"The Sublime of the Bazaar": A Moment in the Making of a Consumer Culture in Mid-Nineteenth Century England

Article excerpt

Early in 1844 Richard Cobden, accompanied by Robert Moore and Peronnet Thompson, visited Harriet Martineau on her sick bed at Tynemouth. Cobden's intention was to persuade Martineau to use her considerable propagandist powers to further the cause of the Anti-Corn Law League, the motivating centre of the campaign against economic protectionism. He proved persuasive and the first result was Dawn Island, a typically moralistic, far-fetched fiction that described how free trade had civilized a race of savage South Pacific cannibals. (1) It was published in a special edition and sold at the great National Anti-Corn Law League Bazaar held at Covent Garden Theatre in London the following spring. The bazaar certainly impressed Martineau. In her laissez-faire reading of early-nineteenth century history published five years later she wrote: "the porcelain and cutlery exhibitions, the mirrors and grindstones, the dolls and wheat-sacks, shoes and statuettes, antiquities and the last fashion of colored muslins, flannels and plated goods, and anatomical preparations, laces and books, made a curious and wonderful display, which was thought to produce more effect on some Parliamentary minds than all the eloquence yet uttered in the House of Commons." (2) The promiscuous intermingling of politics and commerce that was such a characteristic feature of the bazaar made Martineau anxious as well as excited. Mixed feelings intensified after the Corn Laws were repealed; buying and selling at the Great Exhibition in 1851, for example, had turned it into the "Sublime of the Bazaar," implying that the event in Hyde Park was not only a beautiful apotheosis but that it also simultaneously inspired awe and even terror. (3)

The Great Exhibition has attracted much attention from historians, especially in recent years. (4) This article returns instead to the National Anti-Corn Law League Bazaar as a key moment in the making of modern consumerism. Whereas the commercial aspects of the Great Exhibition were deliberately downplayed--price tags were conspicuously absent for instance (5)--consumption of the profuse forms of Victorian commodity culture was openly paraded at the Anti-Corn Law League Bazaar. Archibald Prentice, the League's official historian, underlined the formative influence of the bazaar. (6) And more than half a century later, in his monumental biography of John Bright, G. M. Trevelyan similarly noted that the event "astonished that simple era with its magnificence and variety, and paved the way for the great Exhibition of 1851." (7) The bazaar should still command our attention for it simultaneously celebrated and mobilized the changing consumption practices of an increasingly self-confident metropolitan middle-class. (8)

The search for origins is fraught with dangers, especially when we are considering such a complex and disputed formation as a 'consumer culture.' (9) In England the roots of a culture in which the consumer assumed a central importance have been traced back variously to the early modern period; (10) the commercial revolution of the eighteenth century; (11) the expansion of advertising and branding in the late-nineteenth century; (12) and the onset of mass consumption after World War Two. (13) Besides the general problem of timing, it is also worth bearing in mind Margot Finn's recent criticism of 'culturalist' generalizations about the so-called modernity of Victorian consumer society; continuities were undoubtedly important and we will return to them later. (14) Rather than search for putative origins, then, this article considers a vital and largely overlooked moment in a long evolution, a specific iteration of modern consumerism. (15) Both the novelty and distinctive contribution made by the Anti-Corn Law League Bazaar to what was a complex and protracted transformation deserve consideration, not least because many of the issues and tensions that marked the development of consumer culture in subsequent decades were explicitly revealed and openly discussed in the spring of 1845. …