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Object Studies in Early Modern Historiography

Hannah Westwick

Unknown, Pocket, c.1720-25, Victoria and Albert Museum, London. T. 1411-1900.
Unknown, Pocket, c.1720-25, Victoria and Albert Museum, London. T. 1411-1900.


Prominent material culture historians, Tara Hamling and Catherine Richardson, in the introduction to their trailblazing book on the use of material objects, argue that object-centred history ‘sits awkwardly within traditional academic disciplines, and within divisions between academia and the museum sector’. Their 2010 book, Everyday Objects: Medieval and Early Modern Material Culture and its Meanings (Ashgate Publishing), joined the ranks of seminal books that grapple with and discuss the application and benefits of researching material culture. This collection of essays aims to contextualise how we can and why we should use an analysis of everyday objects to aid our historical interpretations. One of their main aims is to show that ‘the historical study of everyday objects … allows access to the lived experience of people in the past’(p. 13). Hamling and Richardson and other scholars of material culture seek to better understand lived experiences in social and cultural history, using objects and possessions as sources, and this is the direction the subdiscipline is largely moving towards. However, even despite this work, in 2018 Karen Harvey could still state in the title of her book that objects are still regarded as ‘alternative sources’.

Why, therefore, do object-centred histories remain on the peripheries of early modern historiography? This article will explore the benefits that can be gained when these approaches are centralised.

The criticisms levied against object-centred histories.

There is no doubt that considerable progress has been made in taking objects seriously as historical evidence, but at the same time, there is often a lack of imagination or creativity in thinking about how the material could best be used to explain wider historical movements. This has consequently resulted in an overreliance on two ends of the material spectrum - luxury versus necessity. Undoubtedly, this reliance is in part a consequence of the extant material, as the possessions of the early modern elite are better conserved than everyday artefacts. However, the historiographical problems of a reliance on luxury objects should be addressed. It is important that we push beyond obvious preservation and reliability issues to comment on how material culture histories became wedded to luxury as a concept and to luxury objects as sources.

As suggested, one of the most common criticisms of the study of objects is that it is masquerading as the study of elite culture, and the ideologies concurrent with this. For example, exquisite mirrors and clocks have long been studied in the early modern period due to their expense, novelty, and exoticness. For example, the mirror works of famous designer Thomas Chippendale, such as the one below, have drawn several historical studies.

However, some of the most famous scholars’ insistence on the binary categorisation of ‘luxuries’ and ‘necessities’ have repeatedly and unintentionally shown that categorising luxuries and necessities is both impossible and impractical. It is no longer helpful or meaningful to arbitrarily define luxury as the antithesis of necessity due to the range of sources that complicate this argument.

Indeed, criticisms levied against the use of object studies that are predominantly concerned with luxury are well made and important. As should be pointed out, the infamous eighteenth-century luxury debates never reached a solution to the separation of luxury from necessity, so any retrospective categorisation made can be nothing more than worthlessly anecdotal. Ultimately, if the starting point stems from a consideration of theorists and luxuries, historians will continue to find it challenging to incorporate object studies to explain wider movements.

However, this can be remedied. Turning away from an obsession with luxury provides a much more even-handed answer to the questions we should be asking. In accepting that concentrating on luxury is problematic, but appreciating luxury must still be considered, material historians should pose a different question, and instead ask: did contemporaries try to distinguish luxuries in this period in the same way ‘we’ do? This new focus could also demonstrate how luxuries became necessities as the period progressed. Asking new questions changes the whole conversation while retaining its original direction.

Using everyday material sources

Several historians have puzzled over how to use material sources to answer questions and several approaches have been offered. However, Jules David Prown’s famous methodology remains one of the best. His approach of 1) description, 2) deduction, and 3) speculation provides a useful tool. Furthermore, Prown argues that working with material culture should involve ‘few rules or proscriptions’ to best allow ‘the free association of ideas’. Therefore, through engaging with material culture, moments of speculation are inevitable, however, they should not be regarded as necessarily negative.

To take an object and ‘read’ it, figure one, a lady’s dress pocket from circa 1720 kept at the Victoria and Albert Museum, provides a good test. This pocket, made of linen, a cheap and easily accessible base material, is hand-embroidered (thought to be by the wearer) with a small amount of silk thread. The fusing together of a necessary item (a pocket) with a silk thread decoration should interest us. The pocket itself can be understood as a necessity, yet the decoration emulates the fashionable, and luxurious while adding nothing to its utility. This is particularly important when we remember that pockets were worn under dresses, not on display.

From this pocket, historians can make an array of potential interpretations. Firstly, the item is unfinished. The embroidery is seemingly complete; however, the frayed edges reveal they have not been sewn together meaning the pocket cannot hold anything. This could suggest the way it looked was more important to the creator than its utility if we interpret the finished design to be reflective of the maker’s priority. Furthermore, the choice of floral design shows similarities to contemporary Indian textiles, implying that the owner was in some way connected to foreign goods and imports. The pocket tells us that foreign textile patterns were received by women outside of the elite classes since it is likely the elite would simply purchase a complete pocket rather than construct their own.

Material culture also demands the historian pause on women’s reception of these patterns and images. Perhaps object history could be a way to re-write women’s experiences into history as historians know comparably less about the possessions of early modern women than men. This is particularly so because of women’s unique relationships to objects: they were harder to ‘own’ and purchase in their own name due to the system of coverture they lived in. Consequently, looking to distinctly female objects, such as dress pockets or aprons, can provide a further avenue to help us comment on the lived experiences of non-elite women.

A question of periodisation?

Interestingly, the historiography of the Early Modern period might be uniquely placed to better incorporate material culture. In the eighteenth century, people bought as they had never done before to such a degree that the century witnessed the ‘consumer revolution’, a revolution that some historians put on equal footing with the ‘Industrial Revolution’.

The nature of consumption changes incredibly during the early modern period with methodological implications for our study of it. In many ways, these modern elements of consumption mean studies of the early modern period are uniquely suited to the inclusion of the study of materials. An inclusion of non-textual sources would allow historians to speak more meaningfully about the wider cultural and social movements of the time.


While it is evident that the challenges of incorporating objects as sources, and material culture studies more broadly, into the historiography of the Early Modern period remain, there are doubtless great advantages for those employing this discipline. Limiting research to luxury items presents some of the greatest challenges to creatively using material culture. In sum, we need more versatility in our approach and to grant space to considerations of non-luxury material culture. From this, we can get closer to the lived experience of people in the past.


Further Reading:

  • Christopher J. Berry, The Idea of Luxury: A Conceptual and Historical Investigation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 9-33.

  • Hannah Greig, Jane Hamlett, and Leonie Hannan, Gender and Material Culture in Britain since 1600 (Basingstoke, Hampshire, 2015), 8.

  • Jules David Prown, "Mind in Matter: An Introduction to Material Culture Theory and Method." Winterthur Portfolio 17, no. 1 (1982): 7-10.

  • Karen Harvey, History and Material Culture: A Student's Guide to Approaching Alternative Sources (Abingdon, Oxon; New York, 2018)

  • Neil McKendrick, John Brewer and J.H. Plumb, The birth of a consumer society (London: Hutchinson, 1983), 9.

  • Catherine Richardson, Tara Hamling, and David R. M. Gaimster, The Routledge Handbook of Material Culture in Early Modern Europe (Routledge Handbooks. London, 2017).

  • Tara Hamling and Catherine Richardson, Everyday Objects: Medieval and Early Modern Material Culture and its Meanings (Farnham: Ashgate Publishing, 2010), 9.

Hannah Westwick has recently completed a Masters in Early Modern History at the University of Oxford. She is particularly interested in women's material culture and also how objects are written about in women authored fiction.

Twitter: @westwick_hannah


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