The industrial revolution of the nineteenth century massively increased the quantity of material goods and made them more accessible to a wider range of people. The global distribution of, for example, Staffordshire ceramics, found everywhere from Tasmania to the Hebrides, is one of the respects in which this period differs from any earlier archaeological period. This emphasises the inappropriateness of simplistic associations between distinctive material culture items or assemblages and the precise or even general nature of cultural influence. Nobody would argue, for example, that the adoption of Chinese style tea wares meant that the inhabitants of 18th-century Inverness were in any way ‘Chinese’.
It has been argued that in order for the industrial revolution to take place a consumer revolution was a necessary precedent. The relative significance of the push of manufacturers and their marketers, against the pull from consumers is disputed, but historical work on consumption in early modern times (e.g. McKendrick, Brewer and Plumb 1982) needs to be considered in any approach to material culture.
The consumption of mass-produced goods has already become a topic of debate in Scottish archaeology, between those (e.g. Emery 1996; 1999; 2000) who see the emergence of mass produced goods as indicating the emergence of ‘mass culture’ (i.e. a situation where formerly diverse groups and communities, with localised ways of life, were swamped by a standardised, universal way of life) and those whose work explicitly or implicitly disputes this (e.g. Barker 2005; Cheape 1993; Fleming 2000; Webster 1999), pointing to local variability in ‘consumer choice’ and in cooking and dining habits and to the continuation of certain localised traditions in ceramic production. The key difference here is between those who see people as passively adopting fashion and those who see the person-thing relationship as a meaningful one. Further work on the nature, meaning and use of mass-produced goods could inform understanding of the role of such goods in the construction of modern lives.
Colin Campbell (1987) has argued that people in the modern period construct themselves through the consumption of material goods. The material goods consumed help to realise and express a self in relation to others. Other goods were not about individual ownership, but were valued for their significance in linking people together as a community or signifying allegiance.
The increase in the popularity of metal detecting over the last decade or so has resulted in a substantial increase in the number of finds relating to the medieval and modern periods. These finds are largely those of individual possessions, including dress accessories and items of a similar personal nature. While many of these objects follow the general trends of a consumer society there are also clear patterns where individuals or groups use these objects to construct a wider social identity. The most obvious example of this can be found with political objects – both medals and dress accessories – which appear to have been particularly popular from the 17th and 18th centuries. Often bearing the image of a monarch or a slogan these are an example of an object whose meaning – approving or otherwise – depended wholly on the social context in which it was used. As a wider issue such objects address not just personal identity, but of the relationship to state and society.
A highly visible trend from the 17th century onwards is the increased import of cheap and affordable goods from the Low Countries and Nuremberg, including knives, fashion items and, on a more functional level, weight sets. The wide appearance of inexpensive children’s toys is also a constant of this period and demonstrates not just a market economy but social expectations of gender roles.
There is thus a background of a consumer society with a wide variety of goods easily available, but it also raises the attendant question of how and why such objects could be used. A clear example is the use of weight sets imported from Nuremberg which are in continental standards which would have been a technical infringement of burgh regulations. Their appearance suggests a rather more innovative concept of enterprise than that practised by the closed shop of the burghs. While it may be tempting to contextualise this as a model of resistance, such incidents are more likely individuals exercising opportunities afforded to them by the easy availability of such goods.
In spite of the wide availability of such items there was often a conscious choice whether or not they would be used. In the Gàidhealtachd at least, there remains a distinct regional culture of dress into the 18th century, typified by the large annular brooches called ‘Highland brooches’ in antiquarian writings. These were homemade items, often given as betrothal gifts or used as amulets. That they were preferentially used even in a society which was a keen consumer of imported fashion items, suggests an accommodation of both local and regional cultural values.
The actual use of artefacts and their complex social functions enables archaeologists to challenge or nuance the historiography of modern consumerism: Was there in fact a ‘consumer revolution’? How revolutionary was it? Does consumption in modernity differ in nature or just in scale (or neither) from what went before? How much do consumer aspirations vary across social class, and in different parts of the country?
See also the ScARF Case Study: Cups that cheer and cups that intoxicate: tea and whisky