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A Possession of One's Own: Women and Consumer Behavior in England, 1660–1740

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 January 2014


Hall Men are born free, how is it that all Women are born slaves? As they must be if the being subjected to the inconstant, uncertain, unknown, arbitrary Will of Men, be the Perfect Condition of Slavery? [Mary Astell, Reflections upon Marriage (London, 1700), p. 66]

The wife ought to be subject to the husband in all things. [Hannah Woolley, The Gentlewoman's Companion or a GUIDE to the Female sex (London, 1675), p. 104]


Did men and women have different cultural and material values in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries? We know very little in detail about the activities of people within their homes and especially about their attitudes to the material goods that they used and that surrounded them. Virginia Woolf's complaint that she had no model to “turn about this way and that” in exploring the role of women in fiction applies equally to women's behavior as consumers, for we still do not know, as she put it, “what, in short, they did from eight in the morning till eight at night.” Did their particular roles within the household result in different material values, just as their biological and economic roles were different? We do know that power was unequally distributed within the household, although we can also demonstrate cooperation and affection between family members. We take it that the household was, in some sense, the woman's domain, but very often we cannot explore what this meant in practice. In short, was being “subjected to the inconstant, uncertain, unknown, arbitrary Will of Men” reflected in women's cultural values and tastes?

These are broad questions that are not easily answered, either in theory or by observation, especially as it is not easy to identify the behavior of women as distinct from that of the family and household, but they are questions worth asking to see if there are signs of behavior different enough to warrant the view that there was a subculture in which women had the chance to express themselves and their views of the world separately, especially as the daily routines of their lives were different.

Research Article
Copyright © North American Conference of British Studies 1986

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1 Woolf, Virginia, A Room of One's Own (Harmondsworth, 1963), p. 47. This is a powerful piece of writing that stresses that we cannot understand why there were so few women writers and artists without understanding what women's lives were like and what they did all dayGoogle Scholar.

2 A number of works refer to the possibility that the income from women's work could increase domestic consumption, although they are dealing with a rather different problem than the one examined in this study, partly because they are looking at wage-earning families of lower social status. (See McKendrick, N., “Home Demand and Economic Growth: A New View of the Role of Women in the Industrial Revolution,” in Historical Perspectives: Studies in English Thought and Society, ed. McKendrick, N. [London, 1974], pp. 152210Google Scholar; Medick, H., “The Proto-industrial Family Economy,” Social History 3 [1976]: 291315.CrossRefGoogle Scholar)

3 The possibility of finding evidence for women's subcultures is raised in Chaytor, Miranda, “Household and Kinship: Ryton in the Late Sixteenth and Early Seventeenth Centuries,” History Workshop 10 (1980): 2560CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 These problems are raised in the context of family behavior in several different kinds of social history (see Wrightson, K., English Society, 1580–1680 [London, 1982], esp. chap. 4Google Scholar; Segalen, M., Love and Power in the Peasant Family, trans. Matthews, Sarah [Oxford, 1983]Google Scholar; Pollock, Linda, Forgotten Children: Parent-Child Relationships from 1500 to 1900 [Cambridge, 1983])Google Scholar. Women's diaries are rare, but they do exist, and some give moving and intimate accounts of everyday routines. For a recent study of these, see Mendelson, Sara, “Stuart Women's Diaries and Occasional Memoirs,” in Women in English Society, 1500–1800, ed. Prior, Mary (London, 1985). pp. 181210Google Scholar.

5 For the use of inventories in general, there is a full bibliography in Overton, M., A Bibliography of British Probate Inventories (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1983)Google Scholar. There are several published comments on their limitations; these are usefully summarized in Priestley, Ursula and Corfield, Penelope, “Rooms and Room Use in Norwich Housing, 1580–1730,” Post-Medieval Archaeology 16 (1982): 93123Google Scholar. For a more ambitious way of sampling inventories, see Jones, Alice Hanson, American Colonial Wealth, 2d ed., 3 vols. (New York, 1977), esp. 3:1809–47Google Scholar, and The Wealth of a Nation to Be (New York, 1980)Google Scholar. Jones's sampling is discussed and criticized in Lindert, P., “An Algorithm for Probate Sampling,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 11 (1981): 649–68CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and defended in Jones, Alice Hanson, “Estimating Wealth of the Living from a Probate Sample,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 13 (1982): 273300CrossRefGoogle Scholar. I prefer small, carefully constructed samples, although these are impractical in England because of the complexity of the church courts dealing with probate and the patchy survival of the records.

6 Laslett, P., Household and Family in Past Time (Cambridge, 1972), p. 147CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

7 The technicalities of inheritance and provision for widows are complex, but there is a useful summary in Howell, Cicely, “Peasant Inheritance Customs in the Midlands, 1280–1700,” in Family and Inheritance: Rural Society in Western Europe, 1200–1800, ed. Goody, J., Thirsk, J., and Thompson, E. P. (Cambridge, 1976), pp. 112–55Google Scholar. For widows and remarriage, see Todd, Barbara, “The Remarrying Widow: A Stereotype Reconsidered,” in Prior, ed., pp. 5492Google Scholar.

8 By this I mean that you cannot say what proportion of all women in England owned things. Comparisons within the sample are more soundly based.

9 One of the problems in this approach is that conclusions can be undermined if appraisal is not reasonably consistent. In some cases it seems to have been, even for fairly modest items like earthenware and china. Sometimes there were local differences; linen, for instance, was more fully listed in some dioceses than in others. The results of this study have sufficient internal consistency, however, for the results to be taken as meaningful in outline if not accurate in detail.

10 An interesting discussion of approaching consumption in this way is to be found in Douglas, Mary and Isherwood, B., The World of Goods (Harmondsworth, 1978)Google Scholar; see also Gould, R. A. and Schiffer, M. B., eds., Modern Material Culture: The Archaeology of Us (New York, 1981)Google Scholar; Goffman, E., The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (New York, 1959)Google Scholar.

11 For a different kind of use of space, see Walker, Susan, “Women and Housing in Classical Greece: The Archaeological Evidence,” in Images of Women in Antiquity, ed. Cameron, Averil and Kuhnt, Amelia (London, 1983), pp. 8191Google Scholar; room use is traced in inventories in Priestley and Corfield.

12 Weatherill, Lorna, “The Growth of the Pottery Industry in England, 1660–1815” (Ph.D. thesis, University of London, 1981), chaps. 6, 10Google Scholar.

13 Houston, R. A., “Literacy and Society in the West, 1500–1800,” Social History 8 (1983): 271–72Google Scholar.

14 The difference here of 3 percent (men, 24 percent; women, 27 percent) is not statistically significant at the 95 percent confidence level; the confidence limit is 3 percent.

15 Spufford, Margaret, Small Books and Pleasant Histories (London, 1981), pp. 2137Google Scholar; Smout, T. C., “Born Again at Cambuslang: New Evidence on Popular Literacy in Eighteenth-Century Scotland,” Past and Present, no. 97 (1982), pp. 114–27Google Scholar.

16 These points are made in several studies, but see Landes, D. S., Revolution in Time: Clocks and the Making of the Modern World (London, 1983)Google Scholar.

17 One of the most interesting is Jackson, C., ed., “The Autobiography of Alice Thornton (nee Wandesford), 1627–1707,” Surtees Society, vol. 62 (1875)Google Scholar; see also Carbery, Mary, ed., Mrs. Elizabeth Freke, Her Diary, 1671–1714 (Cork. 1913)Google Scholar; Henstock, A., ed., The Diary of Abigail Gawthorn of Nottingham, 1751–1810 (Nottingham, 1980)Google Scholar; “Diary of Mrs. S. Savage,” Bodleian Library, MS Erg. Misc.e.331. For an overview of diaries and an annotated list, see Mendelson (n. 4 above).

18 Very few inventories specify the subject matter of pictures; the few that are identified are portraits and landscapes, the “high”art of the period. For an interesting discussion of the possible reasons for having landscapes, see Freedberg, D., Dutch Landscape Prints (London, 1980), pp. 920Google Scholar.

19 Elliott, V. Brodsky, “Mobility and Marriage in Pre-industrial England”(Ph.D. thesis, Cambridge University, 1978), pp. 1149.Google Scholar

20 There are other ways of grouping occupations and status, but these do not attempt to use consistent criteria and do not rank the occupations in a hierarchy. They are more descriptive approaches in which fewer assumptions have been made and for that reason are widely used. The fullest discussions of these are in Cressy, D., “Describing the Social Order of Elizabethan and Stuart England,” Literature and History 3 (1976): 2944Google Scholar; Wrightson (n. 4 above), pp. 17-38; Corfield, Penelope, The Impact of English Towns (Oxford, 1982), pp. 124–45Google Scholar.

21 The still classic overall study of women's work is Clark, Alice, Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century (London, 1919)Google Scholar. Clark assumes that women were partners in their husbands' trades, arguing largely from guild regulations. For a more recent study that displays the limited opportunities available to women to take over their husbands' trades, see Prior, Mary, “Women and the Urban Economy: Oxford, 1500–1800,” in Prior, ed. (n. 4 above), pp. 93117Google Scholar.

22 This is not surprising because, although midwifery was widely practiced by women, it was done in an informal way and not as a full-time trade that would be mentioned in probate papers or revealed by appropriate equipment (see Jean, Donnison. Midwives and Medical Men [New York, 1977], pp. 1227)Google Scholar.

23 Clark, pp. 197–209.

24 In some ways the average is not a very meaningful measure because the range of values is very large and the distribution skewed. Confidence limits at the 95 percent level are roughly ±£10 for men's estates, ±£25 for women's estates (because of the large variation and small sample), and ±£1.0.0 for all the valuations of household goods. These are very large formal confidence limits, but this does not mean that no meaningful comparisons can be made, just that conclusions need to take account of the fact that the differences may have arisen through chance.

25 This budget is best seen as informed guesswork, but as such it does reflect expectations, and it conveys the household's “generous way of living,” as King himself put it (King, Gregory, “The LCC Burns Journal,” p. 250, reproduced in Laslett, P., ed., The Earliest Classics: John Graunt and Gregory King [London, 1973])Google Scholar.

26 “Household Accounts of Rachael Pengelly, 1693–1709,”British Museum, Additional MS 32,456; Penney, N., ed., The Household Account Book of Sarah Fell of Swarthmore Hall (Cambridge, 1920)Google Scholar.

27 Woolley, Hannah, The Gentlewoman's Companion or a GUIDE to the Female Sex (London, 1675), pp. 104–7Google Scholar.

28 Davies, Kathleen M., “Continuity and Change in Literary Advice on Marriage,” in Marriage and Society, ed. Outhwaite, R. B. (London, 1981), 5880Google Scholar.

29 Markham, G., The English Housewife (London, 1683), frontispieceGoogle Scholar.

30 Pepys wrote with greater frankness and at greater length than other diarists (Latham, R. and Matthews, W., eds., Diary of Samuel Pepys, 11 vols. [London, 19701983], 4:354, October 29, 1663)Google Scholar.

31 Todd (n. 7 above).

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