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Teaching Visitors About the Consumer Revolution

Teaching Visitors about the Consumer Revolution

by Cary Carson

Once upon a time, starting in the reign of George Ill, a string of important inventions in a few industries began a profound alteration of the British economy. Steam engines, flying shuttles, water frames, and power looms, operated by men, women, and children summoned to work by a factory bell, produced prodigious quantities of inexpensive personal and household goods. Machine-made textiles, pottery, ironmongery, and a multitude of other products were transported over improved roads and along newly built canals to markets in every corner of the realm. There they were snapped up by a rapidly growing population of eager consumers, who waxed healthier, wealthier, and happier than ever before in rising wages, falling death rates, and a diet of roast beef and white bread supplied by model farmers and progressive stockbreeders.

Echoing the modem corporate slogan “Better things for Better Living,” the orthodox histories endorse a supply-side explanation for the events that led to industrial and commercial expansion. Consumer demand is presented as a universal given, as immutable as mankind’s quest for a dry cave and a square meal. Mechanization, the factory system, faster, cheaper transportation, and new banking and credit facilities were simply those English-made miracles that finally in the eighteenth century drove down the costs and increased the supply of goods and services that everyone had always wanted and that ordinary people could now afford.

Industrial progress, the schoolbooks imply, thrived on freedom and waited on genius. U.S. histories provide the classic example. Because Old-World mercantilists had frowned on colonial manufactures, Americans first had to win independence, then steal British industrial secrets, to bring the factory system to these shores. Soon thereafter, the wheels began to turn and the spindles to spin. The rest was textbook history. This orthodox version of early American industrial history is the most supply-driven of them all. Mass production in the United States not only met existing demand. Aggressive merchandisers deliberately created an expanded market of new customers needed to buy the flood of products that soon poured from the factories.

The main lines of the cause-and-effect, supply-and-demand argument stand largely uncontested. The Industrial Revolution awakened an enormous unquenchable appetite for material goods. It sired the race of getters and spenders that we all have become, we Americans nonpareil. The essential truth of supply-side economics stands unchallenged as the incontrovertible central thesis that explains the genesis of our consumer societies in the industrialized nations of the West…

Incontrovertible except for one little problem, one awkward fact. Demand came first.

Already by 1750, the downward and outward spread of luxury had been a preachers’ and pamphleteers’ favorite target for going on fifty years. Before Arkwright, before Watt, before Hargreaves, Wedgwood, Boulton, and Kay, almost before even Abraham Darby, people up and down the social order had discovered and were indulging the most extraordinary passion to purchase consumer goods in quantities and varieties that were unknown, even unimaginable, to their fathers and grandfathers. It was indeed revolution, but a consumer revolution in the beginning. The better-known industrial revolution followed in response.

Putting a demand-driven consumer revolution before power-driven industrialization forces historians to ask questions that they’ve seldom addressed until very recently. It shifts their perspective from the means of production to the consumption of the goods produced. Initially, it requires attention to describing certain basic facts: What goods did people really acquire? How did they use them ? How have people’s everyday lives been changed by possession of newfangled artifacts and practice in the things they can do? Who has shared in the wealth of material possessions? How evenly or unevenly have they been distributed and how have those differences rearranged the social order? Descriptions of material life eventually send historians in search of explanations: What caused ordinary people at certain times in the past to spend their sometimes small earnings on expendable goods and services in preference to longer lasting investments? Why is there demand for some things at one time and quite different things at others? Why did the pace of consumption quicken so dramatically in the eighteenth century?

Ultimately, historians who pursue this line of inquiry end up exploring a set of fundamental relationships in modern society. They’re social relationships, to be sure, but with this difference: they require the intercession of inanimate objects, namely, the household goods and personal possessions whose ownership and use first became widespread among northern Europeans and North Americans in the eighteenth century.

Artifacts and the activities to which they were instrumental defined group identities and mediated relations between individuals and the social worlds they inhabited. We ourselves take the facilitating role of material things for granted. Competence in understanding and using the “language” of artifacts is learned along with the ability to speak, read, and write, although actually it is a far more general form of literacy than the latter two. Ours has become a very complex material culture. Two hundred years ago it was simpler; three hundred years ago very much simpler almost everywhere the world around. Only small groups of affluent courtiers, churchmen, merchant princes, and other elites had always led well-furnished lives of luxury. The consumer revolution changed all that. It’s the term that historians now give to a fundamental transformation when whole nations learned to use a rich and complicated medium of communications to conduct social relations that were no longer adequately served by the parochial repertories of words, gestures, and folk customs alone. Artifacts expanded the vocabulary of an international language that was learned and understood wherever fashion and gentility spread.

For a time the old handcraft industries supplied the needs of the first new consumers. In the end, they couldn’t keep pace. As venture capitalists came to see the tremendous potential for growth in home markets, the search began for new technologies to increase production and new sales strategies to enlarge those markets. Consumer revolution and industrial revolution were mutually necessary and complementary sides to events that the textbooks must put back together again—the right way round—before we can appreciate the full significance of one of the great divides in the chronicle of human experience.

Looking back at the whole history of material life, it exaggerates nothing to say that the mass of humanity were only rudimentary tool users before the eighteenth century. Most men and women were conspicuously not consumers in 1600. If standardized consumer goods eventually became high marks of esteem and essential tools necessary to communicate status and identity, what had people’s possessions meant before? To describe a basic alteration in the use of everyday objects as a “revolution” invites a before-and-after comparison. If we take the late Middle Ages as our starting point, there’s no danger of jumping into the story halfway through.

Scholarship over the last generation has discarded many sentimental stereotypes about medieval peasants and their descendants under the Tudors and Stuarts in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. A remarkable painting of the Tichbourne family—household servants on the left, tenants and villagers on the right—was painted in 1670 to record a community ritual and a set of social relationships that had survived three or four hundred years in this Hampshire backwater. For want of a genuine medieval painting, this one serves to remind us that, although rural communities were ordered in a familiar hierarchy of gentlemen, yeomen, husbandmen, and laborers, medievalists now know that they were open to conflicts, outside influences, and a never-ending turnover of inhabitants. Yet, for most villagers, their birthplace was still the center of the universe, however much they orbited around it. Few escaped its gravitational pull altogether. Despite the ever-changing cast of characters, the English village and its neighborhood retained its ancient integrity as a vital community center.

Status, wealth, and power ran together in such face-to-face societies. A man’s reputation resided in his neighbors’ estimation of his worth. It was measured in the only terms that really mattered—in land, labor, livestock, precious plate, and capital improvements; reputable kinfolk and creditable neighbors; the offices he held; and the largess he dispensed in the exercise of his authority. All but plate were indivisible from their locality, and gold and silver objects were safest locked away. A farmer’s reputation was his letter of credit beyond the village boundaries. That network of acquaintances might extend some miles roundabout, as I said, but seldom farther.

Heavy wooden furniture and coarse earthenware vessels that had little value in themselves nevertheless were used in two distinctive ways, first, as accessories to the display of real wealth and, second, to affirm social precedence. Both are worth considering briefly because they stand in marked contrast to later uses of consumer goods as status symbols in their own right. Affluence took material form in articles of three or four kinds in medieval households: exotic and expensive foodstuffs, jewelry and plate, and textiles made into clothing or used as napery, upholstery, bedclothes, and wall hangings. Furniture and ceramic tableware were important principally as objects needed to store, display, and serve these few articles of real value. The most common pieces of furniture in medieval farmhouses were chests and boxes. The contents usually far exceeded the value of the container.

Other medieval furniture forms functioned principally as display stands for plate or as sideboards for the serving of eating and drinking vessels used at table. Furniture and tableware that became showpieces by the eighteenth century already served as showcases in medieval times.

There was another way they were important. Certain kinds of household equipment asserted and reinforced the user’s degree of estate. In particular, seat furniture, bed hangings, standing salts, and various covered table vessels expressed social realities very precisely. Always the controlling factor was precedence rather than rank based on occupation, office holding, or other preferment. The one quality was conditional, the other constant. In other words, a yeoman farmer might sit in an armchair in his own hall and drink from a covered cup at his own table, but he would expect to occupy a stool or bench located below the salt and drink from a tankard in the house of his seigniorial lord. Precedence overruled rank in the use of objects that had ceremonial significance. Not even ownership entitled a person to use his or her possessions in every situation. Let us note, in anticipation of later events, that the rule of precedence was to be thoroughly swept away, except on state occasions, by the scramblers after luxury in the centuries still to come.

This patchwork quilt of commonplaces that covered the British Isles in the Middles Ages began to come unraveled and the local colors ran together as economic pressures accelerated the movement of people and expanded their cultural horizons in the sixteenth century. The colonization of North America was a spillover from these local and regional movements of people across the British Isles and eventually across large parts of northern Europe as well. The westward transatlantic movement of Europeans and Africans not only forms the foundation of American history, it is the key event in understanding the origins of modern consumer behavior and the development of visual literacy since the Middle Ages.

What is that connection? A world in motion was a world full of strangers. Accidental tourists and neighbors by happenstance spoke unintelligible languages and practiced unfamiliar customs. They were necessarily unacquainted with each other’s social standing back home since the traditional and continuing measures of status—property, family, and offices—were inevitably left behind. A pressing need therefore arose to invent a portable and universally acknowledged system of status identification. It required a code of manners, a repertory of performances, a set of conventions, and an assortment of costumes and props that could be recognized by anyone in the know. It was a system of polite behavior borrowed ultimately from courtly protocol, then wedded to an aesthetic developed in Italy and France, and eventually disseminated through Amsterdam and London to the rest of Europe and its far-flung colonies in the second half of the seventeenth century. Contemporaries had a name for this new system of good manners and good taste that qualified them for citizenship in the world at large. They called it “politeness” or “gentility.”

For the most part, domestic artifacts were the medium of exchange in this genteel language of social communications. Their use was learned at home and practiced abroad in activities that never before had been part of ordinary household routines. Tea ceremonies, formal dinners, social calls, promenades, evening entertainments, assemblies, bans, and musicales required a multitude of specialized equipment not to be found in the chests and cupboards of an older way of life.

These consumer ancestors of ours have lately received the kind of attention that earlier generations of historians paid to Puritans, patriots, and pioneers and, more recently, to slaves, women, and children. Scholars offer many reasons to explain why material things became such essential mediators in everyday social life only three centuries ago. They advance arguments for the growth of population, the domination of London, the spread of commerce, easy access to cheap money, the development of home markets, the dense layering of social classes, and many more. These were indeed preconditions to the rise of a consumer culture. But they beg the question, why was wealth converted into durable goods? The answer, I suggest, is because the old forms of visible wealth weren’t transportable or recognizable in distant counties, cities, and overseas colonies to which vast numbers of people began traveling on business and pleasure and moving permanently to start new lives.

Inescapably, the search for an explanation for consumer behavior comes down to understanding how a whole host of new inventions equipped their owners and users to meet social needs and solve communications problems that arose when people struck out for parts unknown. To explain what I mean, consider two groups of furnishings that made their first appearance in seventeenth-century American houses, specifically in the parlors that were the innermost sanctum of a yeoman’s or merchant’s physical world and his principal entertaining room. Look first at several new-fangled pieces of furniture devoted to the fine art of self-presentation. It is also useful to pay attention to accessories to the dinner table, where genteel sociability was put to the test in groups. These pieces of furniture and tableware have been taken so much for granted by those who could afford them since the eighteenth century that a house without them mocks the very meaning of the word “furnished.” That wasn’t always so.

Among the earliest inventions worthy of note were things that assisted people’s dressing activities and toilet preparations. That is hardly surprising considering that the human body, when it came to clothing, had long been treated like a medieval cupboard, a bare frame to be draped and adorned before it reflected the glory of him or her to whom the face belonged. Ever since the seventeenth century, faces have borne endless looking at and looking after. New furniture forms included chamber tables and dressing boxes, both accessories to the serious work of self-beautification.

Dressing boxes were divided into tiny compartments for cosmetics, powders, and unguents needed to improve on nature. Sometimes they were fitted with a mirror under the lid to assist the user in performing the kind of close-up facial renovations that old-fashioned country people had little time or use for. The earliest owners of dressing boxes were often sea captains, mariners, and merchants—men more frequently than women. They were the very men whose affairs were advanced not so much by a familiar honest face as a fashionable pretty one. Such boxes first appear in American probate inventories in the 1670s.

A companion piece to the dressing table and another commonplace piece of parlor furniture with an unusual social history in this period was the chest of drawers. It was destined to become the principal storage container for clothing and other textiles in fashionable Anglo-American households in the second half of the seventeenth century. The earliest chests of drawers were especially popular among wealthy middle-class town dwellers who valued compactness and yet desired the convenience of drawer storage for the thinner, lighter, seasonable clothing they were putting on and off more frequently. Drawer furniture appeared almost simultaneously in London and Boston in the late 1630s and early ’40s. By 1760, drawer storage had become the norm almost without exception among middling householders of English descent even in the countryside.

Before the turn of the eighteenth century, fine ladies and gentlemen came to regard a chest of drawers as an important component in a set of dressing furniture that included the table, box, and occasionally even stands on which they placed pots and basins for convenience or candles to shed light full face on their toilet preparations.

Sometimes looking glasses came en suite too. Upright, rectangular looking glasses joined the kit of dressing chamber paraphernalia as English mirror glass manufacturers found ways just before 1700 to elongate a squarish face glass into a three-quarter-length living portrait of face and figure fashionably united. Never before in human history had people seen themselves “from top to toe,” as one delighted Englishwoman described the first experience of seeing her reflection at full length.

Silvered reflections and painted “effigies” were the quintessential expression of the personal identity that men and women concocted with the things they kept in drawers and dressing boxes to create the artificial self-images that they then saw mirrored back at them from looking glasses in the parlor chamber and from oil canvases on the parlor wall. Painted portraits were yet another new addition to the furnishings of prosperous American homes in the second half of the seventeenth century. As such they appropriated and domesticated a category of artifacts that earlier ages had reserved for church and state officials and others of great estate. For the living, portraits advertised an individual’s place in society. Men often held gloves, canes, books, documents, and other recognizable badges of office. Gentlewomen posed with fans, Bibles, and bouquets of flowers. After death, portraits honored the memory of the sitter and celebrated the family’s genealogy no less than funerary monuments immortalized its reputation in the churchyard. Better than churchyards, paintings were portable.

Second, it should not be overlooked that the act of using the new equipment, the preparations themselves, assumed an importance it had never had before in bourgeois circles. The rich ornament and fine workmanship lavished on lowly toilet kits and storage boxes are one indication. So are the many popular depictions of ladies and gentlemen ensconced in their dressing chambers and busy at their toilet seen in prints, performed in comedies, and depicted in the light literature of the period.


“Tight Lacing/Fashion before Ease.”
Colonial Williamsburg Collections

Such scenes illustrate one final observation. The equipment needed for dressing and grooming was increasingly regarded as a suite of furnishings to be encountered in a specific place within the house. It joined a growing list of domestic goods that genteel householders everywhere regarded as pieces belonging to sets that users could expect to find in public rooms reserved for the activities in which they assisted. It was another step in the process of converting the many folkways that had governed people’s private ablutions and informal dressing habits into a standardized system of polite public behavior. Where fashion could coerce gentlemen and ladies at their washstands, there was no telling how it would refurnish the rooms of their houses where they displayed all their resplendence to neighbors and strangers.

These numerous self-centered artifacts, however prosaic and traditional their uses, are important to understanding my argument about geographical mobility and the spread of consumer culture. All contributed to overhauling and standardizing people’s personal appearances. No longer was it enough to be expensively dressed. To cut a respectable figure abroad, or to command respect at home from those traveling abroad, it was increasingly necessary to dress according to an acknowledged formula.

Gentility put on a uniform; it wore a stock expression; it prescribed universal good manners. Drawers and dressing boxes contained the essential costumes and make-up. Mirrors imaged rehearsals. Prints popularized role models, and portraits immortalized successful performers. Bedchambers became actors’ and actresses’ dressing rooms, and parlors and public spaces the stages on which they appeared.

All these preparations culminated in formal performances that began now to reshape fundamentally the daily routines of quite ordinary people. Burghers and a few country gentlemen were usually first, but others followed soon enough. These were social events by definition, occasions when men and women consorted together in activities that, whatever their outward purposes, served deep down to reaffirm and regulate the social order. Frequently these formalities were observed on occasions that brought together people from outside the immediate family. Often they included complete strangers, as seen in this drawing of a drinking party given by Peter Manigault of Charleston.

Displays of hospitality traditionally involved the sharing of food and drink. It’s therefore not surprising that the earliest genteel performances took place at table and radically altered the design of furniture and utensils used at mealtimes. Things used to seat, serve, feed, and entertain a householder’s family and guests numbered among the earliest mass-produced consumer goods that can be called genuine inventions.

The glass case, for example, was an object utterly unknown to earlier generations. The form has recently been identified as a small case piece used to store drinking glasses, galley pots, and other refined table garnitures. Such cases held the sturdy, inexpensive, lead crystal drinking glasses perfected by English glassmakers after 1675 and widely marketed in the colonies by the 1690s. Their design, not just their affordability, responded to changing tastes in table manners. Not only were they intentionally one-handed vessels, they were designed to be elegantly held by pinching either the stem or the foot between the thumb and forefingers. That left the other hand completely free to engage in the practiced gestures that accompanied genteel conversations, which were the real substance of the dinner table performance.

Fashionable dining arbitrated even the shape of the table. Always they had been four-sided before. Always four corners had marked the metes and bounds between the head, the foot, and the two sides in between. Each was a distinct social territory. Protocol placed the most important male diner present at the head or top of the table. His dependents took their places to the right and left in descending order of precedence according to gender, estate, age, and servility. Wives appear to have sat next to their husbands at the head of the table, or alternatively, opposite at the foot.

The advent of fashionable dining changed everything, not least of all the shape of four-sided tables. They became round or oval. Tables without corners made a closed circle of men and women whose shared commitment to the arts of civility outweighed any real differences in their rank. Master and mistress were replaced by host and hostess, and so thorough was the revolution in manners that husbands and wives actually traded places. The meat-carving and soup-ladling duties were reassigned to the hostess. The host, now seated at the foot, was responsible for the guests’ exchange of pleasantries. That too was said to happen more easily at round tables. “It is the custom here in England,” wrote a knowledgeable housekeeper in 1758, “to eat off square or long Tables; the French in general on round or oval,” thus giving them (she said) “vastly the advantage in the disposing and placing [ of] their Entertainment.” Companions seated in a circle enjoyed greater informality, what the housekeeper called “this French fashion of perfect ease.”

The mealtime performance required matching dining chairs whether the table was oval or not. These too made their first appearance in American parlors in the second half of the seventeenth century. Socially differentiated seating furniture had been one way that precedence-minded diners had signified their place around old-fashioned tables. Where chairs had been scarce, usually they had been reserved for the householder himself, sometimes his wife, and occasional honored guests. Social inferiors had often sat on stools, forms, benches, and makeshift chests and boxes, or might even have stood.

This ancient seating plan was subverted by the invention of the upholstered back-stool about 1615. Three features recommended their use in polite society. Their sometimes lower height, armless sides, and open back were a convenience especially to women who wore fashionable farthingale skirts. Indeed the French term for them translated as “farthingale chair.” Second, they usually came en suite, often in sets of six or a dozen. The third feature, their coordinated upholstery, reinforced this impression of sameness; and, not coincidentally, conferred on the whole assembled company the superior status long attached to rich textiles.

Even before the popularity of turkey work and leather chairs had peaked, artisans in London developed a line of high-backed cane chairs that were mass produced in such astonishing numbers and enjoyed such tremendous success in the marketplace that they revolutionized the furniture industry and made genteel dining affordable to large numbers of middling consumers on both sides of the Atlantic. It hardly mattered that cane chairs lacked coordinated upholstery, which sitters always covered up anyway. Sets of high-backed chairs had something better. Their identical carved crest rails towered above the tallest users in unobscured affirmation of every diner’s equal right to occupy one piece in the set. Crested chair frames communicated other messages as well. They clearly resembled the tops of picture frames and looking glasses. Thus high-backed chairs enframed a person’s fashionable face and figure in the same image that he or she had composed it earlier at the dressing table and could further study its idealized form in the prints and portraits that lined the parlor walls. Thus, the correspondence was complete from model to rehearsal to performance. En suite meant more than chairs by the dozen. More fundamentally, it was a state of mind made manifest in a pervasive and unified aesthetic and a corresponding system of artificial good manners.

Good manners and fashionable accoutrements validated their possessors’ claims to gentility. Gentility itself worked like paper money. It was presumed to stand for tangible social assets that unfamiliar bearers kept stashed away at home. A knowledge of etiquette and practice in the things that fashionable artifacts could do were the portable parts of this new communications system. Men and women of fashion could leave their own possessions at home and expect that others just like them would be placed at their disposal wherever they traveled in polite society.

Fashionable living therefore required standardized architectural settings. The stage required props in places where the actors could count on finding them from one performance to another. The seventeenth-century parlor activities that I have described one piece at a time were enlarged upon and elaborated in the course of the eighteenth century until they ruled over a fashionable gentleman’s entire house as completely as they ruled his whole life.

The history of western art can scarcely produce another earlier example of ideas that spread so rapidly and widely from court to countryside to colonies. Domestic architectural spaces planned, decorated, and furnished en suite refashioned drawing rooms and parlors around the world little more than a century after their invention. The scale was much reduced, the splendor diminished, the lines simplified, and the materials cheapened. Yet one idea endured. That was the notion that virtually anyone could hold court in his or her own house by carefully observing prescribed conventions and correctly using a few pieces of standardized equipment. The goods could be purchased at popular prices and the manners learned from plays, prints, dancing masters, and penny publications.

The great movement of European peoples that achieved a momentum in the eighteenth century that still rolls forward into our own times was the definitive force that shaped modem consumer culture eventually for everyone whether migrant or not. The travelers themselves were the first to put aside older parochial customs. They most urgently needed to acquire the manners and trappings that would smooth their reception in far away places. They led the way, but their wake washed back on the shores they left behind and passed by. The influence of their example worked inexorably to rub off local prejudices even among the firmly settled. Thus vicariously homebodies too gradually acquired some measure of cosmopolitan consumer culture.

So here at last is an answer to the question, “Why demand?”, arrived at by careful study of archaeologists’ artifacts and curators’ objects of the decorative arts. Historians understand it, of course, as a historical problem. The issue as they see it, draws its intellectual vitality (as good scholarship in history should) from something that concerns a larger body of thoughtful citizens.

Events in our national life in the 1990s have reopened the debate about the celebrated American standard of living and our persistent belief in a beneficent materialism. For some time now, poor people in this country have been getting poorer, absolutely poorer in terms of real disposable per capita income. There have been other periods when the value of wages declined, but this one coincides with an unparalleled glut in new consumer goods and services available to those higher up the economic ladder whose buying power has remained more or less constant. The growing disparity between rich and poor, or more accurately and significantly between rich and middle, puts at risk a basic element in the American dream, the promise of almost universal access to a shared material culture, which for so long helped unite a nation of immigrants into a democracy of fellow consumers. Compared to the rest of a world deeply divided between haves and have-nots, Americans are fortunate to have always been a nation of haves and not-yets.

That could change. The possibility gives timeliness and even urgency to the work that you do in the Historic Area. The scholarship that I have summarized in this lecture gives us a perspective from which to second guess what consequences might follow were the welfare of hardworking men and women to reach such low levels that they and their children lost all hope of eventually participating in the consumer culture that has served as one of the great equalizing influences in American life. Think about it. Then, help visitors to Colonial Williamsburg to think about it so that (as we are fond of saying) the future may learn from the past.