Buying and Selling Luxury in Seventeenth-Century England

By Ramsey, Rachel | Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation, April 1, 2010 | Go to article overview

Buying and Selling Luxury in Seventeenth-Century England


Ramsey, Rachel, Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation


Buying and Selling Luxury in Seventeenth-Century England

John Brewer and Roy Porter, Maxine Berg, Erika Rappaport, and Elizabeth Kowaleski Wallace, among others, have argued that the eighteenth century marked the beginning of a consumer revolution in England, with middle-class shoppers embracing new ideas about luxury consumption and establishing radically different definitions of needs versus wants.1 Linda Levy Peck's Consuming Splendor: Society and Culture in Seventeenth-Century England (Cambridge, 2005) challenges this critical consensus by arguing that the "practices, sites, and mentalities" of luxury consumption are firmly rooted in the seventeenth century and that widespread luxury consumption was not a uniquely eighteenthcentury phenomenon (352). To support her claims, Peck describes the buildings specifically constructed to cater to luxury consumption, examines the types and kinds of luxury goods purchased and manufactured in seventeenth-century England, and outlines the royal policies and necessary consumer networks fostering the desire for luxury. Her study focuses primarily on London - F. J. Fisher's "engine of economic growth" - because the nobility and gentry, along with the merchants who catered to them, increasingly took up permanent residence in the fast-growing metropolis and established a pattern of seeking out and consuming splendor that was eventually embraced by a wider society.

Peck begins her walk through seventeenth-century London with the luxury shops housed at its two most famous shopping centers, the Royal Exchange and the New Exchange. While scholars of the early modern period are familiar with Thomas Gresham's 1570 monument to London's traders, with its fabled meeting space for merchants and shops stocked with luxury goods, Peck focuses instead on its lesser-known rival. In 1609, Robert Cecil, the Earl of Salisbury, opened the New Exchange situated in the Strand at the heart of the newly fashionable West End. Peck examines the design, renting, and stocking of the New Exchange shops and traces their economic fortunes over the century to provide compelling evidence that, as early as 1609, desire for luxury goods was strong enough to support an exclusive shopping center catering to luxury consumers. As Peck points out, the New Exchange, like its predecessor the Royal Exchange, did more than offer goods for sale; it converted shopping into entertainment. Peck unearths a telling letter from Francis Carter, the Surveyor of the New Exchange, to Cecil, in which Carter urges against plans to narrow the Exchange's famed walks by adding more shops (56). Carter's letter reveals a sophisticated understanding of retail shopping. He explains the importance of the Exchange as a place for Londoners to meet and socialize, as a destination as popular as the theater or Spring Gardens. Peck emphasizes how Carter's letter conflates socializing and shopping and connects entertainment value with retail sales. The Exchange's wide walks opening onto the Strand - in the heart of the fashionable town - encouraged impromptu visits from those passing the attractive building. Cecil's New Exchange offered men and women a place to have their desires stoked and satisfied not only for conversation and entertainment but also for rare and exotic luxury goods attractively displayed in its shops.

If the New Exchange offered shoppers a chance to purchase small scale luxury items, the types of buildings erected by the London elite in the immediate vicinity of Cecil's Exchange illustrated yet another, if more costly type of luxury consumption. While new construction in London was ostensibly discouraged by James I and strictly regulated by the King's Commission on New Building, Peck documents the number of new city palaces and urban developments constructed in and around London in the early decades of the seventeenth century, describing in detail Bedford's Convent Garden and the elaborate suburban villas such as Syon, Ham House, and Albury (188-229). …

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