Natural Goods



Figure 1. Mid eighteenth-century Rococo watch

Paris of the eighteenth century was quite different from the modern romanticized version that is often thought of today. The city was overcrowded and dirty, and was an inhospitable environment for people of all classes. In his book Tableau de Paris, Louis-Sébastien Mercier describes Paris as: “The middling state, and our populace in their ignorance, wretchedness, and absurdities; and Paris remain to the end of its existence, the dirtiest, most debauched, poorest, and yet the most ridiculously proud and presumptuous of all the cities built since the destruction of Babylon (Mercier,242).” In response to the negative atmosphere of the growing metropolis, many people were drawn to a more natural artistic style, such as Rococo. Rococo styled objects became very popular because they were designed to represent nature through the use of ornate foliage and animals, and they often displayed scenes of people in leisurely situations in nature. The Rococo style originated from a movement away from the grandeur and rigidness of the Baroque style of Luis XIV and the Catholic Church. Rococo often consisted o lighter colors, and tended to be more playful in nature than Baroque. Rococo was originally adopted by aristocrats who were moving away from the style of the court at Versailles. But with the availability of consumer goods to the middle-class, Rococo became very popular amongst common citizens as well.


Figure 2. Mid eighteenth-century Rococo watch


Figure 3. Covered bowl and stand, ca. 1765

An example of the Rococo style is a French watch (figure 1 and 2) made sometime around the mid-eighteenth century. The outer casing is made of gold and it has an enamel back that is painted in the Rococo manner of a Jean-Honoré Fragonard painting. Since it was common for men and women to wear ornate objects, this could have either been a pocket watch for a man or a necklace watch for a women. The case is molded with round shell-shaped edges that are common in Rococo, and it also has diamonds in the shape of flowers. The painting on the back is a scene of two men and three women sitting on a log surrounded by trees. This scene is a prime example of the desire for the consumer to feel closer to nature. Examples of Rococo can be seen in many other types of objects, such as dishes (figure 3) and vases (figure 4). In his essay “Big Hair: A Wig History of Consumption in Eighteenth-Century France,” Michael Kwass describes the evolution of wigs in eighteenth-century France, and how the more natural and practical wigs were chosen over the larger ones that were used at royal court. In his essay, Kwass writes: “Indeed, the language of eighteenth-century taste leaders suggests an attempt to move beyond a courtly consumer culture in which the main purpose of goods was to mark social rank. Through the printed word, taste leaders carved out a new set of consumer values—convenience, natural authenticity, and self-expression—to mediate the relationship between consumption and status (Kwass, 634).” Like wigs, Rococo styled goods became more popular as commoners began to desire more natural forms of artistic expression. Another important point Kwass makes here is the influence of the “taste leaders.” These were fashion critics that used printed articles to discuss current fashion trends. As Kwass notes, it is more likely that these people influenced consumers towards a certain style rather than the theory that it was “consumer emulation” of the wealthy that shaped fashion trends.


Figure 4. Potpourri vase/figure, ca. 1755

Much like what was seen in the Consumer Revolution in England during the eighteenth century, luxury consumer goods became much more accessible to the middle-class in France. Rococo style goods such as dishes, paintings, and furniture became increasingly popular. In his book The Birth of a Consumer Society: The Commercialization of Eighteenth-century England, Neil McKendrick writes: “The pursuit of luxury could now be seen as socially desirable, for as the growth of new wants stimulated increased effort and output, improved consumption by all ranks of society would further stimulate economic progress (McKendrick, 8).” In this passage, McKedrick notes that desire for consumer goods increased the demand for further production in England, which had a “trickle down” affect to the lower-classes. The result of this was that the accumulation of non-subsistence goods became more socially acceptable for commoners. Though the influx of goods in France was not as vast as it was in England, the point McKendrick makes here is just as relevant as it is in the case of eighteenth-century England. Objects such as wigs, watches, furniture, and art work were in high demand by middle and upper-class consumers, and the movement away from courtly fashion and towards a more practical and natural style continued into the next century. In reflecting on the consumer trends of his time, Mercier makes an interesting point when he writes: “The excessive expenses which luxury requires, have beggared all ranks of people, and they exhaust all manner of resources for the ruinous purpose of supporting a mere shew (Mercier, 11).” It is curious how relevant those words still are in light of the increasing debt accrued by the masses in this modern world of endless consumerism.


Kwass, Michael. “Big Hair: A Wig History of Consumption in Eighteenth-Century France.” American Historical Review, 2006.

McKendrick, Neil, John Brewer, and P.H. Plumb. The Birth of a Consumer Society: The Commercialization of Eighteenth-century England. London: Europa Publications, 1982.

Mercier, Louis-Sébastien. Tableau de Paris. Dublin. 1781 Web source.


Figure 1 and 2: Watch : Gallant Scene in the Fragonard Manner, ca. 1758-65. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Accession Number: 1975.1.1245, Gallery 951.

Figure 3: Covered bowl and stand, ca. 1765. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Accession Number: 2007.254.1a, b, .2, Gallery 508.

Figure 4: Potpourri vase/figure, ca. 1755. The British Museum: Museum Number: 1930,0419.1.CR, Location: G46/dc17.

18th-Century Tea Canister

Published by John Vincent De Toro

“Errors which are introduced by Luxury, suffer’d thro’ Ignorance, and supported by being fashionable. [The Statesman] would soon have condemned the exorbitant Use of Tea… But the present Age has other Considerations; Tea pays too great a Duty, and supports too many Coaches, not to be preferr’d to the Health of the Publick: Tea has too great Interest to be prohibited.”
James Lacy, “An Essay on the Nature, Use, and Abuse, of Tea, in a Letter to a Lady.”

The artifact presented here is a beautifully expressive Tea Canister from the Victoria and Albert Museum collection, museum number 1448&A-1853, produced ca. 1768. This piece is made from soft-paste porcelain material with two transfer-printed in black enamel decorations, engraved by Robert Hancock for Royal Worcester. Initially reserved for the wealthy, these canisters, or caddies, were used to store tea and, as tea prices dropped in the eighteenth-century, became much more bulbous and spacious.

It is worth noting that, despite being a widely-proliferated complementary good vis-à-vis tea itself–evident in large collections held by museums alongside other tea-service works, written sources directly related to this artifact seldom appear which straightforwardly discuss its fashionable or material importance. However, the historical footprint left by the success of tea and the consumption culture framing that commodity underscore the history of the tea canister. It is thus in these wider contexts–socioeconomic, societal, cultural, and practical–that we can understand the socio-material significance of this piece.

Neil McKendrick, in his chapter, “The Consumer Revolution of Eighteenth-Century England,” explores the socioeconomic and political development of circumstances which formed the setting for the burgeoning mass consumption of the late 1700’s. McKendrick describes this consumer revolution as a period of great prosperity and rapid economic growth in which emulative spending, coupled with real increases in incomes for the middling classes, resulted in unprecedented conspicuous consumption (3-4). Often, this consumption consisted of luxury goods, such as tea and their complements. In fact, “Tea was ‘singled out [sic] as the apotheosis of luxury spending on needless extravagance by the poor'” (13). Statistics show that “the per capita consumption of tea increased fifteenfold,” and that “tea consumption increased by 97.7 per cent” (13). Luxury products such as this tea canister would thus come to indicate the pervasiveness of this consumer revolution.

Such a unprecedented change in consumption and social life did not go unnoticed. Many responded to such a revolution with alarmist sentiments. The eighteenth-century London moralist John Brown equated the ubiquity of porcelain-wares such as this to the kind of unmanly, tasteless effeminate art that threatened the integrity of the Empire. To Brown, the exoticism of this tea canister would remind him of the plethora of “Porcelain Trees and Birds, Porcelain Men and Beasts, cross-legged Mandarins and Bramins [in which] Every gaudy Chinese Crudity [sic] is adopted into fashionable use, and becomes the Standard of Taste and Elegance” (32). This tea canister would represent for Brown the very “vainluxurious, and selfish Effeminacy” that undermined the strength and character of English society (20). Because the engravings of this tea canister displays a command of detail in not only the dress and expressions of the figures, but also in illustrating the tea service, we can thus state that this is a luxury good.

Particularly notable to the socio-cultural significance of this tea canister is the presence of an African slave or servant on both portraits. Products associated with Africans likely expressed the fruits of the colonies or of foreign locales, evident in Figure 1 of a “Black Boy Shop Sign” which graced the facades of coffee shops. More importantly, representations of Africans often expressed the power and reach of the Empire. They either symbolize their supposed corrupting influence, as seen in William Hogarth’s A Harlot’s Progress (Figure 2) or, akin to this canister here, emphasized the elevated status of the depicted, as seen in Johan Zoffanny’s The Family of Sir William Young, Baronet (Figure 3). Such figures embodied the exotic other as well as the domestication of the Empire (Koscak).This exoticism thus imbued items such as this tea canister with an air of luxury, which would further drive emulative spending by social emulation (McKendrick 4). As tea became much more accessible, this canister would indicate the very class identity sought to be emulated by new consumers, because it depicts a fashionable lady preparing tea with her black servant. The fact that the figures are outside with a servant highlights the luxury status as well as the exotic implications of tea. That Hancock’s tea canister depicts a tea party suggests the relationship of this lifestyle to the wealthier classes, as pieces like these likely emphasized the luxury quality of tea drinking, making it a popular product for those who wanted to show their class or emulate such a lifestyle.

Figure 1

Figure 1

Figure 2

Figure 2

Figure 3

Figure 3

The utilitarian dimension to this artifact is equally important as its symbolic one. One 1785 pamphlet, The Tea Purchaser’s Guide, presents insight into the material use of tea canisters. According to the chapter, “Best Method of Making Tea,” constant exposure to the air will result in diminished quality (39). In operational terms, a dry tea canister such as this served to keep its tea leaves fresh; it would especially prevent their deterioration during sea-transport (Twining 53, 94). This particular canister was made of soap-rock, thus making it more resistant to boiling water (V&A). This tea canister is also very capaciousness, and so it can hold more tea leaves (V&A). It can thus be surmised that the need to keep more tea fresher was one impetus for the proliferation of tea canisters. The Tea Purchaser’s Guide also commented on the constant dropping of price of tea (6). We can then posit that, in light of McKendrick, this reduction in tea prices, along with its practicality, demonstrates the the wide profusion of tea canisters. It can thus be proven to be true that this Royal Worcester canister embodies the kind of growing commodity consumption McKendrick observes, demonstrating a rapidly increasing, if not flourishing, tea habit.

This Hancock canister is not so different from his other tea caddies, pots, and saucers at time. This canister is in fact an alternate version of a another set with a tea party illustrated on a cup and saucer:

“The Tea Party” Cup and Saucer set

Both display similar scenes designed by Hancock and both were reproduced en masse in factories with high-quality decoration at very little cost using copper transfer-printing plates. And both were made with similar ingredients, such as soaprock, to enhance their material quality.

On the other hand, unlike prior canisters which were smaller and more square or octagonal with a wide cylindrical lip, the Royal Worcester is more bulbous and can hold more tea leaves:

With no models to imitate and seldom mass-produced, these early lightly adorned versions were small and lacked wavy edges and corners and thus did not hold much tea. Later in the century, the larger bulbous-shaped canisters copied by English porcelain factories such as the Worcester canister presented here imitated Chinese vase-like versions made solely for export (V&A). The capaciousness of the later Royal Worcesters attests to the falling price and wider availability of tea.


Brown, John. “Of the Ruling Manners of the Times.” An Estimate of the Manners and Principles of the Times. (1757-1758): 17-34. PDF.

Hancock, Robert. Tea Canister. Soft-paste porcelain, transfer-printed in black enamel. Royal Worcester. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Museum number: 1448&A-1853. Website.

Hancock, Robert. The Tea Party. Steatitic soft-paste porcelain, thrown and turned, and transfer-printed in black enamel. Royal Worcester. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Museum number: C.93&A-1948. Website.

Kearsley, G. The Tea Purchaser’s Guide; or, the Lady and Gentlemen’s Ten Table and Useful Companion, in the Knowledge and Choice of Teas. (1785): 1-46. PDF.

Koscak, Stephanie. “The British and French Caribbean: Consuming the Exotic.” University of California, Los Angeles. Haines Hall, A2. 4 March 2014. Lecture. Powerpoint.

Lacy, James. “An Essay on the Nature, Use, and Abuse, of Tea, in a Letter to a Lady; with an Account of its Mechanical Operation.” (1722): 1-62. PDF.

McKendrick, Neil. “The Consumer Revolution of Eighteenth-Century England.” The Birth of a Consumer Society. McKendrick, Neil, John Brewer, and J. H. Plumb. London: Europa Publications Limited, 1982. 9-33. Print. PDF.

Twining, Richard, the Elder. An Answer to the Second Report of the East India Directors, Respecting the Sale and Prices of Tea. (1785): 1-103. PDF.

Unknown (production). Tea Canister. Salt-glazed stoneware and moulded. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Museum number: 414:958-1885. Website.


Gin Glasses

Figure 1. “Gin Glasses”

Production Place: 
England, Great Britain (made)

 Engraved glass, with air-twist stem

Dimensions: Height:12.0 cm

Additional information:

“Gin, cursed Fiend, with Fury fraught, Makes human Race a Prey. It enters by a deadly Draught And steals our Life away!”

Rev James Townley, 1751

During the mid-eighteenth century in London, a historic “Gin Craze” swept through the city that reflected the diversification of the English market and the expanding accessibility of luxury goods to non-elite urban residents as a result of the establishment of new production and manufacturing techniques in northwestern Europe. The cups shown above in Figure 1. represent typical glasses from the mid-eighteenth century, made for the consumption of strong ale and gin. Although not all glasses would have been so intricate, the high bowls of these particular objects were found suitable for engravings and gilt decoration (Gin Glasses Victoria and Albert Museum). The diversity in the shape and size of these four glasses alone reflects the variety and complexity of the urban late early modern English marketplace in which they would have been distributed. The large-scale production of glasses like these encouraged the creation of a sizable quantity of new jobs for middle-class artisans, as well as the increased demand for a variety of specialty goods among those who were well-to-do (Champagne Glass Victoria and Albert Museum).

Invented in Holland, the fact that gin only became popular in England when Dutch-born William of Orange took the English throne in 1688 suggests the existence of an increased network of cross-continental trade between Europeans, as well as a greater awareness of and appreciation for other cultures within Britain during the time period (“18th-Century Gin Craze” History UK). Other glasses such as those depicted in Figure 2., which were intended for the consumption of champagne, exemplify the increased diversity and accessibility of glassware and drinking implements during the eighteenth-century (Champagne Glass Victoria and Albert Museum). Along with industrialization and urbanization, the commercialization of the British marketplace allowed consumer demand to become more elastic, fostered the creation of new wealth and created new patterns of consumption within urban London in which the ingestion of “Mother Geneva” from the glasses depicted above was but one example (“The Great Renunciation” Koscak).


Figure 2. “Champagne Glass”

 In over-crowded Hanoverian London, the consumption of gin was often cited as the cause of rising crime, prostitution, higher death rates and falling birth rates (“18th-Century Gin Craze” History UK). The vice-chamberlain Lord Hervey once remarked that “drunkenness of the common people was universal, and the whole town of London swarmed with drunken people from morning till night.” Although Hervey’s assessment was certainly hyperbolic, in 1730 around 10 million gallons of gin were being distilled within London’s city limits and sold from over 7,000 dram shops (“18th-Century Gin Craze” History UK). Some estimates project that the average Londoner during this time period drank a staggering 14 gallons of gin a year! Thus, because of new patterns of urban material consumption and an increase in real wages during the early eighteenth-century in London, large numbers of lower and middle-class city-dwellers craved gin simply because they could now afford to do so.

If the increased ingestion of gin revealed a deviation from more previously fixed patterns of consumption, it also reflected the shifting presence of women from private to more public spaces of consumption and distribution in urban eighteenth-century London. For the first time, women drank gin in public spaces alongside men. Women of all ages drank, but in general only single women were free to do so without serious censure (Warner and Ivis 7). An anonymous satirical eulogy published in 1736 entitled “An Elegy on the Much Lamented Death of the Most Excellent, the Most Truly Beloved, and Universally Admired ‘Lady Madam Geneva’” warned: “In pregnant Dames gin cou’d Abortion cause,/And supersede prolific Nature’s Laws…Hush’d with few Drops he holds his Infant cries,/And spares the maudlin Nurse her Lullabies” (“An Elegy on the Much Lamented Death…” Fol. 2v, see Figure 3. for excerpt). By aborting their children via the excessive consumption of gin women went against “Nature’s Laws,” and in doing so muddled distinctions between natural and artificial, male and female and domestic and public.

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Figure 3. “Excerpt from ‘the Much Lamented Death…,” author unknown

During the time period it was thought that excessive female drinking often lead to child neglect and prostitution, so gin became known as “Mother’s ruin,” the “Ladies Delight,” and often took the symbol of “Madam Geneva” (Warner and Ivis 1). As public outcry grew, the government was forced to take action. The 1736 Gin Act taxed retail sales at 20 shillings a gallon and made selling gin without a £50 annual license illegal (“18th-Century Gin Craze” History UK). An engraving published in 1736, seen in Figure 4., featured a sepulchral still erected “to the Mortal Memory of Madam Geneva.” Similarly, William Hogarth’s 1751 engraving Gin Lane (Figure 5.) visualized the atrocities of excessive gin consumption via the depiction of an urban alcohol-induced chaos in which a ragged mother scraped the contents of her snuff box as her child toppled from her arms. A man and a woman in a cart also attempted to pacify an aging woman in a wheelbarrow by giving her gin. Literary images of “Mother Gin” and “Madam Geneva” were also suggestive of age without dignity, although actual physical descriptions were rare (Gin Lane The British Museum).


Figure 4. “To the Mortal Memory of Madam Geneva, Who Died Sepr: 29. 1736…,” artist unknown


Figure 5. “Gin Lane” by William Hogarth

The presence of women in public houses contributed to new confusions regarding gender roles and sex-based identity in eighteenth-century England. In John Brown’s 1757 “Of the Ruling Manners of the Times,” concerns addressing the fact that “the ruling Manners of Women [were] essentially the same with those of the Men,” and that “the Sexes [had] now little other apparent Distinction beyond that of Person and Dress,” exposed anxieties caused by the increase in sales of former luxuries like gin to female consumers (Brown 34). Brown insisted that “vanity lend[ed] her Aid to unmanly Delicacy,” and that “Delicacy hath destroyed our Force of Taste” (Brown 30). Thus, the increased availability of goods like gin in eighteenth-century England destabilized gender identity and facilitated the disruption of previously fixed social orders.

In their article “Gin and Gender in Early Eighteen-century London” Jessica Warner and Frank Ivis argue that because attitudes regarding the public consumption and sale of gin by females became progressively less permissive as women advanced from marriage to motherhood, and from motherhood to widowhood, ‘traditional’ limitations on a female presence in both retail and consumption environments in early eighteenth-century London were only temporarily discarded as young men and women lived and worked in close proximity to one another, and were then ‘rediscovered’ as women married and withdrew from the overlapping worlds of work and leisure (Warner and Ivis 13). Thus, by the time women reached their late twenties, Brown’s “Force of Taste” would have been largely restored by the institution of marriage and its accompanying domestic duties. Women’s increased presence as gin consumers reflected a temporary bowing of societal ‘traditions,’ caused by the economic transformations of eighteenth-century London during the consumer revolution. 

In 1751, an additional Gin Act was passed which forced distillers to sell only to licensed retailers trading from “respectable premises,” and series of bad harvests forced grain prices up, making landowners less dependent on income from gin production. They also forced food prices up and wages down, so the poor were less able to afford the “Ladies Delight.” By 1757, the Gin Craze was all but dead (“18th-Century Gin Craze” History UK). Although “Madam Geneva” lost much of her influence on the urban population of England by the later half of the eighteenth-century, the legacy of her calamitous reign continues to flow via the physical ‘dress history’ analysis of glasses in Figure 1., the intellectual and social ‘fashion studies’ investigations of broader cultural ideologies in Figures 3. and 4., and the study of the more human ‘material culture’ of gin glasses, which lies somewhere between the tangible gilt decoration of the object and the more theoretical notion of consumerist ideology during the late eighteenth-century.


Figure 1.  Gin Glasses. 1740-1720. Glassware. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Web. 11 Mar 2014.

Figure 2. Champagne Glass. 1750-1760. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Web. 11 Mar 2014.

Figure 3. “An Elegy on the much lamented death of the most excellent, the most truly beloved…” (1736): Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection. Database. 11 Mar 2014.

Figure 4. To the Mortal Memory of Madam Geneva, Who Died Sepr: 29. 1736…1736. Engraving. The British Museum, London. Web. 11 Mar 2014.

Figure 5. Hogarth, William. Gin Lane. 1751. Etching, Engraving. The British Museum, London. Web. 11 Mar 2014. lane&page=1


Brown, John. “Of the Ruling Manners of the Times.” Estimate of the Manners and Principles of the Times 1757-8, 128 17-34. Print.

Koscak, Stephanie. “The Great Renunciation: Commercialization, Politics, and Gender.” University of Los Angeles, California. 9 January 2014.

Warner, Jessica, and Frank Ivis. “Gin and Gender in Early Eighteenth-century London.” Eighteenth-Century Life. 24.II (2000): n. page. Web. 4 Feb. 2014.

“18th-Century Gin Craze.” The History of London. The History Channel, UK. Web. 11 Mar 2014.