Nordic Naturalists as Fashionistas

Interpreting Taste and Substituting Global Goods with Local in the Long 18th Century

Project Description

Eighteenth-century Nordic naturalists were fashionistas of a sort. Well acquainted with cosmopolitan fashion, they communicated trends with budget-version imitations, reaching out to provincial consumers. Tea, coffee, and pigments from the Asiatic and Atlantic worlds were replaced with products made from domestic flora and fauna.

Although political-economic thinking framed such imitation projects, it was the European consumer revolution— with its global connotations—that provided context and tenor. Chemical developments, such as the discoveries of caffeine and synthetic dyes, changed the ontological conditions for imitations in the 19th century. Increased production of coffee and tea in Latin America and India as well as free trade also undermined the market for replacements.

These developments provide the framework for this study of substitutes for coffee, tea, and exotic dyes in Sweden between 1721 and 1865. The aim is to develop new ways of writing global history, drawing on both economic history and the history of science to focus on a provincial part of Europe. What can the histories of substitutions and their tastes, scents, and colour schemes tell us about consumption and global change? What can they reveal about the processes that led to today’s mass markets and standardization of goods?

The project will draw on a unique source material in the form of reports on local substitutions written by generations of naturalists operating across northern Scandinavia (present day Sweden and Finland). The same naturalists were also actively inventing their own substitutions building on their experience of fashion and upper-class consumption inside and outside Sweden, and their education on nature. Extending the study into the first half of the 19th century the project will also investigate how science continued to influence fashion and consumption in wake of a changing chemical ontology, foremost here in the form of the discovery of caffeine and synthetic dyes.

 Source: J. P. Westrings färgprover, vol. 1 (1-34), Evolutionsbiologiska biblioteket, Uppsala universitet
Source: J. P. Westring, 1. Flock-laf (Pulveraria chlorina, Byssus candelaris), from Svenska lafvarnas färghistoria, bd. 1, häfte 1, 1805:1) (detail)

About the Project

Project Duration

July 2020–December 2023


The Swedish Research Council (Vetenskapsrådet)