the invention of taste

Before the eighteenth century, people either made or inherited most of the items they had in their homes. Goods were bought only when strictly necessary. People didn’t have – or want – much stuff.Jump to the end of the century and everyone was a consumer. Shops were everywhere and retail therapy an important part of everyday life. The thinking around ‘stuff’ had shifted. Goods were no longer viewed as necessary household items, but instead they had become symbols of status and taste.

This shift happened for a number of reasons. Developments in travel and transport created a booming import and export market. Technological improvements created a thriving manufacturing industry. Rising prosperity and social mobility increased the number of people with disposable income. There was an explosion in the taste industries – Chippendale and Wedgwood produced catalogues to educate and entice.Previously, the gentry had set themselves apart through their purchase and display of goods. Now that everyone was in on the act, they desperately needed a way to distinguish themselves and their ‘betterness’ from the masses?Enter the concept of taste. It was no longer about how much stuff you owned, instead, the typeof stuff was the indicator of class.So far so splendid, but how did you know if you had good taste or bad taste? Could you simply rely on choosing what you liked? Was taste purely concerned with wallpaper, cutlery and porcelain? Or could it also be expressed in how you walked? your manners? the way you held a teacup? If you had bad taste were you a bad person?The Spectator aimed to help. This periodical magazine tackled a range of topics from politics to fashions, manners to morality. One of their aims was to increase the number of women who were “of a more elevated life and conversation.”But there are none to whom this paper will be more useful than to the female world…..[readers should consider it] as a part of the tea-equipage and set aside time to read it each morning.

Interesting that we still consume magazines offering us advice on what’s hot and what’s not today. Perhaps the need to fit in and show superiority has been hardwired into our minds since stone age times. Then it was linked to survival. These days, we might be nervous in the face of a charging woolly mamoth, but we will be totally terrified at the sight of an avocado bathroom suite.

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