Welcome to the age of consumerism! The 18th century has arrived, bringing the birth of the industrial revolution, the spread of global trade and capitalism, empire, and the abhorrent transatlantic slave trade. The Flying Shuttle, the power loom, the steam engine, the Spinning Jenny: new inventions are changing manufacturing for ever. Machines are replacing human and animal labour, and production is moving from homes into factories. Living standards are starting to rise as incomes increase and falling prices are giving some people greater purchasing power to buy more food, clothes, and household items; although abject poverty persists alongside.
Meet conspicuous consumption! Well-off people are taking up shopping as their wealth increases, cities and towns grow, and choice expands. People are demanding more luxury goods and services, and coveting the new commodities arriving from overseas: sugar, tea, coffee, rum, tobacco, spice, and sumptious fabrics. Traders start producing trade or advertising cards to promote their wares to privileged, wealthy customers.
Visual appeal is important and layouts range from very simple letterpress sheets, showing only the name and address of the business and their trade, to ornate designs decorated with borders and illustrations. Renowned engravers, even Hogarth in his early years, often produce the engraving. Decorated cards are produced from woodcut illustrations or engravings cut into a metal plate. They are then inked and put through a press before each sheet is hung to dry, a labour-intensive process which limits the number of prints to around a hundred. This reinforces their status as art objects for rich customers.
The cards in our collection illustrate some popular 18th-century luxury food and drink items. The health, nutrition and cosmetic benefits of donkey’s milk have been known since ancient times to the present day. Pope Francis has said he drank donkey’s milk as a child, and interest in its health benefits is increasing, although it is not widely available in the UK. In the 18th century physicians believed it could cure general weakness, lung, blood and emotional problems, and babies were sometimes fed on asses milk. It was expensive and sometimes in short supply, as female donkeys only produce one or two litres of milk a day. Robert Parker offers customers the opportunity to buy milk from his yard, or other London locations, or to buy, sell or rent an ass to keep at their home.
Rising incomes meant that the new baked goods that had grown in popularity during the previous century were available to more people, able to afford pastries, puddings, cakes and biscuits. Imported sugar and spices were transforming baking, and sugar consumption doubled between 1690 and 1740.
The repugnant slave trade grows, fuelling the production of sugar, molasses, rum, tobacco and raw cotton in the Caribbean and the Americas, sold back in Europe for a hefty profit. Although an abolitionist movement grows from the 1780s, consumer demand continues to drive the expansion of slave plantations. The true horrors of production are concealed in Hawkins’s sanitised advertisement for opulent fabrics.
These trade cards and many other treasures can be found in the Halliwell-Phillipps collection, which has been fully digitised and is freely available online – you can access them through the library’s online catalogue. The digitisation was completed in March 2017, made possible by a grant from Arts Council England and the hard work of Digital Project Officer, Susana Sanchez Gonzalez.