Consumer Culture and the Beginnings of the China Mania

Student guest page by Meg Talbot, University of Massachusetts Boston

The century from 1650 to 1750 saw exceptional innovations being made in London material culture. The new notion of domestic comfort and polite living also meant the development of a consumer culture and a shift in some social and lifestyle behaviors. A person’s impulse to buy came from a variety of sources, including the financial means of the shopper, level of access to markets and shops, awareness of what goods were being sold, and the expectations of polite society.[1]

Many household and personal items (including some that had previously been made in the home by women) were now bought by merchants and tradesmen at the Royal Exchange and sold in shops. There were more places to shop and an ever-growing range of things to purchase. Inventories show that by 1700 there was a significant increase in the number and types of clothing and furnishings in London households. This applied not only to the elite but also to the “middling sort.” For instance, for the first time people of modest means began to buy stockings, underwear, and fashionable accessories such as pocket watches and fans. Other products that were suddenly in high demand included artifacts that the English invented or remodeled, such as clocks.

Yet the emphasis on domestic comfort and politeness also led to an increased demand for exotic, foreign, or otherwise-luxury commodities. By the early seventeenth century England was importing a variety of products, including plants, drawings, sculptures, rare books, lacquered cabinets for the home, painted calico (a type of cotton cloth from India, which, when left unpainted, was typically plain white or unbleached natural fabric) tea, coffee, and porcelain.

Of these imported commodities, Chinese porcelain was among the most sought-after. In fact, the Chinese porcelains of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were in such demand in Europe that in English the term for porcelain became, simply, “china.”  Portuguese traders had begun importing blue and white porcelains from the Chinese Ming dynasty to Europe in the 16th century, but porcelain did not catch on in England until the 17th century. Some say that it was introduced to England when the English East India Company imported it from China to provide additional ballast and protection for delicate products that would be destroyed by seawater (such as silk and tea). The demand for china exploded around 1730, when the English East India Company imported over 517,000 pieces of Chinese porcelain. represents the widespread popularity for Chinese porcelain in Europe beginning in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Chinese porcelain appealed to members of the upper and lower classes and was sought after both for its exotic attractiveness and for everyday use. The upper classes bought expensive and elegant china for mostly decorative purposes, while the lower classes sought out porcelain tableware. In addition to cups, plates, and pitchers, “Blanc de Chine” (French for “Chinese white”) could also be found in the form of boxes, vases, jars, fishes, lamps, flowerpots, as well as figures of animals, secular figures, and Buddhist and Taoist significance. 

A popular practice was to have family crests and coats of arms painted onto Chinese porcelain. Such china could be found in Europe as early as the 16th century, but it was only around 1700 that the demand for Armorial porcelain increased. People would send their coats of arms to China to be copied onto porcelain wares then shipped back, sometimes riddled with errors because of the language barrier. The elaborateness of Armorial china varied, with some crests or monograms appearing in blue and white and other coats of arms or decorations painted in lavish polychrome enamels or gilding. Around 1720, a new trend in Chinese porcelain was the Famille rose palette, which often contained such aspects of the natural world as birds, flowers, insects, and plants, such as the tobacco leaf.

At the time, it was generally thought that women had a special interest in china, especially as aesthetic objects, and therefore that china was a feminine item. Some considered women more likely to purchase china (most often with their husband’s money) because they maintained the domestic realm, and because hot drinks, especially tea, were thought to have been particularly suited to women. In the early 18th century there came to be a moral dilemma surrounding the phenomenon of porcelain—so much so that essays in the Tatler and the Spectator warned women against the moral, ethical, and economic dangers of buying china—not everyone agreed that England’s ability to import luxury items was a good thing, and some worried it would affect the balance of trade. These essays also warned men against relinquishing control of household spending and allowing their wives the power to buy as much china as they pleased. Tatler 23, for instance, points to a wife prone to fits and hysteria, who, when told by her new husband that “he would never let five pounds of his money be laid out that way as long as he breathed,“ pretends to faint and refuses to “awaken,” despite her family’s attempts to revive her. In Spectator 252, a man despairs over his wife, who he says descends into Tears, fainting Fits, and the like in order to coerce him to buy things for her. He writes, “Every Room in my House is furnished with Trophies of her Eloquence, rich cabinets, Piles of China, Japan Screens, and costly Jars; and if you were to come into my great Parlour, you would fancy your self in an India Ware-house.” 

Yet men certainly had sufficient reasons to buy china. They were frequenting coffeehouses regularly to discuss politics, conduct business, and pursue various intellectual pursuits. Utensils for hot drinks certainly would have been useful to have in a household—even that of a bachelor—for the sake of entertaining and impressing guests with exotic coffee or tea. What’s more, investigations into household inventories of the time reveal that there was no significant difference in the frequency and the amount of china in households run by women as opposed to men.

“China fever” soon became so widespread in London and the surrounding towns that references to china in literature became quite regular. There is the scene in the 1675 play The Country Wife by William Wycherley—rather early in the craze—wherein china is used as a metaphor for illicit behavior and the female “appetite.” The women go crazy for the “china” that Mr. Horner appears to be giving away to Lady Fidget. Mrs. Squeamish then begs Mr. Horner to save some for her, and the men within earshot, likely having been exposed to such “chinamania,” are none the wiser. In Alexander Pope’s mock-heroic poem “The Rape of the Lock,” the image of china or porcelain is often used to portray Belinda’s status both as a fragile woman and as a consumer of popular commodities. In Canto II, for instance, Pope describes Belinda in light of “ a frail China jar”; and when the lock of hair is cut Pope evokes the image of delicate china breaking.  

China can also be found in the poetry of Anne Finch. In the satiric poem “The Country Nymph,” which critics have read as an answer to Rochester’s poem “Letter from Artemis in the Town to Chloe in the Country.” Finch presents a city-dwelling woman, Almeria, who complains that her country friend, Ardelia, does not appreciate the exotic beauty of china or the lengths to which Almeria went in order to secure it. In “Ardelia’s Answer to Ephelia,” a poem which comes with a rather complicated political statement, Finch’s narrator portrays the city, with its love of china, as a place that is in some ways morally inferior to the country, attacking in particular the burgeoning mercantile class of London.

 

 

1. Weatherill, Lorna. Consumer Behavior and Material Culture in Britain, 1660–1760. London: Routledge, 1988. 2. Kowaleski-Wallace, Beth. “Women, China, and Consumer Culture in Eighteenth-Century England.” Eighteenth Century Studies 29.2 (1995): 153–67. 3. Weatherill, Consumer Behavior 4. Farrington, Anthony. Trading Places: The East India Company and Asia 1600–1834. London: British Library, 2002: 80–97. 5. Kowaleski-Wallace. “Women, China, and Consumer Culture in Eighteenth-Century England.” Eighteenth Century Studies 29.2 (1995): 153–67. 6. Berry, Helen. “Polite Consumption: Shopping in Eighteenth-Century England.” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6.12 (2002): 375–94. 7. Weatherill, Consumer Behavior .

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