Stobart, J. (2011) Novelty, luxury and the consumption of groceries in eighteenth-century England. Paper presented to: Centre for the History of Retailing and Distribution (CHORD) Conference: Food and Beverages: Retailing Distribution and Consumption in Historical Perspective, University of Wolverhampton, 07-08 September 2011.
Food has long played an important part in shaping behaviour and identity, especially in a domestic setting. It was, for instance, central to hospitality and largesse in the pre-modern great house and to notions of magnificence or elegance of table. This links food closely to the kind of conspicuous consumption discussed by Veblen as characteristic of the leisured classes: the consumption of ‘more excellent goods’ being evidence of wealth and status. Defining the precise nature of these goods is problematic, but they included a range of groceries which Smith and others have identified as luxuries: most notably sugar and spices. Food was also associated with social distinction: taste could be communicated through fashionable food and novel drinks such as tea, coffee and chocolate. Berg argues that the pursuit of novelty is intrinsically pleasurable since it stimulates arousal by providing variety, complexity and surprise. Drinking tea and coffee afforded novel physical experiences, whilst the wide range of teas available by the mid eighteenth century provided variety and complexity. Yet novelty needed to be accommodated within existing norms and practices of consumption; it had to be ‘recognizable, and tastes developed to appreciate it’. In this paper I draw on these ideas to explore certain aspects of the consumption of groceries in the home. In particular, I focus on the way in which certain goods were viewed and consumed as novelties or luxuries. Here, I begin by considering how novelty might be defined for the individual consumer and how purchases of groceries might reflect a pursuit of the new. The trickle down of novelties such as tea and coffee is then examined alongside the strong continuities that emerge in patterns of consumption. Next, luxury is explored in terms of exclusivity and, in more nuanced terms, using Appadurai’s register, as luxuries. Despite the growing availability of tea, sugar and so on, some consumers were clearly concerned with the quality of the groceries being purchased, whether as novel items which could add new experiences or fashionability to their eating and drinking, or as luxuries which helped to distinguish them in some way from the common order