Monday, September 23, 2019

Timothy Alborn's "All That Glittered"

Timothy Alborn is Professor of History at Lehman College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author of Conceiving Companies: Joint-Stock Politics in Victorian England and Regulated Lives: Life Insurance and British Society, 1800-1914.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, All That Glittered: Britain's Most Precious Metal from Adam Smith to the Gold Rush, and reported the following:
Page 99 in my book is the fourth page of chapter 6, "Distinctions"; this is the first of three chapters on how British people viewed decorative gold at home and abroad between 1780 and 1850. Page 99 abuts a page describing a scene from a novel in which an Italian duke scoffs at sentimental and philistine interpretations that his two British guests offer regarding a gold watch, and a page recounting what British "tastemakers" thought of the imperfect understanding of decorative gold exhibited by the nouveau riche and "old-school" aristocrats. On page 99, I provide evidence that "the consumption of decorative gold exploded after 1760," despite its concurrent diversion into bank vaults and coin purses as the basis of the British monetary system. (In an earlier chapter, I document how a favorable trade balance with Portugal, through which most of the world's gold passed via Brazil, enabled this luxury). I then reveal that "diffusion bred confusion." Britons responded to this in different ways, depending on gender. For men, "etiquette guides... urged that 'if you have a gold chain to your watch, keep it, but the less you show of it the better'.” Tasteful women "showed more of their gold, but generally took care to do so in moderation and only around the edges"; this assertion is supported by "hundreds of references in British fashion magazines." This list is very typical of my book, which rests on an extensive inventory of references to gold, made possible by the recent spate of digitized sources that are available to nineteenth-century historians. The more general gist of the page represents a central claim in the book, which is that Britons during this period insisted that they valued gold more as currency than as "bling," even though their consumption of that metal consistently belied that stance. Their rhetoric, I argue, secured the gold standard as a basis, not only of their own credit economy, but of international credit after 1850. Their practice revealed much about how Britons contrasted themselves with the rest of the world during their ascension as a world power. They were able to have their gold and wear it too.
Learn more about All That Glittered at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue