Peter Jones is an early career researcher in Victorian and urban cultures, who currently works at Queen Mary University. From January 2017, he will take up the post of lecturer in urban history after 1800 at the Centre for Metropolitan History (IHR). Peter has published an article exploring the history of street markets that received the ‘Curriers Company’ London History Essay Prize. He set up the Literary London Reading Group at Senate House and is organizer of the Literary London Society’s annual international conference. The theme of this year’s event is ‘Fantastic London: Dream, Speculation and Nightmare’ (more details and the CFP are available here: http://literarylondon.org/annual-conference/). He is currently developing a monograph project plotting the cultural meanings of crossing the Thames in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and a chapter exploring verbal comedy in the music hall.
During BAVS’s annual conference in September 2016 an accumulation of papers traced the emergence of consuming cultures during the Victorian era. This rich salver of contributions resembled something more than an appetizing miscellany of Victorian consumables. In the concluding ‘President’s panel’, Professor Kate Flint noted how many of these insights into Victorian materiality were undergirded by intricate networks of exchange, circulation and global affiliation. Like Flint, I was struck by the way that multifocal approaches to material culture often uncovered surplus, residual or disclaimed economies that enriched monolithic conceptions of the marketplace.
Flint exemplified this bold approach to ‘what was once ours’ in her own paper, which picked at the stitches of the shoddy trade. She argued that this fabric made from recycled rags had a value as metaphor and commodity during the nineteenth century, but that this meaning has become strangely eroded. I found that her provocative enquiry left me pondering how heaps of cast off clothes thrown into the rag-man’s bag, had become silenced like shadows without substance as they took on new figurative connotations.
The epicentre of the shoddy trade was in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, where this fibre was produced on a massive scale. A report from The Morning Chronicle explains how ‘close poverty-smelling masses’ of discarded clothing were shredded by the steam-driven, toothed wheels of a mechanism dubbed ‘the Dewsbury devil’. The raw wool remnants that remained were spun with new wool, dyed and made into ‘brand new’ clothing. Working under these conditions was very risky and workers were exposed to enormous amounts of ‘dry pungent dirt and floating fibres’ known as ‘devil’s dust’ and often contracted lung problems including a disorder referred to as ‘shoddy fever.’[i] John Scanlan contends that workers were exposed to undue danger and that the obscure, submerged economic circuits in which they were embroiled existed ‘in a deadly time of industrial modernity.’[ii]
The industry for reprocessed products became a by-word for fakery, adulteration and deceit. To writers such as Anthony Trollope, the partition between the domains of authenticity and speciousness seemed clear-cut. Shoddy was associated with aesthetic pretence and fictionality. In Flint’s terms, the literary field became linked to the production of consumer goods. However, a certain amount of dissonance is generated when readily intelligible cycles of novelty and obsolescence are shredded by innovative forms of reclamation. The garb worn by a Kentish hop-picker or a Hungarian Gypsy (rags were gathered from across Europe and the Americas for the shoddy mills) might resurface and be passed off as new in the collar of a reputable bank clerk. To make matters more confusing, the Dewsbury mills competed directly with the producers of ‘virgin’ wool.
In modern definitions, there is an assemblage of terms associated with ‘dirt cheap’ clothing whose meanings have slowly drifted. As Flint noted, ‘shoddy’ went on to gain associations with delusive appearances and a lack of moral principle, but there are other examples worth noting here. In the seventeenth century ‘tawdry’ was developed as a shortened form of tawdry lace or St Audrey’s lace, a necktie or ribbon which was sold annually at Ely fair. ‘Tawdry’ eventually loses its original sense and develops an association with the showy and sordid. ‘Seamy’, which once referred to clothing that had the rough edges of its seams visible has also come to characterize the sordid or disreputable. ‘Drab’ was a ‘natural, undyed cloth’ but gained a figurative extension that has existed since the late nineteenth century meaning ‘a dirty, untidy woman’ or prostitute. Finally, ‘sleazy’ originally denoted a ‘thin or flimsy fabric’ but did not take on a sense of seediness, corruption and immorality until the 1940s.
Why is it that the social value of cheap goods has been so absolutely and reliably subsumed in a contemporary nomenclature? These terms are reprocessed as slurs aimed at those who ostensibly lack dignity or are unable to uphold proper standards of behaviour. The transmutation of material value seems partly tactical and the devil becomes lost in the detail in this instance. The dust which racks the lungs of the worker in Yorkshire is swept away and rendered invisible in the debased persona of the disreputable ‘drab’. She acts as the stooge who is a repository for all the deceit, shame and ethical discomfort which would otherwise be laced through the gentleman’s collar. The trustworthy, liberal and upstanding economy washes its hands of industrial practices and ethical responsibilities which it cannot stomach.
It is heartening that while modern vocabulary might twist our perception of this ethical ‘deadly time’, scholars like Flint are showing that we can use material histories to recognize those weak points where historiography splits at the seams. Flint ended her talk by referring to the Rana Plaza collapse which occurred on Wednesday, 24 April 2013 in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Her comments gave pause for consideration of a present moment at which public discourse seems primed to diagnose the shoddy local and national conditions of labour in shadowy factories for cheap clothing. Speaking about our own involvement in an exploitative global garment industry and tainted habits of consumption, will prove much more challenging.
[i] Henry Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor, 4 vols (London: Griffin, Bohn and Company, Vol. I, 1851, Vols II–IV, 1861), II, p. 30, pp. 34–35.
[ii] John Scanlan, ‘In Deadly Time: The Lasting On of Waste in Mayhew’s London’, Time & Society, 16 (2007), 189–206 (p. 201).