- The Power of "Things" in Eighteenth-Century Societies
Scholars are captivated by the stuff of life, including the stuff of past life. Material culture has proven exceptionally attractive as a focus of study, an academic trend that seems likely to continue into the foreseeable future. In part, this can be explained by the malleability of this topic, making it well fitted for disciplinary and interdisciplinary analyses. The concept of object agency, proposed by anthropologists such as Alfred Gell in his Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory (1998), sparked new questions and admitted new actors to the stage. The monographs and edited collection addressed here reflect some of the vibrancy and fecundity of this field, illuminating new issues and finding new insights as, in Chris Gosden's words, "part of an emerging attempt to take the material world seriously in terms of how it affects human relations" ("What Do Objects Want?," Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 12, no. 3 , 196). Kate Smith demonstrates the shifting representations of "making," using the eighteenth-century English ceramic trade as a case study. As both Smith and Stacey Sloboda demonstrate, ceramics are a potent means for addressing politics, society, and culture in eighteenth-century [End Page 341] Europe. Imported Chinese porcelain recast material and design paradigms in the West, while the production of ceramics in England itself underwent cycles of representation and reinterpretation.
Kate Smith explores how English consumers understood the making of ceramics by local manufacturers, considering what elements were diagnostic of novelty and quality, and who the key players were in these activities. Production has been somewhat overlooked in the headlong preoccupation with consumption and consumer culture. Smith brings the focus back to the making of goods, arguing that representations of production and producers can reveal the chronological development of this industry and what consumers learned to value. She illustrates the ways in which consumer selection and buying were tied to questions of production. Various intermediaries claimed the authority to explain manufacturing processes, including visualized descriptions that filled encyclopedias in this era. But descriptions were often insufficient to distill the mysteries of this craft; seeing the production process in person was expected to inform eighteenth-century consumers in exceptional ways. Smith notes the resulting rise of industrial tourism over the 1700s, as looking acquired a greater cachet among would-be ceramic cognoscenti. Resolute visitors, including such women as the noted diarist Caroline Lybbe Powys, arrived at the factories of preeminent ceramics producers determined to examine the curiosities of production in person and at length. Powys and other elite women and men were often collectors or were simply intrigued by one of the foremost novelties of the age: goods transforming the material culture of food, drink, and decoration. They saw and they marveled at the speed and dexterity of the "hands" manipulating clay and glaze, terming this dazzling display "magic" (Smith, 53). The technology of production bemused and intrigued. But manufacturers wanted control over the interpretation of their trade, and unfettered access to production sites declined later in the century. As Smith notes, factory owners were determined to "manage consumers' perceptions of production" (60). Representations of production were thereafter distanced and contained and visitors to factories experienced a stricter protocol, with retailing ultimately wedded to the factory experience. Retailers claimed their own distinctive capacities to interpret and translate ceramic qualities to interested customers, whether their shops were positioned adjacent to a factory or in an urban arcade.
Smith is exceptionally attentive to the evidence of the makers, the men, women, and children who contributed to the creation of ceramic wares that became the toast of British industry. She listens for the voices of workers and designers and looks for signs of their influence in the production process, using visual...