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A Material World | Masculine discernment and eighteenth-century accessories: snuffboxes, canes, toothpick cases, and fob seals


This paper by Ben Jackson (John Rylands Research Institute, University of Manchester) explores the possession and use of fashionable accessories by eighteenth-century men, including snuffboxes, toothpick cases, canes, and fob seals. Socially conservative polemicists vociferously attacked men’s effeminising desire for these trifling things. Eighteenth-century fops, beaux, macaronis, and dandies were so widely castigated because they mimicked the socially perceived feminine qualities of irrational and undiscerning consumption. Historians have persuasively argued that these innovative and new goods manufactured in the factories of Boulton and Wedgwood, at Chelsea and Derby, and by silversmiths such as Parker and Wakelin, had significant consumer desirability. These novel goods’ aesthetic innovation, manufacturing ingenuity, consumer novelty, and ability to denote modern sophistication enabled consumers to display their consumer discernment and material knowledge.

How do we square men’s ubiquitous consumption of these ‘trifling baubles’ with wider issues of material, aesthetic, and technological discernment which became increasingly prized in a period of burgeoning mass consumption? Examining the frequency, gender, value, materials, spaces, and occupation of stolen toothpick cases, snuffboxes, canes, fobs, and pocket watches in the Proceedings of the Old Bailey, this reveals the ubiquity of male accessories up and down the social hierarchy. It demonstrates that owning an object such as a snuffbox was not enough to claim elite status, discernment, and refinement but that materials and finish materialised social distinction. It was therefore astute material discernment that helped constitute and express masculine qualities of self-governance, rationality, and economy. It was within this context that middling men also sought to materially demarcate their own status through the development of men’s middling aesthetic regime. Just as discernment and distinction were evidenced in the material qualities of these objects themselves, it was also obvious in the social choreographies of their use. Proffering your snuffbox, holding your cane, even picking your teeth were choreographed performances of a respectable and fashionable society.

This event was part of the series A Material World: Gender, which brings together academics and heritage professionals from a wide range of disciplines to discuss issues concerning historical objects, their materials, forms, and functions, as well as their conservation, presentation, display, and reconstruction.

This event was recorded on 6 February 2024.