2017 Conference blogs – A world of goods?

Jon Stobart, Manchester Metropolitan University

A world of goods?

In the context of Brexit, the question of Britain’s trading relations and its place in the world are being thrown into sharp relief. Arguments for looking beyond Europe and repositioning Britain in a global economy link back to earlier attempts to promote a global economy shaped by Empire. This was especially strong in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, but its roots run deep. Historians of eighteenth-century consumption, for instance, place much emphasis on the transformative impact of a whole range of colonial goods, from tea and sugar to calicoes and indigo. Some, like Troy Bickham and Jonathan Eacott go further and argue for Empire as a kind of ‘super-brand’ that shaped the worldview of ordinary people. Whilst persuasive in many respects, these arguments need to be challenged and tested against the continued importance of Europe in cultures of consumption during the long eighteenth century.

One way of exploring these relationships in a way that links us to the everyday lives of shopkeepers and consumers is to examine the names given to products, especially where those names include geographical locations: things like Jamaica pepper and Indian cottons, but also West Country woollens and Italian vermicelli. If we analyse these place-name associations as they appear in lists of shop goods, newspaper advertisements and the accounts of individual consumers, then it quickly becomes apparent that colonial place-names were increasingly deployed, especially with reference to groceries. Looking west, we see, amongst others: Jamaica pepper, coffee, sugar and ginger; Barbados sugar, tar and alloes, Martinique coffee, and Havana snuff, plus Virginia tobacco and pepper, American powder (i.e. snuff), and Carolina indigo and rice. Turning to the east, there was Sumatra pepper and bark, Indian soy, arrowroot, cottons and muslins, Bengals and Jaconets, East Indian ginger, rhubarb and rice, and Japan soy. This formed an impressive array of places that mapped both the expanding geography of empire and the influence of the East India Company as a monopolistic trader in many of the goods imported from the east. However, this list is easily out-numbered by references to a greater variety of places in Britain and Europe. The list is too long to reproduce in full, but included: Cheshire cheese, Norwich crapes, Coventry stuffs, Manchester tapes and cottons, London treacle, Kentish hops, Irish linen, Dutch serge and thread, French gauze, olives and salt, Savoy biscuits, Saxon cloth, Malaga grapes and Valencia shawls, Zante currants (from Greece), Genoan velvet, Florentine oil and silk, Roman capers and Parmesan cheese.

Stobart figure 1

Figure 1. Liverpool Mercury, 11 February 1820

From this, it is clear that shopkeepers and their customers were European as much as imperial in their mindset, the two sometimes appearing alongside each other on a single advertisement (Figure 1). This is underlined by the way that some colonial products which were processed in Europe gathered geographical associations along the way: Scotch snuff, for example, or Lisbon sugar. The association of snuff with Scotland became very strong, despite the ultimate source of the tobacco. In a remarkable trade card issued by the Robert Kitten, we see tea embodied by a Chinese man – a common trope by the late eighteenth century – and tobacco by a kilted Scotsman smoking a fashionable cigar (Figure 2). It seems doubtful that the customer was meant to see smoking as something Scottish, but the link between product and place was clear and carried meaning, not least in terms of the qualities of the product being sold. Lisbon sugar was a distinct type with particular material qualities. In contemporary recipes, it is often specified by name, the author assuming that the reader will understand exactly what the label signifies and that the reader will have a store of this particular commodity.

Stobart figure 2

Figure 2. Trade card of Robert Kitton of Norwich, early 19th century

Other colonial goods were usurped by British imitations, most famously the range of printed cottons produced in ever greater quantities in and around Manchester. These didn’t just replicate the products, they sometimes took on the same name, so we see advertisements like that places in the Bristol Mercury in 1822 announcing: ‘From the Manchester and Yorkshire Markets. Several Bales of Cambric, Jacconet, Nainsook, Corded, Checked and every other description of Muslins’.

Cook books show that consumers were interested in experimenting with new and exotic dishes such as curries and piccalilli, and confections linked to colonial places, including Carolina snow balls (rice and apple shaped into balls and boiled, and served with sweet sauce made with butter and white wine, flavoured with nutmeg and cinnamon). Whilst these are eye catching, far more recipes were linked to European places, with dishes in the Dutch, German, Spanish and French manner all featuring in Hannah Glasse’s Art of Cookery as it ran through successive editions. Indeed, she included more recipes ‘in the Jew’s way’ than those associated with India. Together with the growing taste for Italian food – seen in the burgeoning number of Italian warehouses and the quantities of Italian groceries purchased by consumers such as the Leighs of Stoneleigh Abbey in Warwickshire – this suggests a consumer culture that remained European in its focus.

This is not to deny the importance of colonial goods – they undoubtedly had a big impact on consumer culture in Britain and across Europe. However, we should be careful about assuming that, in buying colonial goods, people bought into the imperial project or even gave it much thought. From the evidence of the places explicitly linked to the things that they bought, they had Cheshire, Manchester and Italy on their mind just as much as Carolina, Jamaica or India.

Jon Stobart’s article on ‘Making the global local? Overseas goods in English rural shops, c.1600-1760’, published by Business History, is available here:





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