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Men, women and the supply of luxury goods in eighteenth-century England: the purchasing patterns of Edward and Mary Leigh

Stobart, JV and Rothery, M (2015) Men, women and the supply of luxury goods in eighteenth-century England: the purchasing patterns of Edward and Mary Leigh. In: Luxury and Gender in European Towns, 1700-1914. Routledge Studies in Cultural History, 32 . Routledge, pp. 97-114. ISBN 9781138803169

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Abstract

The pursuit of luxury has long been seen as a key element in the consumption practices of the elite: it marked their status and distinguished them from lower social groups. Indeed, the nature of the goods being consumed was central to Thorstein Veblen’s notion of conspicuous consumption as a means of cementing and displaying social status. He had little to say about the role of gender in the consumption of these costly positional goods, but the implication is that a family’s luxury consumption was largely a male domain, not least because they were responsible for the kinds of dynastic spending that defined status. Of course, women also bought luxury goods and often played an active part in shaping the material culture of the house. Indeed, for Sombart and others, it was female addiction to luxury that underpinned spending and was ultimately responsible for the emergence of capitalism – an argument that is rehearsed by McKendrick and others when emphasising the key role played by women in a fashion-led consumer revolution. Partly in response to this, recent years have seen an abundance of research on the consumption practices of elite women which emphasises their key role in exercising restraint and care, as well as their independent agency as consumers. A rather smaller body of work has sought to explore the distinctive character and manifestation of male consumption. In the former especially, the distinctive gendered role of women is often seen as lying in servicing the domestic realm.The contrast is drawn most clearly by Vickery in her analysis of the account books of elite husbands and wives. She shows men indulging their tastes and passions, buying coaches and saddlery, wine and fine clothes. Their wives, meanwhile, were responsible for managing the household budget and supplying the everyday needs of their husband and children. Moreover, men enjoyed a close, even chummy relationship with suppliers, whilst women interacted with tradesmen in a more functional and transactional manner. Others, though, have suggested a more even distribution of power and responsibilities. Greig, for example, shows Lady Strafford as an active consumer for the family home, even though she operated with and through her husband. From this growing body of research, we know a lot about the gendered nature of luxury consumption and the ways in which male and female consumption inter-related within the nuptial home. However, far less has been written about how gender impacted upon consumption practices if we look beyond the confines of married couples. In particular, we know little about the role of gender in shaping relationships with retailers – most of them urban based.This chapter seeks to address these two issues by exploring the spending patterns of a brother and sister – Edward, fifth Lord Leigh (1743-86) and the Honourable Mary Leigh (1736-1806) – who were successive owners of Stoneleigh Abbey in Warwickshire. They form an interesting case against which to test some our assumptions about gender and luxury consumption. Drawing on a large collection of receipted bills and related correspondence, the chapter addresses two main areas. First, by mapping out the overall spending patterns of Edward and Mary, we assess the importance of gender in relation to status, life-course and the character of the individual. We argue that the meaning and relative weight of gender and elite identities changed during an individual’s life – something which was especially, but not exclusively true for women. Building on this, we examine the nature of their relationship with (mostly urban) suppliers. Where did they look to for goods, how was this shaped by their location relative to urban centres of supply, and how far was their interaction shaped by their life-stage, status and gender? Of particular interest here are the (different) ways in which brother and sister interacted with the same suppliers. Overall, our analysis challenges easy stereotypes of gender-based consumption by highlighting the complexities of consumption practices and the layered nature of gender identities.

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