Consuming Splendor: Luxury Goods in England, 1580–1680

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The Treatise of Japaning and Varnishing showed consumers how to make luxury goods at home. 6874.

Consuming Splendor: Luxury Goods in England, 1580–1680, one of the Exhibitions at the Folger, opened September 15, and closed on December 31, 2005. The exhibition was curated by Linda Levy Peck and Rachel Doggett.

Demand for luxury goods—rich fabrics, lacquered furniture, tapestries, chimneypieces, silver, porcelain, crystal, paintings, watches, and fine jewels—grew dramatically in England during the first half of the seventeenth century. Exotic products, such as tobacco, coffee, chocolate, and tea from the Indies, Asia, and Africa penetrated the English market, creating new public spaces and private rituals. People at many levels of society spent more time and more money dressing themselves, decorating their houses, and whetting their appetites. To meet increasing demand, the first London shopping malls were created. New goods from home and abroad marked their purchasers as fashionable, cosmopolitan, and, in the words of contemporaries, "modern."

Consuming Splendor examined the ways in which the consumption of luxury goods transformed social practices, royal policies, and the economy in seventeenth-century England. It told the story of new goods, new aspirations, and new ways to shop; new building, furnishing, and collecting; and the new relationship of luxury, technology, and science. Over the course of the seventeenth century, luxury consumption and the appropriation of artifacts and skills from abroad transformed England into a center of European growth and innovation.

Exhibition material

A pile of rich furs. Folger Digital Image 6101.

Shops and Goods

"What is't you buy?"

The new and fashionable attracted shoppers, from the country girl who wanted to buy "London silk" from her local draper and haberdasher to the well-to-do who demanded and increasingly diverse range of luxury goods from abroad. Merchants used their knowledge to tailor goods such as Venetian glass and Chinese porcelain to the home market. As business prospered, they extended credit to those shoppers without cash on hand. At the same time, contemporary representations of shopping in sermons, plays, courtesy literature, and court cases dwelt on the dangers of shopping and the bargaining away of virtue and estate.

Tokens from the Seven Stars, the White Hart, and Mary Long's at the Sign of the Rose, were issued by tradesmen in part because of the scarcity of small coins, but they also served to advertise the businesses they represented. In the 1650s and 1660s, hundreds of shopkeepers issued and distributed such tokens, enabling eager shoppers to purchase items like the luxurious fur muffs shown in this engraving by Czech artist Wenceslaus Hollar.

The muffs, lace collars, gloves, and fans so skillfully depicted by Hollar were also celebrated in the grand portraits of the period. Men and women sitting for portraits were sure to be depicted wearing the most sumptuous and fashionable clothes and surrounded by rich fabrics, tapestries, and other goods that signaled their wealth and nobility.

Items included

  • Wenceslaus Hollar. A Group of Muffs and Articles of Dress on a Table. Etching. Antuerpiae: 1647. Call number: ART 250- 011 (size S) and LUNA Digital Image.
  • Tradesman's tokens from the Seven Stars, the White Hart, and the Mary Long in Russell Street Covent Garden, 17th century. Call number: ART H-P A1b; displayed nos. 6, 8, and 32.

Shopping in London

In the Middle Ages, the English bought goods at fairs, from peddlers, or from pushcarts. By the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, shops were often in craftsmen's houses. London was the major center for shopping, the focus of consumers all over the country who shopped themselves or through an agent. Houses on London Bridge contained small shops, while other markets boasted shops for goldsmiths, mercers, and sellers of leather goods. Both the Royal Exchange and, later, the New Exchange brought new shopping practices, creating boutiques where the well-to-do could shop in private and parade publicly. Shopping had become a new form of entertainment.

London's Markets

Thirteen London open-air markets are depicted in Hugh Alley's book of drawings, which he created to call attention to the abuses of market regulations. The drawings show both common markets, where non-citizens sold food produced outside of the city, and citizen markets. You can view his manuscript in its entirety in the Folger's Digital image collection.

London's Latest Fashions

Sir Hugh Smith of Long Ashton, near Bristol, a well-to-do country gentleman, had been knighted by King James I in 1603. Renowned for his melancholic disposition, it is said that he cared for nothing but breeding horses and equipping himself with the latest London fashions. His god-son, Stephen Smith, lived in London and acted as his personal shopper, keeping him up-to-date on the contemporary styles.

This manuscript is a communique between the two relatives concerning Sir Hugh's previous requests for scarlet hose to show of his "good leg," a scarlet suit, and Spanish boots. Stephen also writes of the latest fashions in summer doublets: "Your Taylor and I considered that canvas was only fit for summer....Canvas doublets are now much in request and they are all made plain or trimmed with white lace...."

The Folger has a series of nine autographed letters signed by Stephen Smith to his god-father, largely concerning fashionable goods he was purchasing or having made for Sir Hugh, including a dagger and a hanger for a wood-knife.

This watercolor is only one of a large collection of illustrations once in an album amicorum, or "book of friendship." These albums are comprised of autographs, writings, and paintings collected from friends and bound together by the owner. Travelers and students often kept these albums, collecting illustrations that documented the manners and costumes of different classes and countries.

Royal Exchange

Thomas Gresham's Royal Exchange, which had opened in 1570, broke new ground in luxury consumption. Modeled after the Antwerp Bourse, it brought together merchants in international trade, those who sailed to Russia, North Africa, American, and elsewhere in search of luxury goods. There were two floors of small shops, each only five feet by seven and one-half feet. At first Gresham had trouble filling them, but by the end of the century there was a waiting list of merchants eager to set up shop at the Exchange.

Items included

Continental Architecture: Magnificence, Refinement, and Comfort

Seventeenth-century building was shaped by political power, changing social relationships, economic development, and new mentalities. Inigo Jones and other court architects and builders influenced both the London cityscape and country architecture. Magnificence, refinement and comfort were the most important aspirations.

Writers and publishers profited from the growing market for books on continental architecture in the early seventeenth century as builders increasingly borrowed elements of continental style. The English translation of Italian architect Sebastiano Serlio's work, The first book of architecture was extremely popular among those who wanted to build, or update, their homes in a continental style. Serlio's illustrations of antique buildings, modern churches, and secular architecture were frequently consulted for stylish details like these of ceilings and woodwork.

Items included

  • Sebastiano Serlio. The first book of architecture, made by Sebastian Serly, entreating of geometrie. London, 1611. Call number: STC 22235; displayed fol. 66.

Profitable Pleasures

Rather than condemning vanity and excess of apparel, James I sought to foster the domestic manufacture of silk, glass, tapestries, and other luxury goods to satisfy consumers and also to create work, develop a trained labor force, and diminish import costs. James's most successful initiatives, which included the manufacture of glass and tapestries, shared common strategies: copying continental practice and design; importing skilled workers and designers from Italy, France, and the Low Countries; and, ultimately, creating goods for export as well as domestic consumption.

By the beginning of the seventeenth century, the English love of fine apparel led to a dramatic increase in imports of silk fabric. Paintings and miniatures highlight the desire of English to dress themselves in a rich array of fabrics like silk and velvet, in a rainbow of colors, to demonstrate their prosperity and fine tastes.

Responding to increased demand for fabrics, James I developed a thriving silk industry in England. Henry IV had already built silk works in France, and James I began to encourage the production of raw materials for a silk industry in England. He promoted Nicholas Geffe's translation of Olivier de Serres's work on silk worms, which reproduced woodcuts from another French work by Jean Baptiste Letellier showing how to care for silk worms, harvest raw silk, and spin fabric.

Flemish artist Jan van der Straet's engravings in Vermis sericus perhaps best illustrate the production of silk. The complete set consists of six scenes, beginning with the presentation of silk to the emperor Justinian in the sixth century by Persian monks, who revealed the secret that silk was produced by a species of worm. The scene shown here shows aristocratic women embroidering silk textiles perhaps for use as clothing or in the home.

The Fall of Sumptuary Laws

Sumptuary legislation enacted over the centuries to reenforce hierarchy and status distinction had long lain unenforced, and ended in 1604. Aided by the slackening of these laws, the English bought more and more luxury goods.

Imports increased perhaps as much as 50% between 1628 and 1640. The value of imported silk fabrics doubled between 1560 and 1622. In 1559-60, raw and semi-finished silk had made up 1.1% of London's imports; by 1622, it had risen to 7.5%.[1]

Items included

  • Jan van der Straet. Aspersa vino tersaq oua vermium Papillulis solent fouere virgines … Engraving, later impression of an engraving made 1590-1600. Call number: ART Box S895 no.3 (size S) and LUNA Digital Image.
  • Royal, military and court costumes of the time of James I. Watercolor, early 17th century. Call number: ART Vol. c91; displayed no.8b and LUNA Digital Image.
  • Olivier de Serres. The perfect use of silk-wormes, and their benefit. London: Imprinted by Felix Kyngston, 1607. Call number: STC 22249; displayed f. O2 recto.
Notes for this section
  1. Statistics are derived from Christopher Clay. Economic Expansion and Social Change in England. Cambridge, 1984. II: 124-5.

The Royal Society

Founded in 1660, the Royal Society had expansive interests ranging from the new optics and astronomy to agriculture and new manufactures. The Society’s committees on mechanics and the history of trades produced reports on contemporary products, including luxury goods. They explicitly aimed to improve such industries by consulting foreign manufacturers and domestic artisans.

Between 1660 and 1670, papers in the Society’s Philosophical transactions addressed how to make silk, porcelain, varnishes, masonry, paper, leather, tapestry, parchment, enamels, engravings, and red glass. Many of these methods were observed while these men traveled across the globe securing trade agreements and importing new goods and were tweaked for the English market.

Henry and Charles Howard, grandsons of the earl of Arundel, were members of the Royal Society, helping to connect the new institution with networks of exchange in Europe, the New World, Africa, and India. In 1668, Henry Howard undertook a mission to Tangier for Charles II to negotiate a commercial treaty with the King of Morocco. For the Society, this mission was an opportunity to learn, explore, and bring back ancient manuscripts and new goods.

Developing New Trades

The Royal Society's committee on the History of Trades produced reports on contemporary production of luxury goods. Some of the papers that were presented to the Society included,

  • dying cloth
  • making felt
  • constructing watches
  • crafting candlesticks
  • building chariots
  • working leather
  • producing porcelain

The Society displayed a continuing interest in producing porcelain. And in the early volumes of the Philosophical transactions, Henry Oldenburg, presented "An intimation of a way, was found in Europe to make China dishes."

Porcelain had been imported to England from the East as early as the 1620s, but it was only later that England attempted to produce it domestically.

Items included

  • Wenceslaus Hollar. Prospect of ye inner part of Tangier, with the upper Castle, from South-East. Etching, 17th century. Call number: ART 230- 514.4 (size XS) and LUNA Digital Image.
  • Royal Society. Philosophical transactions: giving some accompt of the present undertakings, studies and labours of the ingenious in many considerable parts of the world. London: Printed by T.N., begun in 1665. Call number: R2152.5.

Rarities as Luxury Goods: "Anything that is Strange"

Moths and insects, drawn by Wenceslaus Hollar. Folger Digital Image 6100.

Intense curiosity, appetite for news, interest in the new and the extraordinary permeated early seventeenth-century culture. Not only were "French wares," Venetian glass, and Flemish tapestry in demand, but also rarities and wonders from around the world. Such goods marked their purchasers as fashionable and cosmopolitan. Importers such as the Levant Company, the Merchant Adventurers, and the East India Company brought back spices from Asia, textiles from India and Persia, sugar, chocolate, and tobacco from the West Indies, and porcelain from China. English men and women enthusiastically acquired goods and manners from abroad, and many formed important collections of objects on their own travels or supplied by eager merchants.

Collecting Art: The Earl and Countess of Arundel's Collection

Fame gained from collecting and display became a new aspect of aristocratic identity. In his will, the earl of Arundel asked his son James to "succeed me in my love and reference to antiquities and all things of art...."

These etchings by Wenceslaus Hollar of exotic moths and insects were based on drawings or paintings in the Arundel collection copied by Hollar while he was employed by the earl and countess. He also copied drawings by Leonardo and numerous other artworks in their collection.

In May of 1636, the earl of Arundel invited Hollar to join the English diplomatic mission to the Emperor Ferdinand in Vienna. It remains unclear how Hollar had made Arundel's acquaintance, but we do know that Hollar recorded the journey of Arundel and his entourage in a series of over one hundred drawings and watercolors, most of which are still extant.

The young Czech artist's skills evidently made quite an impression on Arundel. And, at the end of 1636, he traveled to England to take up a position etching the works in Arundel's growing art collection. For more on Wenceslaus Hollar, visit the page on the Folger Exhibition, Impressions of Wenceslaus Hollar.

Collecting Botanicals: John Tradescant's Musaeum

John Tradescant, gardener to the earl of Salisbury and to James I, became a botanical collector and publicly displayed his collections in his museum, "the Ark," in South Lambeth. This catalogue lists over one hundred people who gave him plants or objects. In addition to "seeds, gums, roots, woods, and divers ingredients medicinal," there were articles of curious clothing, ornaments, and utensils, including what was described as Powhatan's "habit all embroidered with shells."

Collecting and Consuming: Exotic Products and Tastes

Introduced for its supposed medicinal virtues, coffee became popular in England once it could be sweetened with refined sugar. Soon, coffeehouses, such as the one pictured here, provided a convivial atmosphere for drinking coffee and chocolate and smoking tobacco. All of these exotic imports had become fashionable elements of European social life; however, the rituals surrounding their consumption were often changed and adapted, becoming far different from those of their places of origin.

Items included

  • Wenceslaus Hollar. [Two moths and six insects]. Hand-colored etching, 1646. ART 254- 235 no.2 (size XS). LUNA Digital Image.
  • Wenceslaus Hollar. [Four caterpillars and a snail]. Etching, 1646. ART 254- 235 no.1 (size XS).
  • John Tradescant. Musaeum Tradescantianumor or, A collection of rarities. London: Printed by John Grismond, 1656. 154- 794q; displayed pp. 46-47. LUNA Digital Image.
  • Two broad-sides against tobacco: The first given by King James of famous memory; his Counterblast to tobacco. The second transcribed out of that learned physician Dr. Everard Maynwaringe, his treatise of the scurvy. London, 1672. J147. LUNA Digital Image.
  • Henry Stubbe. The Indian Nectar, or, A Discourse Concerning Chocolata. London, 1662. Call number S6049.
  • Thomas Garway. An Exact Description of the Grovvth, Quality, and Vertues of the Leaf Tea. 1660? Call number G282.

East and West

Importers such as the Levant Company, the Merchant Adventurers, and the East India Company continued to import new goods tailored to the English market. Developing new trading links all over the world, English merchants brought back goods like indigo, textiles, sugar ,and tobacco to tempt shoppers increasingly intrigued by materials and patterns with a foreign, exotic design.

This pattern for a powder box is printed in John Stalker and George Parker's A treatise of Japaning and Varnishing, which claims to include "above an hundred distinct patterns for Japan-work, in imitation of the Indians, for tables, stands, frames, cabinets, boxes, etc." These decorating patterns were very popular as South Asian lacquer came into vogue. When trade to China and Japan was disrupted in the middle of the seventeenth century and it became increasingly difficult to buy exports, design books like A treatise of Japaning and Varnishing provided new ways for people to fulfill their consumer desires, giving them detailed instructions on how to make these goods themselves.

Items included

  • John Stalker. A treatise of japanning and varnishing by John Stalker and George Parker. Oxford, 1688. 207232. LUNA Digital Image.

Supplemental materials

Consuming Splendor children's exhibition

Related publications

Learn more from Linda Levy Peck's fascinating book, from Cambridge University Press, about the emergence of a consumer society in seventeenth-century England.

Peck, Linda Levy. Consuming splendor: society and culture in seventeenth-century England. Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
Folger Call Number: DA380 .P43 2005