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
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.