To Buy or Not to Buy: During the 17th Century, Britain Witnessed the Birth of a Consumer Society. but, as the Number of Possessions Grew, So Did the Concept of 'Taste', a Subtle and Elusive Yardstick by Which People Advertised Their Social Position and Sensibilities. Keith Thomas Looks at How the Pursuit of Taste Encouraged, as It Still Does, Competition and Conformity

Article excerpt

In modern times, there is nothing which more exactly defines social differences than personal taste, whether in food or music or wallpaper or the choice of children's names. The choices that people make in these areas of life may seem spontaneous and genuine, but, without any apparent pressure or coercion, they usually conform to class lines. The possessions which we place in our living spaces and the way we decorate those spaces instantly reveal our sensibilities, our preoccupations, and our social milieux. That is why they will evoke the admiration of some observers and the disdain of others. This state of affairs was already in evidence in the early modern period.

By then domestic possessions were already beginning to take on this function of expressing not just their owners' social position, but also their personal interests. The 16th-century Italian writer Pietro Aretino believed that one could tell someone's character from his dwelling; and his claim was repeated by Roger North in 1698: 'The centrality of the house and its furnishings to the self-definition of its inhabitants', so conspicuous a feature of modern British middle-class life, was fully evident in 18th-century England. The way in which the domestic interior was decorated and the nature of the possessions displayed within it made a powerful statement about their owner. Possessions were symbols of refinement and politeness. They helped to define individual identity. They even shaped their owners' physical deportment and behaviour, for knives and forks, cups and teapots, fragile porcelain and increasingly delicate furniture imposed a distinctively mannered way of eating, drinking, moving and sitting. In this way the consumption of goods created social differences as well as expressing them.

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The process was assisted by the rise of the idea of taste. 'Taste' is a term which first acquired prominence in England in the later 17th century. As goods multiplied, it became a central concept of aesthetic theory and an important form of cultural differentiation. As a contemporary noted in 1633, 'great folks' always had a tendency to 'think nothing of that which is common and ordinary people may easily come by'. Taste involved transcending mere financial criteria when assessing the value of goods, introducing instead a subtler and more elusive yardstick. It implied a capacity for discrimination of the kind shown in 1606 by the wine connoisseur Captain Dawtrey, who, 'taking the glass in his hand, held it up awhile betwixt him and the window, as to consider the colour; and then putting it to his nose he seemed to take comfort in the odour of the same'. It required the ability to choose the best out of a wide range of functionally indistinguishable options, like the 50 different patterns of wallpaper that on one occasion in 1752 confronted the poet William Shenstone. The essayist Joseph Addison compared a person who had true taste in literary matters with the man who could identify each of ten different kinds of tea or any combination of them.

The ways in which the later Stuart and Hanoverian elite spent their money and their leisure show just how vital a reputation for taste had become. The replacement of vernacular architecture by classical, the interior decoration of houses, the laying-out of grounds, the appreciation of letters and the fine arts, all bore testimony to the centrality of taste as an ingredient of politeness and a principle of social distinction. For, despite its aesthetic and philosophical overtones, the concept of taste was a profoundly social one. Taste was notoriously a quality which the vulgar lacked, for they were without the necessary education and experience, whereas connoisseurs were cultivated, well travelled and 'conversant with the better sort of people'. 'Those who depend for food on bodily labour', ruled the critic Lord Kames in 1762, 'are totally devoid of taste'. The middle-class inhabitants of the London suburbs were scorned by their social superiors for their bad taste, manifested in the embarrassingly derivative style of their houses and gardens. …