Commodities and consumers The consumer revolution • When did consumers first come about? • Why do we consume? Are consumer items luxuries? • 1982 Neil McKendrick proclaimed The Birth of a Consumer Society, a ‘consumer revolution’ preceding and accompanying the industrial revolution. • 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 shopkeepers • 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 luxury • Moral degeneracy, breeding idleness, corruption, effeminacy and dissoluteness. 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’  • 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 (1714): 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 http://www.vam.ac.uk/collections/periods_st yles/18thcentury/index.html 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’ Tea • ‘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 participation. 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. Coffee • 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 551 • provincial proliferation – York had 3 by mid 1660s, 30 by late C18th. 1736 Norwich had 106 coffee dealers Tobacco • 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 revolution. • 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. Sugar • 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. Slavery • 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. China • 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 manufactures’. • 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).
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