Though the rise of advertising is often linked to the commercial innovations of retailers in the early-modern period, eighteenth-century auctioneers fervently made use of this new way of ‘addressing the consumer’. In this paper, we want to shed light on the advertorial discourses that were produced around these auctions in ... (Show more)
Though the rise of advertising is often linked to the commercial innovations of retailers in the early-modern period, eighteenth-century auctioneers fervently made use of this new way of ‘addressing the consumer’. In this paper, we want to shed light on the advertorial discourses that were produced around these auctions in England and France and to suggest some methodological ‘strategies’ on how these sources can be used to resolve a range of historical bottlenecks.
Auctions in the eighteenth century were thriving. Their popularity, even though auctioneers predominantly sold what we would define today as used or ‘second-hand’ goods, shows that the ‘old’ was far from ‘out’. On the contrary, some auctions of specialised products such as books and art developed themselves into ‘proper’ cultural events. Indeed, the prestige of an auction could vary significantly depending on the social status of the testator. Therefore, auctions also knew a social geography, depending on the sales’ exact location (e.g. in the former dwelling of the deceased) in the city but also in a larger region or country (think of the so-called ‘city-bias’).
The adverts that were published in newspapers to announce an auction were obviously written in order to sell the goods they described. They cannot confirm with any certainty whether a good was in fact ‘old’ or ‘new’, as this does not coincide with ‘second-hand’ and ‘retail’. Thus, descriptions needed to respond to what contemporaries saw as prevailing aesthetic ideals as well as moral conventions on consumption in order to attract possible buyers. These adverts depicted the goods in their most saleable form, which means they are slightly less representative of the testator’s possessions than, for example, probate inventories, but their insight into consumer values easily offsets this disadvantage. In our analysis, we will qualitatively and quantitatively examine different discursive strategies that were deployed to convey value to the auctioned goods. As to verify Trentmann’s (2016) statement on the shift from material-based to design-based product evaluations, we will trace the frequency of different categories of consumer values throughout time regarding various manners of value constructions (aesthetics, quality, ‘novelty’, ‘comfort’, ‘fashionability’ …)
Finally, we explore whether this type of research can be reconciled and successfully combined with other methodologies and approaches. Here we will present our own experiences regarding handling these sources to answer a diversity of questions and reflect on the challenges we have faced by applying diverse Digital Humanities tools such as word embeddings and GIS to auction advertisements. (Show less)