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Reviewed by:
  • Gender, Taste, and Material Culture in Britain and North America, 1700- 1830
  • William Weber
Gender, Taste, and Material Culture in Britain and North America, 1700- 1830. Edited by John Styles and Amanda Vickery (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007. viii plus 358 pp. $65.00).

This is an extremely important book for providing a window into the lively recent thinking about material culture, consumption, and gender in England and North America between 1700 and 1830. It is an attractively produced collection of thirteen contributions, introduced by editors John Styles and Amanda Vickery, that offers a sophisticated array of pieces, illustrating how the study of consumption has developed since Neil McKendrick, John Brewer, and J. H. Plumb published The Birth of a Consumer Society: The Commercialization of Eighteenth-century England in 1982. Aided particularly by Brewer's leadership of conferences at UCLA's William Andrews Clark Library, research on England and North America in the early modern period has been in the forefront of study of consumption, as Peter Stearns suggested in his review article on the subject.1 What began in using wills to figure out how houses were furnished now ranges widely in the reconstruction of spaces and domestic responsibilities influenced by gender, social, class, taste, and regional cultures.

The field of Atlantic studies comes to the fore in this collection, since almost half of its contributions involve North America. The Atlantic framework ends up suggesting more similarities than differences between provincial and capital cities, showing a grid of influence rather than a hierarchy of control. While most of the contributors are historians by training, the interdisciplinarity of approaches blurs the lines between them and contributors in art historians and cultural studies. In fact, historians Bernard L. Herman and Robert Blair St. George go the farthest in theoretical directions, applying the concept of social imaginary to space and habitus. Herman takes the tabletop, featured in William Hogarth's drawings, to bring material objects and conventional sociability together conceptually. He argues shrewdly that Philadelphians designed their houses with a manner of taste "cultivated not through acts of imitation and confrontation, but acts of conversation" (p. 57). St. George stretches conceptual unity farther by bringing passages from novels together with the small, personally-defined room, the "closet": "Material objects and narrative strategies are thus mutually constitutive; there are strings that tie things to texts, and then lash texts back and into [End Page 213] things" (p. 102). Karen Lipsedge looks more closely into treatment of the closet by Joseph Richardson in Clarissa. Such a room served as a refuge, a privately owned" space, it nonetheless was thought also to be shared with others in the daily social life.

Shopping is now seen as a collaborative process during the early nineteenth century. Ellen Hartigan-O'Connor shows how in well-off South Carolina families slaves, servants, or relatives obtained goods by credit in "proxy" for man or wife of the household. She concludes that "[a]cknowledging that discourses of consumption were shared across divisions of race and class does not slight the inequalities that existed in late colonial and early national urban society" (p. 146). Similarly, Claire Walsh defines shopping as social interaction between members of a household and between them and the merchants, done through a learned "art of decision-making." Some readers may be surprised to find that the majority of shops were not workshops into which a counter had been placed. Ann Smart Martin argues that such a set of relationships between merchant and shopper lasted well into the twentieth century in some regions of the United States. She shows women and men sharing these roles in a subtle interaction, allowing "myriad, flexible ways in which women had connections to and experience with the workings of cash economies" (p. 188). Amy H. Henderson illustrates an equalitarian relationship between a husband and wife planning a townhouse in Philadelphia in the 1780s: "women participated to an ever greater degree in building and furnishing their domestic environment and frequently worked alongside men" (p. 267). Amanda Vickery likewise makes a sophisticated argument that, for all the obsession with decorum in fitting a house, taste in wallpaper did not seem to vary...


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