Review by Robert F. Trent
Of Consuming Interests: The Style of Life in the Eighteenth Century

Cary Carson, Ronald Hoffman, and Peter J. Albert, eds. Of Consuming Interests: The Style of Life in the Eighteenth Century. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, for the United States Capitol Historical Society, 1994. 721 pp.; bw illus., tables, line drawings, index. $79.50.

Here is an extensive, representative selection of commissioned articles about late seventeenth- and eighteenth-century consumerism that will prove extremely useful to those (like the reviewer) who are not consumed by this hyper-aggressive scholarly literature. The essayists are all major authorities in their respective fields: Kevin M. Sweeney, Lois Green Carr, Lorena S. Walsh, Edward A. Chappell, Richard L. Bushman, Karin Calvert, Margaretta M. Lovell, Cynthia Adams Hoover, David D. Hall, Barbara G. Carson, Nancy L. Struna, Timothy H. Breen, and the principal editor for the volume, Cary Carson.

Two major foci are much in evidence: the strong literature on vernacular architecture and the equally powerful, computerized statistical analysis for which historians of the Chesapeake are noted. Looming over all is Cary Carson’s essay, “The Consumer Revolution in Colonial British America: Why Demand?” which is, in a somewhat coy manner, placed last when it ought to have been the lead essay; by sheer bulk (214 pages!) it reduces all the other contributions to the status of grace notes. Carson’s essay does, however, rehearse the pertinent bibliography in a useful, if somewhat quixotic way, and it poses a fundamental series of questions that simplify matters without distorting them.

Industrialism was caused by consumerism. In other words, we must invert the catch phrase “supply and demand” to read “demand then supply.” Carson, following the lead of art historians who have investigated seventeenth-century interiors, concludes that this demand did not start in the Georgian period (after 1714) but, rather, in the 1650s when Louis XIII’s and Louis XIV’s courts prompted imitation by royal, noble, and urban bourgeois sectors of society all over Europe. London merchants were perhaps the first to abstract from Versailles and the Louvre the concept of an articulated suite of rooms furnished with coordinated textiles, sets of chairs and tables, and ceremonial groupings of gaming equipment, portraits, ceramics, glass, and other objects. In other words, they were the first in the English-speaking world to translate what had been exclusively courtly values into a middle-class or professional standard of genteel comportment. The French prototype upon which these merchants drew, in turn, represented an important northern European conceptual transition from the royal court as a mobile hunting party to a fixed administrative and artistic center, more on the order of the court of Rudolph II at Prague.

The prototypes for this sort of royal activity were in Italy, at the papal court in Rome and the more stable city-states like Florence. Carson does not investigate the meaning of this grand level of cultural transfer for his emerging English consumerism and gentility of the 1650s, but it seems logical to theorize that genteel comportment in ritualized activities, like sampling wine, gaming, tea drinking, and so forth, was based not simply in paying court to a royal figure but in evincing sufficient humanistic training. After all, even the bitterness surrounding the Reformation and the eclipse of Italy’s economic power by the Atlantic states did not relieve northern Europeans of a servile deference toward the Italian wellsprings of humanistic learning. Just as surely, the paradigm for the genteel manner resided in classical sources. There is some grounds for seeking part of the English variant of the genteel in the virtuosos of Charles I’s court, many of whom paid extended visits to Italy and displayed a profound command of Renaissance literature and the arts. Charles I himself was a powerful, if not particularly endearing, prototype for the rigid posture, impassive features, clipped diction, lack of emotional involvement, exquisite costume, and artistic accomplishments that came to be recognized as traits of the English gentleman by the eighteenth century.

Another title for this anthology, thus, might have been “American Historians and Partisans of the Vernacular Discover Elemental Truths of Art History.” For all the exquisitely attuned discussions of how assorted English role models and marketing strategies were mediated by strong vernacular or regional impulses in the colonies, the fact remains that courtly behavior and the accoutrements that articulate it are courtly and largely artistic in origin.

Carson greatly emphasizes the idea that genteel comportment and rituals were made necessary by the mobility of the middling sort (what we might today term businessmen, professionals, and civil servants), both within England and out of England to the colonies. This idea is intriguing and useful, at least for the 1650–1700 period. A view of genteel comportment as having utility value goes a long way toward explaining why consumerism could evade radical Protestant injunctions against materialism and display. It would be wise, however, to remember how Puritan commentators such as Richard Baxter failed to reconcile weaned affections with the need to express and reinforce hierarchy through display. What drove Independents in England back into the Anglican church in some numbers after 1660 was not fear of the restored monarchy and church but doctrinal loathing for the disregard of property among Diggers, Levellers, and Quakers.

All the essays deal with ramifications of the introduction and marketing of various media and their impact on behavior. One formulation that needs to be questioned is the presumed priority of architectural space in reinforcing genteel behavior and new standards of formality, privacy, and individuation. Discussions of the interface between “Georgian” and vernacular architectural plans often give the impression that the plans engendered the organization of ritual behavior and the disposition of objects. At the risk of seeming a partisan of the decorative arts, this reviewer would like to assert that, even as consumerism engendered industrialism (to some degree), so genteel rituals and objects engendered architectural form. This assertion flies in the face of Herbert Read’s classic 1955 essay, Icon and Idea, as well as the basic thrust of art historical formalism in general, but it is more consistent with historical practice.

A useful caution in all this talk of rampant consumerism is provided by Edward A. Chappell’s essay, which notes that fully three-quarters of the population were excluded from genteel consumerism by poverty and structured inequality until well into the nineteenth century. This point is apt and refreshing. One more observation that might strongly qualify the eighteenth-century bias of this anthology is that the value systems of all modern observers of pre-1800 American culture are irretrievably influenced by a deep-seated, modern ambivalence toward industrialism. Is this not what is so alluring yet so annoying about walking the streets of Colonial Williamsburg? Not only is the presentation almost entirely based on elite architecture and decorative arts but the purported romance of the exercise relies on the contrast between the restored area and, say, Secaucus, New Jersey. In particular, our middle-class instinct that there is such a thing as redemption through study of preindustrial crafts is a distinctly nineteenth-century fiction that this anthology fails to explicate and refute.

Robert F. Trent
Wilmington, Delaware

American Furniture 1997