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From Spoons to Garter Belts: Inscribing Time

Daniel Woolf on the Yale Center for British Art collection, Marking Time

Does anybody really know what time it is? Does anybody really care? – Chicago

Time has been the subject of intensive study across humanistic, social-scientific, and hard-science disciplines for a century. Philosophers and theologians from antiquity to the present day have speculated on the meaning of time. St Augustine remarked that he knew what time was unless someone asked him to explain it, which is nearly as well-known as his plea to the Almighty for the gift of chastity, just not at that exact moment in time. Newton forced a hard distinction between time and space, eventually undone by Einsteinian relativity. (Einstein and the philosopher Henri Bergson hashed it out in a celebrated public debate just over a century ago, which Einstein is usually thought to have won.) Modern German scholars have had a good deal to say on aspects of time since Martin Heidegger linked Being (Sein) and Time (und Zeit) in his existentialist masterpiece. Time’s tendency to gallop, especially in event-filled periods, has been analyzed by sociologists such as Hartmuth Rosa. Rosa’s German compatriot, the literary theorist and cultural critic Aleida Assmann, has recently asked (riffing on Shakespeare via Philip K. Dick) Is Time Out of Joint? Interest in temporality, or the experience of living in a particular time or multiple overlapping times, has become the subject of popular Marvel Studio productions (Loki and Spider-Man: No Way Home), literary and cultural studies, as well as philosophy.

Historians, especially Anglo-Americans, have for the most part taken a cooler and more empirical approach to the subject of time—less concerned with speculating about what it is or where it goes or how we feel about it than with placing human understanding and marking of time in, well, time. Simply put, our fixation on dates, hours, and seconds is a relatively recent development, and people living in earlier ages did not share it; nor had they the capacity to mark and measure time as accurately as us. Pre-industrial eras such as the Middle Ages and the early modern period, up to c 1800 are of particular interest because it’s clear that time was in transition then as clocks and watches became both more accurate and more widely available to people below the level of the wealthiest. A highly influential 1967 essay by the Marxist labor historian E.P. Thompson documented the growing association of time and money, particularly its use as a form of “work discipline” imposed by late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century capitalists on their employees. A variety of recent books on aspects of time in the late medieval and early modern world (including, notably, Paul Glennie and Nigel Thrift’s Shaping the Day) provide excellent evidence of how our ancestors marked, kept, and increasingly “spent” time in Thompson’s sense.

Marking Time is a further contribution to this literature, but with a significant difference. It’s first and foremost an art book, stuffed with gorgeous illustrations of the ways in which English men and women, at virtually every level of society, marked time. But it is not about clocks and watches or calendars. Rather, it is about how time—days, dates, and years in particular—was quite literally inscribed on possessions ranging from spoons to garter belts. Time becomes part of material culture.

Marking Time: Objects, People, and their Lives, 1500-1800 Eds. Edward Town and Angela McShane New Haven, CT and London: Yale Center for British Art and Yale University Press, 2020. pp. 512. $65 (hardback)

Like many books of its type, Marking Time is a catalogue raisonée of an exhibition based on a particular large set of artifacts. The collection itself was the lifetime pursuit of one John H. Bryan (1936-2018). As young man, scion of a Mississippi grain wholesaling family, Bryan decided to collect a specimen of virtually every material object made in early modern Britain (in particular England and Wales), both the artistic and the artisanal, the rare and the commonplace. It seems that he had no particular interest in timepieces per se, and that the exhibit and book sprang from the insights of curatorial and academic experts whom he consulted (including Angela McShane of the Victoria and Albert Museum, co-editor of this book), who were themselves struck by how many of Bryan’s treasures were dated—something one doesn’t often find in medieval objects apart from coins and manuscripts. Art historians and museum curators, as well as private collectors, are always interested in establishing dates for their possessions, along with their provenance. But the focus on the act of dating, and why it seems to have become so common between 1500 and 1800 is itself a novel insight.

The most interesting section of the book consists of a set of highly readable introductory essays by leading historians on various aspects of time and time-keeping in early modern England. Keith Wrightson of Yale’s history department offers an elegant exploration of early modern “temporalities,” free of jargon. As Wrightson points out, building on earlier scholarship, early modern people (like their forebears) lived in a condition of what might be called “temporal plurality”—meaning in a practical sense that they had simultaneously to be aware of multiple different calendars: church, regnal, legal, and so on. They also had to deal with a degree of approximation we would find impossible. Setting up meetings, making sure one was on time for paying the rent, or even waking up on time were more complicated. And finally, they also kept track of time, and remembered the past by associating dates and even hours with events and places.

Most people before 1600 did not know their own date of birth. Even the institution of parish registers in the 1530s recorded not births or deaths but christenings and burials. Witnesses in court cases would give testimony that “around this date” or “in the time of King Edward” that judges and juries found perfectly acceptable. As Wrightson further points out, material objects were critical markers, and it is this period that first gives us church monuments with vital dates as opposed to simply recording that Sir Simon died in the 52nd year of his life, and often even less.

By 1750 both times and dates were being much more precisely marked, especially in towns. The increased flow of news in the seventeenth century affected this, as individuals could have, for the first time, a sense of living both through and in events, rather than hearing about them as having unfolded in the recent past. It’s not going too far to say that a sense of the present as meaningful temporal zone of experience was as much the consequence of the density of printed news sources and of improvements in transportation networks as it was of the finer technological skills that led to more precise measurement of hours and minutes. That said, news was often fragmented and included events of different levels of importance, from the day of printing to previous weeks, such that they lacked the clarity of modern “in the moment news”. The same is true of dated objects, as Glenn Adamson’s essay suggests: imprecision and ambiguity remained; living in a house full of dated possessions “was not like inhabiting a calendar.” Nor was there anything like universal agreement on what sorts of dates were of consequence. Objects that were dated could variously be marked with their date of manufacture, that of their acquisition, or (often) the life-event such as a marriage for which they had been made and which they were intended to commemorate.

A third essay, by Justin M. Brown, explores the niceties of marking international time, especially transatlantic time, in the age of European expansion. It also provides a sober reminder of just how many of these objects were purchased using wealth acquired from the emerging slave trade. Among the earliest datable objects in the book are a pair of ankle irons used to prevent the escape of black human cargo. “Whether silver collars or steel shackles, the objects that burdened enslaved people’s bodies dramatically defined how they experienced time—as an unyielding force,” concludes Brown in a sobering reminder about the trade in luxury goods. Further essays deal with what might be called “narrative time” as manifest by the ways in which objects intersected with lived human lives, and external history (Gavi Levy Haskell), how the dating of objects reflected early modern regimes efforts to impose increased order on temporal and other forms of measurement (Angela McShane), how artisans themselves calculated time as a cost of designing and creating objects (Edward S. Cooke Jr), and, finally, how objects marked the end of time—that is, death (Nathan Flis).

The balance of the book consists of the catalogue proper, and it is organized into eight chapters (paralleling but not consistently imitating the stages of life from birth to death), from Delft ware and embroidered samplers commemorating births, through stages of youth, marriage, hearth and household, all the way to “death and legacy.” This includes chapters on “Crown and Church”, “Power and Dominion”, and “Measurement and Law.” Within these chapters, objects are arranged by type, with examples within those types displayed chronologically from the early 1500s to the late 1700s. There are a great many objects, and, it must be said, a fair bit of repetition among them. However, what saves this section of the book from being a relentless sequence of images is the work that has gone into not simply explaining them, but often delving into the lives of their owners or makers. Consider the 1706 silver spoon marking the date and time of the births of Mary and Elizabeth Harcum, twin daughters of Anne and John, a recently married London couple; it seems that the younger twin, Elizabeth, arrived a full three days after her sister. Sadly, the twins lived barely a few days, and were joined in death by their mother.

As with many Yale University Press books of the coffee-table sort, the product is beautiful to look at and scholarly as well as a decent price. The casual reader will want to skim through the forest of illustrations and stories, but the introductory essays mentioned above merit closer reading. We are time-obsessed, whether with nanosecond margins in athletics or stock-trading, how long it is till the next vacation, or fretting about the disorders of the times. Our early modern ancestors had analogous but not identical concerns, and they were slowly working their way towards accurate measuring, marking, and even monetizing time. In doing so, they were also creating the temporal culture in which we still dwell. So, whether one is captivated by the objects in this volume and their stories, interested in the material cultural environment of past centuries, or curious about how people back then organized their lives, Marking Time is a book on which one can spend more than a little of our most precious, non-renewable possession.


Daniel Woolf’s research has focused on two areas, early modern British intellectual and cultural history, and the global history and theory of historical writing. He is the author of five books and co-editor of several others, including the two-volume A Global Encyclopedia of Historical Writing (2 vols 1998). His 2003 monograph, The Social Circulation of the Past, won the John Ben Snow Prize of the North American Conference on British Studies in 2004 for the best book on British history pre-1800. His most recent book, published by Cambridge University Press in 2019, is A Concise History of History. His articles have appeared in journals such as Past and Present, The American Historical Review, History and Theory, Renaissance Quarterly, and The Journal of the History of Ideas.


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