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Response to Review no. 162

We thank Matthew Hilton for his review of our book, and careful discussion of individual chapters. In response to some of his points, we should clarify that this volume was derived from a workshop at Warwick on Consumer Culture in Europe in 1996. This brought together colleagues at Warwick then at Warwick including Berg, Clifford, Spary, Jones, and Klonk working on aspects of consumer culture in the eighteenth century. Others speaking at this workshop including Pointon, De Marchi, Bianchi, Spang and Lowengard had close ties to the Warwick researchers. Other contributors to the volume, Ffoulkes and Nenadic were invited to extend the time range of the collection beyond the early modern and eighteenth centuries. The volume was intended to be multidisciplinary with contributions from economics, history, art history, material culture and history of science, but was relatively grounded in historical treatments, with little contribution from literature, aesthetics and philosophy. The workshop and this volume provided the jumping off point for the interdisciplinary Luxury Project that started at Warwick in 1997, and ran for three years. It continues during the current two years as a Leverhulme-funded project on Art and Industry during the eighteenth century.

The volume was very much a first step in taking the study of consumer culture into the frontiers of `luxury’, previously treated only as an aspect of the history of political thought or as a museum-based study of high luxury goods. It also sought to investigate some of the material basis of consumer and luxury goods, an aspect much lacking in earlier research on consumer culture, including the volumes edited by Brewer. In many ways this workshop and the chapters based on this were directed to opening up areas and questions for future research, or to presenting early findings in very new research areas. Many of the themes represented in the volume were followed up in greater depth, and in much more interdisciplinary frameworks in the conferences and workshops of the Luxury Project which followed. A new volume of essays, to be published by Palgrave Press, Luxury in the Eighteenth Century: Debates, Desire and Delectable Goods will be focussed on Luxury as an issue of the eighteenth century, and will include sections on the luxury debates, material goods, ideas of beauty, taste and sensibility, female luxury, and luxury and the exotic.

Matthew Hilton defines the volume, perhaps too narrowly in terms of a focus on middling class markets, and of historical treatments of these, and thus fails to understand the place of chapters dedicated to elite consumption. This may be the impression gathered from an introduction by two historians particularly interested in consumer goods for the rising middling classes, but the introduction nowhere states that this was the sole focus of the volume. The volume was both intended to be more multidisciplinary than this, and to include discussion of the very rich and the poor. The consumer cultures of the elite interacted with those of other social groups, and held an important place in representations of, and responses to luxury in the eighteenth century. Hilton himself conveys a sense of disapproval of histories of elite consumption, assuming that those of the middling classes are more appropriate subjects of historians’ attention.

Hilton’s response to the chapters arising from different academic traditions is also interesting. He appears to hold a rather old-fashioned idea about what economic historians do. At least some economic historians, and indeed some economists, are now exploring different fields, especially those involving the study of material culture and consumer objects. There is a long tradition of economic historians who have investigated qualitative aspects of the consumer objects and fashion demand, as well as their economic context. These have included Negley Harte, Beverly Lemire, Carlo Poni, Lorna Weatherill, as well, of course, as Neil McKendrick. (Indeed there was no special reason for neglecting discussion of McKendrick’s consumer revolution in the book; at this stage of debate it has simply become part of the assumed vocabulary).

There is also now a new engagement among some economists with art markets and the economics of fashion. This is best displayed by Neil De Marchi and Hans J. Van Miegroet in their research on pricing, dealers and Dutch art. It is also investigated by a number of the contributors to Marina Bianchi’s The Active Consumer. Hilton approves of Neil De Marchi’s history of economic thought, but not of Bianchi’s economics of novelty, discussed in her chapter on the tulip craze, but discounted in his view, because it contains no historical research. But an economics of product innovation has long been relatively neglected in consumer choice theory. Issues of novelty, surprise, diversity, recognition and seriality are vital to understanding the initial attraction of a commodity to consumers. The tulip craze is but one example of a much broader theory of product innovation and fashion marketing now attracting interest among economists. Another venue for debating these themes is to be found in design history; Representing Design, the Design History conference to be held at the V&A in September, 2001 will address themes of design and consumption.