Fashioning Difference in Georgian England: Furniture For Him and For Her

Amanda Vickery

The creation and marketing of furniture specifically targeted at men and at women were decisive innovations of English manufacturers in the later eighteenth century. This chapter explores the emergence of designs for ladies’ and gentlemen’s objects in luxury cabinetwork in the 1760s. It confirms the penetration of ‘his and hers’ furniture amongst the middle market by the 1780s using upholsterers’ ledgers and charts the spread of gendered marketing to newspaper advertisements placed by upholsterers and furniture makers by the 1790s. This chapter does not claim that cabinetmakers were solely bent on manufacturing new constructions of femininity and masculinity; however, they were in the business of promoting an exploding range of needs and attributes that bespoke furniture could answer and express. Masculine business and feminine elegance were compelling design opportunities. In the catalogs and the furniture itself, masculinity was amplified, while femininity was aesthetically constrained. The solid and the dainty became design expressions of gender that are with us to this day.

The idea of gender-specific furniture owes everything to the pervasiveness of the classical rule of‘decorum’ as a system of organizing the proper relationship of people to things. Decorum was built on the recognition of fundamental divisions in society, from sex and age to rank, office, and occupation, and decreed that different forms of conduct and adornment were appropriate to one’s status, company, and occasion. Hence it would be indecorous for an old lady to bedeck herself in ribbons, a child to deliver a sermon, a tradesman to flounce like a lord, or a woman to ride astride. The maintenance of the traditional social and sexual hierarchy was the explicit goal of courtesy writing on decorum, good breeding, and politeness.1 It was these customary distinctions that sumptuary laws had tried to defend, and the flood of new commodities and non-landed wealth threatened to dissolve.

A universe of difference could be read in things. A Modem Dissertation on a Certain Necessary Piece of Household Furniture (1752) is an elaborate joke about chamber pots, in all their infinite variety — or to be more exact, their polymorphous uniformity. The ‘general utility’ of chamber pots was inarguable for ‘All Persons of both Sexes.’ But the ‘Make of these useful implements’ varied across the country, petite in the metropolis ‘tending rather to the fashion

Fashioning difference in Georgian England 413 of a pipkin,’ but larger and deeper in the regions. The material differed as much as the form.

The most costly sort are those that are cast in silver, and used by persons of the first rank. Those that are esteemed the neatest and chiefly intended for the fair sex are wrought in China adorned with Trees, or set off with a Variety of birds, beasts and fishes. Those which are composed of white Earth and neatly glazed are generally used by the Middling sort of people.. .the most Inferior sort are those which carry the ordinary Colours on their Outside, which the common People claim as their sole Property."

Clearly, this is a piece of toilet humor: to each their own potty.

The joke inheres in the fertility of Georgian commerce and the reductio ad absurdum of knowing one’s place. But chamber pots did indeed come in all these varieties. Even the unpretentious piss pot demonstrated innovation: white salt-glazed stoneware and naturalistic motifs on delftware and porcelain were all new. The chamber pot exemplified the burgeoning possibilities for design differentiation by gender, wealth, and rank.

Unsurprisingly, a person’s house and furnishings were supposed to be suitable to their rank, thereby conforming to the rule of decorum, helping maintain social distinctions, preventing social confusion, and ensuring the payment of respect to those of superior rank. Architectural and design manuals were built on these distinctions and borrowed freely from Vitruvius. As Isaac Ware counseled in 1756, ‘[tjhere are apartments in which dignity, others in which neatness, and others in which shew are to be consulted.’ Noble mansions should be fitted out differently from the homes of the ‘genteel,’ in a manner that was ‘bold, substantial and magnificent’ to ensure ‘a very august appearance.’ Genteel houses should aspire only to ‘convenience, neatness and elegance.’3

Sumptuary legislation enshrined decorous consumption in law. Sumptuary laws existed in classical Greece and Rome and can be found in most Western European countries in the later Middle Ages and early modern period. Yet the reign of sumptuary law was comparatively short in England: first attempted in 1336 and abandoned in 1604. English sumptuary law never applied to food or furnishings, only to apparel — limiting the use of silks and fur to the highborn, for instance. Perhaps, surprisingly, there were no proclamations relating to gender. There was much fulminating about the social confusion caused by the abuse of fine apparel by the unworthy, but there is scant evidence of prosecution.4

A wistful and unrealistic longing for the return of sumptuary law was one Georgian response to the parade of commercial wealth and the social blurring it inevitably entailed. As late as 1776, there were attempts to pass sumptuary laws in Poland. In the same year, Adam Smith castigated such legislation as ‘the highest impertinence and presumption.. .in kings and ministers.’3

However attractive the idea that the lower orders should know their place and not dress or decorate above their station, English liberty could not stomach government restriction in so private a matter as a citizen’s clothes. Economic common sense cautioned that government control would hinder the spread of higher-living standards and depress the economy. Nevertheless, a promiscuous leveling of social distinctions was a horrible prospect for most. The princely buying power of trade and industry meant that merchants’ wives might literally outshine their superiors in jewels and silks, resulting in the inexorable ‘prostitution of finery.’6

Decorum required at least a nominal acceptance of prevailing social distinctions. Maintenance of established hierarchies was its explicit goal. As a model of society, decorum was a conservative, simplistic, and static. It could not accommodate new social groups or social mobility; indeed, it tried to deny them altogether. Yet decorum was philosophically more all-encompassing than simply knowing one’s place. Decorum also expressed a vision of social harmony and cohesion and was the keystone of the code of manners which came to be known as politeness. And the reach of politeness was wide from solicitors to shopkeepers.7 Decorum married perfectly with early eighteenth-century aesthetics. Music, literature, and painting, as well as architecture and design, shared the language of harmony, proportion, and order. Indeed, taste was often described as an innate sense of decorum. Aesthetics, manners, and worldview were all of a piece. ‘Behaviour is like Architecture,’ opined Janies Forrester in the Polite Philosopher (1734), ‘the Symmetry of the whole pleases us so much, that we examine not into its Parts.’8 So, a Palladian building, proportioned according to the golden rules of geometry, could be seen as the quintessence of flawless beauty, but also a harmoniously ordered society.

Over the course of the eighteenth century, the principle of decorum became detached from its straightforward classical manifestation, as defenses of the waving line of beauty and celebrations of the sublime loosened the hegemony of geometry over aesthetics. By 1798, Maria Edgeworth decided that since ‘taste is governed by arbitrary and variable laws; the fashions of dress, of decoration, of manner, change from day to day,’ so encouraging an open mind in students was the best policy.

Show him, and you need go no farther than the Indian skreen, or the Chinese paper in your drawing-room for the illustration, that the sublime and beautiful vary at Pekin, at London, and at Westminster-bridge and on the banks of the Ganges.9

Nonetheless, the grammar of decorum was deeper than the expression of a passing fashion - it was about status, not style. In 1803, the designer Thomas Sheraton still urged that surroundings should mirror status: ‘particular regard is to be paid to the quality of those who order a house to be furnished.’10

Given the obsession with fixed distinctions in conservative commentary, it is unsurprising that both producers and consumers expected femininity and masculinity to be confirmed in appearances and possessions. However, the range of available props for the performance of gender was growing exponentially from the late seventeenth century. British dominance of international trade and manufacturing innovation introduced a host of entirely new objects, while it was the business of producers and retailers to encourage new behaviors and novel consumer wants. Some gender associations were historic. Ancient commodities like linen and cooking pots were indelibly linked to virtuous housewifery, but this traditional terrain swelled enormously in the eighteenth century. New sources of supply (from Silesia, Russia, Germany, and Ireland, as well as Holland) and the elaboration of domestic ceremony triggered a dizzying diversification of linens.11 Technical innovation in the foundry produced an array of highly specialized new metalwares for the kitchen, which demanded new technical expertise and launched new cuisine.12 In parallel, exotic imports like tea, coffee, chocolate, and Madeira tended to be marketed toward the sex of the early adopters and stereotypical users.13

Dichotomies abounded in the appreciation of design. Men were more associated with classical geometry and women with its sinuous and irregular alternatives; in gardening, gentlemanly ambitions encompassed the landscape park, but her ladyship devoted herself to flowers; in furnishings, elite men were seen to assert their dynastic claims in silver and mahogany, while women were credited with a discriminating eye for textiles and ceramics. Educational literature advised that young gentlemen be taught to judge architectural and landscape improvements, while girls were trained to give order and neatness, color, and texture indoors. Encountering the celebrated landscape architect Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown in 1767, Josiah Wedgwood ‘told him that my Life was devoted to the service of the Ladys as his was to that of the Noblemen & Gent[lemen].’14 These binary distinctions reinforced the supreme conviction that only men comprehended structure while women, like magpies, merely grasped details, a hierarchical dualism that is with us to this day in the snobberies of the male-dominated architectural profession and the critical disparagement of the feminized world of interiors.

The femininity or masculinity of certain styles and objects was a cliche of satire. Allusion to an object could be useful as shorthand for effeminacy or to telegraph one of life’s fundamental oppositions — petticoat versus the breeches, the tea table versus the desk, and the pen versus the needle. ‘Women are armed with fans as men with swords, and sometimes do more execution with them’ laughed The Spectator in 1711.1’ In a stage play of 1730, the caddish Gainlove repulsed Lady Science and married her daughter instead, appalled by her illegitimate pretensions: ‘the Dressing-Room, not the Study, is the Lady’s Province and a Woman makes as ridiculous a Figure, poring over Globes, or thro’ a Telescope, as a Man would with a Pair of Preservers mending Lace.’16 Key objects — the distaff, the petticoat - had long served as metonyms for woman herself.

Some journalistic cliches were grounded in repetitive consumer behavior. Account books confirm that millinery, linens, cottons, tea wares, and porcelain figurines were all bought and prized by women.17 On the other hand, several commodities characterized as feminine in the commercial and satirical imagination — like tea, china, novels, silks, printed cottons, and haberdashery - were not the sole preserve of women, but their widespread use by men did not dispel their womanish connotations. Indeed, the perfume of femininity may even have increased the charm of novels and porcelain for male connoisseurs behind closed doors. But some common implications (like the effeminacy of French and Chinese design) were merely fantasy, unconnected to the stylistic allegiances of Englishmen and women in practice. Scientific instruments did seem to have particular allure for men who had neither been inside a laboratory nor to sea. But telescopes, globes, barometers, and microscopes enjoyed a certain virile glamour by association with the glorious British navy and the adventure of exploration on the one hand, and the gradual emergence of the scientific profession, which defined any female contribution as exceptional and familial.18 Some links between the sexes and things were re-inscribed in marketing strategy. Life-size models of sailors guarded the entrance of instrument shops, but a gent visiting a milliner’s would have to fight his way through a curtain of petticoats in the doorway.19

A differentiation between men’s and women’s tasks, pleasures, tools, and ornaments is as old as civilization. The taboo against cross-dressing is antique. However, projecting the idea of a characteristic female demand was a groundbreaking departure in the history of marketing. The pioneers in Britain were the seventeenth-century booksellers and printers who addressed specialist titles to the ladies, while the post-1688 print boom saw the publication of custom-designed ladies’ pocket diaries, a proliferation of female manuals of all kinds, the Female Spectator in the 1740s, and the long-running Lady’s Magazine from 1770. The leap to objects was made in the new printed illustrated catalog of the 1760s.

This was a decisive breakthrough. Books of designs for furniture produced by London cabinetmakers were published from the 1750s, led by Thomas Chippendale. The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director of 1754 was crucial. It had no precedents either in Britain or France.20 Printed lists and catalogs of manufactured goods for sale were common enough by the mid-eighteenth century, but few were illustrated. Expensive, finely engraved design illustrations were sold as single sheets for an elite audience, but books of fine designs were confined to architecture. Most famous was Colen Campbell’s Vitruvius Britannicus, the handbook of neo-Palladianism published in 1715. Chippendale worked closely with architects, and his innovation in the Director was to apply the format of their illustrated publications to a book of furniture designs, commissioning finely engraved plates and soliciting a long list of aristocratic subscribers. Like books of architectural designs, the Director

Fashioning difference in Georgian England 417 was less a trade catalog than a vehicle for promoting Chippendale’s business to an elite clientele. Most of the furniture illustrated in the Director could not be bought off the shelf. First and foremost, the book was a declaration of Chippendale’s virtuosity as a designer and his appreciation of genteel cultural values. As a promotional vehicle for the Chippendale brand, it certainly worked. Chippendale secured a much wider range of big commissions after the Director’s publication in 1754 than before. Not surprisingly, his competitors quickly copied him.21

Lists and catalogs require taxonomies. The key categories the cabinetmakers employed in these new books of furniture designs were functional and stylistic. Niche products were designed for invalids, nursing mothers, children, the elderly, and the itinerant. But a new classification by gender appeared in the 1760s — writing tables, desks, and dressing tables could now be had either for ‘a lady’ or for ‘a gentleman.’22 The second edition of Genteel Household Furniture in the Present Taste, published by ‘a Society of Upholsterers, Cabinet Makers, etc.’ in 1761 or 1762, included a chinoiserie ‘Lady’s Desk,’ ‘Ladies’ Dressing Stools,’ and a rococo ‘Lady’s Bookcase.’23 The third edition of the Chippendale Director depicted a ‘Ladies writing table and book case’ (Figure 17.1) and dressing and toilet tables ‘for a lady.’24 In the same year, the London furniture makers Ince and Mayhew specified pieces for both men and women in their Universal System of Household Furniture. ‘The Lady’s Secretary’

Thomas Chippendale, ‘A Lady’s Writing Table and Bookcase,’ 1762

Figure 17.1 Thomas Chippendale, ‘A Lady’s Writing Table and Bookcase,’ 1762.

Source: Thomas Chippendale, The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker's Director, 3rd ed. (London: T. Chippendale, 1762), plate 116. Courtesy of the British Library Board.

William Ince and John Mayhew, ‘A Lady’s Toiletta,’ 1762

Figure 17.2 William Ince and John Mayhew, ‘A Lady’s Toiletta,’ 1762.

Source: William Ince and John Mayhew, The Universal System of Household Furniture (London: n.p., 1762), plate 37. Courtesy of the British Library Board.

had a counterpart in the ‘Gentleman’s Repository,’ while the ‘Ladies Toiletta’ (Figure 17.2) had a ‘Gentleman’s Dressing Table’ (Figure 17.3) for its mate.25 By 1778, an array of desks, cabinets, dressing chests, fire screens, travelling boxes, dressing stands, and tables for tasks, for him and for her, was offered in the Cabinet-Maker’s London Book of Prices, a publication aimed at the trade and flaunting its comprehensiveness. Thomas Sheraton followed the trend in his pattern book of 1793, elaborating upon it in his Cabinet Dictionary of 1803, where he anticipated that the lady’s cabinet would be ‘used to preserve their trinkets and other curious matters,’ while ‘the cabinets of gentlemen consist in ancient medals, manuscripts and drawing &c.’26 Paradoxically, only the survey published by a woman, the widow Alice Heppelwhite, bucked the trend.27

How far the birth of a marketing language of his and hers affected the construction of the objects themselves is a matter of debate. Furniture curators often see scant difference in the build, complexity, materials, finish,

William Ince and John Mayhew, ‘Bureau Dressing Table,’ 1762

Figure 17.3 William Ince and John Mayhew, ‘Bureau Dressing Table,’ 1762.

Source: William Ince and John Mayhew, The Universal System of Household Furniture (London: n.p., 1762), plate 40. Courtesy of the British Library Board.

decorative motifs, or style of the pieces aimed at women and men. Only in scale do they differ, claims Louisa Collins of the V&A, men’s furniture tending to the massive and imposing, ladies’ furniture being typically more petite and compact.28 However, their makers present very different claims. By 1803, Sheraton’s secretaries for ladies were desks ‘of a small size, usually with a book shelf in the top part,’ while the gentleman’s secretary is ‘intended for standing to write at’ and was a substantial piece ‘with a cupboard for a pot and slippers’ and ‘a place for day book, ledger, and journal, for a gentleman’s own accounts’ (Figure 17.4).29 The furniture designs presume that women’s writing was a delicate drawing room performance, while men’s business was altogether more important and authoritative.

Within 20 years, these novel categories had reached the middle market. Suppliers of furnishings in England went by the title of upholster or upholder, but offered a more extensive range of products than the term ‘upholstery’ suggests, providing a full service more akin to that of a modern interior decorator. Probably, the earliest known British upholder’s accounts are those of Jonathan Hall of London, whose records cover the years 1701—1735.30 Hall makes no reference whatsoever to furniture titled a lady’s this, or a gentleman’s whatnot, but 50 years later, the trade was warming to the new gimmick. The upholsterer and cabinetmaker James Brown was based at 29 St Paul’s Churchyard in the city, the heart of London’s furniture district. His

Thomas Sheraton, ‘A Lady’s Writing Table. Gentleman’s Secretary,’ 1803. Source

Figure 17.4 Thomas Sheraton, ‘A Lady’s Writing Table. Gentleman’s Secretary,’ 1803. Source: Thomas Sheraton, The Cabinet Dictionary (London: W. Smith, 1803), plate 71. Courtesy of the British Library Board.

ledgers survive for the years 1782—1791, and insurance records reveal a substantial business. And when the ‘elegant and valuable’ stock in trade was sold in 1791, The Times promised an Aladdin’s cave of tropical wood:

...Beautiful Mahogany and superb inlaid modern Furniture, of the first Taste and Workmanship, in Secretaries and Bookcases, Wardrobes, Dressing, Dining, Pier, and Pembroke Tables, Commodes, Cylinder Desks, Side-boards, Dressing Glasses, large Pier Glasses and Girandoles in rich gilt Frames, Travelling Desks, Writing Boxes, Tea Trays, Tea Chests, Caddies and numerous Fancy Articles beautifully inlaid, the whole finished in a Stile of superior Taste, and in the highest Perfection. 31

Furniture is to the fore in the sale (which could be bespoke, ready-made, or second-hand), but like other upholsterers, Brown offered miscellaneous services, too, from wallpaper hanging and furniture hire, repairs, and dry cleaning to fumigation for vermin and undertaking.32 Brown fostered a predominantly metropolitan, professional, and mercantile clientele, with a sprinkling of provincial gentry — catering to an array of domestic needs.33

It was quite possible for men and women to buy furniture linked to their pleasures and tasks without recourse to an explicit language of ‘lady’s’ and ‘gentleman’s.’ Brown had long offered shaving stands and nursing chairs.

Similarly, the workbox was a standard piece of female paraphernalia, so ar-chetypically feminine that further specification was redundant.34 The trappings of domestic alcohol consumption — bottle stands and bottle cases, cistern, wine cooler, and cellarets — were redolent of masculine clubbability. Of course, there was no law that prevented a widow from buying a mahogany cellaret and deal camp bed or a bachelor a tulipwood sewing box and tea tray. Nevertheless, there were some customary differences in the patterns of male and female consumption, in so far as names in an order book are a guide.

The gender breakdown of Brown’s customer base is in line with other luxury trades. Female customers are in a minority in the ledgers.35 Married women’s choices were deliberately concealed behind the names of their men in most shopkeepers’ and manufacturers’ accounts because women’s debts were hard to recover in common law. In the order book for 1785, Brown listed 233 customers; of these, 33 clients were designated only by surname, but of the remaining 200 orders, only 30 were booked in a woman’s name, so nominally women only accounted for barely 15 per cent of the trade. The remaining 168 customers were male (84 per cent), while two orders were made in both men and women’s names. Most of Brown’s female customers claimed to be married or widowed (all but 4 of the 30 female clients in 1785 assumed the title Mrs.). Occasionally, women made large orders, but most tended to commission a single piece, while men tended to make the largest orders, though they too can be seen ordering individual pieces which speak to personal needs and amusement — a chess set, backgammon table, music stool, a camp shaving stand, and a bidet. Equally, there were also numerous male orders which conjured the needs and interests of a wife and bevy of daughters.

By 1782, Brown was tailoring some designs explicitly to the perceived needs of ladies (the company may have crafted lady’s cabinetwork even earlier, but no order books survive). In May 1782, a Liverpool merchant, mine and canal owner, Nicholas Ashton Esq., ordered ‘1 Neat inlaid Ladies sattin wood secretary & Book case,’ probably for his second wife and new house Woolton Hall (both acquired the previous year). Rich and pretentious, Ashton also employed leading architect Robert Adam to remodel the Liverpool manor, so he had an eye for the cutting edge of fashion. In the same year, the Brown warehouse provided Mrs. Warner with a ‘Ladys dressing case’; Mr. Lancaster, a Cheapside lead merchant, with T ladies Firestick secretary 2 f9 long’; and Sir Edward Newnham, of Suffolk Street, London, with another ‘inlaid Ladies Dressing case.’ The following year, 1783, Brown supplied four ladies’ dressing cases, two to London women: Mrs. Olivier in Broad Street Buildings and Mrs. Prevost in Little Ormond Street. By 1787, Brown had widened his range of ladies’ furniture to present a matching suite. A leading Leeds woolen merchant, John Denison Esq., ordered a ‘satinwood lady’s secretary and bookcase, a satinwood lady’s dressing table to suit, a lady’s spider table, two spider chamber tables, and a vase dressing glass, tulip band.’ Denison had inherited the great Leeds business not two years before, built Denison Hall in Leeds in 1786, and married in 1787. A chic feminine apartment would be just the

Thomas Sheraton, ‘A Gentleman’s Shaving Table,’ 1803

Figure 17.5 Thomas Sheraton, ‘A Gentleman’s Shaving Table,’ 1803.

thing for a bride of three months.36 Whether the new Mrs. Denison actually made the choice, the ledger characteristically does not reveal.

Within a year of his first ladies’ pieces, Brown offered furniture avowedly designed for the gentlemen. The leading gentleman’s fixture was the shaving and/or dressing table. In 1803, Sheraton suggested that the dressing table could swing either way - ‘a table so constructed as to accommodate a gentleman or a lady with convenience for dressing’ (Figure 17.5).37 Craftily, Brown modified his ladies’ prototype in 1783 for a Lawrence Cutler of Love Lane -‘1 ladys dressing case with some alterations for a gent 2—5-0.’ Gentlemen’s dressing and shaving tables were commissioned at a rate of one or two a year thereafter, sometimes alongside other pieces aimed at the man about town, like a mahogany cordial case or cellaret.38

James Brown’s cabinetwork was not in the vanguard of fashion like that of Chippendale and Linell, but nor was it far adrift. Fragments of evidence suggest that other London cabinetmakers offered ladylike furniture around the same time.39 Ladies’ furniture in satinwood — a yellowish West-Indian timber with a satiny sheen - was aimed at the carriage trade. This tropical wood had only just come into fashionable use in the previous decade. Expensive male pieces tended to be crafted in darker mahogany. However, the warehouse produced ladies’ and gentlemen’s pieces in cheaper woods and finishes,

Table 17.1 Advertisements for goods, shops, and entertainments in four editions of The Times, 179640

Type of advertiser

Number of advertisements

No addressee

Female addressee

Male addressee

Addressee not gendered












































a This advertisement, which was addressed to ‘Gentlemen,’ was for the Portugal wine company.

so could adapt the concept for different segments of the market. Identifying a new niche and exploiting it is the very essence of successful trade. It is doubtful that cabinetmakers had any special investment in developing new conceptions of femininity and masculinity, but they had every interest in promoting an ever-expanding variety of perceived needs and qualities that bespoke furniture could meet and express.

Gendered marketing had spread beyond catalogs and ledgers to newspaper advertisements placed by upholsterers and furniture makers by the 1790s (Table 17.1). It was linen drapers, mercers, and other dealers in clothing or textiles who were most likely to address their advertisements ‘to the Ladies’ or ‘for the Attention of the Ladies’ or to include ‘ladies’ items in their lists. Furniture sellers were more sparing in the language of his and hers. Unisex categories were more common, especially the obsequious ‘to the Nobility and Gentry.’ Direct appeal to women was heavily concentrated in the traditionally female domains of fabrics and fashions, while men as a sex were hardly identified as addressees at all. Nevertheless, this is a departure, since a gendered language of address is almost non-existent in early eighteenthcentury adverts. Moreover, The Times commanded a far wider readership than a cabinetmaker’s catalog and documents the steadily extending reach of gendered advertising.

The eighteenth century experienced the first large-scale use of impersonal, widely broadcast print advertising. Newspaper and magazine adverts, handbills, and trade cards all were in limited use in the seventeenth century, but exploded after 1695, when the licensing act lapsed. Individual newspaper adverts almost certainly ran into millions in the eighteenth century, supplementing older methods such as shop signs and the crying of goods.41 The authors of eighteenth-century advertising were precocious inventers of techniques for the new medium. As design historians have pointed out, ‘just as the early film makers of the silent era experimented with almost all the visual techniques that have subsequently been used in the cinema,

Detail of a bill advertising ‘The Queens Royal Furniture Gloss,’ c. 1798. In a scene comparable to modern TV advertising, two women discuss the merits of furniture polish

Figure 17.6 Detail of a bill advertising ‘The Queens Royal Furniture Gloss,’ c. 1798. In a scene comparable to modern TV advertising, two women discuss the merits of furniture polish.

Source: Advertisement for “The Queen’s Royal Furniture Gloss,” c. 1798, British Museum, London, D2-1281, printed engraving. © Trustees of the British Museum.

so eighteenth-century advertisers tried out many of the devices employed in modern advertising copy’ (Figure 17.6).42 Early techniques included the direct sell, unsurprisingly, but also advertorial, celebrity endorsements and testimonials, plus the use of a battery of psychological devices from patriotism to anxiety to envy. There remains a certain alchemy governing the precise workings of advertising on the audience. Both Lord Leverhulme and the Philadelphia department store magnate John Wanamaker are credited with the saying: ‘Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted and the trouble is I don’t know which half.’43 Nevertheless, there is some research which confirms the effectiveness of advertising well down the social scale in Georgian England. John Styles has demonstrated that newspaper advertisements and handbills were successful in bringing offenders to trial in almost a third of horse stealing cases in the north of England in the second half of the eighteenth century.44 One mocks the power of advertising to galvanize consumers at one’s peril.

The taxonomies of catalogs would become even more significant for the Victorians. The classifications used in eighteenth-century furniture catalogs provided a template for the printed catalogs circulated in far greater numbers by the new furnishing drapers of the mid-nineteenth century. Furnishing drapers were sellers, not makers, buying in furniture from specialist

Fashioning difference in Georgian England 425 manufacturers to supply the burgeoning Victorian middle classes. Catalogs and showrooms were the key sales techniques for this new kind of retailing.43 The catalog had eclipsed the middling bespoke cabinetmaker. Classification now had a massive reach.

Of course, the sexes were not entirely the tools of the market. A belief in the passivity of the consumer is a relic of Marxist analysis. Innovative manufacturers were not so contemptuous of their customers — only too aware that consumers rejected many if not most novel products and that the majority of exciting prototypes were not taken up. As Joss Wedgwood, son of the great potter, warned his brother Tom in 1790:

Your black tea ware with lively colours I dare say will please the foreigners but the English I am afraid will not admire them. [W]e are not bold enough to adopt at once anything that is new and beautiful but require the sanction of fashion to give it value.

Developing new lines involved a sophisticated process of listening, translating, adapting, flattering, and seducing.46 Requests for adaptations to designs were routine. After all, the raison d’etre of‘bespoke’ was the modification of the design to suit the whims of the customer.

It is quite possible that dainty desks disciplined the women who sat at them to dainty performances. Dena Goodman claims that French femininity was forged at delicate writing desks, which proliferated from the 1740s. Ladies showed their mastery of what Mimi Hellman calls the ‘work of leisure’ in flawless writing at tiny tables, flourishing their props with exquisite control in a ‘choreography of the quill.’ It is no small matter today to sit at one of these fragile desks without knocking it over or barking your shins, but in plentiful petticoats, unwieldy hoops, and frilled sleeves, fashionable letter writing was a feat of trained elegance which testified to the ultimate refinement of the French.47 Nevertheless, furniture curators stress that French men had their secretaires too, along with handy mechanical tables, as well as the imposing cylinder desks associated with business and power.48 Who’s to say how many gents dashed off letters at a ladies’ desk? People have ever used furniture in ways unanticipated by advertisers or interior designers. The Birmingham Unitarian Catherine Hutton was given ‘a handsome chest of drawers’ by her historian father ‘in compensation’ for his refusal to send her to boarding school in the 1760s: ‘one drawer, by my especial order, being fitted up as a writing desk. This chest was my own...49

It does not follow that a spindly ladies’ desk and capacious gents’ bureau had occult power to govern the behavior of their owners. It takes models, training, practice, and compliance to handle props as fashion expects, as manufacturers were only too aware. Tradesmen’s correspondence abounds with complaints about the obtuseness of consumers. Improper use of the cellaret was a grumbling concern; there was a risk that unsophisticated guests might mistake a cellaret for a close stool and piss in it by mistake. The cabinetmaker

Gillows recommended an oval temporary cellar to a Yorkshire gentleman in 1773 as ‘they are always made to hold water upon occasion and are the most (nay quite) unlike a night table or close stool.’50 Objects rely on situated knowledge to work their magic. They can mean nothing to the uninitiated.

It is not argued here that eighteenth-century marketing invented gender. Sex distinctions in clothes are as old as civilization, and the idea of furniture suited to female needs is not unprecedented (think of birthing stools), but making difference systematic and concrete by means of word, image, and object was a decisive innovation. The rapid diffusion of ladies’ and gentlemen’s furniture suggests that gender distinctions already resonated powerfully with male and female consumers, but in the extension of the range of differentiated furniture, the projection of the trope by manufacturers thereafter, and its acceptance by consumers, a vision of masculine consequence and feminine delicacy was amplified and fixed. In the process, femininity was constrained in a specific and narrowly defined aesthetic register. The solid and the dainty emerged as design expressions of masculinity and femininity. Men were important and women were pretty, and they had the furniture to prove it.


The germ of this chapter can be found in Amanda Vickery, Behind Closed Doors: At Home with the Georgians (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), 279—287, where I first noted the emergence of his and hers furniture. I have developed my thoughts on the causes and contexts of this development in conference papers at the ‘Early Modern Things’ workshop at Stanford; the North American Conference of British Studies, Baltimore, Maryland; the conference in honor of Penelope Corfield at the Institute of Historical Research, London; and the European University in Fiesole, Italy. I thank the audience and participants at all four events for their comments and criticisms. For advice and references, I am also indebted to Antonia Brodie, Patricia Fara, Paula Findlen, Mia Jackson, Lucy Inglis, Luca Mola, Carolyn Sargentson, John Styles, Julie Wakefield, Evelyn Welch, and Rose Wild.


  • 1 There is a large literature on civility, courtesy literature, and conduct books, but the best survey remains: Fenela Childs, ‘Prescriptions for Manners in English Courtesy Literature, 1690—1760’ (DPhil diss., Oxford University, 1984). On decorum, see ch. 3.
  • 2 Anon, A Modem Dissertation on a Certain Necessary Piece of Household Furniture (London: H. Kent, 1752), 8, 10, 12—13. For all you ever needed to know about chamber pots, see Ivor Noel Hume, ‘Through the Lookinge Glasse: or, the Chamber Pot as a Mirror of its Time,’ Ceramics in America (2003): 139-172.
  • 3 Isaac Ware, A Complete Body of Architecture (London: T. Osborne and J. Shipton, 1756), 469; Thomas Sheraton, The Cabinet Dictionary (London: W. Smith, 1803), 194, 201, 217-218.

On sumptuary law, see Negley B. Harte, ‘State Control of Dress and Social Change in Pre-Industrial England,’ in Trade, Government and Economy in Preindustrial England, ed. D. C. Coleman and Arthur H. John (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1976), 132—165; Susan Vincent, Dressing the Elite: Clothes in Early Modern England (Oxford: Berg, 2003), 117-143.

Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations (London, Methuen & Co., 1930 [first edition 1776]), 1: 328.

Childs, ‘Manners,’ 156—159.

There is a vast and growing literature on politeness, but see especially Lawrence Klein, ‘Politeness for Plebes: Consumption and Social Identity in Early Eighteenth-Century England,’ in The Consumption of Culture, 1600—1800: Image, Object, Text, ed. Ann Bermingham and John Brewer (London: Routledge, 1995), 362-382.

James Forrester, The Polite Philosopher (Dublin: n.p, 1734), 25.

Maria Edgeworth, Essays on Practical Education, 3 vols (London: Simpkin and Marshall, 1822), 3: 8. On changing ideals, see Walter J. Bate, From Classic to Romantic: Premises of Taste in Eighteenth Century England (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1946).

Sheraton, The Cabinet Dictionary, 215-216.

On the production of linen, see Margaret Spufford, The Great Reclothing of Rural England: Petty Chapmen and their Wares in the Seventeenth Century (London: Hambledon Press, 1984), chs. 6 and 7; Negley B. Harte, ‘The Rise of Protection and the English Linen Trade, 1690—1790,’ in Textile History and Economic History: Essays in Honour of Miss Julia de Lacey Mann, ed. Negley B. Harte and Kenneth G. Ponting (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1973), 74—112. On the expansion of quantity of linens at home, see Mark Overton et al., Production and Consumption in English Households, 1600-1750 (London: Routledge, 2004), 108—111, 118—119, 142. For domestic rituals, see Vickery, Behind Closed Doors, 14, 272, 290, 294, 295, 302.

Nancy Cox, “‘A Flesh Pott, or a Brasse Pott or a Pott to Boile in”: Changes in Metal and Fuel Technology in the Early Modern Period and the Implications for Cooking,’ in Gender and Material Culture in Historical Perspective, ed. Moira Donald and L. M. Hurcombe (Houndmills: St. Martin’s Press, 2000), 143—157; Overton et al., Production and Consumption, 98—102; Sara Pennell, “‘Pots and Pans History”: The Material Culture of the Kitchen in Early Modern England,’ Journal of Design History 11.2 (1998): 201—216; David Eveleigh, Old Cooking Utensils (Princes Risborough: Shire, 1986).

On tea and tea wares, see Elizabeth Kowaleski-Wallace, Consuming Subjects: Women, Shopping and Business in the Eighteenth Century (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), 19—36; David Porter, ‘A Wanton Chase in a Foreign Place: Hogarth and the Gendering of Exoticism in the Eighteenth-Century Interior,’ in Furnishing the Eighteenth Century, ed. Dena Goodman and Kathryn Norberg (New York: Routledge, 2007), 55; Hilary Young, English Porcelain, 1745—95: Its Makers, Design, Marketing and Consumption (London: V&A Publications, 1999); and Sarah Richards, Eighteenth-Century Ceramics: Products for a Civilised Society (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999). On coffee and Madeira and men, see Brian Cowan, ‘What was Masculine about the Public Sphere? Gender and the Coffeehouse Milieu in Post-Restoration England,’ History Workshop Journal 51 (2001): 127-157; and David Hancock, Oceans of Wine: Madeira and the Emergence of American Trade and Taste (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009).

Josiah Wedgwood, Correspondence of Josiah Wedgwood, ed. Katherine E. Farrer, 3 vols (Manchester: Morten, 1903), 1: 143-144.

The Spectator 102, Wednesday, June 27, 1711.

James Miller, The Humours of Oxford (Dublin: Powell, 1730), 82. For a gloss, see Patricia Fara, Pandora’s Breeches: Women, Science and Power in the Enlightenment (London: Pimlico, 2004), 11, who gave me this reference.

Amanda Vickery, ‘His and Hers: Gender, Consumption and Household Accounting in 18th-Century England,’ in The Art of Survival: Gender and History in Europe, 1450—2000, ed. Ruth Harris and Lyndal Roper (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 12—38.

On gender and science, see especially Fara, Pandora’s Breeches, passim.

Claire Walsh, ‘Shops, Shopping, and the Art of Decision Making in Eighteenth-Century England,’ in Gender, Taste and Material Culture in Britain and North America, ed. John Styles and Amanda Vickery (New Haven, CT: Yale Center for British Art, 2006), 151—177.

It is difficult to prove a negative, but research so far has not turned up any equivalents either in France or Italy. Luca Mola and Carolyn Sargentson, personal communication.

Christopher Gilbert, The Life and Work of Thomas Chippendale (London: Cassell, 1978), 65—92; Clive Edwards, Eighteenth-Century Furniture (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996), 146—148.

The elaboration of furniture classification in catalogs has been examined by Louisa Collins, ‘Elite Women, Writing and Furniture, 1750-1800’ (MA diss., V&A/RCA History of Design, 2005), and Akiko Shimbo, ‘Pattern Books, Showrooms and Furniture Design: Interactions between Producers and Consumers in England 1754—185T (PhD diss., University of London, 2007).

Society of Upholsterers, Cabinet Makers, etc., Genteel Household Furniture in the Present Taste (London: R. Sayer, 1760), plates 11, 53, 54.

Thomas Chippendale, Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director, 3rd ed. (London: T. Chippendale, 1762), plates 51, ‘A Dressing-Table for a Lady,’ and 116, ‘A Writing-Table and Bookcase for a Lady.’

William Ince and Jonathan Mayhew, Universal System of Household Furniture (London: n.p., 1762), plates xviii, xxi, xxxvii, xl.

Thomas Sheraton, The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Drawing Book in Three Parts (London: T. Bensley, 1793); Sheraton, The Cabinet Dictionary, 115.

Alice Heppelwhite, The Cabinet Maker and Upholsterer’s Guide (London: I. and J. Taylor, 1788).

Collins, ‘Elite Women, Writing and Furniture.’

Sheraton, Drawing Book, 397, 405, 409; Sheraton, Cabinet Dictionary, 303.

West Yorkshire Archive Service, Calderdale, SH 3/AB/8-15, Jonathan Hall of Eiland and London, 1701-1735.

The Times, June 9, 1791; Christopher Gilbert, Pictorial Dictionary of Marked London Furniture 1700—1840 (London: Furniture History Society, 1996); Geoffrey Beard, Dictionary of English Furniture Makers, 1660—1840 (London: Furniture History Society, 1986).

The National Archives, Kew, UK, C107/109: James Brown, 29 St Paul’s Churchyard, London, upholsterer.

The social status of the consumer is obscure in the majority of entries for 1785 (148/233, 64 per cent), however, Brown was patronized by 3 lords, 18 esquires, and 1 sir in that year, with the largest single occupational group being the professions (17 lawyers, clerics, army, and naval officers), supplemented by provincial merchants and metropolitan tradesmen.

See Vickery, Behind Closed Doors, 231—256, 283.

Named female customers are in a minority in all surviving ledgers. See Louise Lippincott, Selling Art in Georgian London: The Rise of Arthur Pond (New Haven,

CT: Yale University Press, 1983): 66—69; Judith A. Anderson, ‘Derby Porcelain and the Early English Fine Ceramic Industry, c.1750—1830* (PhD diss., University of Leicester, 2002), passim; Helen Clifford, Silver in London: The Parker and Wakelin Partnership, 1760—1776 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004), 138.

Inheritance, house, marriage, and furnishing are a typical sequence amongst the propertied. John Denison was probably the richest merchant in Leeds, with a partnership in a London merchant house and an estate at Ossington Hall, Nottinghamshire as well as the new Leeds townhouse. Denison commissioned Sir John Soane to draw up plans for the improvement of Ossington, which were never realized. Denison subsequently employed William Lindley.

Sheraton, Cabinet Dictionary, 202.

For example, Jonathan Fryer ofWapping Dock, London ordered T gentleman’s dressing table with a pot cupboard, washing drawer, a riddett, and shaving tackle’ for ¿£13-13-0 and T curious mahogany cordial case for 6 bottles, lined with velvet, strong silver handles at top. Ditto escution. Ditto hinges screws and lock and three spare bottles’ for ¿7-7-0.

In 1783, Joseph Lewis, a London cabinetmaker, supplied Charlestonian Thomas Hutchinson with ‘a ladies dressing table of mahogany’: Elizabeth Fleming, ‘Staples for Genteel Living: The Importation of London Household Furnishings in Charleston during the 1780s,’ American Furniture (1997): 336—337.

The Tunes, January 23, 1796; April 23, 1796; July 23, 1796; October 24, 1796.

R. B. Walker, ‘Advertising in London Newspapers, 1650—1750,’ Business History 15.2 (1973): 130.

John Styles, ‘Manufacturing, Consumption and Design in Eighteenth-Century England,’ in Consumption and the World of Goods, ed. John Brewer and Roy Porter (London: Routledge, 1993), 540—541. A classic study of the marketing of pots and the advertizing of shaving tackle is Neil McKendrick, John Brewer and J. H. Plumb, The Birth of the Consumer Society: The Commercialization of Eighteenth-Century England (London: Europa, 1983), 100—194.

Ascribed to John Wanamaker in Martin Mayer, Whatever Happened to Madison Avenue?: Advertising in the 90s (Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1991), 138; but originally attributed to William Hesketh Lever, Viscount Leverhulme, according to Tony Augarde, Oxford Dictionary of Modern Quotations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 136.

John Styles, ‘Print and Policing: Crime Advertising in Eighteenth-Century Provincial England,’ in Police and Prosecution in Britain in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, ed. Douglas Hay and Francis Snyder (Oxford: Clarendon, 1989), esp. 71, 92, 111.

Margaret Ponsonby, Stories from Home: English Domestic Interiors, 1750-1850 (Aidershot: Ashgate, 2007), 45.

Keele University Library, W/M 28 (1790 Sunday), Josiah (Joss) Wedgwood, Greek St.:

I think you are right with respect to the impropriety of adopting the whims of customers and bringing them into use; but in this matter I believe you must not be too rigid. There are many cases in which it is necessary to humour them, especially in a business that depends almost entirely upon must consider that it has been in a great measure owing to the taking up hints given by customers and bringing them to perfection that this manufactory has established its character for Universality.

For failed products, see John Styles, ‘Product innovation in Early Modern London,’ Past and Present 168.1 (2000): 124—169.

  • 47 Mimi Hellman, ‘Furniture, Sociability, and the Work of Leisure in Eighteenth-Century France,’ Eighteenth-Century Studies 32.4 (1999): 415—445; Dena Goodman, Becoming a Woman in the Age of Letters (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009), passim.
  • 48 Personal communication from Carolyn Sargentson, who is currently working on a four-volume catalog of French furniture in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
  • 49 Catherine Hutton Beale, Reminiscences of a Gentlewoman of the Last Century: Letters of Catharine Hutton (Birmingham: Cornish Bros., 1891), 4.
  • 50 Susan E. Stuart, Gillows of Lancaster and London, 1730-1840: Cabinetmakers and International Merchants: A Furniture and Business History, 2 vols. (Woodbridge: Antique Collector’s Club, 2008), 2: 98: Letter to Sir Thomas Frankland at Stockeld Park, Yorkshire, November 1773.

Part VII


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