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The language of luxury goods: consumption and the English country house, c.1760-1830

Stobart, JV (2011) The language of luxury goods: consumption and the English country house, c.1760-1830. Virtus: Journal of Nobility Studies, 18. pp. 89-104. ISSN 1380-6130

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Abstract

Luxury is central to the material culture of the country house and to many conceptualisations of the elite. Commentators from Adam Smith to Thorstein Veblen to Arjun Appadurai have distinguished luxury as a particular form of consumption, drawing a close link between luxury, status and honour. But luxury is both a slippery and relative term: a category that is contingent upon time and space, as well as culture and wealth, and one that was contested by contemporary commentators as well as modern scholars. Whether seen as ‘social valuables’, characterised by such things as cost and specific processes of acquisition, or as ‘incarnated signs’, which carried much broader meanings and associations, language is central to the ways in which luxury was understood, communicated and valued by elite consumers. This paper explores the ways in which the semiotics and language of luxury were deployed through key media relating to the consumption of luxury goods in the country house: bills for goods bought by elite consumers, and sales catalogues for post-mortem auctions of their contents. I argue that the ways in which goods were described and understood was central to their definition as luxuries and to their consumption by elites. Importantly, these conceptions and meanings appear to have remained constant whether goods were new and fashionable, or old and being offered second hand. Refinement, politeness and honour remained central to the lexicon of luxury.

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