For Reason Magazine, Virginia Postrel takes a look at the gadgets and gizmos that inspired 18th-century Scottish economist Adam Smith, capitalism’s skeptical godfather. They “epitomized a new culture of consumption” which now defines the business of our lives more than ever.
But timepieces were hardly the only gizmos stuffing 18th century pockets, especially among the well-to-do. At a coffeehouse, a gentleman might pull out a silver nutmeg grater to add spice to his drink or a pocket globe to make a geographical point. The scientifically inclined might carry a simple microscope, known as a flea glass, to examine flowers and insects while strolling through gardens or fields. He could gaze through a pocket telescope and then, with a few twists, convert it into a mini-microscope. He could improve his observations with a pocket tripod or camera obscura and could pencil notes in a pocket diary or on an erasable sheet of ivory. (Not content with a single sheet, Thomas Jefferson carried ivory pocket notebooks.)
The coolest of all pocket gadgets were what antiquarians call ethical and Smith referred to as “tweezer cases.” A typical 18th century etui looks like a slightly oversized cigarette lighter covered in shagreen, a textured rawhide made from shark or ray skin. The lid opens up to reveal an assortment of miniature tools, each fitting into an appropriately shaped slot. Today’s crossword puzzle clues often describe etuis as sewing or needle cases, but that was only one of many varieties. An etui might contain drawing instruments—a compass, ruler, pencil, and set of pen nibs. It could hold surgeon’s tools or tiny perfume bottles. Many offered a handy tool set for travelers: a tiny knife, two-pronged fork, and snuff spoon; scissors, tweezers, a razor, and an earwax scraper; a pencil holder and pen nib; perhaps a ruler or bodkin. The cap of a cylindrical etui might separate into a spyglass.
Don’t sleep on Smith. “He is also said to have put bread and butter into a teapot, drunk the concoction, and declared it to be the worst cup of tea he has ever had.”