By Lucy Simpson
Where we shop says a lot about us, from Prada to Primark. This has been true since the birth of consumer society in the 18th century. Professor Jon Stobart, newly appointed Professor in the department of History at Manchester Metropolitan University, discussed the role purchasing played in developing identity and reputation in 18th century England in an inaugural lecture.
Professor Stobart is a specialist in the field, having written many books on the subjects of leisure, retail and shopping. He started his career at University of Oxford, where he wrote his thesis in historical geography. He explained that the geographical sense of how far we travel to shop and why can both shape and reveal identity.
By showing maps, letters, and shopping lists, Professor Stobart took his audience back to the 18th century and revealed more about the lives of Mary and Edward 5th Lord Leigh of Stoneleigh Abbey and Roger Newdigate of Arbury Hall in Warwickshire.
Stobart explored not only the exchange of the grand mahogany furniture and shiny silverware that we associate with the country house, but also the more mundane items, such as tea, meat and groceries. The exchange of these kinds of items to and from the country house was central to the local economy. However, for the highest quality items landowners would often purchase from London. Edward Leigh asked for “the best green tea” in a letter he sent to London.
The purchasing of grander and more ornate items such as furniture was in-keeping with people’s traditional expectations of the elite: these items were status symbols because they couldn’t be mimicked or copied. However, these items alone were not enough; it was “good taste” that distinguished “the elite from, simply, the moneyed”.
The purchasing of these items in itself was a way of gaining both reputation and status, as the exchange of items was built on solid relationships, trust, and, as Stobart put it, “kudos”. Part of the shopping experience was “seeing and being seen”, shopping became a social experience and a “place to go”.
The curation of the items within their country homes was an active process for these families, who would select which items to keep over the years. These houses give permanence to the families that lived there, providing evidence of their status, reputation, and “good taste” even today.
Respondent, Professor Helen Berry, from the University of Newcastle, commented on Manchester Met’s “remarkable good taste” in appointing Jon to his new role. She said Jon’s lecture gave a “masterclass” in the subject, which resisted the “seduction of the shopping list” and extracted meaning within the archival documents.
Professor Berry commented upon the different experience and knowledge each individual has of a city because of the places they shop: “my city is not your city”. She told Humanity Hallows about the “unwritten rules of shopping”, explaining “you don’t go where you can’t afford”. This is true today and in the 18th century. Those who were not well off shopped in markets, and would stay away from the shops the elites would frequent, resulting in a “zoned shopping experience”.
Jon Stobart is a specialist in his field and will be a great credit to Manchester Met. Professor Berry told his family “your dad is famous!”. Professor Melanie Tebbutt, from the Manchester Centre for Regional History, described Jon as a huge asset to both the centre and Manchester Met’s history department, saying we have been “lucky to have attracted a scholar with such a distinguished reputation, and Jon will be an invaluable asset in raising the profile of the MCRH and the history department at Manchester Met”. Jon explained the massive “support for research” he’d received in this very “collegiate department”.
By talking about consumption and raising the profile of the “history of shopping”, Professor Stobart communicated that spending on the mundane items is just as significant as the grander items. In Berry’s words, Jon’s lecture communicated the “richness, detail and complexity of the history of shopping”.