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To Buy or Not to Buy: The Origins of Good Taste

March 28, 2010

Keith Thomas in History Today:

n modern times, there is nothing which more exactly defines social differences than personal taste, whether in food or music or wallpaper or the choice of children’s names. The choices that people make in these areas of life may seem spontaneous and genuine, but, without any apparent pressure or coercion, they usually conform to class lines. The possessions which we place in our living spaces and the way we decorate those spaces instantly reveal our sensibilities, our preoccupations, and our social milieux. That is why they will evoke the admiration of some observers and the disdain of others. This state of affairs was already in evidence in the early modern period.

By then domestic possessions were already beginning to take on this function of expressing not just their owners’ social position, but also their personal interests. The 16th-century Italian writer Pietro Aretino believed that one could tell someone’s character from his dwelling; and his claim was repeated by Roger North in 1698: ‘The centrality of the house and its furnishings to the self-definition of its inhabitants’, so conspicuous a feature of modern British middle-class life, was fully evident in 18th-century England. The way in which the domestic interior was decorated and the nature of the possessions displayed within it made a powerful statement about their owner. [More]

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