Exhibit Looks Back at British Consumerism

Posted September 14, 2005 at 4:37pm

Our modern-day predilection for retail therapy may not be quite so modern after all.

Or so argues “Consuming Splendor: Luxury Goods in England: 1580-1680,” a new exhibit opening today at the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Based on co-curator and George Washington University historian Linda Levy Peck’s recently published book, “Consuming Splendor: Society and Culture in Seventeenth-Century England,” the show traces the rise of consumerism and its effect on British society pre-Industrial Revolution.

Peck argues that with England’s shift away from a wool-based economy and the subsequent influx of foreign luxury imports (which spurred an interest in replicating those items at home), the conditions were created for an uptick in demand for fine goods. (For instance, the desire to create a domestic silk industry led King James I to encourage his subjects to start growing mulberry trees to cultivate silk worms.)

And with the opening of London’s Royal Exchange in 1570 and Inigo Jones’ New Exchange in 1609, the nation got its initial taste of a shopping mall-like experience. At the exchanges, which featured private boutiques, people could gather to browse and socialize.

“What you have with the New Exchange and Royal Exchange were places that you go specifically to do retail shopping,” Peck said. “There’s not a workshop, it’s entirely retail.”

During the course of her research, Peck also helped put to rest some myths. “Women are always seen classically and biblically as the source of luxury,” she said. “In fact, some of the most enthusiastic shoppers, as we show in the show, are men.”

Peck also noted that the appetite for the good life hardly dimmed during the upheaval caused by the English Civil War and Interregnum, but instead it expanded with the appearance of extravagant, subscription-only books aimed at the aristocratic classes.

The 17th century also witnessed the rise of do-it-yourself volumes aimed at instructing ordinary Englishmen on ways to re-create luxury items at home, Peck said. Among these was “A supplement to the queen-like closet,” written by former schoolteacher Hannah Woolley. In grand Martha Stewart fashion, Woolley details how her readers can replicate everything from feathers to wallpaper.

The exhibit, on view through the end of the year, features a wealth of period manuscripts related to the rise of the consumerist mentality (both for and against), interpolated with a smattering of luxury items, including porcelain, fine lace and ladies’ gloves.