, cream sauce pan, tankards, casters, salvers, ladles and tumblers - were carefully apportioned amongst younger male and female relations.(68) Elizabeth Lynes in 1739 left a daughter a silver snuff box.(69) Elizabeth Wadsworth, a Sheffield widow, who died in 1774 with leases on three houses, divided her chased silver coffee pot and her plain silver coffee pot with a large silver waiter between her two sons. Isabella Dawson, ten years later had left her nephew a large array of small silver items, some of which had evidently belonged to her husband, but her niece only a silver coffee pot and two silver sauce-boats.(70) Other fashionable silver items were also bequeathed like this. Mary Withers, the wife of a gentleman with two houses of her own, left her silver shoe buckles along with her half dozen silver tea spoons to her great niece.(71) Silver items were passed by men and women down the male and female lines; newer items accumulated during a lifetime were carefully divided between kin, and silver spoons were collected and passed on as family tokens. Where watches and jewellery were mentioned, these too generally descended down the male and female lines.
Special table or worked linen, though not so valuable as silver, was also frequently accorded particular family significance; this was either bought as a new family item, or hand embroidered by women and left to female relations. Early in the century, Birmingham's Prudence Bryan gave a granddaughter a "pair of sheetes marked with P.B. in Spannish stich."(72) Mary Hopkins, a Birmingham widow with an inventory of [pounds]220, bequeathed on one kinswoman three fine worked covers for chairs, and to another a pair of flax sheets, one holland pillow and one large table cloth with seven napkins.(73) Sarah Birch, from a similar social background, but in the 1720s, left her niece a pair of fine seeming laced sheets and a pair of pillow drawers. Sarah Dunn, a married woman, who just after the middle of the century had left detailed specifications of her clothes, also left her sister a pair of family sheets and pillow cases, laced up the middle.(74) From Sheffield, Dorothy Ridgeway left her niece her best set of Brussells linen, and Isabella Dawson left her husband's nephew all the household linen which came from Bawtry, "some of it worn out."(75) In the case of such linens this was either personally worked or chosen by the testatrix, and so passed on to personal relatives or friends, or it had a family connotation and bequeathed accordingly. Only a few of the men attached any special significance to linens. In Birmingham early in the century, Joseph Ashford, a modest knifecutter with an inventory valued at [pounds]108 and no real property, left a granddaughter flaxen sheets marked with her name, two pillows, one table cloth and half dozen napkins. He left three other granddaughters flaxen or "hempton" sheets.(76) Some decades later, William Silk, a whitesmith with two houses and a shop, left his two sons "all those linnens inclosed in two trunks which my dear wife brought with her from Holland." His wife was still alive at the time of his bequest.(77)
Silver and linen were two commodities which Birmingham and Sheffield women bought in the marketplace in an increasing array of objects and designs, yet also added to these their own personal stamp or sign of personal production by engraving or marking family names and embroidering or working special designs. They were not simply consumer acquisitions, but extensions of those goods, some formerly domestically produced, which were cultural symbols of family connections and bearers of memory. The expansion in the array of such commodities in the eighteenth century, some of them produced in Birmingham and Sheffield as medallions, emblems, stamped glassware, silver objects and plated ware, may have fulfilled a growing need to mark family and friendship connections, or may have gone with new ways of celebrating family occasions or cultural festivals. They were not just fashionable ephemera, but family keepsakes and friendship mementos. In these bequests we see women using the new commodities to enhance their family and friendship relationships. The point about the items was that they were small and attractive, they had some value, but not too much, and they were enough to be a reminder to others of themselves.
Bequests were also made of common domestic goods - beds, cooking and brewing utensils and pewter and basic furniture. Most who left inventories owned such goods, but they rarely drew attention to them in their bequests. While pewter occupied the most important place in inventories after clothes and household goods, it featured hardly at all in bequests. These common household commodities were frequently lumped together as "utensils" or "household goods," and left to close family members and servants.
Why women gave greater attention to their personal effects than did men cannot be answered from the evidence of these bequests any more than that question has been on the basis of probate records or diaries. Appeals to a female subculture where women expressed themselves through their ownership and use of material goods clearly need to be explained in turn.(78) Neither are explanations based on women's relative lack of access to property adequate. Ideas that women had only moveable goods to bestow while men had property, and that women could pass on only the skills of the household through consumer artifacts, while men had institutional power and professional expertise to bestow are ahistorical.(79) In industrializing centres like Birmingham and Sheffield, high proportions of those middling women who left wills had property as well as things to bequeath, and they were active partners in family businesses as well as tradeswomen with skills.(80) Their active participation in the worlds of work, business and property did not inhibit their aspirations to have and to give a varied assortment of material possessions.
The descriptions left in men's and women's wills indicate a different level of significance attached to detail and to the kin and friendship networks embraced through specific types of goods. There was a definite protocol in bequests of certain goods followed by men and women: jewellery, some silver and pewter, religious books and basic household goods, furnishings and linen were distributed down male or female lines and among close or more distant kin. But clothes, light furnishings, tea things, china, and newer silver items brought luxury, fashion, individuality and personal identity to the possessions of the middling inhabitants of the new industrial towns. They were particularly accumulated, cherished and dispensed by women.
We know from inventories what men and women owned in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. We know from individual diaries, more usually left by wealthier women, how a few women regarded their domestic possessions. Wills provide an additional dimension to the static picture left by inventories and intense personal detail of a few individuals. Bequests made in wills offer insight into the kinds of commodities thought to be significant by a large number of consumers, and the relationships with others that they expressed through their individual bequests. They may not be an expression of the wants and desires of consumers, but they are a stage beyond the listings of goods owned in probate inventories, for they separate out goods invested with significance and value from common possessions. Analysing such bequests over large numbers of the middling classes ranging from the poor to the relatively wealthy tradespeople who filed their wills with the ecclesiastical courts, we can compare the material values of men and women, and investigate consumer attitudes in England's most rapidly growing new industrial towns. We can thus take the discussion of eighteenth-century consumption beyond the preoccupation with metropolitan elites. It is clear from the evidence presented here that many of the women of Britain's industrial towns accumulated and bequeathed goods with attitudes very similar to those expressed by some of the women of the lesser gentry in provincial areas studied by Amanda Vickery. Theirs was not a novel conspicuous consumption tied to social emulation and fashion. For new commodities were added to old inherited possessions, and with these acquired familial significance. But at the same time commodities were richly described by women, and a number of newer luxury and semi-luxury clothes, light furnishings and ornaments were bought and distributed by them, not as family, but as personal possessions. The bequests tell us that women perceived their possessions in a different light than did men; there is more to their role than that of bearers of household and family well-being.(81) The same may well apply to expectations women had of inheritances from others, in terms of the value placed on goods received.
Little special attention was drawn by women leaving wills in the eighteenth century to the accumulation of more domestic necessities and even decencies. It was the distinctive and novel commodities that were desirable. Elizabeth Gilboy argued long ago that the introduction of novelties prompted trades and middling people to include such items among their customary possessions, and also awakened the desires of working people who laboured harder or did without former necessities in order to obtain them.(82) Jan de Vries more recently has built on this to argue that the novelties were particularly concerned with dress and household goods; it was women who wanted these and women who abandoned their former domestic production of basic household goods to work in the marketplace, and so to buy both the novelties, luxuries or adornments they desired and the common household goods they now needed to replace. It was not the demand for more of the same household goods that fuelled the "industrious revolution," but the desire, most graphically expressed by women, for special items of personal or household adornment in distinctive materials and styles which would give them individuality.(83) The Birmingham and Sheffield wills cannot tell us that the same women who bought these goods went into the market place as working women and entrepreneurs to produce new industrial goods. But in such industrial towns there was a higher likelihood that even among those middling classes who left wills many women were closely involved in industry through family connections or as tradeswomen in their own right. Finally there is still no solution to the chicken and egg problem of whether it was the greater supply of such goods which prompted the new consumption patterns, or whether the demand was the necessary precurser. But the bequests show us that women to a far higher degree than men noticed their possessions, attached value and emotional significance to these and integrated them into the web of their familial and community relationships. This was a characteristic of both urban small trades and middle-class women and of elite women. But there were many more such urban middling women, with many more of them involved in industrial occupations over the course of the century. Their sensitivity to commodities, displayed in the feminine rich description of their wills, may well have been the crucial factor behind the transformation of a long-term elite fascination with foreign luxuries into a new and very broadly-based demand for cheaper British-produced semi-luxuries and consumer novelties.
Department of History Coventry England CV4 7AL
1. See L. Weatherill, Consumer Behaviour and Material Culture, 1660-1760 (London, 1988); C. Shammas, The Pre-industrial Consumer in England and America (Oxford, 1990); B. Lemire, Fashion's Favourite. The Cotton Trade and the Consumer in Britain 1660-1800 (Oxford, 1991).
2. See J. Benson, The Rise of Consumer Society in Britain, 1880-1930 (London, 1994); B. Fine and E. Leopold, The World of Consumption (London, 1993); J. Brewer and R. Porter, eds., Consumption and the World of Goods (London, 1993); G. McCracken, Culture and Consumption (Bloomington, Indiana, 1988).
3. See the argument made by J. de Vries for an "industrious revolution" preceding the industrial revolution. See J. de Vries, "The Industrial Revolution and the Industrious Revolution," Journal of Economic History 54 (1994): 249-270. Also see his longer article, "Between Purchasing Power and the World of Goods: Understanding the Household Economy in Early Modern Europe" in J. Brewer and R. Porter eds., Consumption and the World of Goods, 85-132.
4. See N. McKendrick, J. Brewer, and J. H. Plumb, The Birth of a Consumer Society (London, 1983); N. McKendrick, "Home Demand and Economic Growth. A New View of the Role of Women and Children in the Industrial Revolution," in N. McKendrick ed., Historical Perspectives. Studies in English Thought and Society (London, 1974).
5. See Weatherill, Consumer Behaviour, 70-90; also Weatherill, "Consumer Behaviour and Social Status in England, 1660-1750," Continuity and Change 1 (1986): 191-216, especially 200, 204; Weatherill, "A Possession of One's Own: Women and Consumer Behavior in England, 1660-1740," Journal of British Studies 25 (1986): 131-156.
6. Weatherill, "A Possession": 155.
7. C. Shammas, The Pre-industrial Consumer, 180-1.
8. E. Hopkins, "The Trading and Service Sectors of the Birmingham Economy 17501800," in R. P. T. Davenport-Hines and J. Liebenau, Business in the Age of Reason (London, 1987), 77-97, esp. 83-87. Also E. Hopkins, Birmingham the First Manufacturing Town in the World (London, 1989), 65-7; On Sheffield see Dennis Smith, Conflict and Compromise. Class Formation in English Society 1830-1914. A Comparative Study of Birmingham and Sheffield (London, 1982), 25-7, 75; R.E. Leader, Sheffield in the Eighteenth Century (Sheffield, 1901).
9. H. Mui and L. H. Mui, Shops and Shopkeeping in Eighteenth-Century England (London, 1989), 66-72.
10. P. Borsay, The English Urban Renaissance. Culture and Society in the Provincial Town 1660-1770 (Oxford, 1989), 337, 345, 350.
11. M. Berg, "Women's Property and the Industrial Revolution," Journal of Interdisciplinary History 24 (1993): 233-250, 237.
12. These percentages were calculated from a catalogue made from the occupations of all those leaving wills Birmingham and Sheffield from 1700-1800, and from manuscript probate documents in Lichfield Joint Record Office and in the Borthwick Institute of Historical Research, University of York.
13. Berg, "Womens Property": 237; A. Erickson, "The Comfortable Estate of Widowhood is the Only Hope that Keeps up a Wife's Spirits: the Economic Fortunes of the Widowed from the late Seventeenth to the Early Nineteenth Century," Paper to the Berkshire Conference on Women's History, 1990; cf. A. Erickson, Women and Property in Early Modern England (London, 1993), 205-6.
14. Berg, "Women's Property": 237.
15. The argument has been made for both nineteenth-century England and for colonial America that women had more personal possessions and bequeathed these with care because they did not own real property. See Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall, Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 1780-1850 (London, 1987), 211; Gloria Main, "Widows in Rural Massachusetts on the Eve of the Revolution," in R. Hoffman and P. J. Albert eds., Women in the Age of the American Revolution (Charlottesville, 1989), 88-9. Alice Hanson Jones, "The Wealth of Women, 1774" also finds detailed descriptions of clothing and other personal belongings in women's wills in colonial America, in C. Goldin and H. Rockoff, eds., Strategic Factors in Nineteenth-Century American History (Chicago, 1992), 243-263. But see Berg, "Women's Property": 242. Compare this to the much smaller proportions of rural women bequeathing land in the seventeenth century. See Erickson, Women and Property, 216.
16. See M. Spufford, "The Limitations of the Probate Inventory," in J. Chartres and D. Hey eds., English Rural Society 1500-1800 (Cambridge, 1990), 139-174; N. Cox and J. Cox, "Probate Inventories: the Legal Background," Local Historian 16 (1984): 133-145, 217-227.
17. Weatherill, Consumer Behaviour, 2-4.
18. R. Hoffman and P. J. Albert, "Inheritance and the Social History of Early American Women," in Hoffman and Albert, Women in the Age, 45-66, 47.
19. Weatherill," A Possession": 149-151.
20. Erickson in Women and Property mentions personal attachments to goods and to people as these were expressed in people's wills, but does not in this study investigate these through bequests.
21. The budget covering food, rent and fuel for a family of five in the late eighteenth century was calculated at [pounds]35 2s.per annum. See Mui and Mui, Shops and Shopkeeping, 154. Most of the Birmingham and Sheffield metalworkers with insurance policies were insured for [pounds]100 to [pounds]500. Those with over [pounds]1000 were among the wealthiest. This places these middling orders well below the levels of wealth found in Earle's sample of comparable groups in London. Peter Earle The Making of the English Middle Class: Business, Society and Family Life in London, 1660-1730 (Berkeley, 1989), 32. Cf. M. Berg, "Small Producer Capitalism in Eighteenth-Century England," Business History 35 (1993): 17-39, 28. Schwarz calculates that the median insurance policy for the metal trades in London was [pounds]400 to [pounds]500, and that the minimum required to set up in a trade in London in the mid eighteenth century was [pounds]100 in contrast to the [pounds]50-[pounds]60 it cost to do so in most towns. No journeyman on [pounds]40 a year could have afforded to do so. See L. Schwarz, London in the Age of Industrialisation: Entrepreneurs, Labour Force and Living Conditions, 1700-1850 (Cambridge, 1992), 61, 66, 166.
22. Clothing was frequently insured as a separate item in the Royal Exchange and Sun Insurance Records. It was sometimes recorded in inventories, but not consistently. In both types of record individual items of clothing were not separately itemised.
23. Weatherill, "Consumer Behaviour, Textiles and Dress in the Seventeenth and Early Eighteenth Centuries," in N.B. Harte ed., Fabrics and Fashions. Studies in the Economic and Social History of Dress, Textile History 22 (1991): 297-310, 308-9.
24. See Table 1. Numbers of lots containing clothing were divided by number of lots left by women and men respectively.
25. Table 2.
26. Lichfield Joint Record Office, Probate records, Prudence Bryan (7 June, 1703).
27. Lichfield Joint Record Office, Probate Records, Sarah Birch (10 February, 1725).
28. Borthwick Institute, University of York, Probate Records, Sarah Furniss (June, 1772).
29. ibid., Ann Carr (October, 1768).
30. ibid., Ann Ibbotson (May, 1789).
31. ibid., Katherine Bragg (April, 1774).
32. ibid., Anne Waterhouse (January, 1788).
33. Lichfield Joint Record Office, Probate Records, Sarah Dunn (22 August, 1764).
34. ibid., Elizabeth Lynes (3 August, 1739).
35. ibid., Hannah Owen (10 July, 1778).
36. ibid., Sarah Dunn.
37. ibid., Sarah Skidmore (14 October, 1800).
38. Borthwick Institute, University of York, Probate Records, Ann Allen (August, 1794).
39. Lemire, Fashion's Favourite, 61-76; B. Lemire, "The Theft of Clothes and Popular Consumerism in Early Modern England," Journal of Social History 24 (1990): 256-76; J. Styles, "Clothing the North: the Supply of non-elite Clothing in the Eighteenth-Century North of England," Textile History 25 (1994): 139-166.
40. Lemire, Fashion's Favourite, 64, 87; Earle, The Making, 283.
41. Earle, The Making, 288-290.
42. A. Vickery, "Women and the World of Goods: a Lancashire Consumer and her Possessions, 1751-81," in J. Brewer and R. Porter, Consumption and the World of Goods, 274-301.
43. Borthwick Institute, University of York, Probate Records, Joseph Leech, (July, 1717).
44. ibid., Isaac Stretch (5 April, 1716).
45. Lichfield Joint Records Office, Probate Records, Richard Coleburne (October, 1756).
46. Borthwick Insitute, Probate Records, John Smith (February, 1754); John Vaughan (April, 1793).
47. Memoirs of James Bisset (b. 1763), 1818, Warwick County Record Office.
49. Royal Exchange and Sun Insurance Registers, Guildhall Library. This is based on an analysis of insurance policies taken out by Birmingham and Sheffield metalworkers 1775-1787.
50. Vickery, "Women and the World of Goods": 290.
51. Weatherill, "A Possession": 142.
53. See wills of John Twigg (1772) and Samuel Bolton (1799), Birmingham, Lichfield Joint Record Office.
54. Lichfield Joint Record Office, Probate Records, Eleanor May (21 September, 1721).
55. ibid., Elizabeth Lynes (3 August, 1739).
56. ibid., Sarah Loome (12 April, 1755).
57. ibid., Elizabeth Farquaharson (31 May, 1796).
58. Borthwick Institute, Grace Genn (April, 1769) and Sarah Furness (June, 1772).
59. ibid., Elizabeth Anderton (September, 1798).
60. ibid., Isabella Dawson (April, 1785).
61. Weatherill, "A Possession": 140, 150.
62. Borthwick Institute, Isaac Ratcliffe (1791), Jonathan Wragg (1793); Lichfield Joint Record Office, Humphrey Moore (1765), John Richardson (1789).
63. Lichfield Joint Record Office, Anne Wright (1773); Borthwick Institute, Mary Kennington (1767), Grace Genn (1769), Isabella Dawson (1785), Ann Carr (1768).
64. Borthwick Institute, Dorothy Ridgeway (December, 1775).
65. Borthwick Institute, Grace Genn (April, 1769).
66. See H. Clifford, "Parker and Wakelin: the Study of an Eighteenth-Century Goldsmithing Firm c. 1760-76 with particular reference to the Garrard Ledgers" (PhD thesis, Royal College of Art, London 1988). But note Weatherill's inventories, where more women than men had silver or gold. She argues these were accumulated for use during widowhood or were the family residue of high-value items. See "A Possession": 142-3.
67. Lichfield Joint Record Office, Prudence Bryan (1703); Sarah Birch (1794).
68. Lichfield Joint Record Office, Ann Wright (1773); Borthwick Institute, Dorothy Ridgeway (1775).
69. ibid., Elizabeth Lynes (3 August, 1739).
70. Borthwick Institute, Elizabeth Wadsworth (October, 1774); Isabella Dawson (April, 1785).
71. Lichfield Joint Record Office, Mary Withers (28 May, 1777).
72. Lichfield Joint Record Office, Sarah Birch (10 February, 1725) Prudence Bryan (7 June, 1703).
73. Lichfield Joint Record Office, Mary Hopkins (8 November, 1714).
74. ibid., Sarah Dunn (22 August, 1764).
75. Borthwick Institute, Dorothy Ridgeway (December, 1775) Isabella Dawson (April, 1785).
76. Lichfield Joint Record Office, Joseph Ashford (21 September, 1704).
77. ibid., William Silk (16 November, 1731).
78. See Weatherill, "A Possession": 155-6.
79. These arguments are raised by Vickery, "Women and the World of Goods," 294. They are also used by Davidoff and Hall, Family Fortunes, chap. 4 to explain middle-class property arrangements in the nineteenth century.
80. See M. Berg, "Women's Work, Mechanization and the Early Phases of Industrialization in England," P. Joyce ed., The Historical Meanings of Work (Cambridge, 1987), 65-98, 85-8,97-8; J. R. Harris, Michael Alcock and the Transfer of Birmingham Technology to France before the Revolution," Journal of European Economic History, 15 (1986): 7-57.
81. For this conservative position on ordinary women's consumption see Weatherill, "A Possession": 155-6.
82. E. Gilboy, "Demand as a Factor in the Industrial Revolution" (1932) in R.M. Hartwell ed., The Causes of the Industrial Revolution in England (London, 1967), 121-138.
83. De. Vries, "The Industrious Revolution": 262.
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|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Date:||Dec 22, 1996|
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