Stobart, J. (2012) ‘Rare and curious’ or ‘genuine and fashionable’? The material culture of the elite and middle classes, c.1760-1840. Paper presented to: European Social Science History Conference (ESSHC) 2012, University of Glasgow, 11-14 April 2012.
The general understanding that traditional modes of consumption were replaced for all levels of society arises primarily because conceptualisations of changing consumption regimes view elite consumers as the driving force in a broader social transformation. This is seen in the social/cultural emulation suggested by Veblen and McKendrick, but also in Simmel’s notion of trickle-down. It even fits Grieg’s reading of fashion and the Beau Monde: this was a powerful group, she argues, because they were by definition fashionable. For these models to work, the elite must, prima facie, have been at the forefront of the move to a new material culture and the lionising of fashion as novelty – an assumption that is seldom tested in empirical studies which principally focus on social groups from the gentry down. I have argued elsewhere that elite consumers followed more complex consumer models, which were characterised by the marking and redefinition of aristocratic status through patronage, conspicuous consumption and heritance. In this paper, I want to build on this by exploring the notion that elites and middling sorts followed different consumption models. To do this, I examine a large collection of catalogues for house sales taking place in and around Northamptonshire in the period 1760-1840. These include the country houses of elites, but also rural vicarages, urban villas, and the town houses of tradesmen. My analysis focuses on the goods being offered for sale. It assesses distinctions in terms of fashionable goods (including tea and breakfast services, decorative items, and pianos) and more traditional items (silverware, paintings, collections and carriages), and seeks to determine whether elite homes were qualitatively different during this period. But I am also interested in the language used to describe these goods, both on the covers and the pages of the catalogues. Of particular interest in this regard is the appearance of ‘antiques’ as valued items and as bridges between new and old consumer cultures