Measuring the Advent of Gentility


My own long-term interest has been to trace the process by which English cultural norms were adapted to New World conditions, to provide insight into why that adaptation occurred, and to assess the role of material culture in effecting that change. As such these are the kinds of questions that have been in the air at least since the 1970s, but which require a rich corpus of comparative and regionally representative evidence in order for archaeologists to have any hope of success in answering them.

As a means of expanding on these insights, back in the early 1990s I compiled a sample of household-level, archaeologically recovered artifact assemblages in order to measure the presence or absence of selected categories of objects. In doing so, I consciously attempted to replicate as best I could the “amenities” selected by Walsh and Carr for their study of changing living standards. My categories included such things as fine and coarse earthenwares, knives, spoons, candles, and a variety of other household items. I was looking for evidence of elaboration and segmentation over time that would support the consumer revolution model, as well as to test the contention that it was not until the 18th century that the elite began to acquire different, more socially distinctive items. Finally, I hoped to provide a perspective on the issue of the timing and trajectory of changes in living standards that was independent of inventory data.

Unfortunately, limitations in the sample—especially the lack of detailed information available to allow me to make finer distinctions between certain artifact types—hindered me in this attempt. Other than the appearance during the last quarter of the 17th century of such novel items as table forks, few definitive patterns were discernible. However, one important outcome seems to be beyond doubt. According to my admittedly small sample, the interpretations of scholars using probate data as a measure of living standards appear to be biased by the habitual under-representation of certain types of objects in their documents.

Contrary to the findings that a wide array of household items do not appear in inventories, those same items were found with regularity in the archaeological assemblages that were examined. For example, according to inventories, only 13% of Maryland’s poorest households and roughly 76% of the wealthiest owned any ceramics made of earthenware of stoneware. Furthermore, only 5% of the wealthiest households owned “fine ceramics,” a category which includes tin-glazed earthenware. In contrast, a full 100% of the sites selected for my original study, as well as the 18 sites included in the present project, yielded both coarse and fine ceramics. And the list goes on. When it came to table spoons and knives, and such seemingly necessary objects as hoes, the inventories habitually missed them, as they appear at all but the very poorest archaeological sites.

Cite this Record

Measuring the Advent of Gentility. Dennis J. Pogue. 2005 ( tDAR id: 6094) ; doi:10.6067/XCV8J67FZ9

This Resource is Part of the Following Collections

Temporal Coverage

Calendar Date: 1600 to 1700

Spatial Coverage

min long: -77.498; min lat: 36.633 ; max long: -75.41; max lat: 39.368 ;

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