The Aesthetics of Mercantilism: 17th Century Business Casual

Southern harbour scene with merchants by Abraham Storck, c. 17th century

The world of international business in the 17th century was a vivid mixture of cultures, people, and customs. The rise of mercantilism, the improvement of living conditions, and the demand for luxury goods from the rising bourgeois class affected bigger and smaller merchants (businessmen of that age) and their businesses. Business casual in the 17th century frequently involved, for example, ladies and gentlemen looking for something new and different that didn’t just serve to satisfy basic needs. Purchasing exotic spices, clothing, and food was not a necessity, but rather an enjoyable pastime. The target market had new demands and created new business casual aesthetics. This is especially true in the case of maritime trade.

Good Cargo Ship

The history of international trade often involves, in a certain way, a history of merchant sailing ships. They went from one port to another, carrying the valuable merchandise the target market demanded.

“The Norway and the Baltick Trades, have been lately carry’d on in a more disadvantagious way than ever; they always drein’d us of Mony, but this, in some measure, was compensated by their giving Employment to near a Hundred Sail of Ships; and for a great while, have Exported between Three and four Thousand Pound per Annum.”

A good cargo ship had enough space, and all the unnecessary elements were removed. Like, for example, with the Dutch fluyt.

Dutch fluyt, 17th century

When looking from the front, it was a pear-shaped vessel that made the cargo shipment easier. Other ships couldn’t do that, and that’s why the fluyt became very competitive on the market in a relatively short time. This ship was a merchant ship in a pure sense. In the case of war, other ships could be transformed into warships, but that wasn’t the case with fluyt. Nevertheless, because of its competitiveness, other rivals soon became to produce similar ships to become more competitive. Fluyts and other ships calmly anchored in the ports were an excellent example of business casual aesthetics of the 17th century.

Vivid Seaports

17th-century ports were truly vivid places. The most frequent and least frequent ports were places to learn something, teach something, influence something, and gain new and exciting experiences. Very often casually. According to one source, seaports had the potential to “be of great satisfaction to Commerce.”

“Hereby the power knowing what ships and boats of burden appertain to each Sea-port or town, may the better know how to cause every place to bear its equal burden and proportion when any publike occasion doth administer to use ships or boats for the publike service; And this will be of great satisfaction to the Commerce, and bring in a considerable revenue for the present, and annually afterwards.”

Comparing to previous centuries, in the 17th century it was possible to explore the target market by reading some of the new manuals written for merchants. Today that would be marketing research, but at that time, the works by, for example, Daniel Defoe were called commercial research. Depending on the nature of the business, these ports were filled with people who, after getting off the ships, took a seat, relaxed, talked with others, sold something, and did other similar things.

Seaport at sunset by Claude Lorrain, 1639

Sitting at the sunset, when anchored in a foreign port, in the shadows of sails, while relaxing from hard work also definitely belongs to 17th-century business casual.

New Goods For Demanding Customers

The aesthetics of 17th-century business casual involved the goods traded. History, tradition, often superior quality, and unique buying experiences were offered in luxury goods to target consumers. They could feel and taste the products of other cultures. One account from 1688 talks about the fine drapery:

“An account of the fine Drapery may not be unacceptable to the Reader, which we have procur’d from a very skilful Hand, and is as follows:

From 25th December 1687. to the 25th December 1688.                 Pieces.

Exported Spanish Cloaths from the Out-Ports                                   614

From the Port of London                                                               8420



Consum’d in England, about                                                        10,000

Total of fine Cloth made in England                                             19,034″

Observing the trade in the 17th century, it can be said that merchants didn’t only offer a buying experience.

The merchant’s treasures, c. 17th century. Artwork by Max Gaisser, 1889

They also offered a first-hand learning experience because tasting and trying the new goods brought a learning experience to the target customers and all of their five senses. Tobacco, rice, textiles, luxury manufactured goods, and other things arrived at their destinations and offered a unique opportunity to consumers. 

Bland, J. Trade Revived, or a way proposed to restore, increase, inrich, strengthen and preserve the decayed and even dying trade of this our English nation. London, 1659.
Davenant, C. Discourses on the Publick Revenues, and on the Trade of England. London, 1698.

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