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Sexy Calico Dresses Usher in Birth of Capitalism: Lewis Lapham

Lewis Lapham
Lewis Lapham of Lapham's Quarterly. Lapham interviews authors for Bloomberg News. Photographer: Paul Goguen/Bloomberg News

May 22 (Bloomberg) -- When the East India Company began importing chintz and calico to England in the 17th century, fashionable ladies went wild.

The light and colorful textiles were soon being made into dresses, shirts, tapestries, draperies and bedspreads. Once the servant girls also began flaunting imported finery, it was clear that a new economic order was emerging: Capitalism was taking hold.

Rather than being wicked, as long taught, consumption was now seen to stimulate the economy and lead to greater prosperity for everyone. Spending was better than saving and when people wanted something, they worked harder to find the money to pay for it.

Weighing in on the calico issue, one pamphleteer defended luxury imports as “true Spurs to Virtue, Valour and the Elevation of the mind, as well as the just rewards of Industry.”

An evolving social phenomenon, capitalism in its current incarnation was not inevitable, says historian Joyce Appleby, and it had to supplant an older system that valued hierarchy, community and tradition. I spoke with Appleby, author of “The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism” (Norton), on the following topics:

1. Scarcity-Defined Society

2. Consumption Legitimized

3. Transformation of Production

4. Time is Money

5. Righting Wrongs

To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Lewis Lapham is the founder of Lapham’s Quarterly and the former editor of Harper’s magazine. He hosts “The World in Time” interview series for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News.)

To contact the writer on the story: Lewis Lapham in New York at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at

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