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  • Administrative Fictions of Domestic Manufacture:Eighteenth-Century Excise Guides

An official publication of the Board of Excise, printed in 1729, offers a series of Instructions to be Observed by the Officers Employ'd in the duties on Paper.1 It begins with a short "Description of the Way and Manner of Making Paper." This explains how the "Rags, Ropes, Cables, &c" are "sorted and wash'd," beaten into "Half-stuff" in large mortars using "four or five Hammers," laid to "mellow" before being beaten again into "fine Stuff," and then soaked in luke-warm water in "a Vessel call'd a Fatt." A sheet of paper is produced by drawing a "Mould" comprising a fine sieve through the mixture. By the "Dexterity and Skill of the Workman," the stuff gathered is laid between two felt sheets. A second layer of stuff is laid on top, with another felt sheet placed above, "and so on 'till they have rais'd a Heap of 7 or 8 Quires, which is call'd a Post … which Post being put into a Press, and press'd very hard together, till the Water is squeez'd out." The paper sheets are "hung in Parcels of 3, 4, 5 Sheets, or more in each Parcel upon Lines (usually call'd Trebles) in the Drying-house." When dry, they are "wetted" for precise sizing, before being pressed once again and dried a second time "in Parcels of 3 or 4 Sheets." The broken sheets are separated out, and the sheets "tied up into Reams or Bundles for Sale, viz. 18 of the good Quires, and 2 of the broken to each Ream."2 [End Page 139]

The manual containing this account of domestic paper manufacture is an example of the fascinating and little-studied body of texts on which this essay focuses: the instruction booklets issued by the eighteenth-century Board of Excise to its officers in the field, known colloquially as "gaugers." These guides describe the techniques of scrutiny, measurement, and detection to be adopted when measuring (or "gauging") the goods produced in a range of manufacturing contexts across the country. The brief account of paper making detailed above is typical: a text issued to excise districts across the country assumes a single consistent "way and manner" of manufacture. It asserts a set of production steps and technical terms presented as universal: the "Mould" used to skim the "Stuff;" the pile of "Quires," which "is call'd a Post;" the drying lines, "usually call'd Trebles;" the "Reams" into which the good and broken sheets are packaged for sale according to a ratio of one broken sheet for every nine good. These terms are, in turn, deployed in the record-keeping practices that the gaugers are required to observe. Below the level of these terms, the precise techniques associated with the "Dexterity and Skill" of the artisan are invisible.

In this essay, I argue that the textual abstraction of artisanal practices that we can see at work in the excise manuals establishes an administrative fiction of a consistent national approach to the manufacture of each excised commodity: an inevitable, even sought-after, consequence of the emerging state regulation of manufacture. These descriptions function as an enabling text for the state's collection of a tax. Indeed, the implication of the excise manuals in the state's technologies of surveillance allows us to probe further the relationship between theoretical and practical knowledge, especially where the process of description might best be understood as enacting the state's desire to lay claim to those skills-based technologies. By employing the abstraction of descriptive text to find a level at which a single set of national production processes can be theorized, the guides effectively invoke a field of manufacturing uniformity. Accordingly, they offer a case study of the ascendance of the national over the local, of the universal over the particular, of the movement from observation and description, to surveillance and prescription. Reading the guides affords the opportunity to consider how the state managed a key interface with national manufacture—the excise—through the medium of text. To this end, I argue that the guides exhibit an emergent concern for ensuring product quality, effectively setting out a series of national standards for production across a range of industries.

The National Measurement of Local Production

In recent decades, a renewed interest in the history and imposition of taxation in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries has focused attention [End Page 140] on revenue as a site of encounter between the state, manufacturers, and consumers. John Brewer in The Sinews of Power (1989) described the emergence of a "fiscal-military state" in the century following 1688, in which the expansion of British power was connected with its ability to raise taxes.3 Subsequent studies have widened Brewer's approach, demonstrating how the expansion of taxation is revealing of wider social and cultural renewal in Britain in this period. The excise in particular is one of the historical geographies traced by Miles Ogborn in Spaces of Modernity (1998), through which the temporal and spatial transformations that reshaped eighteenth-century London can be located, evidenced, and particularized.4 In producing a complex administrative system comprising a series of "planned, rationally ordered, hierarchical, routinized and scrutinized roles, practices and spaces," Ogborn argues, the excise reflects the modernity of the eighteenth-century state. Recent work by William Ashworth has furthered our understanding of the relationship between the state and national manufacture when read through the taxation of goods, particularly the increasing tendency for manufacture to be policed and systematized.5 The excise, Ashworth has shown, was both the government's chief source of manufacturing knowledge and a framework within which domestic production could be regulated, standardized, and controlled.6 The excise guides themselves—although they feature in Ogborn's and, more significantly, in Ashworth's studies—have received little extended consideration in their own right as a genre of trade writing.

An excise is an "inland duty" laid on goods at the point of production and payable by the manufacturer. It can broadly be contrasted with a customs duty levied on articles of foreign manufacture at a British port, and with a sales tax payable by the purchaser at the point of sale. Excise has its roots in the fiscal reforms of the Commonwealth and Protectorate Governments of the 1650s, though Charles I also experimented with excise at the outbreak of the Civil War, and was confirmed at the Restoration through the Statute of Tenures of 1660.7 Early excises were raised on alcoholic drinks; such charges, together with tobacco and vehicle fuel, are perhaps the most familiar instances of excise charges for twenty-first century consumers. Under innovations of the 1720s and 1730s, the scaffolding of the excise system was also instrumented to survey the movement through the economy of certain imported goods not technically produced in Britain, such as tea, coffee, and chocolate.8 Of particular interest for this essay is the rapid extension of excise in Britain across the early-eighteenth century to cover wrought items of local manufacture in contexts such as candle-, glass- and soap-making, hide tanning, the production of paper, the printing of fabrics such as calico, the preparation of starch, and, from 1784, brick manufacture.9 [End Page 141]

Excise was typically levied by a standard charge (reckoned by unit or by weight) set through legislation enacted in the national Parliament, rather than an ad valorem rate based on a product's market value (typically the basis of a sales tax). This, together with practices of manufacture that spread across the urban and rural communities of eighteenth-century Britain, meant that the assessment of excise was dependent not only on the precise measurement of production but also on the even application of such standards across the country. Confidence in the equitable application of the system was contingent on the excise measurements being seen to be applied with uniformity, certainty, and regularity, according to a set of commonly-agreed approaches, with broadly fixed severity. The accurate assessment of excise charges depended upon a detailed and ongoing surveillance of the excised industries by a large workforce of gaugers each charged with the oversight of a specified geographical area, the monitoring and recording of the activities of its producers, and the measurement of the goods produced. The excise system thus demanded a consistent national monitoring of manufacturing processes, processes that were themselves inconsistent and subject to significant local variation. Gaugers were distributed across the country within excise regions known as "Collections," fifty-three in total by 1770, each of which was presided over by a "Collector."10 Each collection was sub-divided into smaller units called "Divisions," the responsibility of a "Supervisor."11 A supervisor had oversight of a team of excise officers (totaling over 2,700 by 1770), each observing local manufacture across all excised goods in a single "ride" (although occasionally a dedicated ride might be established to cover a single dominant industry in a specified division).12 In London, the scale of production required a different approach to excise organization; by 1763, 684 officers were regulated by a team of "Surveyors."13 Urban officers, whose area of responsibility was defined as a "walk," were more likely to specialize in the charging of a particular commodity (or set of commodities).

Such was the extension of the excise that, by the early decades of the eighteenth century, large provinces of British manufacture were under the unrelenting surveillance of a "standing army" of excise officers, each of whom was charged under oath to ensure the fair application of national law.14 The situation clearly presented the Excise Board with a number of challenges: organizational, logistical, and practical. Among those that must have seemed most insurmountable were those which arose, on the one hand, from the vast scale of the task; and, on the other hand, from the fundamental disconnection between the almost infinite diversity of local and regional practice in relation to both the processes and the products of manufacture. A further challenge was the national legislative framework built on the assumption of consistency. Among these complications, three [End Page 142] are pivotal. The first relates to the practicalities of surveillance: outside of London, a single excise officer might be responsible for surveying a number of different industries. It would be a rare individual who would have the diverse range of experiential knowledge to track multiple overlapping manufacturing processes in the detail required. The second practical problem follows from the first: the intimate knowledge of the manufacturing processes was owned primarily by the producers themselves, who thus enjoyed a superiority of knowledge over the officers charged with their surveillance. The third, and perhaps the most intractable, of the problems arose from the fact that techniques of manufacture within the excised industries varied between regions and between individual producers in a way entirely non-commensurate with the even application of a national law. To what extent were excise officers responsible for enforcing some kind of eighteenth-century "British standard" for production that would allow the even and consistent levying of the nationally-defined excise charge?

Establishing a Fiction of National Manufacturing Habits

The Excise Board sought to address these problems by issuing its officers detailed industry-specific instruction booklets. These were effectively handbooks providing detailed guidance on the required approaches for measuring and charging, and on the routines that manufacturers were expected to observe, thus enacting in practical terms the governing text of the excise laws. As a result, a new set of guides was required every time the laws were amended or the contexts of revenue collection changed. I have identified 164 examples covering the period until 1800 in archives across Britain and North America. Next to nothing is known about their authorship: neither the guides themselves nor the detailed minutes of the Excise Board provide any clarity, although there would have been no shortage of expertise available to the Board. In terms of publication, the name Jacob Tonson appears regularly on the title pages of guides issued in the 1720s and 1730s, suggesting that the firm had a government printing contract with the Excise.15 With two or three exceptions, however, examples from other periods have no named printer.

The excise guides range in length from pamphlets of no more than twelve pages to longer booklets of around forty to sixty, typically in octavo or long duodecimo. In the archives in which they are preserved, these individual booklets—occasionally bearing the annotations of the officers to whom they were issued—have typically been re-bound within hard covers. Given the importance accorded these Instructions, conscientious gaugers occasionally may have opted to afford them a similar durability. It seems likely, however, [End Page 143] that many would have resembled a single example in the National Archives preserved in its original form, loosely sewed within dog-eared parchment covers (a manuscript note reads "Receiv'd these Orders for Instructions Jan:y 23:d 1729/30 by me W:m Woodward").16 Nearly two-thirds of the publications in the project archive specify that they are to be used in the assessment of manufacture in either "the Country" (sixty examples), or "London" (thirty-five).17 Just over sixty direct the management of the excise on alcoholic drinks. Eighty-one regulate the production of wrought items that are the particular interest of this essay, dating from across the century (30 percent from before 1750, 70 percent from after); as a result, it is often possible to track the development across the century of the frameworks of surveillance within which particular items of manufacture were enclosed.

The first guide associated with the manufacture of starch, for example, published in 1713 and entitled, according to a semi-regular formula, Instructions to be Observed by the Officers Employ'd in the Charging the Duty on Starch, is typical in providing details concerning the frequency of visits to manufacturers and the stages of manufacture at which measurements should be taken (in the vats—or "fats"—during fermentation; when transferred into the "sower water tubs;" when strained through the "Lawn Sieve" into the "Green Starch-tubs;" when poured into box-frames to harden; when nearly dry).18 It contains pages of example ledgers and "dimension books" that gaugers are to use as models for their record-keeping and a preface containing a short "Account of the Manner of Making Starch."19 Subsequent publications (1734, 1769, and 1778) provide increasing levels of detail. They include information about waste products, known as "slimes" and "scrapings," which makers are able to re-use, alternative manufacturing processes such as "weather drying," and a limited acknowledgement of regional variation. Later guides are more prescriptive in terms of the timings of visits: "once at least every Day when there is any Steeping in the Fats," the 1734 guide advises, "but when there are green or white Waters depending, not less than twice or thrice a Day and oftener … while they are boxing or setting the Stove, and twice a Day whilst the Stove is drying."20 The 1778 guide introduces an elaborate system by which makers are required to give notice of their movement through these phases of manufacture. The security of the gauging is ensured by the multiple accounts taken of quantities at the varying stages of manufacture, which, the guides insist, relate mathematically through various rules of thumb. The guides also become more detailed concerning the "sharp practices" designed to fool excise officers: tubs of fermenting starch covered with a layer of worthless slimes; starch-makers quickly "breaking out Boxes, and filling them again between your Surveys, and pretend[ing] that they are the same you took [End Page 144] account of before."21 The 1778 guide recommends a series of techniques by which officers can recognize such frauds. Sudden and unexpected return visits can be an effective way to catch manufacturers in the act of removing and refilling box-frames. The fashioning of a "small spatula of brass, about an inch broad, and an inch and a half long, affixed or screwed on, and a little turned up" can expose good quality starch lurking under a layer of slimes.22 Unwrapping some of the dried bricks of starch can reveal whether they have been allowed sufficient time to dry thoroughly.23

It is the richness of the detail that these guides offer about the terminology, organization, and processes of eighteenth-century manufacture, not to mention the inventiveness of producers in attempting to ameliorate the imposition of the excise, that makes them a remarkable archive of primary materials. For those interested in researching techniques of production in the period, they offer insights into contexts of making where artisanal modes of manufacture were organized in a largely pre-mechanized environment and in which the harbingers of mass production, such as the division of labor, remained the exception rather than the rule.24 Moreover, their deliberate attitude of non-specialist instruction to the broad contours of production in a given industry makes them, perhaps uniquely, accessible to scholars. But the detail and texture of manufacture preserved in the manuals is also a distortion of real life, advancing a fiction of national manufacturing habits that is a consequence of the role that the guides play as a tool of mediation between the revenue-raising activities of the state and wider civil society.25 Indeed, we might relate the production of the guides to James Scott's observation, in Seeing Like a State, that "state simplifications are always far more static and schematic than the actual social phenomena they presume to typify."26 The manufacturing processes which excise officers survey have their roots in artisanal traditions of making: a vast body of non-textual knowledge passed down by word-of-mouth and the immediacy of "living" the trade. The excise guides imagine eighteenth-century manufacture as a broadly consistent field by smoothing over the detail of the lived experience of these trades. The guides thus extrapolate across the fields of production the assumption of uniformity upon which the mathematical models underpinning the science of gauging itself depends: techniques which assume the absolute invariability of a cask, a barrel, a container, a frame.27 In doing so, the state can present a narrative which avers a broad uniformity of production methods across the nation. Such state mapping exercises, of course, inevitably produce the simplified terrain that they claim to observe; as Scott has argued, society has been "thoroughly … refashioned by state maps of legibility."28 Like Ogborn, however, who notes that the guides accordingly play a part in constructing the excise as an "imaginary geography," I find their fictionality compelling. [End Page 145] Through the process of abstraction and rationalization, the guides make the very idea of a national excise imaginable.29

The excise manuals mediate between the excise legislation and the everyday reality of manufacture and produce the surveillance mechanisms on which the excise depends. They directed the conduct of gaugers in the field, and equipped them with sufficient information to occupy a role that might best be described as "knowledgeable outsider." In terms of their relationship with the industries they describe, the guides thus lie on the interface between theory and practice, between an ambitious and overarching national policy and the immediate contexts of local production. Whilst they can be understood as a cold abstraction produced by a distant and uncaring eighteenth-century state, they might arguably be regarded more accurately as the attempt of a nascent civil service to make workable the legislation of a national government through the production of an imaginary bureaucratic or administrative space.30 Moreover, as a means by which the Board of Excise could evidence national consistency and objectivity in the assessment of the inland duties, the guides can be considered alongside the provisions governing the training of the officers themselves, the pains taken in allocating personnel to divisions where they had no private connection, and the regular rotation of officers between collections.31

The detailed and time-consuming practices of observation that the printed Instructions delineate are directed towards the gaugers' maintenance of manuscript ledgers in which production is tracked through a complex system of numbers and symbols. Each guide typically ends with pages containing examples of these required forms of book-keeping, usually built around the supposed manufacturing businesses of imaginary makers of goods. These fictional creations, reminiscent of the development of "user personas" in contemporary marketing and user-experience design, are particularly striking given the fanciful world of excise symmetry that the guides evoke. The ledgers might include "dimension books" (recording the sizes of the containers in which goods are made at a given production site), and complex tabulations of the manufacturing processes observed. So abstruse can these models be that many excise manuals include additional pages explaining the example data that they contain. In practice, we cannot be certain how strictly excise officers in Collections around the country followed the models offered in the guides, although the minutes of the Excise Board regularly evidence complaints received from Supervisors about the sloppy book-keeping of particular gaugers. An indicative example concerns William Taylor (fourth ride of the Winchester Division, Hampshire Collection), held responsible for a number of "irregularitys and Blunders" in his books, including using nonstandard notation; failing to record the cleansing of the apparatus; an instance [End Page 146] where "neither the Round nor … time is enterd;" and omitting to gauge the capacity of the "utensils."32 Such records suggest that the specimens of record-keeping found in these appendices accurately reflect the importance placed on systemic, detailed, and schematized forms of record keeping.

The recommendation for a glass ledger contained in the guide for 1778 offers a typical case (fig. 1).33 It provides a model for recording the production of flint glass (a fine clear glass perfected in England in the late seventeenth century, the forerunner for what is now known as "lead crystal"), and "bottle glass" (a tougher glass from which bottles were made). The entries cover around a week of manufacture at a fictional Liverpool glassmaking business, Samuel Ogden and Co. In general, each row of the table corresponds to a single visit, expressed by a short-hand code used in the first column: "15 m 11" refers to 15 July at eleven in the morning, "18 e 10" to 18 July at ten in the evening (a time notation encountered throughout the excise guides). The second column contains the notices that the glassmaker has given to the excise officer concerning the commencement of a new making of glass through the "charging" of his pots with raw materials. To the right, sets of columns refer to the five numbered glass-making vessels or "pots," and the four annealing ovens (all measured in advance, and corresponding to entries in the gauger's "dimension book"). The physical spaces of the imagined glasshouse, its tools and apparatus, are effectively re-mapped according to the narrative of manufacture, producing in turn a generic schematic arrangement for the recording of glass-making wherever it might be practiced. To re-state this more broadly: the framework of the table visualizes the standardization of space-use relationships in places of manufacture that the excise guides govern (a matter considered in greater depth in the next section of this essay). The data entered in the columns—comprising a strange mixture of symbol, number, and abbreviation that would be anathema to modern computer-based data curation with its insistence on tightly-defined data types—represents the physical activity of those spaces.

What follows is a narration of the fictional glass making that the data represent. The model production record begins with a process of manufacture nearing completion: to this end, we can see on the right-hand side that on 14 July a certain quantity of flint glass and bottle glass is excised. The next row, concerning the inspection of 15 m 6, indicates the start of the next batch, for which the glassmaker had given notice at noon on 14 July; the row of "F"s denotes that pots one, two, and three are to be used to produce flint glass. The gauger finds these vessels "charging" (the raw materials being prepared and placed in the pots), and pots four and five empty (represented by the "O"). Annealing oven one is full (with the last of the earlier batch), whereas ovens two, three, and four stand empty. At 15 m 11, little has changed [End Page 147]

Figure 1. Recommended form for a glass ledger, from Instructions to be Observed by the Officers concerned in ascertaining the Duties on Glass in the Country (London, 1762), 34–35 (The National Archives - CUST 142/10).
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Figure 1.

Recommended form for a glass ledger, from Instructions to be Observed by the Officers concerned in ascertaining the Duties on Glass in the Country (London, 1762), 34–35 (The National Archives - CUST 142/10).

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(although oven one is in the process of being emptied). The "B"s in the next row declare that pots four and five are to be used to produce bottle glass (for which notice was given at 15 m 6). During two evening inspections (15 e 6 and 15 e 9) all five pots are being "charged" with glass materials; and, by the following morning, the gauger notes that all five are now "melting" ("M"). In the evening, however, the entry acknowledges an accident during this early stage of manufacture: pot two has broken in the intense heat ("Br"), the observation in the central column asserting that all the "metal" (the technical term for the molten glass) has been lost. The recognition of this accident accounts for a weight of raw materials which will not materialize in the manufactured glass items, and which might otherwise have been regarded with suspicion by the excise officer or the division supervisor. Pot two is out-of-commission for the rest of the day, although the dimensions of a replacement are noted later that evening. Meanwhile, in a process beginning at 16 e 11, the molten bottle glass in pots four and five is "drawn down" in order to manufacture glass items. Pot four is two-thirds full at 17 m 5, reducing to three-eighths at 17 m 8 (though this is corrected to one quarter in the remarks column). Ovens one and three are filled with wrought products being "annealed," a process by which hot glass items are slowly cooled. As the flint glass in pots one and three is drawn down over the next day or two, we see the commencement of new phases of glass manufacture.

The system that we can see in operation here may be necessarily unique to the particular industry which is being surveyed, but equivalents of this approach are to be found across all forms of excised manufacture: quantities of starch logged at each stage of fermentation and drying; the condition of each vat and press in a paper mill noted; the hides taken out of the "wooze" at the tannery categorized and measured; calico pieces counted at the beginning and end of the fabric printing process, including the "Number of Tables and Machines at Work."34 The surveillance to which manufacturers are required to submit is not restricted to weighing or counting the wrought goods—the soap, or the glass items, or the candles—but rather to measuring, and thereby validating, each step of the manufacture. As a result, these ledgers represent a gauging not just of product but also of process. If the printed text of the guides establishes a one-size-fits-all framework within which the activities of both the producers and the excise officers are contained, the manuscript ledgers that they describe provide the models by which local businesses along the specific "ride" or "walk" can be accommodated.

Discipline, Process, and the Regulation of Quality

The encounter between state and manufacturer that is staged through the excise manuals is not simply to be understood as a codification of a hitherto [End Page 149] unwritten set of production practices; such a systematization is only one of a number of transformations effected through the disciplinary matrix of these texts. The Excise Board's Instructions gesture towards—and in places claim to enact—complementary processes of condensing, regularizing, and promoting statutory discipline. These developments point towards national production standards, a nascent form of industry regulation, and, even though glimpsed only fleetingly, what we might now describe as concerns for consumer protection. The final section of this essay concentrates on the way in which the excise manuals acknowledge and, perhaps, produce a system of excise monitoring and collection that manages this interface between the state and civil society. In particular, it considers the way in which guides from across the spectrum of excised goods direct the officers' attention to five core characteristics of production: the use of space; the imposition of time discipline; the recognition of method; the measurement of process; and, the validation of the product.

The control that the excise regulations impose on the use of time and space are familiar aspects of modernity as framed by E. P. Thompson, Michel Foucault, and those who have followed them.35 This is particularly evident in the urban context, as Ogborn has demonstrated.36 As the agents—though also the products—of that system, it is unsurprising to find the gaugers' guides both enforcing these processes of methodization (in the aspects of manufacture that officers were required to observe) and generating them (by establishing detailed patterns of spatial and temporal behaviors to which the gaugers themselves were required to conform). Across all excised commodities, producers were required to make statutory declarations concerning the use of spaces within their premises for specific phases of making. Tanners, for example, were obliged to state the places "which shall be made use of for the Tanning, Tawing, or dressing Hides or Skins."37 The enforcement of these approved space-use relationships was a key responsibility of the excise officer. Gaugers are advised regularly to confirm that the "entered places" are being used for their stated purpose, and that other "undeclared" spaces are not being appropriated. The guides thus direct the process by which a state-sanctioned model for the organization of space in particular manufacturing contexts is imposed. A key feature of the guides is their fondness for the technical terms relating to the sites of manufacture: "the Tan-House, Tan-yard, Work-House, Drying Place;"38 "Soap-houses" and "soap-boilers;"39 "the Tallow Chandlers;"40 "the [Paper] Mill, Sorting-houses, and Ware-houses;"41 and, "Glass houses."42 To extend Ogborn's mapping metaphor, the manuals effectively label the architecture of British manufacture, establishing a chart by which excised production becomes legible to those charged with its taxation. [End Page 150]

The enforcement of time discipline involved some level of cooperation between officer and producer. The sample glass ledger examined above gives a clear sense of the practical challenge facing a gauger enforcing these regulations: keeping track of overlapping phases of production, recording the receipt of notices from manufacturers, observing these processes across multiple geographical sites. A 1712 guide requires gaugers to visit soap boilers "every six Hours, though silent; when at Work, your Surveys must be more frequent."43 They must acquaint themselves with the manufacturing rhythms of each producer so that they can be on-hand when newly manufactured soap is poured from the copper vessels in which it is boiled into large casks or frames.44 This expectation is made manageable through the introduction of a system by which boilers are required to provide notice of their intention to make soap. This is first acknowledged in the 1725 guide for the London area and echoed in the 1732 guide for country collections: "No Maker of Sope is to begin to Make or Work upon any Making of Sope … without giving to the Officers of the Division … Notice in Writing of the particular Time and Hour when such Making is intended to be begun, 24 Hours before the beginning every such Making."45 Expressing a desire that officers "may be as little troublesome to the Soap-makers as possible," manuals advise that "where the House is Silent, and the Soap-maker doth agree," the number of surveys may be reduced to "one per day by dropping the visit as would otherwise fall out to be made between one and five the Morning."46 This represents some degree of recognition of the relationships a gauger might establish among manufacturers. The movement towards surveillance prompted through the provision of notices, whilst assisting officers in making efficient use of their time, also maintains some notion of the makers' freedom to pursue programs of manufacture according to schedules which they (rather than the excise officers) determine. The guides thus facilitate a system which is to some extent based on trust. The temporal rhythms of the soap-house, the chandlery, and the glass-maker—temporal rhythms which in many cases remain closely tied to the time-patterns of domestic life occurring within the same premises—are thus made visible to the state through an awkward compromise.

The tendency of the guides to maneuver manufacturers into state-approved temporal and spatial frameworks extends to a flattening-out of localized distinctions in terms of the processes of production. The guides typically begin with a short "Account" offering gaugers an outline defining the stages of manufacture of the commodity in question. Occasionally, these statements accept that there might be regional variations in practice. Gaugers surveying the production of starch are offered a description of the staged fermentation of the meal (typically the ground, edible part of a grain), and an approach to [End Page 151] observation based on that process. There is nevertheless a somewhat grudging acknowledgement from guides in the mid-century onwards that "where they make Starch from Bran [the husk of the grain] you are, according to the best of your Judgement, to compute how many Pounds of Starch a Bushel of such Bran or Meal will produce."47 Glossaries appended to the guides for the excise levied on hides typically note that "Butts" ("made from the largest Ox-Hide, Bull, Steer, or Cow, and … Tann'd whole") and "Backs" (hides cut down the back into two "sides") are "chiefly to be found in London, and about 60 Miles round the same," while "Clout-leather" (smaller pieces of hide cured in "Horse-Dung") is found "more particularly in Taunton, Exeter, Tiverton, and Cornwall Collections."48 Little practical detail is offered about the implications of these differences on manufacturing processes, however, or on the specific programs of observation that they may require.

Perhaps most striking to a modern reader of the excise manuals are the surveillance frameworks within which the very processes of production are monitored. The regime set in place for observing the printing of fabric cloth is germane here. In their visits to these print-houses, officers were required to be in possession of a frame, the dimensions of which corresponded to the standard fabric size defined in statute. Into this frame was affixed a single "identifying letter," changed periodically (and at random) under the instruction of the district Supervisor. On arrival, officers were enjoined to observe the number of "tables" in use, and the types of fabric being printed upon them. The guide then stipulates that they were to use their frames "fairly to imprint the Length upon each Piece of Callicoe, and also the Breadth, if over or under the Statute, on the End thereof." Whilst it is unclear what "imprinting" means in this context, it would appear that the fabrics were fixed within the frames for the purposes of measurement, and that this process transferred onto the cloth, either through stamping or embossing, the unique combination of "identifying letter" and "progressive [i.e. sequential] number."49 This allowed the tracking of the onward movement of this piece of fabric through the printing house and formed the basis of the record maintained in the complex ledgers through which gaugers recorded and encoded the business of the fabric printer.50

As we have seen, several excises required the keeping of a "Dimension Book," a record of the exact proportions of the apparatus employed at a particular site. A candle manufacturer was required to give notice offering a true account "of the number of rods of which the making is intended to consist … or if for moulds, it must specify the exact number, and size of the moulds."51 Similarly, at the glass-maker's, gaugers measured the empty pots and numbered them; the annealing ovens were also "to be numbered and surveyed in the like Manner."52 Most extreme is a new regime covering [End Page 152] the making of soap, first mentioned in a guide of 1770: "every maker of hard Sope is to provide at his own expence, sufficient wooden covers to every copper, pan, or other utensil, wherein he shall boil, or make any hard Sope, and the locks, keys, and all other necessary fastenings, for securing the coppers, pans, half-boil tubs, or other utensils."53 The gaugers were the custodians of the keys, thus involving them materially in the manufacturing process.54 This system is extended even further in the 1797 guide, in which not only are there to be lockable covers on the copper boilers but also "a door securely fixed to every furnace and ash-hole … [with] proper locks and fastenings."55

The excise guides directed the everyday routines of manufacturers and excise officers, constructing a detailed surveillance regime governing the organization of workplaces, the observance of manufacturing methods, and adherence to a set of production processes. This regime ultimately enabled the one assessment that was critical to the state: the measurement of product quantity necessary in order to levy a tax. What is remarkable about the excise establishment as it is described within the gaugers' manuals, however, is the apparent slippage from a dispassionate assessment of product quantity to a concern for quality.56 Defects in the standard of goods produced, the Instructions suggests, can be the hallmarks of attempts to defraud the excise (or, in the language of the guides, to engage in "sharp practices"). A block of starch which "shall not crackle, on being strongly pressed with your fingers, nor feel crisp" might not have been dried for the expected two days; through its deviation from the expected timelines, this is possibly indicative of an attempt to pass a cycle of making below the radar of the excise officer.57 Inconsistent grading of the sheets produced at a paper-mill could relate to attempts to pass paper produced for printing (which attracts a higher rate of excise) as paper intended for other uses.58 On occasion, the attending officer is required to make an apparently drastic intervention: "When you find a Making to weigh off, wherein several of the Candles are crack'd and spoil'd in making, and the Chandler offers to break and deface the same, you are in that Case to weigh the sound, and crack'd Candles separately … and to break, and utterly deface such crack'd and spoil'd Candles, that no part of them be left in a Condition to be burn'd."59

There is a clear legitimacy for this somewhat brutal treatment in terms of the security of the duty. Candlemakers would want to re-use the tallow or wax in the next making; they would understandably neither wish to pay excise on candles they could not sell nor pay excise twice on the same raw materials. Equally, the excise officer needed to be certain that, having made an allowance for cracked candles, the chandler could not then go ahead and sell them effectively duty free. A similar provision regulated the re-use of [End Page 153] sub-standard soap; but from 1732 onwards, gaugers are told more explicitly to be attentive to the quality of soap products, particularly in terms of the critical use of alkali "lyes" in the manufacturing process:60

If sope be weak, it will have a faint Smell … and it will eitherhave no Grain, or what is small and pale, and if squeez'd betweenthe Fingers, will feel greasy; it will be soft, because not boil'dto a real Body, and dull and not smooth, because not purify'dwith the second Lyes.

If strong, it will be very thick … and have a Grain like a Pease,and if squeez'd as above, will shine and scale if bended, and suchSope being put in to the Frame, and no Lyes put to it afterwards,will sting the Tongue if touch'd with it.61

Again, what seems to be particularly at stake here are shortcuts in the process of making which may indicate surreptitious manufacture; yet, concern for the "strength" of the soap, its oiliness, and (most seriously perhaps) its irritancy, seem to have the reasonable expectations of the consumer in mind. One might surmise that these concerns for product quality are borne, at least in part, from anxieties that the incidence of the excise leads manufacturers to seek ways to reduce the basic per-item cost price, either by finding short-cuts in the production process or by reducing the relative quantities of the more expensive constituent materials. As Ashworth observes, such a decline in standards would also have a long-term impact on domestic manufacture and, in turn, the excise by making it difficult to compete with the higher quality products available from abroad.62 Similar considerations appear to be at play in the provisions concerning printers of fabric. Here, gaugers are required to "discern when they print with false Colours." Again, we might assume that there is both an immediate revenue issue at stake (evidence of production shortcuts which might indicate clandestine production) and a future concern for revenue decline (as a consequence of the availability of higher quality foreign items). "When you find any of the Properties of false Colours," remarkably by employing a taste-test to find if they are "acid" (the hallmark of a cheap pigment) or "smooth and sweetish" (the indicator of "the True"), "you must tell your Surveyor, that the best Measures may be concerted for the Security of the Duty."63 In terms of a broader concern for quality, then, it seems clear that the Excise Board instrumented the infrastructure of the Excise as a means of enforcing a quasi-national standard. As a consequence, the excise officer became folded into a regime of "quality control," with the gauger standing not only in the role of "measurer" but also "assessor." Through this slippage, the levying of the excise (and the application, for goods such as hides and paper, of the official stamp of excise payment) [End Page 154] also became the passing of a basic national quality standard, a sign that the wrought items could now pass from their manufacture into their retail phase with an endorsement that warranted not only their legal propriety but also, in some respects, an affirmation of their conformity to reasonable notions of quality.64


The gaugers' guides, together forming a tightly defined genre of trade literature emerging from the executive authority of the state, are most straightforwardly understood as playing a critical role in the hegemony of the eighteenth-century taxation system. They directed the surveillance regime that excise officers were to maintain on their rides and walks whilst they simultaneously defined the relationships between the gaugers and their supervisors by which the excise regulated itself. The Excise Board established in its guides domestic models of manufacture that could be regulated by national policy, creating a fictional world of making in which the contexts, procedures, materials, methods, apparatus and products of national manufacture could be accommodated within a consistent framework. Gaugers in Collections as far afield as Cornwall, Canterbury, and Cumberland were required by their Instructions to locate local manufacturing processes within these rational standard models, and—in the requirement to map those practices onto the required schematics of journals, books, and ledgers—became complicit in the creation of that bureaucratic imaginary. The guides are thus strongly suggestive of the way in which manufacture was drawn into disciplinary and regulatory frameworks that foreshadow modern notions of industry regulation and the legislative enforcement of a common set of national production standards. As enabling texts, however, by which public servants attempted to interpret and enact an ambitious state policy, the manuals also may be understood more generously as negotiating a series of contexts for the encounter between local manufacturers and the agents of the state, offering practical advice for the real-world implementation of the excise.

Matthew Mauger

Matthew Mauger is senior lecturer in English at Queen Mary University of London. His recent publications include "'A Most Exquisite Dilemma:' Conscience, Dissent, and the Limits of Civic Authority in London's Sheriffs Case," London Journal 37 (2012) and "'Observe how parts with parts unite / In one harmonious rule of right:' William Blackstone's Verses on the Laws of England," Law and Humanities 6 (2012). He is the editor of Tea, Commerce and the East India Company, volume three of Tea and the Tea-Table in Eighteenth-Century England, 4 vols. (2010). He has co-edited with Richard Coulton and Christopher Reid, Stealing Books in Eighteenth-Century London (2016) and with Richard Coulton and Markman Ellis, Empire of Tea: The Asian Leaf that Conquered the World (2015).


1. Instructions to be Observed by the Officers employ'd in the Duties on Paper (London, 1729).

2. Instructions … Paper (1729), 5–8.

3. John Brewer, The Sinews of Power: War, Money and the English State, 1688–1783 (London: Unwin, 1989), 95–114.

4. Miles Ogborn, Spaces of Modernity: London's Geographies, 1680–1780 (New York: Guildford, 1998), 163–85.

5. William Ashworth, Customs and Excise: Trade, Production, and Consumption in England 1640–1845 (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2003).

6. Ashworth, The Industrial Revolution: The State, Knowledge and Global Trade (London: Bloomsbury, 2017), 119–43.

7. For the emergence of excise taxation during the Interregnum, see D'Maris Coffman, Excise Taxation and the Origins of Public Debt (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2013), 1–20; Ashworth, Customs and Excise, 15–20; Ogborn, Spaces of Modernity, 163–85; Brewer, Sinews of Power, 95–114; J. V. Beckett, "Land Tax or Excise: The Levying of Taxation in Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century England," English Historical Review 100 (1985): 285–308.

8. 1723, 10 Geo. 1, c. 10. These developments were part of Robert Walpole's vision of London as constituting a free-trade zone, customs charges being replaced with inland duties raised when goods passed into British retail; see Paul Langford, The Excise Crisis: Society and Politics in the Age of Walpole (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), 31–33; Peter Linebaugh, The London Hanged: Crime and Civil Society in the Eighteenth Century, 2nd ed. (London: Verso, 2006), 178; Raymond Turner, "The Excise Scheme of 1733," The English Historical Review 42 (1927): 34–57. This system was extended to tobacco through an Act of 1789 (1789, 29 Geo. 3, c. 68); see Kenneth Morgan, Bristol and the Atlantic Trade in the Eighteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1993), 178–81.

9. See Brewer, "The English State and Fiscal Appropriation, 1688–1789," Politics & Society 16 (1988): 335–85, 349–54. The broadening of the excise was part of a more general move from direct to indirect forms of taxation in this period; see Patrick K. O'Brien, "The Political Economy of British Taxation, 1660–1815," Economic History Review, 2nd ser., 1 (1988): 1–32. For the introduction of excises in this period, see Linebaugh, The London Hanged, 178; Beckett, "Land Tax or Excise?" 303. For the brick excise, see Robin Lucas, "The Tax on Bricks and Tiles, 1784–1850," Construction History 13 (1997): 29–55.

10. See Brewer, "The English State," 354–55; Sinews of Power, 103.

11. For the relationship between supervisors and gaugers, see Ashworth, Customs and Excise, 125–28.

12. See Brewer, "The English State," 355; Sinews of Power, 103. Brewer's figures are based on Excise records held at the National Archives. For details concerning the establishment of "spatial administration" of excise in 1683, see Ogborn, 170–72; Ashworth, Customs and Excise, 119–20.

13. Brewer, Sinews of Power, 105; Ogborn, 194.

14. Quoted in Ogborn, 167.

15. For the role of printers in producing stationery for government revenue collection, see James Raven, Publishing Business in Eighteenth-Century England (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2014), 94–96.

16. Instructions for the Gagers of the Excise in the Country (London: Jacob Tonson, 1725). Reference here is to the only known copy of this text (CUST 142/3, National Archives, London).

17. In 1778, the guides for the country collections were aggregated and republished in large volumes, on higher quality paper, with continuous pagination. Guides for the London excise received a similar treatment in 1781. These may essentially have been reference editions produced for Collection offices.

18. Instructions to be observed by the Officers employ'd in the Charging the Duty on Starch (London, 1713), 5–9.

19. Instructions … Starch (1713), 3–4.

20. Instructions for Officers who survey Starch-makers in the Country (London: J. Tonson, 1734), 10–11.

21. Instructions … Starch-makers (1734), 13–14.

22. Instructions for Officers who survey Starch-makers in the Country (London, 1778), 263.

23. Instructions … Starch-makers (1778), 267.

24. For the advent of these new forms of labor organization, see Maxine Berg, "Political economy and the principles of manufacture 1700–1800," in Manufacture in Town and Country before the Factory, ed. Maxine Berg, Pat Hudson, and Michael Sonenscher (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1983), 33–58 and (in the same collection) Pat Hudson, "From manor to mill: the West Riding in transition," 124–44.

25. In recent work, Ashworth has argued that the excise was a site of negotiation and brokerage between the British state and national manufacture; see Ashworth, "Quality and the Roots of Manufacturing 'Expertise' in Eighteenth-Century Britain," Osiris 25 (2010): 231–54. These are contexts developed more extensively in The Industrial Revolution, 119–44.

26. James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition have Failed (New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press, 1998), 46.

27. See Ogborn, 173–78, 188–90. Gauging "relied upon conjuring an imaginary calculable space … that abstracted the cask and its commodities" (177).

28. Scott, Seeing Like a State, 3.

29. Ogborn notes that the guides "offer an idealized vision of excise administration since there would have been a gap between what they contained and what was actually done" (194–95).

30. The establishment in Britain of a modern politically neutral "civil service," based on meritocratic assessment rather than patronage or purchase, is largely a mid-nineteenth-century development. Its emergence was foreshadowed (and increasingly necessitated) by the growth of certain departments of state across the eighteenth century. See John Alexander Armstrong, The European Administrative Elite (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1973); Ceri Sullivan, Literature in the Public Service: Sublime Bureaucracy (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

31. Ashworth, The Industrial Revolution, 122.

32. Excise Board Minutes, 2 April 1761, 91–92, CUST 47/232, National Archives, London.

33. Instructions to be Observed by the Officers concerned in ascertaining the Duties on Glass in the Country (London, 1762), 34–35. For the glass excise see Ashworth, Industrial Revolution, 130–37.

34. Instructions for Officers who Survey Printers of Calico &c. in the Country (London, 1778), 244.

35. Though Thompson developed these ideas in later work, the seminal essay remains "Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism," Past and Present 38 (1967): 56–97. The internalization of time and space regulation is central to Foucault's Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Penguin, 1977), especially 135–69. More recently, scholarship by Michael Kimaid has argued that it is modernity's interest in nationalism that drives changes in the individual's understanding of time and space in Modernity, Metatheory, and the Temporal-Spatial Divide: From Mythos to Techne (New York: Routledge, 2015), 49–81.

36. Spaces of Modernity, 198.

37. Instructions for Officers who Survey Tanners, Tawers, &c (London, 1715), 4.

38. Instructions … Tanners (1715), 4.

39. Instructions to be Observ'd by the Officers employ'd in the Duty on Soap (London, 1712).

40. Instructions for Officers concern'd in Ascertaining the Duties on Candles in the Country (London, 1713), 5.

41. Instructions … Paper (London, 1729), 10.

42. The precise nature of these sites of manufacture was enormously varied. Whilst manufacturing contexts in the eighteenth century were often connected to domestic spaces, other trades required specialist production or storage spaces that might be separate from the manufacturer's home.

43. Instructions to be Observ'd by the Officers employ'd in the Duty on Soap (London, 1712), 5.

44. For the soap excise, see Leonard Gittins, "Soapmaking and the Excise Laws, 1711–1853," Industrial Archaeology Review 1 (1977): 265–75.

45. Instructions for Officers Concern'd in Ascertaining the Duties on Sope in the Country (London, 1732), 12.

46. Instructions to be Observed by the Officers Employ'd in Charging the Duties on Candles and Soap in London (London, 1725), 13–14.

47. Instructions … Starch (1734), 22.

48. Instructions for Officers of the Duties on Hides, &c (London: J. and R. Tonson, 1758), 17–18.

49. For a surviving example of such marks, see "Identifying Printed Textiles in Dress 1740–1890," Dress and Textile Specialists Toolkits, accessed 4 August 2017,, 16–17.

50. Instructions for Officers who Survey Printers of Callicoe, &c (London, 1748), 7–8.

51. Instructions for Officers who Survey Makers of Candles in the Country (London: 1786), 3. See Brewer, "The English State," 364.

52. Instructions … Glass (1762), 17.

53. Instructions for Officers Concerned in Ascertaining the Duties on Sope in the Country (London, 1770), 8.

54. See Brewer, "The English State," 364; Ashworth, Industrial Revolution, 128.

55. Instructions for Officers Concerned in Ascertaining the Duties on Sope, in the Country (London, 1797), 11. A guide for 1800 suggests that these provisions had extended to candle-makers; indeed, soap and candle manufacture often occurred in a single setting.

56. In London at least, standards of workmanship remained a concern of the livery companies (see Michael Berlin, "'Broken all in pieces:' artisans and the regulation of workmanship in early modern London," in The Artisan and the European Town, 1500–1900, ed. Geoffrey Crossick (Aldershot: Scolar, 1997), 75–91). Berlin suggests (following J. R. Kellett, "The Breakdown of Guild and Corporation Control over the Handicraft and Retail Trade in London," Economic History Review, 2nd ser., 10 (1957–58): 381–94) that the decline of these powers can be dated from the mid-eighteenth century.

57. Instructions … Starch (1778), 267.

58. Instructions for Officers who Survey Paper-Makers and Paper-Stainers in the Country (London, 1778), 11–12. For the paper excise, see Rupert C. Jarvis, "The Paper-Makers and the Excise in the Eighteenth Century," The Library, 5th ser., 14 (1959): 100–116.

59. Instructions … Candles (1713), 7.

60. Notwithstanding the operation of city guilds, there was little institutional enforcement of national standards of manufacture. Ashworth draws attention to occasional demands in the first half of the eighteenth century to re-institute the excise on cloth as "a means to police quality" ("Quality and Manufacturing Expertise," 235).

61. Instructions … Sope (1732), 9–10.

62. See Ashworth, "Quality and Manufacturing Expertise," 239–40; and The Industrial Revolution, 120–28.

63. Instructions … Callicoe (1748), 12. See Ashworth, Industrial Revolution, 127.

64. In certain areas of retail trade, such as stationery, it was an offence to be in possession of excisable goods that did not bear the excise stamp (see Jarvis, "The Paper Makers," 111).

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