Consuming Beings, Being Consumers: Consumption and Identity in the Victorian Period

Flore Janssen is a third-year PhD student at Birkbeck, University of London. Her research project examines women’s writing and activism in the fin de siècle through the work of Margaret Harkness and Clementina Black in an international context. With Lisa Robertson, Flore edits the Harkives, an open access online resource for archival material by and about Harkness. You can follow the Harkives on Twitter @M_E_Harkness. Flore tweets as @femlitcake.

Fig. 1: A surviving independent cooperative store in Grosmont, North Yorkshire. Wikimedia Commons, photo by BazzaDaRambler.

Fig. 1: A surviving independent cooperative store in Grosmont, North Yorkshire. Wikimedia Commons, photo by BazzaDaRambler.

In his introduction to The Oxford Handbook of the History of Consumption, Frank Trentmann described how, since the 1970s, scholars in the social sciences ‘have studied the creative, ambivalent nature of consumption and reclaimed it as a fertile ground for subcultures, hybridity, self-fashioning, and transgressive identity politics’.[1] In other words, consumption functions as an expression of identity, and studying habits of consumption can reveal a great deal about the ways in which people choose to present themselves. The theme of this year’s BAVS conference, ‘Consuming (the) Victorians’, provided a helpful way in to two major questions surrounding material culture in historical research: how did the Victorians build a sense of self through material culture and consumer goods, and how do these objects determine our understanding of the Victorians today?

Cheap mass production placed many essential and unessential items within the reach of different social groups in the Victorian period; Victorians used these objects to satisfy personal desires, but also to present a particular version of themselves to the world. Then as now, dress, domestic furnishings, and the food and drink one consumed were used to make clear statements about one’s social position, aspirations, and convictions, from the aesthetic to the ascetic. These expressions of personal identity fit into diverse historical narratives, from the rise of the department store to the increasing popularity of vegetarianism or temperance. These versions of the Victorians still filter through to the modern day, both through objects displayed in museums and through literary and visual representations. In Mary Barton (1848), for instance, Gaskell’s lengthy description of the Bartons’ home during a period of relative prosperity gives an insight not only into what an 1840s urban working family’s domestic interior might have looked like, but also into the author’s ideas of laudable working-class aspiration, symbolised by the acquisition of and care for embellished objects. The comfortable surroundings created by the house-proud Mrs Barton are praised even as her taste in the choice of objects like the japanned tea-tray is dismissed: ‘really (setting all taste but that of a child’s aside) it gave a richness of colouring to that side of the room’.[2]

This sense of the creation and expression of identity through personal possessions was explored in thoughtful and critical detail by Frank Trentmann in his keynote on the third day of the conference. Trentmann traced a transition from a notion of materiality as distracting from spiritual pursuits, to one that endowed things with the spirit and saw beautiful objects, specifically those brought from other cultures, as enriching society. Things thus became a civilising force, and luxury was no longer regarded as sinful. In this way, Trentmann explained, objects could become a part of the self.[3]

Trentmann here articulated a question which had been addressed in several ways throughout the conference, as papers considered ways in which different groups within Victorian society tried to shape and reflect their identity through the use of consumer goods. For instance, Angharad Eyre pointed out that the New Woman as presented in Sarah Grand’s short story ‘The Undefinable’ appropriates those aspects of consumer culture which she finds enjoyable, contriving to be a ‘Godly, magnificent moralist’ while still enjoying ‘clothes, and picnic dinners, dressing up, and reclining on comfortable couches’.[4] The sense of working-class self-improvement through consumer culture also emerged strongly from several papers. Christina Bashford’s keynote on the ‘violin craze’ of the late-Victorian period explained how the increased availability of the violin placed this ‘ideologically-laden consumer good’ within the reach of people in lower social classes who aspired to culture and refinement.[5] In a dedicated panel on ‘self-improvement’, David Rowland, Melissa Score, and Paul Raphael Rooney demonstrated how the form of self-improvement – from concert attendance to reading materials – on which sometimes the last penny of the household budget was spent, was a crucial consideration in many working-class households.

This idea of self-improvement through consumer culture, however, has an obvious flip side in the ubiquitous images of dire poverty also associated with the Victorian period. Not only was consumer culture beyond the reach of many, but descriptions of families on hard times left almost wholly without essentials such as clothes and blankets are common in Victorian social investigation literature. Accounts abound of children held back from school, and adults unable to leave home, because their clothes had been pawned – that is, converted into money for more immediate consumption.

Papers at the conference recognised that the rise of consumer culture could be highly damaging, especially to less affluent social groups. Michael Parrish Lee pointed out how the lavish display of consumer goods in contrast with the poverty and starvation of the ‘hungry forties’ aggravated class enmity in Mary Barton; Jonathan Baldwin, in his paper on ‘crime in the socialist literary utopia/dystopia’, demonstrated that late-Victorian socialist writers tended to see property and crime as two sides of the same coin, with the one necessarily causing the other.[6] Other papers explored the damaging potential of consumption in a literal sense, considering questions such as food adulteration and alcoholism.

If consumption could clearly be socially, economically, and personally damaging in different ways, then, it is also no surprise that consumers attempted to turn the influence of consumption to beneficial effect and, with the refusal of different social groups to consume, for example, meat, alcohol, or goods produced in sweatshops, what one chose not to consume could become as much a part of one’s personal and social identity as what one did. In his keynote, Trentmann explored several ways in which consumers found ways to, as Lawrence Glickman puts it, ‘express[…] their citizenship in and through acts of consumption’.[7] Especially for women, consumption came to offer a way in to political and democratic action; Trentmann’s examples included the cooperative movement, as well as the argument that, if women were judged competent to make the choices on which their household consumption was based, there was no reason not to trust them with the vote. Another example, which is central to my own research, is the consumers’ league, which encouraged consumers not to buy goods produced under unethical conditions, most notably the ‘sweating system’ which relied on paying workers extremely low wages. These examples, then, illustrate another way in which consumption could be used to shape and express personal and social identity: the advent of responsible and ‘ethical’ consumption showed that consumers were aware of the impact of their buying habits, and tried to use their ‘buying power’ to prevent harmful consequences or even actively to do good.

Fig. 2: Part of an exhibit showing the conditions under which the goods on display were produced, with the aim of raising awareness among consumers of the production process. Exhibition organised by the Consumers’ League of New York, circa 1908[?] Wikimedia Commons, photo by Lewis Hine.

Fig. 2: Part of an exhibit showing the conditions under which the goods on display were produced, with the aim of raising awareness among consumers of the production process. Exhibition organised by the Consumers’ League of New York, circa 1908[?] Wikimedia Commons, photo by Lewis Hine.

Initiatives like these, then, extended the notion of consumption as expressing identity by attempting to remake the consumer identity itself into an activist identity. The principle of the consumers’ league, as proposed first by Clementina Black in 1887,[8] and later taken up by activists in New York and expanded into the National Consumers’ League of the United States, was to investigate the conditions in which consumer goods, ranging from luxuries like smart gowns to household staples like matchboxes, were produced. With this information, the leagues aimed to alert the buying public to social problems linked to the processes of production and consumption, such as the existence of sweatshops, the exploitation of workers, and the spread of disease through unsanitary workshops. Crucially, they also suggested ways consumers could alter their harmful consuming habits. Thus, consumers’ leagues urged consumers to redirect the socio-economic influence contained in their habits of consumption into socially responsible channels.

In this analysis of consumption, and the choices involved in it, as active participation in social and economic relations, habits of consumption and the buying and possessing of goods go from being merely an outward expression of identity – through the clothes one wears, the food one eats, and the objects with which one surrounds oneself, such as the tea tray in Mary Barton – to an identity in itself: consumption could not only lead to and be inspired by activism, but could be regarded as its own form of activism. The Victorian version of the ‘ethical consumer’, showing their awareness of the socio-economic impact of their buying habits, then, is an identity still very familiar to us today.

[1] Frank Trentmann, ‘Introduction’, in The Oxford Handbook of the History of Consumption (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), pp. 1-19 (p. 8).

[2] Elizabeth Gaskell, Mary Barton (Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 1987 [first published 1848]), p. 13.

[3] Frank Trentmann, ‘Private comfort, public spirit: Victorian consumer culture in a global context’, paper delivered at Consuming (the) Victorians, BAVS annual conference, Cardiff University, 31 August–2 September 2016.

[4] Angharad Eyre, ‘New Woman Attacks on Decadent Consumerism? Sarah Grand and the Consumable Short Story’, paper delivered at Consuming (the) Victorians.

[5] Christina Bashford, Buying into (more than) music: The “violin craze” and the late-Victorian imagination’, paper delivered at Consuming (the) Victorians.

[6] Michael Parrish Lee, ‘Gaskell and the Victorian food plot’, paper delivered at Consuming (the) Victorians; and Mary Barton, p. 25. Jonathan Baldwin, ‘Crime in the socialist literary utopia/dystopia’, paper delivered at Consuming (the) Victorians.

[7] Lawrence B. Glickman, Buying Power: A History of Consumer Activism in America (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2009), p. xi.

[8] Clementina Black, ‘Caveat Emptor’, Longman’s Magazine, August 1887, pp. 409–420.

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