Marking Time: A Review – by Francesca Kaes

Marking Time: Objects, People, and Their Lives, 1500-1800, ed. by Edward Town and Angela McShane (New Haven and London: Yale University Press and the Yale Center for British Art, 2020). 512 pages, 460 color + b-w illus., $65. With essays by Glenn Adamson, Justin M. Brown, Edward S. Cooke Jr., Nathan Flis, Gavi Levy Haskell, Angela McShane, and Keith Wrightson.

I remember vividly the days leading up to the first lockdown in the UK. Two weeks earlier, a coworker burst into our open plan office announcing that a guest speaker from Germany was feeling unwell and had developed a fever. We frantically disinfected keyboards and doorhandles. At this point, reports about the new coronavirus had us in a state of shock, but the prospect of a global pandemic still seemed abstract and distant. Only a short time after, in mid-March, we were sent to work from home and a week later the government instituted the first national lockdown. What happened in the intervening months, between then and now, I am less sure about. It is not so much that my memory fails me. I do remember the government scandals, the cries for social justice, and, most of all, the tragic number of dead. But I struggle to graph these events onto what normally is an almost metronomic sense of the passing of time, measured by calendar pages going in and out of date. Pandemic time feels unfamiliar and fluid. Released from the rhythms of our daily routines, and unfurling in social isolation, it viscously stretches and compresses into unrecognizable units—days, weeks, months, years, all at once—speeding up and slowing down, looping backward and forward, without discernible logic. As if Chronos were playing a wicked trick on us.

It would be easy to overstate this effect of elasticity on our perception of time. After all, work continued, deadlines had to be met, life went on. Nevertheless, the dissonance between sensed pandemic time and actual calendrical time draws attention to the phenomenon of temporal plurality, i.e., the pluralistic nature of time perception and the coexistence of time’s diverse concepts and practices. Whereas calendrical time situates us within a linear and universal continuum of mathematically defined intervals, pandemic time resists numerical measure and dissolves into a highly personal and idiosyncratic blur. Yet, despite these contradictions, both timelines coexist in our recollection of the past and shape its temporality.

Temporal plurality is the topic of Marking Time, a remarkable new book on the experience of time in early modern Britain, edited by Edward Town and Angela McShane for the Yale Center for British Art and Yale University Press. Indeed, the book shows that our relationship to a precisely measured past, present, and future is regulated not by an innate sense for the passing of time, but by well-rehearsed cultural techniques of timekeeping, many of which first originated in the period of 1500 to 1800 that the book takes as its focus.

Marking Time begins with a curious observation. During the early modern period, people seem to have taken joy in inscribing dates onto otherwise inconspicuous objects. Of course, objects were dated before, but from about 1550 dated things became ubiquitous, only for the practice to sharply decline after 1750. Dates appeared on cutlery, plates, cups and mugs; on chairs, chests, and cabinets; on nutcrackers, apple corers, and pastry jiggers; on garters, girdles, and knitting needles. The book assembles over 450 such objects—all from the John H. Bryan Collection of British decorative arts at Lake Bluff, Illinois—and considers what prompted people to mark them with dates; what the practice tells us about their relationship with, and conceptions of, time; and whether there is a distinctive temporality that separates the early modern period from today.

These questions are pursued in two parts. The first section of the book presents a collection of essays, which is followed by an almost 400-page catalogue with entries for each one of the objects selected from Mr. Bryan’s collection. Eschewing chronology as an ordering principle, the objects are arranged thematically, according to phases of life (Childhood & Youth, Courtship & Marriage, Hearth & Household, Death & Legacy) and spheres of social, political, and economic activity (Fashion & Friendship, Crown & Court, Power & Dominion). Like little vignettes, the catalogue entries, which are supported by meticulous research, offer a glimpse into the lives of those who made and those who used the objects in question, elites and commoners alike. As such, the catalogue is more than simply a reference work; it forms a beautifully kaleidoscopic and evocative encyclopedia of daily life in early modern Britain.

But the complex temporalities the objects suggest come to life more clearly through the essays that precede the catalogue. Here, time emerges as a heterogenous, unstable concept, inflected by the protracted political, social, cultural, and technological changes that characterize the early modern period. Temporal consciousness was governed by a variety of overlapping systems of measuring and imagining time. The present existed as a cycle of annually recurring events, such as saint’s days and movable church feasts; the four terms of the legal year and its associated rent and tax days; as well as the phases of the moon, times of sunrise and sunset, and the ascent and descent of astrological signs. The past, on the other hand, unfolded as a linear continuum. Almanacs counted time from God’s creation onward and sought to integrate biblical events with classical history, followed by accounts of modern history from the Norman conquest up to the present. And although people became increasingly vested in temporal exactitude, individuals’ perception of their own position in time remained imprecise and idiosyncratically measured well into the eighteenth century. As Keith Wrightson explains in the introduction, “Time descended in irregular units of varying duration: reigns, generations, tenancies granted for number of lives rather than a term of years. ‘My time’ … shaded into ‘our Fathers time’ and then faded into ‘time beyond the memory of man’” (24). The future, meanwhile, was shaped by a Christian worldview which instilled a sense of hopeful anticipation. Death, an ever-present reality in a society marked by war and disease, was seen not as a finality but as the promise of salvation; “life was lived in order to die, and to die was to live eternally with God” (465).

Dated objects helped their makers and users to anchor themselves within these varying and often approximate temporal frameworks. Family heirlooms, for instance, served as vessels of memory and bound family members together, from generation to generation, forging a shared identity through time. Marking Time offers many examples of how individual objects shaped their owner’s experience of time, but perhaps we can push the book’s arguments a little further if we consider how dated objects engage temporal consciousness in more general terms. A date inscribed when an object is made, or indeed at any other point during its life, does not only mark a specific moment in time. More fundamentally, it acknowledges the object’s existence in time. The object announces both the moment of its marking as well as an implied future, when the inscribed date will serve as a reminder of the past. In other words, the date becomes an index of the object’s diachronicity—its past, present, and future combined. By confronting users with its temporal existence, the object mirrors the subject’s own historicity and existence in time. Inscribing a date, then, might almost be considered an ontological operation, one that differentiates dated things from undated ones.

The most intriguing proposition of the book rests in the way its authors activate the disparate presents the objects comprise. In her essay about “The Intersecting Lives of Early Modern Objects,” Gavi Levy Haskell describes what she terms the narrative density of domestic objects. Such density was achieved by the different overlapping temporal meanings each object held for the members of a household, depending on their status, gender, and role within the household, and depending on the demands an object made on their time. A cradle, for example, would have occupied the time not just of a child, or a sequence of children, but of their mother, their wet nurse, and of the maid tasked with washing the “considerable quantities of dirty laundry” (59) an infant might produce. In Haskell’s reading, household objects like cradles, bed hangings, and mechanical spit jacks become focalization points through which we can enter these diverse and intersecting perspectives and explore the varied temporal realities they reflect. This approach yields particularly interesting insights into early modern life as it makes visible those members of a household—servants, children, women—whose lives often remain obscure.

The idea of focalization, and the multiple perspectives it draws together, acquires particular poignancy in Justin M. Brown’s essay on transatlantic time. Juxtaposing the lives of traders, merchants, and planters with those of enslaved Africans, Brown reveals the horrific disparities in temporal agency that shaped the experience of time in the British Atlantic. Increasingly sophisticated systems of record- and timekeeping were used to impose discipline on those living in bondage—who were thus denied the ability to exercise control over both their own present and labor—while ensuring maximum profit for those in power. “For the enslaved,” Brown observes, “time was a stolen commodity; for those who profited from their enslavement, time was money” (48). Central to this commodified consciousness of time was a sense of delay—delay because of the long time it took for things and people to travel across the Atlantic, as Brown points out, but delay also as a sign of cultural otherness. Indeed, as has been shown elsewhere, spatial remoteness came to be mistaken for temporal remoteness, and “non-Europeans were condemned as non-synchronic, out of sync, trapped in states of incomplete development.”[1] It was this misguided sense of delay that later in the eighteenth century, and throughout the nineteenth, would become wedded to new theories of human evolution as a way to justify notions of scientific racism—notions whose legacies continue to be felt to this day.

Many of the objects in Marking Time bear witness to this economy of stolen time. Silver collars or ankle irons directly speak to the violent realities of enslaved labor, whereas things like punch bowls and tobacco boxes offer more subtle reminders of the wealth and power that was created through the exploitation of both humans and natural resources. By foregrounding the disparities of transatlantic time, Brown’s essay provides an important narrative bracket for readers to better understand the complex temporalities inscribed into the objects considered in his and other essays in this book. Implicit in these objects’ pasts, presents, and futures are the histories of their making, ownership, and use, and the histories of those who held and handled them: it took time to extract raw materials and transport them to Britain, just as it took time to make the objects and time to use them. It is their enduring ability to evoke these past lives, their potential to inhabit multiple temporalities, as Jenny Saunt writes, which Mr. Bryan valued in the dated objects he collected.

Marking Time is a beautifully designed book whose essays and catalogue will appeal to historians from a wide range of disciplinary backgrounds and interests, including, among others, social historians, intellectual historians, and historians of early modern material culture and the decorative arts. For readers of this journal, Marking Time will be compelling for the precision it employs in analyzing the continuities and discontinuities that connect and separate eighteenth-century cultures of time from those in the seventeenth and sixteenth centuries. Finally, the editors and authors are to be commended for the wonderful book they have written, and for the dedication, sensitivity, and nuance with which they have approached the humble yet delightful objects in their care.

Francesca Kaes is a DPhil candidate in art history at the University of Oxford

[1] See Alexander Nagel and Christopher S. Wood, Anachronic Renaissance (New York: Zone Books, 2010), 10, who paraphrase Johannes Fabian, Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), 144.

Cite this note as:  Francesca Kaes, “Marking Time: A Review,” Journal18 (January 2021),

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