Jon Stobart is a Fellow of the Institute of Place Management and Professor of History at Manchester Metropolitan University. His research focuses on the histories of retailing and consumption, largely in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England. This involves exploring the geography, nature and timing of changes in retailing and shopping, not so much to find the origins of ‘modern’ practices as to examine the ways in which the processes of buying and selling goods related to broader social, cultural and economic contexts. In this, he is particularly interested in the spaces of consumption which shaped and were shaped by these processes: shops, high streets and towns. His research also explores consumption as ownership – an interest which involves examining the shifting place of material objects in domestic environments, especially country houses.
Prof Jon Stobart, a large part of your work is about consumption and commerce in 18th and the 19th-century England. Could you share with us some of your insights?
The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are traditionally seen witnessing consumer and retail revolutions – dramatic changes that ushered in a modern world of mass retailing and mass consumption which ran alongside and in some ways stimulated industrialisation and international commerce. Clearly these various aspects of the economy were inter-related, but much of my work has comprised detailed empirical research that questions these meta-narratives, for example by revealing the complexity and sophistication of eighteenth-century shops on the one hand and the continuation of ‘traditional’ practices and priorities well into the nineteenth and even the twentieth centuries. It’s a story of continuity as much as change.
“Consumption and shopping was also about constructing identity and creating associations with other people, places and goods. Perhaps most importantly, it was about utility.”
Within this, I’ve sought to emphasise the importance of shopping – often dismissed as a trivial and frivolous or mundane and everyday set of practices. In reality, shopping forms the vital bridge between retailing and consumption, between selling things and owning things. Just like today, it drew on a set of skills that had to be learned and honed, and involved aspects that were pleasurable and leisurely as well as others that were arduous and repetitive. It also helped to produce a set of places and spaces that were central to the identity of the street and the town. Shopping in the right places and acquiring goods from the right retailers could assure quality and enhance status well before the advent of department stores and designer labels.
Shopping as consumption was thus complex and nuanced, especially for social elites, not least because they had more money to spend. But this did not mean that the processes of acquisition and the subsequent ownership of goods was all about display, status and emulation. These were powerful motivations, but consumption (and shopping) was also about constructing identity and creating associations with other people, places and goods. Perhaps most importantly, it was about utility. All these things meant that people chose carefully from a growing array of options, including second-hand goods, which were far from being the last resort of the poor – notions of ‘pre-loved’ and ‘vintage’ might be new, but the positive associations accorded to used goods were well understood in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
The history of private homes holds a central position in your work: You’ve researched late eighteenth-century suburban villas and Georgian country houses. We also see a constant interest amongst the general public for private homes in popular culture (e.g. in TV series). Where do you think that stems from?
“The private house holds a fascination as a record of phases of consumption: the layering of goods tells us important things about consumption as retention and reorganisation of goods as well as the acquisition of new things.”
Much of my recent research has centred on the country house and the consumption practices of their owners. Part of the attraction of this group for me is the rich set of archival sources that they’ve left behind; but I was also interested in telling a different story about the social elite – viewing them as consumers along with other social groups and thus engaged in similar and related practices and motivations. The private house – especially at a grand scale – holds a fascination as a record of phases of consumption: the layering of goods tells us important things about consumption as retention and reorganisation of goods as well as the acquisition of new things.
More generally, private homes are fascinating because they offer us a window onto other people’s lives: their hopes and tastes, but also their limitations and compromises. Looking at elite houses gives us a glimpse of how the other half lived.
You have co-edited the volume The Country House: Material Culture and Consumption (Historic England Publishing, 2016) together with Andrew Hann. As you state in the introduction, there is no shortage of books on the subject. What do you think is the contribution of this book?
This book is important because it brings together different perspectives on how consumption shaped the country house at a variety of different times and in different parts of Europe: the Netherlands, Sweden, Portugal and Ireland as well as England. It also places the country house into a global context by exploring the ways in which goods from India, China and Japan ended up in English country houses. It grew from an conference that I organised in 2012 that brought together academics, heritage managers and curators – something which I was really proud to be able to do. The contributors to the book are drawn from all three areas.
Also published this year is my book, Consumption and the Country House (Oxford University Press, 2016), co-written with Mark Rothery. This developed in detail my arguments about the country house as a site of consumption – the centre of a network of supplies that drew goods from local villages and nearby towns, but above all from London. Alongside this, we explored the ways in which the house itself was made and remade through the acquisition and arrangement of goods. This meant analysing both the ‘big ticket’ items like furniture, silverware and paintings, and more mundane aspects of spending: food, cleaning and maintaining the house, lighting and heating. Perhaps the key contribution of this book has been to situate the elite in the mainstream of studies of eighteenth-century consumption, linking them into various theories and models of consumer behaviour.
Gender appears regularly in your writings, e.g. in your research on Mary and Edward Leigh. How is it linked to the rest of your work?
This is a key aspect of Consumption and the Country House. We’ve critically examined the ways in which elite men and women behaved as consumers, trying to peel away some of the myths and preconceptions to reveal something of the essential links between consumption and gender.
“Traditionally, shopping is associated with women, but it is quite clear that men were also avid shoppers. They were, perhaps, less concerned with the everyday – groceries, provisions and the like – but notions of shopping as effeminising come much later and were particular to certain social groups.”
Unsurprisingly, the picture that emerges is complex and nuanced – there were different types of masculinity that could be constructed through consumption, and women operated in a range of different ways, depending upon their marital status, but also their relationship with their husband and their personal character. Stereotypes are not helpful.
The same is true when looking at shopping practices. Traditionally, shopping is associated with women, but it is quite clear that men were also avid shoppers, at least in the eighteenth century. They were, perhaps, less concerned with the everyday – groceries, provisions and the like – but notions of shopping as effeminising come much later and were particular to certain social groups.
At the Institute of Place Management we deal with ‘place’, mostly from a contemporary and practitioner’s point of view. Your work adds a historical dimension to places, which I think is invaluable to the work we do. What do you think that history teaches us about places?
History is central to place identity. It is, above all, the gradual accretion of layers of development, generations of social-spatial interaction, and even successive campaigns of identity construction that makes one place different from another and constructs identity. A thorough understanding of the history of a place is thus critical to fully understanding its identity and its relationship with other places, but so too is an appreciation of broader historical processes: of retail change, for example, or place marketing.
“History is central to place identity. It is, above all, the gradual accretion of layers of development, generations of social-spatial interaction, and even successive campaigns of identity construction that makes one place different from another and constructs identity.”
To give an example: William West published a History of Warwickshire in 1830. In it, he painted a very different picture of each town in the county, based on its history, its current function and its position in relation to other towns in Warwickshire and the development of the country as a whole. New Street in Birmingham, for instance, was constructed as a site of commerce, but also culture; both were strongly linked to Birmingham’s position as a centre of metalware manufacture. This was by no means the first attempt to construct a particular image of Birmingham, but it illustrates perfectly the way in which our contemporary reading of place is shaped by and should recognise its debt to historical constructions.
The interview was conducted by Ares Kalandides