Sensing Design and Workmanship: The Haptic Skills of Shoppers in Eighteenth-Century London

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13 Citations (Scopus)


This article explores how eighteenth-century shoppers understood the material world around them. It argues that retail experiences exposed shoppers to different objects, which subsequently shaped their understanding of this world. This article builds on recent research that highlights the importance of shop environments and browsing in consumer choice. More particularly, it differentiates itself by examining the practice of handling goods in shops and arguing that sensory interaction with multiple goods was one of the key means by which shoppers comprehended concepts of design and workmanship. In doing so, it affirms the importance of sensory research to design history.
The article focuses on consumer purchases of ceramic objects and examines a variety of sources to demonstrate the role of haptic skills in this act. It shows how different literary sources described browsing for goods in gendered and satirical terms and then contrasts these readings against visual evidence to illustrate how handling goods was also represented as a positive act. It reads browsing as a valued practice requiring competence, patience and haptic skills. Through an examination of diary sources, letters and objects this article asks what information shoppers gained from touching various objects. It concludes by demonstrating how repetitive handling in search of quality meant that shoppers acquired their own conception of what constituted workmanship and design.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-10
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Design History
Issue number1
Early online date17 Jan 2012
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2012


  • Ceramics Industry
  • Consumption
  • Eighteenth Century
  • Manufacture
  • Material Culture
  • Women


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