The Welsh Dresser: A Case Study

Moira Vincentelli



In his study of consumer society and material culture Daniel Miller distinguishes between personal property, private property and communal property where private property may be seen as a producer of wealth for the owner who may have no personal relationship with the object.19 The Welsh dresser has become an object of investment and speculation over the last thirty years. The value of a nineteenth century oak dresser increased ten-fold over the decade of the 1960s. However it also embodies both the other categories of personal and communal property. The dresser is communal property in so far as it is seen as an heirloom to be passed down within the family if at all possible.20 At the same time the objects on the dresser can be of a personal nature relevant to one particular owner and can be disposed of by that person. In the case under discussion a second dresser has been created in order to allow for just that personal element.21

I have suggested that dressers and the display on them represent an aspect of family wealth or capital. There is also a sense in which they function as 'cultural capital' in Bourdieu's sense. In Distinction Bourdieu has suggested that all kinds of cultural choices or preferences display taste which in turn conveys class position.22 Antique dressers and displays of very carefully collected ceramics, or even pewter, undoubtedly have potential to convey taste and specialised knowledge. More than one of my interviewees indicated that a daughter-in-law did not really know how to display things properly on her (recently acquired) dresser. In one case it was suggested by an interviewee from West Wales that this was because her daughter-in-law was from South Wales, that is, a very anglicised region. It seemed that her Welsh credentials were being called into question. In another case a highly educated young Welsh woman with a strong sense of national identity had self consciously decided that she would have a dresser for everyday use and had rejected the dresser as an object of symbolic and 'aspiring middle class' display. Thus the dresser and its display of ceramics is a signifier; it conveys taste, educational background, regional difference and attitude to Welsh identity.

The dresser is an object that preserves histories - Welsh histories, local regional histories and individual histories but it remains an active symbol and site for the creation of cultural meaning in contemporary Wales.

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19. D. Miller, Material Culture, 121. back to article

20. I have found no consistent system of inheritance although some families appear to have rules e.g. that it goes with the farmhouse or that it goes to the eldest daughter. back to article

21. Another interviewee indicated the she felt she maintained the dresser inherited from her husband's parents on behalf of the family but had a large collection of china displayed elsewhere in the house that was her personal property. back to article

22. P. Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984. back to article

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Women and Welsh identity

The Dresser in Wales

Dresser and Seld

The Wedding presents

Objects and Stories

Tradition and Innovation in Display



Appendix 1


The Welsh Dresser: A Case Study • Issue 1