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  • “Callico Madams”:Servants, Consumption, and the Calico Crisis
  • Chloe Wigston Smith

The "calico crisis" of 1719–21 depicted Indian textiles as a national threat to English trade and gender roles. Like imported china, tea, and lacquered cabinets, calicoes contributed to the debates over luxury in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries that focused attention on the behavior of female consumers. Condemned as the chief consumers of calico, women were reproached in dozens of pamphlets and economic tracts for purchasing the printed cotton fabric.1 Attacks on female consumption, however, were not limited to the shopping habits of upper-class women. The pamphleteers also crafted the female servant as a trope for the social and sexual desires of working women who defied the decorum of consumption. In pamphlets and tracts in support of the wool trade, authors such as Daniel Defoe and Richard Steele accused female domestic servants, who were subject to fewer sartorial constraints than their liveried male colleagues, of ruining England's wool industry and of causing widespread unemployment among male weavers. The behavior of female servants, as decried by their critics, reveals how fashion as a form of self-assertion and self-expression was not limited to upper-class women.2 By drawing attention to female servants' habits of consumption, therefore, the pro-wool pamphlets credited [End Page 29] working women with substantial social and economic power. Anti-calico critics thus paint a compelling portrait of female servants that ultimately reaffirms their agency, even as it attempts to restrict their spending and sexual habits.

By advocating that female servants wear English wool, wool's defenders sought to preserve sartorial hierarchies and to manage the perceived sexuality of domestic laborers. Although English sumptuary law had lapsed under James I, the calico crisis reflects the continued interest throughout the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries in renewing laws that would regulate clothing.3 Defoe represents the clothing of female servants as an unpredictable threat to England's economic and social structures. In his pamphlets, servants slip between legitimate and unlawful roles; they pass as maids and mistresses, moving from households to brothels and back again. Motivated by a desire to afford economic protection to the wool trade, those who tried to reform the dress of servants were attempting to control three things: the sexuality, consumption, and appearance of working women. The fervent rhetoric of the crisis pitted the interests of female consumers against those of working men, as I will explore in the first section of this article. In so doing, the crisis elided the contributions of working women to the textile industry. I will investigate this erasure of working women in the second section by looking at pamphlets and tracts that offer misleading accounts of the division of labor in the wool industry, and that portray working women, such as spinners, as consumers. Finally, I will show how the pamphleteers reserved their most heated attacks for the social and economic transgressions of female servants. Dominated largely by the interests of the wool industry, these pamphleteers represent a one-sided view of female servants. Unlike the Company of Weavers, which paid writers like Defoe to publish sympathetic accounts of the weavers' plight, no guild spoke on behalf of the collective interests of servants.4 Few of the pamphlets attempt to represent a woman's perspective, let alone that of a servant. By drawing so much attention to the sartorial transgressions of servants, the anti-calico pamphleteers betray their own ends, criticizing working women for their inability to refrain from buying calico, while at the same time confirming the power of servants to express themselves in the marketplace. [End Page 30]

"Callico Madams" and Contested Gender Ideals

Although wool and silk manufacturers had opposed the East India Company's imports of high-quality printed calicoes and silks since the 1690s, widespread depression in the wool industry from 1717 onwards animated the weavers and wool manufacturers to call for a ban on importing or wearing Indian cottons.5 Furthermore, English wool represented an ideal rallying point for calico's critics, as the country's "golden fleece" blended ideals of masculinity with patriotism.6 Histories of wool invented mythological origins for England...