Commodities and consumers

Commodities and consumers
The consumer revolution
• When did consumers first come about?
• Why do we consume? Are consumer items
• 1982 Neil McKendrick proclaimed The Birth of a
Consumer Society, a ‘consumer revolution’
preceding and accompanying the industrial
• Approach draws on cultural history, economic
history, imperial history, history of ideas and
history of art; often global in its interests.
How to explain it?
Nb earlier growth – ‘revolution’? End of threat of famine
Imitation and emulation?
Thrill of possession
New credit systems
New investments
Diversification of trade and manufacturing
Wealthy bourgeoisie
Commercial as much as landed society; nation of
• Shift from household self-sufficiency to commercially
produced goods; role of wife in household economy
• Polite society and taste
Adult male average earnings
The dangers of
• Moral
effeminacy and
Obsessive and ridiculous fashions, often for women who were depicted as
particularly susceptible to vanity and absurdity; a sense of fashion as allconsuming
• John Dennis, 1711: ‘Luxury is the
spreading contagion which is the greatest
Corrupter of Publick Manners and the
greatest Extinguisher of Publick Spirit’
Fear of parvenues and social
climbers, upstarts
a disparity between outward
display and inner worth
The danger of excess; ill health; literally ‘consumption’
• London Magazine: ‘when the tables of the shopkeeper, the
mechanick and artificer, are replenished with cates and dainties
unbecoming their rank; their rooms furnished in a sumptuous
manner, and themselves and their families appear cloathed in costly
garments, much exceeding their stations in life, then it is that luxury
and extravagence not only prejudices them, but detriments others of
the same degree, by the frequent bankrupting, insolvencies and
shutting up of shops it occasions’ [1754]
• Economic decay – subverting industry; diverting money out of the
country to pay for foreign imports; undermining the landed interest
• ‘The growth of luxury is a sure prognostication of the decline of
empires’ [The London Magazine 1755] cf the fall of Rome
• Frenchified
• Often feared at times of war or crisis
• London and towns as sources of vice
• Christian and classical condemnation
The defence of luxury
Late C17th writers about trade: ‘the main spur to Trade, or rather to Industry and
Ingenuity, is the exorbitant Appetites of Men which they will take pains to gratifie and
so be disposed to work, when nothing else will incline them to it; for did Men content
themselves with bare Necessaries, we should have a poor world’ [North, Discourses
on Trade, 1691]
Bernard de Mandeville, The Fable of the Bees or Private Vices, Publick Benefits
Questioned what luxury or comfort meant: ‘once we depart from calling every thing
Luxury that is not absolutely necessary to keep a Man alive, then there is no Luxury
at all … what is call’d superfluous to some Degree of People will be thought requisite
to those of higher Quality.
‘It is a receive’d Notion that Luxury is as destructive to the Wealth of the whole Body
Politick as it is to that of every individual Person who is guilty of it … I cannot help
dissenting from them in this point’
‘What is put to the Account of Luxury belongs to Male-adminstration, and it is the fault
of bad politicks’
‘if imports are never allow’d to be superior to the Exports, no Nation can ever be
impoverish’d by Foreign Luxury’
‘As to Luxury’s effeminating and enervating a Nation, I have not such frightful Notions
now as I have had formerly … where military affairs are taken care of as they ought,
and the Soldiers well paid and kept in good Discipline, a wealthy Nation may live in all
the Ease and Plenty imaginable’.
Hume and Smith
David Hume ‘Luxury, when excessive, is the source of many ills, but is in general preferable to
sloth and idleness, which would commonly succeed in its place, and are more pernicious both to
private persons and to the public’ (1742). Sociability: ‘the more these refined arts advance, the
more sociable men become …they flock into cities; love to receive and communicate knowledge,
to show their wit or their breeding, their taste in conversation or living, in clothes or furniture
…Thus industry, knowledge and humanity are linked together by an indissoluble chain, and are
found, from experience as well as reason, to be peculiar to the more polished and what are
commonly denominated the more luxurious ages’.
Critics ‘mistook the disorders of the Roman state and ascribed to luxury and the arts what really
proceeded from an ill-modelled government and the unlimited extent of conquests. Refinement on
the pleasures and conveniences of life has no natural tendency to beget venality and corruption’.
‘Where luxury nourishes commerce and industry, the peasants, by a proper cultivation of the land,
become rich and independent; while the tradesmen and merchants acquire a share of the property
and draw authority and consideration to that middling rank of men who are the best and firmest
basis of public liberty’.
Adam Smith (Wealth of Nations, 1776)
Natural order of economies: agriculture, manufacture, commerce. ‘Consumption is the sole end
and purpose of all production and the interest of the producer ought to be attended to, only so far
as it may be necessary for promoting that of the consumer. The maxim is so perfectly self-evident
that it would be absurd to attempt to prove it’. Envy and admiration of the rich drive men to seek
wealth; and inequality meant this was an insatiable process. Though he also expressed anxieties
about excessive luxury he thought the desire to better himself, meant man also saved and
shunned prodigality: ‘though the principle of expense, therefore, prevails in almost all men upon
some occasion, and in some men upon almost all occasions, yet in the greater part of men, taking
the whole course of their life at an average, the principle of frugality seems not only to
predominate but to predominate very greatly’. ‘it is thus that the private interests and passions of
individuals naturally dispose them to turn their stock towards the employments which in ordinary
cases are most advantageous to society’.
• John Tusler’s Luxury no Political Evil, But Demonstrably
proved to be Necessary to the Preservation and
Prosperity of States (1780): ‘a desire for Luxuries begets
a love of property, makes a man attentive to the
preservation of his wealth … and will not suffer any order
of men to vegetate in idleness’.
• Luxury promotes circulation of trade
• The provided the incentive to work hard
• Recognition of its importance: 1781 ‘luxury produces
vice and vice misery; but luxury is, notwithstanding,
essentially necessary to national greatness .. It is indeed
true that nations have been undone by luxury; but it is
also true that no nation can subsist without it’.
Great variety of new consumer
products available
Early eighteenth century silk (Spitalfields)
Late C17th Indian silk
How far down the social scale?
• Henry Fielding referred to a ‘vast torrent of
Luxury which of late Years hath poured
itself into the nation ….[had] almost totally
changed the Manners, Customes and
Habits of the People, more especially of
the lower Sort’
• ‘It purges the blood, opens obstructions, strengthens the
inward parts, sharpens the wit and quickens the
understanding’ (Thomas Povey in 1686).
• Originally valued for its purging quality and 4-50 cups a
day was a dosage. It was introduced to GB via Holland
in the 1650s. Initially the preserve of the elite, within 100
years it had established a place in the mass market.
• Figures of consumption: in 1690s only a few hundred
pounds of China tea were imported; by 1757 the figure
was 3m lbs. By 1780 the figure stood at 17m lbs of tea
being imported. If we add tea that was smuggled, which
could perhaps add 50%, we appreciate that what began
as aristocratic preserve became a matter of mass
Tea, the East India Company and
the State
• The trade was in the exclusive hands of the East India
Company yet the state drew increasing amounts of tax
from it.
• Duty on it reached 112% by 1783. But the vast increase
meant that smuggling became rife and the EIC was
unable to shift all its imports; by the 1770s 17m lbs of tea
were in warehouses. The problem was enough to
threaten collapse of revenues to the state; therefore
there was an attempt to sell it at a lower price to the
Americans, though this wrecked market conditions in the
colonies and raised the issue of taxation. This led to
Boston tea party in Dec 1773.
• Legal imports rose from 5,700 cwt in 1700
to 40,000 by 1770.
• Coffee houses. First in Oxford 1650,
London 1651. By end of C17th London
had several hundred; 1734 directory lists
• provincial proliferation – York had 3 by mid
1660s, 30 by late C18th. 1736 Norwich
had 106 coffee dealers
• A similar story can be told about tobacco. Production in
the Chesapeake colonies of Virginia and Maryland grew
steadily throughout the C17th from 60,000 lbs in 1620 to
about 25m lbs by 1690; by 1728 it was 50m lbs a year
and double that figure by the time of the American
• Initially the West Indies, and Barbados in particular, had
played an important part in tobacco production; but from
the mid C17th onwards the islands were increasingly
turned over to sugar production and tobacco cultivation
became a specialism of N.America.
• At the time of the revolution it was far and away the most
important export, worth nearly double the value of its
nearest commodity rival, bread and flour.
• Towards middle of C18th sugar overtook grain as the
most valuable single commodity entering world trade.
The British and French Caribbean colonies supplied 70%
of all sugar entering the N. Atlantic market in 1750, rising
to 80% by 1787. The Americas as a whole supplied
nearly all over Europe’s sugar imports. In 1700 total
world sugar exports amounted to 57,000 tons; this figure
had risen to 286,000 tons by 1787. Over a similar period
we can see that the number of slaves on British
Caribbean islands rose from 64,000 in 1680 to 480,000
by 1790. Sugar and slavery thus were pivotal to the
economies of the W. Indies.
• Demand for slaves:
i) sugar-slave economies of W. Indies ii) agricultural
plantations of N.America esp. Carolinas rice and indigo;
Virginia and Maryland tobacco.
• 1749 Eng commentator: ‘the extensive employment of
our shipping in, to and from America, the great brood of
seamen consequent thereon, and the daily bread of the
most considerable part of our British manufactures, are
owing primarily to the labour of negroes’. By 1780
Jamaica produced 50,000 tones of sugar, 1/2 of the Gb
supply. 1701-1810 slave imports to W.Indies totalled
about 1.5m. Total slave pop was c.330,000 in 1700 and
nearly 3m by 1800.
• Most tea came not from India but from China.
• 1793 Lord Macartney was sent as Amb to China with
samples of GB manuf, taking an assrotment of artielces
from manuf towns, includeing Norwich. The Emperor
Chien Lung’s reply was that ‘Strange and costly objects
do not interest me. As your Ambassador can see for
himself we possess all things. I set no value on strange
objects ... and have no use for your country’s
• Restrictions on European traders.
• Passion for chinoiserie. Lacquered or jappanned
furniture. figures, screens, cabinets, porcelain.
Willow-ware pattern, still popular, was designed in 1780 and
manufactured by Spode.
Wm Chambers’s Designs of chinese Buildings, Furniture, Dresses etc (1757).
Chambers designed a China house for Kew gardens with a ten story pagoda.
Political uses of consumer items
• 1745 Ant-Gallican Association founded to
‘promote British Manufactures, to extend the
commerce of England, to discourage the
introduction of French modes and oppose the
importation of French commodities’. This paved
way for founding in 1754 of the Society for Arts,
Manufactures and Commerce. It had 2000
members in 1760s. It offered rewards for the
invention by Britons of substitutes for items that
were imported eg varnish (for lacquering;
perfected in Paris).