The Hidden Consumer?

Hannah Lee & Jo Tierney


The following text is an extract from a discussion between two students from the V&A/RCA History of Design programme who, from different starting points, have found common issues arising from their research into trade interactions between Europe and Africa and the development of the idea of the hidden consumer, with European manufacturers designing goods for a vague ‘African’ market. Josephine Tierney is a student on the modern strand whose dissertation on British printed textiles between 1830-1899 aims to reintroduce the voices of both manufacturers and consumers into a discussion of the design of these textiles and their reception globally. Studying on the Renaissance strand, Hannah Lee wrote one of her first year essays on fifteenth century glass trade beads, arguing that their design reveals an attempt by European producers to meet the standards of a discerning and varied African market.

Glass Trade Beads, late seventeenth to early eighteenth century, glass, Venice, V&A Museum, Museum Number 4551:3-1901, Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Glass Trade Beads, late seventeenth to early eighteenth century, glass, Venice, V&A Museum, Museum Number 4551:3-1901, Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

HL: So to start with I was wondering whether we could start with discussing the idea of the ‘hidden consumer’. Is this idea of a disconnection between the British producers and designers and the African communities into which the fabric was sold only really discussed in your secondary literature? Or was it also identified at the time?

JT: Great question! 
There are many references to the export market and the consumer within, Africa being one of the largest export markets for British printed textiles and a number of contemporary manufacturers and commentators make specific reference to their attempt to cater to the tastes and needs of foreign consumers, implying that the African consumer was far from ‘hidden’ in the nineteenth century. Yet, tracing evidence for communication and interaction specifically between manufacturers of printed textiles and African consumers is challenging. Also, while there is evidence of manufacturers collecting samples of African cloth to use for inspiration (Charles Beving’s collection held by the British Museum is a great example, it is important to remember that the popular conception of Africa was very much a western imagining of the ‘dark’ continent. Thus while the African consumer may have been in the minds of manufacturers, it is unclear how accurately they understood the numerous different cultures and tastes which formed ‘Africa’.

HL: What I find really fascinating is the contrast between the attempts by manufacturers to understand the specifics of the market, by collecting cloth samples etc, and the still generally held perception of the African continent as distant and mysterious, despite the long standing trade links.

I’ve definitely come across similar paradoxes in my research into the trade beads. Primary information from European traders journals suggest a recognition that the African markets which they were trading into were highly specific and the customers were discerning and knew exactly what they wanted in terms of colour and shape, however there seems to be a communication gap between the traders collecting this information and the glass makers back in European centres such as Venice, who seem to be compensating for this communication gap by creating as a great a diversity of designs as possible in the hope that they might appeal to constantly changing and region specific ‘African taste’. There are rare recordings however of beads being made specifically to imitate particular natural materials, such as a red stone found in Angola, which is an amazing example of a dialogue actually taking place!

JT: That’s very interesting, would you say their business strategy (to produce a huge variety in the hope of being successful somewhere) was successful and sustainable? While it may not be the most economical method it certainly illustrates that they saw Africa as an important and necessary market to appeal to.

HL: From what I can gather I would say that it seems to have been a sustainable method, given that the glass bead industry in Europe continued to grow from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century. North America also developed into an important trading base, so their market expanded. From a Eurocentric perspective of economics evidence suggests that it was actually a very profitable method given the relatively low cost of production of the glass beads in comparison to the goods for which they were being exchanged, such as furs in North America and gold, ivory and even slaves on the west coast of Africa. They certainly have a very dark side to their history.

I was wondering whether you could explain what the prints which you are looking at, as objects in their own right, can tell us. Has anything in their design raised questions about these issues?

JT: The textile prints can tell us a great deal, however they can also be difficult to decipher. This has been a problem for historians in the past who have often argued that the bolder, brighter patterns were intended for export and in particular the West African market. While this may seem like a logical and reasoned conclusion when you consider the types of textiles being produced in Africa during this period, however, it muddies the waters somewhat when it comes to pinpointing the extent to which manufacturers produced specific designs for specific markets. There is a distinct lack of documentary evidence to indicate which designs were destined for export and which for domestic consumption. Furthermore, to say that the brightly coloured designs must be for export, is very reliant on Western perceptions of African dress which are largely founded upon nineteenth-century understandings. There is a big risk in looking at these colourful textiles and concluding that they must be examples of export textiles as they don’t fit with Western tastes. By doing this we are simply adding to the idea of East and West as binary opposites.

This is one reason why photography has played such a big part in my research, by studying nineteenth-century photographs of African cultures you can move beyond the institutions, like the V&A and the British Museum, and explore what British prints were being worn in Africa but most importantly how British manufacturers could have ben exposed to African tastes.

HL: Amazing, it’s so fascinating how objects like these prints and beads can simultaneously embody the development of global connections and the distance, both physical and ideological, which still remained.



Hannah Lee –

Hannah did her BA in History at Oxford University where she specialized in cultural history of the Renaissance. Her research interests include the material histories of trade and currency and gender. She is currently working on a dissertation which focuses on the material portrayal of Africans by Europeans in sculpture and jewellery.

Jo Tierney – 

Jo Tierney completed a BA in History and French at the University of Warwick before joining the modern strand of the History of Design MA. She is currently researching nineteenth-century printed textiles and roller printing technology for her dissertation. Her other research interests include fashion history and theory and the presentation of dress in museums.


© Hannah Lee & Jo Tierney, 2014. All Rights Reserved.

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