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Past & Present 2006 Supplement (vol. 1, 2006) 12-38

His and Hers:
Gender, Consumption and Household Accounting in Eighteenth-Century England*
Amanda Vickery

The connotations of 'shopping' are deeply feminine. When a leading anthropologist of modern consumer behaviour, Daniel Miller, went into North London homes in the 1990s to ask about shopping, a high proportion of men got up to leave with the words, 'you need to speak to my wife, she's the expert'. Yet the masculine rejection of consumption is more rhetorical than real. On closer examination, the men were found to be skilled consumer researchers, bargain hunters, and collectors of certain kinds of goods. Nevertheless they still disavowed the verb shopping, admitting only to 'an interest in music', or 'a love of books'. Shopping for do-it-yourself, car parts, and alcohol was dominated by males, yet a 'tendency to distance themselves from identification with the act and concept of shopping' was still pronounced.1

In the eighteenth century it was no different. It was women who were principally identified with spending in the eighteenth-century imagination. [End Page 12] While the luxury debate raged, many were the critics who claimed that women were lost to sober housewifery and home production, in a rush for ready-made goods and the shops.

Time was, when tradesmen laid up what they gain'd
And frugally a family maintained.
When they took stirring housewives for their spouses,
To keep up prudent order in their house;
Who thought no scorn, at night to sit them down
And make their children's clothes and mend their own
Would Polly's coat to younger Bess transfer,
And make their caps without a milliner.
But now a shopping half the day they're gone,
To buy 500 things and pay for none . . .2

The gulf between the producing man and the consuming female is well entrenched, and seems to survive as a trope in the face of all evidence to the contrary. Why is female materialism criticized, while male consumerism often seems invisible? Men historically have disassociated themselves from shopping, but nevertheless they were open and enthusiastic consumers of certain categories of goods (horses, carriages, watches, alcohol, weapons, tools, books, and so on in the eighteenth century) and furtive consumers of much else. Major questions about the relationship of men, women, and goods remain unanswered despite the recent boom in consumption studies.

The skills, knowledge, and practical power which women gained as consumers have been noted for eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and early twentieth-century Britain and North America. Claire Walsh has recently emphasized the wife's ideological inscription as guardian of the purse-strings in eighteenth-century England, and her practical role in shopping for food and household basics: haggling, testing food for quality, spotting adulteration, deciding when to send servants or shop herself, and so on.3 It was precisely because women were seen to manage the business of everyday shopping that American patriots made such efforts to ensure female cooperation in the [End Page 13] colonial boycott of British imports, particularly tea, in the 1760s and 1770s.4 Similarly, early nineteenth-century anti-slavery activists expressly targeted women because, 'in the domestic department they are the chief controllers; they for the most part, provide the articles of family consumption'.5 An emerging consensus agrees that women enjoyed some recognized independence as routine consumers.

The deep psychic investment some women made in the world of goods has been established by recent research. Lancashire merchant's wife Elizabeth Shackleton, Massachusetts pioneer Hannah Barnard, Shropshire spinster Katharine Plymley, aristocratic tourist Elizabeth Berkeley Somerset, fourth duchess of Beaufort, among many others can be seen using possessions as props in self-fashioning, some creating an assemblage that came close to a self-portrait—a picture which could be shown-off, rearranged, or hidden as circumstances demanded. In fact, Joanna Dahn argues that the connoisseur and courtier Mary Delany, the twice-widowed niece of a nobleman, self-consciously crafted an 'objectscape' in china to testify to the cultured female community she...


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pp. 12-38
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Archived 2007
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