Old Objects, New Subjects


Exploring the contexts, users, and uses of historic objects can be a way to stimulate new thinking about new and complex issues.

In the first Engaging with the Humanities lecture of the 2015 academic yearDr Giovanna Vitelli and Dr Mallica Kumbera Landrus, both from the Ashmolean Museum, used objects to introduce conversations that got the audience thinking about the links between past and present, how value is negotiated, and how the desirability of some objects can have far-reaching consequences for trade and societies across the globe.

17th-century tradesmen’s tokens

The first part of the seventeenth century in Britain was dominated by civil war, religious conflict, and economic and political unrest. One of the side-effects of this was Parliament’s inability to produce enough small denomination coinage; so merchants and businessmen took matters into their own hands and developed their own ‘tokens’ to fill the gap.

For example, a customer of one of those important centres of conversation and commerce, the coffee house, might offer a shilling to cover his usual order of coffee, pamphlet, and candle. But the proprietor would be unlikely to have enough small coins to give him change. Instead, he would offer coffee house tokens to the same value. The customer could use them when he returned to the coffee house – but not anywhere else.

‘It could be viewed as an early form of loyalty card,’ said Dr Vitalli, and one which created ‘networks of affinity’.  If you were a lawyer, you went (and returned with your tokens) to the Turk’s head; if you were a marine insurer you’d go to Lloyds. 

Born of pragmatism, limited by geography, and not able to scale; what lessons does the token system have for other disrupted markets?

Kina shells in Papua New Guinea

The beautiful Kina shell was historically an object of desire in Papua New Guinea, and used as a form of currency. It had a particular importance as a ceremonial payment – as part of the marriage ceremony, for example. These rituals were a means of communicating and establishing the value of the shell.

When banknotes were introduced, they were initially seen as competing with the Kina shell, and the two systems existed together in an uneasy hybrid. But after a couple of generations, banknotes themselves acquired history and substance, and began to be accepted as objects of value. This idea of developing value through ‘collective testimony’ and trust raised some interesting questions about the future of the virtual currency Bitcoin.

Furnishings and fashionable objects in the Harlot’s Progress

18th -century London was awash with many modern worries, especially consumerism, debt, celebrity, and fashion. One of the most acerbic yet sympathetic commentators was the satirist Hogarth, who used details of interiors, fashions, and everyday objects to add layers of meaning to his paintings (later reproduced as prints).

His interiors in The Harlot’s Progress reinforce the story of the initially naïve young protagonist who is seduced into prostitution,  acquires a dubious status as the mistress of wealthy man, and then endures a long fall, ending in imprisonment, disease, and death.  The delicate silver teapot that features in the picture of the fashionable house is replaced by a tin pot as she moves into a slum. However, she attempts rituals even in poverty – her maid pours her tea as the bailiffs are at the door.

We use objects, Dr Vitelli suggested, to ‘hang on to who we are’, as part of our identity; though as Hogarth suggests, consumerism is inherently unstable.

Hand-painted cotton from India

The vibrant hand-painted cotton textiles introduced to Europe by the ‘Empress Trader’ Nur Jahan were seen as highly desirable, especially in style-conscious France.

‘Chintz’, initially expensive and rare, became more accessible when hand-painting was replaced with block printing. By the end of the seventeen century, millions of pieces were being imported each year. In an effort to undercut this trade, French and English mills started to try to make chintz themselves – unsuccessfully at first, then getting better with the help of migrant expertise.

Despite a ban on imported chintz, demand continued to grow, leading to the development of cotton plantations and, from there, to the expansion of the slave trade.

Pashmina from the Himalayas 

Dr Kumbera Landrus had last year told the story of the Buna motif and how it became the famous Paisley pattern. In revisiting the story in the light of these other discussions, she alerted us to another perspective on value: the changes in fashion and celebrity. Initially featuring on pashmina shawls worn by the social elite, the Buna motif eventually went ‘mass market’ on woollen versions produced in Paisley, Scotland. Once the pattern was available to the middle and working classes, it lost its appeal to the elite, and Paisley was dropped from high fashion for 100 years. It was brought back by the Beatles – four working class lads who created a new form of fashionable elite through their celebrity. 


Saïd Business School Engaging with the Humanities