Commentary by Tom Rusbridge, PhD student in the Department of History
On May 5th the Early Modern Discussion Group welcomed Rachael Morton from the University of Warwick, where she is a third year PhD in the Department of History. Morton’s research considers the making and possessing of ‘quality’ throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Britain, as expressed through the dialectical relationship between the producers and consumers of both fine and populuxe metalware. Her thesis addresses these issues at a number of different stages in the life cycle of objects—starting with regulation and then considering production, marketing, retail and consumption. In her Early Modern Forum paper, Morton specifically addressed two guiding questions: First, how did consumers understand ‘quality’ in the eighteenth century? Secondly, what ways was this ‘quality’ used in the marketing of contemporary metalware?
One of the central issues the paper addressed was how early modern consumers understood quality. This is a hotly contested issue; although traditional economic histories have understood quality as constructed through the actions and regulation of collective political bodies, Philippe Minard has more recently argued for a shift from regulated forms of quality to deliberative ones. That is, that the notion of ‘quality’ became less a top-down dictated ideal from guilds and regulatory bodies and, by the close of the period, more an organic and hybrid construct negotiated through discourse between producers, retailers and consumers. For Morton’s paper the distinction between regulatory and deliberative was less absolute; the regulatory bodies certainly had an important role to play in how ‘quality’ was defined and understood, but this was part of a composite process alongside a range of other bodies. Indeed, this notion of ‘quality’ is a well considered one within wider material culture historiography. To some extent quality could be considered to stem from the raw ‘value’ of a good, which involves some necessary breaking down into its composite parts and materials. Scholars such as Bert de Munck have more recently asserted, a point which Morton addresses, that the value of goods and materials could be equated with the levels of labour employed in their making.
Part of Morton’s original contribution to the debate is her detailed analysis of trade cards, used to communicate quality and ensure the reputation of producers and their goods. Such trade cards, here analysed by Morton between 1710 and 1800, functioned across both ‘fine’ goods and hardware and used a number of strategies to assert that the producer in question produced goods of the ‘quality’ described above. Morton showed how hallmarks and sponsor-marks on metalware became increasingly important in consumer perceptions of quality and were an exploited iconography in other representations — having a significant impact on generating understandings of quality both through material and discourse engagement with metalware. Trade cards also served an educative purpose within consumer understandings of the metalware trades. As Kate Smith has argued in her work on porcelain, such ‘industrial tourism’ became popular by the eighteenth century, while Karen Harvey has argued for the cultural relevance and representations of materials, their making and handling. By using trade cards to inform consumers of the nature of craft, Morton shows how producers not only drew on the early modern excitement with production, but equipped their customers with the necessary knowledge and ability to make adequate judgements of quality.
There was, however, somewhat of a dark side to all this. While it would be easy to understand this as a happy dialogue between producers and consumers in the sharing of knowledge, Morton explained in the subsequent discussion how this communication of knowledge could be somewhat selective; consumers were not invited to construct their own perceptions of quality, but perhaps manipulated into a particular set of beliefs. The role of the producer more generally was a key part of discussion, and in terms of metalware specifically the languages and tools across the range of different professions was more consistent—striking a contrast to other crafts with their own differentiated tools per ‘sub-profession’. This in turn meant that strategies of quality were more consistently employed. The room was equally clearly interested in the nature of hallmarks and sponsor-marks. How were these materially used and applied? In what ways did different marks respond to one another? Was there any range or variation in their bearing on the perceived ‘quality’ of goods?
In all of this, Morton’s paper was an important reminder of the interplay between different societal groups and the interpenetrated concepts of consumerism, consumption and retail they collectively constructed and competed to control.
You can read more about Rachael’s research here.