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Objects of Trust

Among the numerous illustrations in Amanda Vickery’s book are pictures of keys, locks, lamps, urns, and a porcelain shepherd. Gone wrong, the book could have read like a print version of a boring episode of Antique Road Show. But Vickery has spared us this fate, and instead reminds us that the creative historian can take almost anything as his or her subject matter and find instruction in it.  

It is fair to ask at the outset whether we really care what went on at home in Georgian England. Recent trends in historical research favor the international and the global, such as the movement across borders of peoples, ideas, or disease. Just as it has become difficult to read Mansfield Park without reflecting on the distant sources of the estate’s income, so too might it be said that the real story behind the popularity of tea parties for middling Georgian women was the sugar that made tea palatable—and that, of course, is a story of slavery.

No matter: Vickery’s history might not have geographic breadth, but it is much more than the history of the home and its objects. Vickery skillfully connects the home to credit, trust, the economy, and the state. Before Goldman Sachs gave us Fabulous Fab, Charles Dickens gave us the deceiving and financially creative Fascination Fledgeby. In Our Mutual Friend, Fledgeby goes to his checkbook: “He had unlocked a drawer and taken a key from it to open another drawer, in which was another key that opened another drawer, in which was another key that opened another drawer, in which was the cheque book.” Vickery, like Dickens, knows that in household goods, larger truths are revealed.

Housing, Vickery argues, was access to a certain social and political status. “The crucial factor that determined the life of a bachelor,” for example, “was the nature of his housing and tenure: was he a householder or a lodger? On this turned his standing in the community, his stake in local government…his access to women.” Vickery’s concern is with the “long-eighteenth century,” from the Glorious Revolution of 1688 to First Reform Bill of 1832, a period during which the English were fond of talking about “Oeconomy.” One can think of the concept as a something akin to the body politic, but rooted in the home rather than the body of the monarch. “Oeconomy presented household order as critical to the material survival and success of the family, and,” according to some, Vickery writes, “to the well-being of the state.”

Rather than the pawnshop or the marketplace, Vickery’s history takes place in closets and drawing rooms: this is not political economy but Home-Ec. In her version, a trusted wife with good taste was the most valuable of assets. Privacy is a spatial luxury fought over like land plots in the Hamptons. The home, rather than the market, is the naturalized site of exchange.     

The expansion of English cities in the wake of the Industrial Revolution was astounding. Manchester grew from a population of 75,000 in 1801 to upwards of 303,000 by mid-century. Glasgow and Birmingham saw similar explosions. Such growth presented a familiar range of challenges, including, among them, the problem of assessing the honesty and the credibility of strangers. London’s adult population stood at nearly 1.4 million in 1851. Less than half of those people had been born in the city. All of these people had to live somewhere. The Georgian home, it turns out, gave plenty of shelter to rogue servants, thieving tenants, and indebted coxcombs.

Vickery suggests that elements of this fundamental shift were underway as early as the late 1600s. The majority of Londoners at the time, according to her data, including the rich and the poor, lived in rented housing. “A flow of comparative strangers through the house,” she adds, “was not unique to London.” This is how Vickery’s study of tea and wallpaper is transformed into a history of credit, privacy and confidence.

“The bit of padlock is the crown of squalor. Access to privacy was an index of power.” Such sentences could be praised for their style alone, but their argument is also a surprisingly relevant one. Booty is hidden in locked closets and secret drawers. The poor carry their valuables on their person. “Even rich lodgers seemed resigned to traffic through their rooms, locking away choice provisions like tea and sugar to put them beyond the reach of temptation.” Oh, the good old days…of distrust, secrecy and thievery. Our concerns over electronic privacy, we are reminded, are often built on the fortunate foundation of physical privacy.  

If the padlock was the “crown of squalor,” upon whose head did it uneasily sit? Vickery does not deny the patriarchal order, though she does complicate it: “Households were ideally patriarchal in structure though cooperative in daily practice.” The responsibility for keys and locks—a marked symbol of trust—was often assumed not by the master but by his wife. In an age of expanded luxury, women were meant to be moderating forces of moral order. Wives were hostesses and “the domestic Chancellor of the Exchequer.” They were defenders of privacy, and they were often to be trusted.

Vickery also focuses on taste, which became a common concern for the middle and upper classes in eighteenth-century England, owing to a dramatic expansion of consumer goods. Good taste and bad taste were part of the effort “to defend aesthetic discernment from the swamping of luxury.” Wallpaper, for example, expressed decency and could help to build social credit, so long as it was the right wallpaper: “Fine papers in small rooms of families with no fortune would be a flagrant breach of decorum.” Taste was like an informal version of sumptuary laws, and could influence social standing and credit.

With the increased importance of taste and the continuing importance of residence as a reflection of status, bachelordom had its burdens. There was so very much to keep neat and clean—at least that seems to have been the position of the young Anthony Trollope, whom Vickery quotes on the burdens of keeping up domestic husbandry. To keep up appearance on a meager salary, Trollope thought, required “the courage of a hero, the self-denial of a martyr, and much more financial knowledge than generally falls to the share of a Chancellor of the Exchequer.” Out with the peacock, in with the swan. Marriage meant a household, increased presentability, improved status.

It is commonplace within the academy to scorn popular histories, even those produced from within its towers. It is equally common to mock academic studies for their excessive specialization and irrelevance. What often goes unacknowledged in this contrived dynamic is just how difficult it really is to produce a book that serves both audiences. To say something that is at once original to the expert and exciting to the common reader, the historian must combine a heightened mastery of the material with a clarity of prose. No wonder such works are rare; Amanda Vickery’s wonderful book should therefore be celebrated.

Ian Klaus is the author of Elvis is Titanic: Classroom Tales from Iraqi-Kurdistan. He is currently writing a financial history of trust.