Neil McKendrick claims there was a 'consumer revolution' in the eighteenth century which rivalled the Neolithic revolution in farming in its impact on the whole of the population.1 Quantitative data seems persuasive as total expenditure on industrial goods increased by "something like 370 per cent" in the eighteenth century, but this by no means implies that consumerism was a ubiquitous phenomena.2 Although the aristocracy have always been noted for their propensity to consume, it needs to be established whether the middling sort and the labouring poor had either the willingness or ability to consume. McKendrick notes that the home market grew from £10 million to £90 million over the course of the eighteenth century, and it is highly improbable that this could all be absorbed by the top layers of society. Consumption was spreading rapidly among the middling sort, especially those living in areas integrated into national markets. And whilst the labouring poor could not hope to achieve the living standards of their betters, in many regions they were being increasingly integrated into the consumer society, turning away from the traditional moral economy. The "democratisation of consumption" was not a ubiquitous phenomenon, but it was certainly not entirely exclusive of the labouring poor – analyses based on region and local socio-economic factors are more useful than sweeping generalisations.

In discussing the proliferation of consumer goods among the middling sort in this period, McKendrick argues that emulation was the major driving force behind it. The "gradual and easy transition from rank to rank" encouraged social emulation because the gap between social groups was bridgeable.3 This, he argues, is where the willingness of people like lawyers, doctors and petty government officials to consume stemmed from. Although this focus on emulation has come under criticism, there can be little doubt that many people in the middling sort were becoming integrated into a consumer culture in the eighteenth century. This was especially true in urban-industrial areas, most notably London. Weatherill refers to London as the avant garde of consumerism, always having the latest fashions first and possessing the local manufacturing apparatus to output them. There was a large commercial infrastructure in London which facilitated the distribution of these goods. London, says Weatherill, was not "different in kind from other towns", but showed "the same pattern in exaggerated form".4 The ability for the middle class to consume if they so wished spread especially to the North East, which traded coal with London in return for material goods. There was a definite difference between urban and rural patterns of consumption, with towns like Newcastle supplying goods to a hinterland, but not all of the countryside.

It is necessary to demonstrate the increased willingness of the middling sort to consume as well as the ability for them to do which was afforded by increasingly integrated national markets. The trends described above were not new in this period, although they were accentuated – if the increased ease of supply cannot explain the question fully, we must turn to demand. This is what McKendrick does when he advances the idea of the predominance of emulation which, he says, was exploited by manufacturers such as Josiah Wedgwood. That Wedgwood self-consciously and successfully aimed his marketing strategy at the middling sort can be taken as evidence that they were increasing consumption, but does not ipso facto mean that this demand stemmed from their desire to emulate their betters. More important is the fact that Wedgwood recognised that latent demand existed among the professional classes and exploited it successfully. By focusing on emulation we forget that goods have many uses, only one of which might be emulation.5 An example is the consumption of tea, coffee and sugar – and the related such consumables such as cutlery, china and tea pots – which have immediate and obvious benefits in that many people believe them to be intrinsically enjoyable to consume. The same goes for luxurious clothes and bedding, which are noted increasingly in probate inventories as the century wears on and the market becomes more integrated.

It is important not to dismiss emulation altogether, even if its role as the primary factor looks dubious. The closeness of dwellings in cities could well have led to snobbery – "keeping up with the Joneses". The front room of a house was considered its window into the world, where guests would be entertained and the social functions of the family carried out. An important part of this was tea-drinking, and the prestige of a family would naturally be bolstered were it able to provide decent or even luxurious china. Similarly, the decoration of this room would be the most lavish in the house. Closeness of dwellings brought the dichotomy between 'our' space and the rest of the world more sharply into focus – curtains were found increasingly as the century wore on, indicative that people sought privacy. This clear delineation of 'our' space would be accompanied in some families with a desire to make it as homely and pride-worthy as possible, which could be accomplished with manufactured goods such as paintings, prints and furniture. Outside of the house emulation could be fostered in the social activities which took place in a city, as the professional classes sought to turn money into acceptance. McKendrick notes the vibrant culture of places like London and Bath, as well as the availability of the latest fashions in clothing nearby. Cities were cultural and social hotspots, and the competition for social standing could express itself in consumerism, especially among the richer merchant and professional classes.

The labouring poor could not afford the latest fashions in clothes or the thinnest bone china, but Jan de Vries argues that they were increasingly drawn into the national market for consumer goods in the eighteenth century.7 The idea that changes in terms of trade dramatically affected the balance of payments between the industrial and agricultural sectors over the course of the eighteenth century has been rejected, because total change over the entire century was very slight.8 It does not seem likely that the agricultural poor were generating demand because of new wealth derived from changes in the intersectoral terms of trade – as Ricardo noted, any increase in the prices of food tends to accrue to the landlord anyway. But Jan de Vries has offered an argument which demonstrates how total household income could have increased without an attendant rise in per capita income, and also how this might have stimulated consumer demand from the labouring poor. He argues that as national markets became more integrated, households would reallocate their labour more efficiently to commercialised agriculture and away from goods manufactured in the house for auto-consumption. It then became necessary to purchase manufactures because the household was no longer self-sufficient in certain goods, which means increased consumption in the labouring poor.

Attendant to this process was the breakdown of the backward-bending labour supply curve, i.e. one which provided less labour the higher wages were. This existed because labourers had a high leisure preference stemming from the marginal utility of money wages vs. leisure time. Employers frequently complained about their lazy workers, but in fact it was often more worthwhile for workers to spend their time doing work in the 'moral economy' – perhaps logging or attending to the vegetable garden. De Vries places the rise of proto-industry and proletarianization in the context of the increased availability of consumer goods, which increases the marginal utility of money wages because a richer variety of things can be purchased with them. It has been argued that proto-industry was a defensive action taken against the breakdown of living standards, but if people were willing to work more to maintain previous living standards which were socially rather than physiologically determined, then in the long-term this would have a 'ratchet effect' and force living standards up.9 The breakdown of the moral economy was certainly a long process, and was not complete until the factory system was predominant – but over the course of the eighteenth century the poor were increasingly coming within the sphere of the national market and consuming its products. Regional specialisation, improving transport and communications and increased urbanisation all induced them to concentrate on agricultural production whilst obtaining other products from the market. This is how they increased their consumption of material goods without experiencing an improvement in per capita income.

The willingness of the poor to consume may have been addressed, but it is now necessary to turn to their ability. De Vries and McKendrick both ascribe this in a large degree to the increased role of women and children in the labour force, increasing the income possibilities for a household massively. In proto-industry especially the burden on a house's finances of children was removed because it became possible for them to take up tools and help from a fairly young age. Women and children were also considered suited to the task of labour-intensive agriculture, in tasks such as weeding and pruning. As proto-industrialisation, and later industrialisation, wore on, wage rates in domestic service – which was the largest employer of women at the end of the century – rose in competition. McKendrick uses the above evidence to extend his consumer revolution to the skilled factory worker and domestic servant classes. In her study of the first half of the eighteenth century, Weatherill does not extend increased consumption down so far as the labouring poor – but Peter King finds from his study of pauper inventories that as the century wore on Weatherill's pessimism becomes less relevant.11 This does not imply ipso facto that the labouring poor are involved in social emulation, especially as some types of goods were found in the inventories of poorer households that were not found in those of richer ones. This again highlights the importance of other factors in determining the utility of different products for different people.

King also says that although the material lives of the poor may have been improving, they may have been getting worse off relative to the middling sort and the upper classes due to regressive taxation and simply because the upper classes were pulling away from them. It is important to note that this does not preclude the improvement of their situation, it just points out that other peoples' situation is improving faster. But if this is true – and there is evidence that the standard of living for urban workers in London and Bath was stagnant in the eighteenth century – then it does raise the possibility that we should view increased consumption as something which primarily affected the middling sort. However, I think this would be a rash judgement. Although the middling sort were benefiting most from the proliferation of luxuries, the increasingly integrated markets meant that even the urban proletariat could purchase manufactures which they might have produced within the household were they still in the countryside. The benefits of putting women and children to work also existed in the cities as proto-industry was thriving in many areas, especially in the metropolis.

King's examinations of pauper inventories may not be entirely convincing, but they contrast starkly with the grim vision of poverty often recorded in older inventories. Even if the poor could only afford a few decencies, it shows participation in the market at a level which was not possible in earlier centuries. It is also necessary to note the limitations of pauper inventories as a source of information – they provide only a snapshot in time, one coming at the end of someone's life cycle. As it was common for the parish to appropriate a pauper’s goods to pay for his funeral, it was known for them to redistribute their property among friends and kin before their death. Also, if increased consumerism implies a falling durability in goods so they can make way for the latest fashions, we would not expect the valuations of probate or pauper inventories to rise sharply. Indeed, they may even fall if goods depreciated quicker – it is characteristic of this period, especially after 1750, that those born with some material possessions would increasingly replace them rather than keeping the same pieces for generations.

Generalisations are not, of course, as useful as local studies. People in areas that failed to be integrated into the market or were not near an urban centre would have trouble demonstrating an increased propensity to consume. Much of the increased consumption no doubt stemmed from the urban-industrial sector. Among the labouring poor this was people involved in proto-industry or commercial agriculture, i.e. people who were moving away from the moral economy and into the market. Among the middling sort it included people who wanted to emulate their betters, those who had grown to appreciate the comforts of consumption and those who were enjoying new wealth because their wives were out at work. It is interesting to note that consumption of goods were the purchasing decision was traditionally taken by the woman – cutlery, clothing, silk – took off as the century wore on. There was a growth in the number of products aimed at women and children, which implies a recognition by producers that women had increased purchasing power. Labour contributed by women and children was a huge factor in the increased possibility of consumption, as was the shift in labour habits due to the increased marginal utility of money wages. But this was only something people could take advantage of where they had access to the market – which was not everywhere in the country. As the century wore on, the increased consumption of material goods could spread even further down the social scale. It offered something different and increased variety to each of the layers of society, but could not exclude any of them absolutely – as the reach of the market grew the opportunity cost of consumption lessened for everyone. When people had got used to the seduction of consumption, consumerism soon followed.

1. N. McKendrick, J. Brewer and J.H. Plumb., The Birth of a Consumer Society
2. M. Daunton, Progress and Poverty, p. 368
3. N. McKendrick, J. Brewer and J.H. Plumb., op. cit.
4. L. Weatherill, Consumer Behaviour and Material Culture in Britain, 1660 – 1760, p. 31
5. Ibid.
6. C. Campbell, 'Understanding traditional and modern patterns of consumption in eighteenth-century England: a character-action approach' in R Porter and J. Brewer (ed.), Consumption and the World of Goods
7. Jan de Vries, 'Between purchasing power and the world of goods: understanding the household economy in early modern Europe' in Ibid.
8. M. Daunton, Progress and Poverty, pp. 367 - 69
9. Jan de Vries, 'Between purchasing power...' in R. Porter and J. Brewer (eds.), op. cit.
10. N. McKendrick, 'Home demand and economy growth' in N. McKendrick (ed.), Historical Perspectives
11. P. King, 'Pauper inventories and the material lives of the poor in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries', in T. Hitchcock, P. King and P. Sharpe (eds.), Chronicles of Poverty: The Voices and Strategies of the English Poor, 1640 – 1840

Complete bibliography

M. Daunton, Progress and Poverty
N. McKendrick, J. Brewer and J.H. Plumb., The Birth of a Consumer Society
R Porter and J. Brewer (ed.), Consumption and the World of Goods
N. McKendrick (ed.), Historical Perspectives
T. Hitchcock, P. King and P. Sharpe (eds.), Chronicles of Poverty: The Voices and Strategies of the English Poor, 1640 – 1840
P. Hudson, The Industrial Revolution
L. Weatherill, Consumer Behaviour and Material Culture in Britain, 1660 – 1760,

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.