Friday, 25 February 2011

Old Uni Essay - 'Did Consumer Habits Change Markedly in the Eighteenth Century?'

It was an eighteenth-century axiom that ‘the dispositions and manners of men are formed by their situation, and arise from the state of society in which they live’.[1] Eighteenth century society was rapidly altering and the disposition to consume was altering even faster. Consumer habits have developed throughout history but in eighteenth-century Britain the process intensified so fast as to be labelled, ‘phenomenon’, ‘revolution’ and, perhaps most expressively, ‘birth’.[2] Contemporaries’ reactions were no less dramatic.[3] Understandably there were those who baulked at this ‘phenomenon’ but, tellingly, as the eighteenth century progressed these voices became less prominent as the idea of England as a ‘consumer society’ gained widespread acceptance.[4] Yet it is still not possible to precisely chart an exact date that a consumer culture was established; the change affected particular elements of society in diverse ways for varying reasons and at differing times – the flexibility of the term also makes definition difficult.[5] The process of change was not simple; a person was more, or less, likely to increase their consumption depending on what class, religion, location, gender and politics they identified with. Of course, even within these categories people still retained their individuality. To understand the complexity of alterations in consumer habits it would be necessary to analyse all of these elements separately; however, this essay will focus primarily on differentiations in class. The middle classes here are analysed in conjunction with the effects of empire; the upper classes with the growth of the press; and the lower classes in the context of urbanisation.  It must be kept in mind that these changes permeated all ranks of society, not just the classes they are coupled with here.

Although in disagreement about when consumer habits changed significantly, there is one point on which historians generally concur is why they changed. One primary factor behind increased consumption was that a wider section of society was able to afford objects and lifestyles that would have been unthinkable to previous generations.[6] From around the late-seventeenth century Britain arguably became the richest and most powerful country in the world.[7] The empire not only created new wealth but also fresh trading opportunities; a significant portion of British trade (import and export) went global.[8] ‘The Englishman triumphs in Parliament and the Exchange’ recognised a visitor in the late-eighteenth century; the country’s history as a trading nation was long.[9] Yet people, even at the start of the century, still marvelled at the expanded range of products that they could acquire:

To ev’ry Part of the whole Globe we roam,
And bring the Riches of each Climate home;
With Northern Furrs we’re Clad, and Eastern Gold,
Yet know not India’s Heat, nor Russia’s Cold.[10]

Throughout the period, alongside aggressive imperial expansion, the quantity and range of exotic goods multiplied.[11] This happened to the extent that it was said that, ‘the single Dress of a Woman of Quality is often the Product of an hundred Climates’.[12] This growing system of trade was not met with enthusiasm by all; some worried that ‘by our Traffick we barter our valuable Commodities, and our Money, for outlandish Trinkets: The Consequence of which must be, that our Neighbours will grow rich and powerful, as we become poor and splendid’.[13] This prophecy failed to materialise; trade in many items became so widespread that by the eve of the nineteenth century the majority of society no longer saw them as exotic or luxury products.[14] This demonstrates as much about the change in class as it does about the origins of goods; a larger section of society now enjoyed greater surplus wealth.

The most impressive –though perhaps not the greatest – gains off the back of empire were made by the middle classes.[15] To the dread of the entrenched landed interest a new monied interest was appearing in England, blurring class distinctions.[16] A commentator near the end of the century affirmed that:

‘ former days gay and expensive pleasures were confined to the superior walks of life. The line more precisely drawn than it is at present between the independent gentleman and the commercial citizen.’[17]

New markets appeared to satisfy the middling sorts’ newly acquired wealth; colonial and oriental products were imported in vast quantities and, to cut costs, massive strides were made in English trades to produce imitations of expensive imported goods.[18] Technological improvements like this, in addition to increased wealth, helped middling sorts to occupy a larger position in the consumer goods market.[19] Daniel Defoe, mid-century, understood that ’middling and trading People...are the People that are the Life of Trade’.[20] The products they sought became ‘the markers and stabilisers of social hierarchy’; confirmed by the fact that ‘families [who] had long been in command of income sufficient to felt compelled to do so’.[21] Yet new economic opportunities did not come solely from external trade. Unconsciously, the upper classes’ intensified craving for goods, activities and services created rungs on the social and economic ladders that the aspiring middling sorts sought to climb. To take one example, although exceptional in the degree that he climbed, was Thomas Gainsborough. Son of a publican, he made his money in Bath catering to the craze for miniature portraits, eventually earning enough money and prestige to buy a house in The Circus in Bath– alongside some of the most powerful people of the day.[22] Indeed, the eighteenth century is full of stories similar to this. The upper and middling classes came into contact more often; the former were able to learn from the latter about what to buy to help increase their social standing. ‘As to the wives and daughters of the Principle Tradesmen’ explained John Strype, ‘they endeavour to imitate the Court Ladies, in their Dress, and follow much the same Diversions’.[23] An excellent illustration of this blurring of classes can be found in Smollett’s Humphry Clinker:

The gayest places of public entertainment are filled with fashionable figures: which, upon inquiry, will be found to be journeymen, taylors, serving-men, and abigails, disguised like their betters... the different departments of life are jumbled together.[24]

The upper echelons of society sought new ways counteract this to assert their dominance in society now that their clothing, possessions and even wealth set them apart less definitively. Their reaction was to alter their habits by essentially increasing consumption. Their propensity to consume accelerated largely due to the rapidly expanding print and press culture in the period, revolutionising not just what people bought but also how they bought. The public sphere ballooned, innovating countless consumer habits and becoming the chief vehicle bringing new products to satisfy the elites’ amplified penchant for novelties.[25] Details of the latest fashions were brought to the provinces with the latest weekly newspaper rather than the perennial trip to London. Consequently transformations in what was fashionable, and what was not, quickened remarkably.[26] Another glance at Gainsborough confirms this: an examination of his Byam family portrait reveals that when he revised the picture to include their daughter he also updated the family’s clothes to fit the latest fashion.[27] An offspring of the enlarged press was mass literacy – encouraging people to become avid consumers of books with the consequent rapid spread of new ideas. The upper classes believed their last hope of creating distinction between themselves and new monied men was through learning. They often risked bankruptcy to build architecture that expressed their classical knowledge and went to great lengths procuring artefacts alluding to antiquity to surround themselves with.[28] This, including the eighteenth-century construct of ‘politeness’ has since been described as a ‘culture of improvement’ and was essentially concerned with how people conveyed their rank to others through what they owned – as much as how they behaved.[29] Berg believes that these ideas became, ‘social markers more significant than material wealth’.[30] Horace Walpole confirming that; ‘the very furniture of his rooms describes the character of the persons to whom they belong’.[31] Crowding most newspapers were advertisements which were able to market a wider array of goods from all over the world. Marketing helped enthusiasm for certain goods reach epidemical proportions; ‘The trade of advertising is now so near perfection’ deemed Dr. Johnson, ‘that it is not easy to propose any improvement’.[32] Even the newspapers themselves were a new form of product that people felt compelled to buy.[33] So, the rise of the press wrought multifarious changes on eighteenth-century society – not least of all on consumption – affecting the habits of the rich, who were in the best position to keep on top of the incessant changing consumer habits that were disseminated through print.

The middling and upper classes were arguably the most visibly affected by the consumer revolution and this is reflected by the historiography of consumption; yet the life of the lower orders did not go totally unchanged. Elizabeth Gilboy has proven that the labouring classes generally enjoyed increasing wages throughout the eighteenth century.[34] Jan De Vries’ study of probate inventories reveals a similar picture; ‘With very few exceptions, each generation of descendants from the mid-seventeenth to the late-eighteenth century left behind more and better possessions’.[35] This was especially prominent in the towns that would later become the heartland of the industrial revolution.[36] The populations of industrial and mercantile towns quadrupled between 1750 and 1800, helped by the improved transport systems that flourished in this period.[37] The growth of these new towns was the culmination of a wider pattern of urbanisation that began emerging about a century beforehand.[38] It is argued that towns were a place where ‘new ideas and new ways of life are first introduced’.[39] In this case, the new idea was consumption; towns conveniently contained services, shops and amenities that would encourage the rich to spend which ‘contributed to the expansion of commerce and the wider employment of the poor’.[40] Although of a seasonal nature (and towns were subject to fashion itself) urban communities received a great influx of money that would have rarely reached them before this period. While successful shopkeepers who catered to the elites were often middle class, the smaller and more numerous shopkeepers served, and were definitely part of, the lower classes.[41] Even an inspection of the poor in towns provides a welcome reprieve from the idea of consumption as a wholly selfish enterprise; the rich often spent their money on charities for schools and hospitals to improve the condition of the destitute.[42] Therefore the growth of towns, brought new opportunities to the working classes which is reflected in the surviving records of their possessions. However, it must be stressed that the lower classes did not generally assume a consumer mentality as, for the most part, their increased wealth was only sufficient to drag themselves out of the clutches of poverty.

The eighteenth century introduced a spirit of consumerism which knew few bounds; even the sites of battlefields such as Waterloo were being invaded by armies of British tourists, eager to purchase a morbid ‘relic’ from the site.[43] The combined forces of empire, press and urbanisation were a crucial factor in allowing consumerism to flourish. It is evident that consumer habits did change markedly, but they did not change uniformly.  Regarding class, the most significant alteration in habits could be found in the newly prosperous middle and trading ranks, which became a fillip for the elite to reassert their dominance by prodigious amounts of spending. This increased spending had a trickle-down effect to the lower-middle and labouring classes – who, by consequence, could then improve their standard of living. Nevertheless, it has to be reiterated that there were obviously exceptions to the rule. The consumer revolution affected individuals in different ways depending on class and other notions of identity.  Yet it would be hard to deny Fielding’s assertion that by the middle of the eighteenth century ‘the fury after licentious and luxurious pleasures is grown so great a height, that it may be called the characteristic of the present age’.[44]

[1] Cited in Paul Langford, Englishness Identified; Manners and Character 1650-1850. Oxford; Oxford University Press, 2000, p.8.
[2] Maxine Berg and Helen Clifford, ‘Introduction’ in Maxine Berg and Helen Clifford (eds.), Consumers and Luxury; Consumer Culture in Europe 1650-1850. Manchester; Manchester University Press, 1999, p.1. John Brewer and Roy Porter, ‘Introduction’ in John Brewer and Roy Porter (eds.), Consumption and the World of Goods. London; Routledge, 1993, p.1. Neil McKendrick, ‘Introduction. The Birth of a Consumer Society: The Commercialization of Eighteenth-century England’ in Neil McKendrick, John Brewer and J.H. Plumb, The Birth of a Consumer Society; The commercialization of Eighteenth-century England. London; Europa Publications Limited, 1982, p.1.
[3] One example of an upper-class woman (Lady Lyttelton) expressing her disdain for the Prince of Wales’s social gathering in 1810 will suffice; ‘For somehow it makes one laugh, as if it were a parcel of children playing at great people; so proud of their bits of blue ribbon, and their pretty shiny playthings all about them.’ H. Wyndham (ed.), Correspondence of Sarah Spencer Lady Lyttelton 1787-1870, 1912, p.101 cited in Vic Gatrell, City of Laughter; Sex and Satire in Eighteenth-Century London. London; Atlantic Books, 2006, p.62.
[4] Neil McKendrick, ‘The Consumer Revolution of Eighteenth-Century England’, in McKendrick, Brewer and Plumb, The Birth of a Consumer Society, p.15. Berg and Clifford, ‘Introduction’ in Berg and Clifford (eds.), Consumers and Luxury, pp.3-6.
[5] Historical opinions differ on when and the real reason why people consumed the way they did. See Paul Glennie, ‘Consumption within Historical Studies’ in Daniel Mille (ed.), Acknowledging Consumption: A Review of New Studies. London; Routledge, 1995, pp.164-91.
[6] McKendrick, ‘The Consumer Revolution’, in McKendrick, Brewer and Plumb, The Birth of a Consumer Society, p.23.
[7] Maxine Berg, ‘New commodities, luxuries and their consumers in eighteenth-century England’ in Berg and Clifford (eds.), Consumers and Luxury, p.63. John Brewer, The Sinews of Power. London; Unwin Hyman, 1989, pp.xiii-xxiii.
[8] W.E. Minchinton, ‘Introduction’ in Peter Mathias (ed.), The Growth of English Overseas Trade in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. London; Methuan and Co Ltd, 1969, p.28.
[9] Whereas ‘the German [excels] in his study, the Frenchman in the theatre’. N.M. Karamzin, Letters of a Russian Traveller 1789-1790, p.207 cited in Langford, Englishness Identified, p.77.
[10] Henry Needler, A sea-piece. Sent in a letter from Portsmouth, In October 1711, lines 77-80.
[11] C.A. Bayly, Imperial Meridian: The British Empire and the World, 1780-1830. London; Longman Group UK Ltd, 1993, pp.3-4.
[12] Joseph Addison, The Spectator, vol.1, no.69, May 19, 1711.
[13] The Free-Thinker: Or, Essays of Wit and Humour. Volume 1, Issue 42, August 15, 1718, p.201. Another similar contemporary opinion was that Britain would follow the way of the Roman Empire into unconstrained luxury and tyrannical rule.
[14] James Walvin, Fruits of Empire: Exotic Produce and British Taste 1660-1800. New York; New York University Press, 1997, pp.1-8. Adam Smith’s, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations in 1776 is commonly cited as an example of how public opinion had altered. By then it was widely held that an individual’s desire for ‘baubles and trinkets’ was no longer just a personal vice, but it was realised that their ‘childish vanity’ could be beneficial to the economy.
[15] Julian Hoppit, Risk and Failure in English Business, 1700-1800. Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 1987, p.4. Hoppit believes that about one in five families drew its livelihood from trade.
[16] Brewer, The Sinews of Power, p.206.
[17] Cited in J.C.D. Clark, English Society 1660-1832; Religion, Ideology and Politics during the Ancien Regime (second edn.). Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 2000, p.213.
[18] Minchinton, ‘Introduction’ in Mathias (ed.), The Growth of English Overseas Trade, pp.30-2. Berg, ‘New commodities, luxuries and their consumers’ in Berg and Clifford (eds.), Consumers and Luxury, pp.76-82. Again, historians disagree on why this happened; some, using Veblen’s ‘Theory of Emulation’ believe that the middle classes were attempting to ape their social superiors while recent historians tend to argue that goods were sought after as products in their own right.
[19] Rosemary Sweet, The English Town 1680-1840; Government, Society and Culture. New York; Pearson Education Limited, 1999, p.183.
[20] Daniel Defoe, A plan of the English commerce. Being a complete prospect of the trade of this nation, as well home as foreign. London; C. Rivington, 1737, p.103.
[21] Berg, ‘New commodities, luxuries and their consumers’ in Berg and Clifford (eds.), Consumers and Luxury, p.66. McKendrick, ‘The Consumer Revolution’, in McKendrick, Brewer and Plumb, The Birth of a Consumer Society, p.28.
[22] Susan Sloman, Gainsborough in Bath. New Haven; Yale University Press, 2002, p.21. Hugh Belsey, ‘Gainsborough, Thomas (1727–1788)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004; (Online) Available from: [Accessed 18.11.2009]
[23] John Strype, Stow’s Survey...brought the present Time, 1720. Cited in M. Dorothy George, Hogarth to Cruikshank: Social Change in Graphic Satire. London; Penguin, 1967, p.17.
[24] Tobias Smollett, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker. By the author of Roderick Random. London, 1771, pp.185-6. This quote and the preceding one help to show the disparity between historical opinion, the first clearly showing that emulation was the reason d’etre, while the latter is less clear if imitation was actually emulation.
[25] Viccy Coltman, ‘Sir William Hamilton’s Vase Publications (1766-1776); A Case Study in the Reproduction and Dissemination of Antiquity’, Journal of Design History, Vol.14, No.1, 2001, p.1.
[26] Maxine Berg, Luxury & Pleasure in Eighteenth-Century Britain. Oxford; Oxford University Press, 2005, pp.253-4.
[27] Sloman, Gainsborough in Bath, p.83. Much can be gained from studying portraits to show what people valued about their lives. Shearer West, ‘Patronage and Power: the role of the portrait in eighteenth-century England’ in Jeremy Black and James Gregory (eds.), Culture, Politics and Society in Britain; 1600-1800. Manchester; Manchester University Press, 1991, p.139.
[28] Coltman, ‘Sir William Hamilton’s Vase Publications (1766-1776)’, p.1.
[29] Lawrence E. Klein, ‘Politeness and the Interpretation of the British Eighteenth Century’, The Historical Journal, Vol. 45, No.4, December 2002, p.873. Peter Borsay, ‘The Culture of Improvement’ in Paul Langford (ed.), The Short (continued on next page) Oxford History of the British Isles: The Eighteenth Century. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2002, pp.183-201.
[30] Berg, Luxury & Pleasure, p.205.
[31] Anecdotes of Painting, 1849, Vol III, p.727 Cited in George, Hogarth to Cruikshank, p.22.
[32] Dr. Johnson, 1759 cited in Neil McKendrick, ‘George Packwood and the Commercialization of Shaving: The Art of Eighteenth-Century Advertising or  ‘The Way to Get Money and be Happy’’ in McKendrick, Brewer and Plumb, The Birth of a Consumer Society, pp.146-94.
[33] Berg, ‘New commodities, luxuries and their consumers’ in Berg and Clifford (eds.), Consumers and Luxury, pp.70-1. Peter Borsay, The English Urban Renaissance; Culture and Society in the Provincial Town, 1660-1770. Oxford; Oxford University Press, 1989, pp.130-1.
[34] E.W. Gilboy, Wages in Eighteenth Century England, Cambridge, 1934 cited in McKendrick, Brewer and Plumb, Birth of a Consumer Society, p.23.
[35] Jan De Vries, ‘Between purchasing Power and the world of goods; understanding the household economy in early modern Europe’ in Brewer and Porter, World of Goods, p.99.
[36] Gilboy, Wages in Eighteenth Century England, cited in McKendrick, Brewer and Plumb, Birth of a Consumer Society, p.23.
[37] Berg, Luxury and pleasure, p.211. Paul Langford, A Polite and Commercial People: England 1727-1783. Oxford; Oxford University Press, 1989, pp.389-417.
[38] Borsay, The English Urban Renaissance, pp.1-11.
[39] Lorna Weatherill, Consumer Behaviour & Material Culture in Britain 1660-1760 (Second Edition). London; Routledge, 1996, p.72.
[40] Berg, Luxury & Pleasure, p.32.
[41] Catherine Hall, ‘The Butcher, the Baker, the Candlestick-maker: the shop and the family in the Industrial Revolution’ in Catherine Hall (ed.), White, Male and Middle Class: Explorations in Feminism and History. London; Routledge, 1992, p.109.
[42] Borsay, The English Urban Renaissance, p.110.
[43] Susan Pearce, ‘The materiel of war: Waterloo and its culture’, in John Bonehill and Geoff Quilley (eds.), Conflicting Visions: War and Visual Culture in Britain and France, c.1700-1830., Aldershot; Ashgate, 2005, pp.213-5.
[44] Henry Fielding, Charge to the Grand Jury of Middlesex, 1749. Cited in George, Hogarth to Cruikshank, p.21.