I have published a guest blog on the wonderful Four Nations History Network website today looking at how a Four Nations or Three Kingdoms approach might help us to understand better the lived experience of the financial revolution and the South Sea Bubble of 1720. In this companion post I want to show, using one fantastic primary source, how we might explore how contemporary observers visualised investors from other parts of the British Isles and indeed from further afield. The images that accompany this post are all drawn from one set of playing cards produced in London in the immediate aftermath of the great stock market crash of 1720, which have since been digitised by the Baker Library at Harvard as part of their superb online South Sea Bubble collection. Various sets of playing cards were produced after the bubble to explain to the public different aspects of the bubble. One set showcases the famous or infamous bubble companies set up to benefit from the speculative wave sweeping through London’s Exchange Alley. These cards depict the ‘projects’ or ‘bubble companies’ presented to an often unsuspecting public. These included the following:
Company for trading in Hair
- Company for importing broomsticks from Germany
- Company for a Hydrostatical Air Pump: to draw all manner of wind and vapours out of Human Brains
- Flying engines, Automatons
- Company for making Perpetual Motion Machine
- And best of all: “The Company for a project which will be hereafter revealed”. The Projector of this one allegedly gathered £500 in subscriptions and promptly disappeared.
I am, however, more interested in a second set of cards. These ones, also first published in 1720 can be seen as a sort of morality tale in 52 episodes, illustrating as it does the various categories of individuals who got caught up in the investment mania. Often racist as well as misogynistic in tone, these cards and their captions illustrate through the use of stereotypes and exaggerated images the anxieties about ‘new money’ and disruptive external forces that the aftermath of the bubble revealed bubbling (if one excuses the pun) below the surface of early Georgian ‘polite society. Such fears were of course a feature of William Hogarth’s canonical print on the subject. A number of the cards, including the 1 of Clubs reveal the contemporary sense of concern about women playing an active role in the stock market (women comprised between 5 and 10% of investors), and the impact that this would have on society. Women were, in some quarters, also blamed for the bursting of the bubble, and the use of pejorative gendered language whether in terms of ‘hysteria’ or ‘frenzy’ amongst others, is a notable feature of the post-bubble literature.
Other cards elaborated on existing racial stereotypes. The 10 of Clubs featuring two Irishmen employed the generic Irish name of Teague as well as giving one of the characters an Irish brogue in which to express himself, ‘By God and St Patrick’. In a similar vein the 1 of Diamond’s describes one character as a taffy, while the Welsh leek like the Irish potato on the previously mentioned card, serves to confirm the provincial rural stereotype. In this instance Welsh entrepreneurship, through copper mining, also gets a mention, but the emphasis is on othering these suspicious outsiders who caused the nation’s ruin.
This theme is taken to its logical if distasteful conclusion in a series of xenophobic cards attacking first the Dutch and then more offensively again the London Jews, many of whom were especially prominent in the London stock trading environment. The examples below illustrate this transnational element, with the 6 of Hearts insulting the calvinist Dutch and the 7 of Hearts portraying the Jewish stockbroker as a rapacious greedy individual preparing to prey on an English maiden.
These playing cards provide but a glimpse into the ‘mentalities’ current in London in the aftermath of the great financial crisis of 1720. They portray a society struggling to deal with the unexpected collapse of its rising financial world. They also show how in times of crisis that the first targets for the disgruntled and suspicious are often those who don’t fit into the imagined norms of a community.