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Consumer revolution

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Title: Consumer revolution  
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Consumer revolution

The term Consumer revolution refers to the period from approximately 1600 to 1750 in England in which there was a marked increase in the consumption and variety of "luxury" goods and products by individuals from different economic and social backgrounds. The consumer revolution marked a departure from the traditional mode of life that was dominated by frugality and scarcity to one of increasingly mass consumption in society.[1]


Consumerism has weak links with the Western world, but is in fact an international phenomenon. People purchasing goods and consuming materials in excess of their basic needs is as old as the first civilizations (e.g. Ancient Egypt, Babylon and Ancient Rome).

Bernard Mandeville's work The Fable of the Bees, which justified conspicuous consumption.

The consumer society emerged in the late seventeenth century and intensified throughout the eighteenth century. Change was propelled by the growing middle-class who embraced new ideas about luxury consumption and the growing importance of fashion as an arbiter for purchasing rather than necessity. This revolution encompassed the growth in construction of vast country estates specifically designed to cater for comfort and the increased availability of luxury goods aimed at a growing market. This included sugar, tobacco, tea and coffee; these were increasingly grown on vast plantations in the Caribbean as demand steadily rose. In particular, sugar consumption in Britain during the course of the 18th century increased by a factor of 20.[2] Moreover, the expansion of trade and markets also contributed to the burgeoning consumer revolution, by increasing the variety of goods that could be made available to affluent society.

This pattern was particularly visible in London where the gentry and prosperous merchants took up residence and created a culture of luxury and consumption that was slowly extended across the socio-economic divide. Marketplaces expanded as shopping centres, such as the New Exchange, opened in 1609 by Robert Cecil in the Strand. Shops started to become important as places for Londoners to meet and socialise and became popular destinations alongside the theatre. Restoration London also saw the growth of luxury buildings as advertisements for social position with speculative architects like Nicholas Barbon and Lionel Cranfield.

There was growth in industries like glass making and silk manufacturing, and much pamphleteering of the time was devoted to justifying private vice for luxury goods for the greater public good. This then scandalous line of thought caused great controversy with the publication of Bernard Mandeville's influential work The Fable of the Bees in 1714, in which he argued that a country's prosperity ultimately lay in the self-interest of the consumer.[3]

Wedgwood pottery, featuring Horse Frightened by a Lion motif from George Stubbs, 1780.

These trends were vastly accelerated in the 18th century, as rising prosperity and social mobility increased the number of people with disposable income for consumption. Important shifts included the marketing of goods for individuals as opposed to items for the household, and the new status of goods as status symbols, related to changes in fashion and desired for aesthetic appeal, as opposed to just their utility.

The pottery inventor and entrepreneur, Josiah Wedgwood, noticed the way aristocratic fashions, themselves subject to periodic changes in direction, slowly filtered down through society. He pioneered the use of marketing techniques to influence and manipulate the direction of the prevailing tastes and preferences to cause his goods to be accepted among the aristocracy; it was only a matter of time before his goods were being rapidly bought up by the middle classes as well. His example was followed by other producers of a wide range of products and the spread and importance of consumption fashions became steadily more important.[4]

See also


  1. ^ Fairchilds, Cissie. “Review: Consumption in Early Modern Europe. A Review Article”. Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 35, No. 4. (Oct., 1993), pp. 851.
  2. ^
  3. ^ Peck, Linda, "Consuming Splendor: Society and Culture in Seventeenth-Century England", Cambridge Press, 2005
  4. ^


Fairchilds, Cissie. “Review: Consumption in Early Modern Europe. A Review Article”. Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 35, No. 4. (Oct., 1993), pp. 850–858.

Roberts, Mary L. 1998. "Gender, Consumption, and Commodity Culture." American Historical Review 103: 817-44

Berg, Maxine, Clifford, H. (eds.), Consumers and luxury: Consumer culture in Europe 1650-1850, Manchester:Manchester UP 1999

Berg, Maxine, Luxury & Pleasure in Eighteenth-Century Britain, Oxford: OUP 2005

Berry, Helen, ‘Polite Consumption: Shopping in Eighteenth-Century England’, TRHS 6thSer. 12, 2002, pp. 375-394

Cox, Nancy, The complete Tradesman. A Study of Retailing, 1550-1820, Aldershot: Ashgate 2000

Lemire, Beverley, Fashion’s Favourite: The Cotton Trade and the Consumer in Britain, 1660-1800, Oxford: OUP 1991

McKendrick, Neil, Brewer, John, Plumb, J.H., The Birth of a Consumer Society: The Commercialization of Eighteenth-century England, London: Europa Publications 1982

Mui, Hoh-Chueng, Mui, Lorna H., Shops and Shopkeeping in Eighteenth-Century England, Kingston: McGill-Queen’s UP 1989

Shammas, Carole, The Pre-industrial Consumer in England and America, Oxford: Clarendon1990

Spufford, Margaret, The Great Reclothing of Rural England: Petty Chapmen and their Wares in the Seventeenth Century, London: Hambledon 1984

Blondé, Bruno et al. (eds.), Retail circuits and practices in medieval and early modern Europe (Studies in European Urban History (1100-1800) 9), Turnhout: Brepols 2006

Stobart, Jon ‘Shopping streets as social space: leisure, consumerism and improvement in an eighteenth-century county town’, Urban History 25:1, 1998, pp. 3-21

Stobart, Jon, Hann, Andrew, ‘Retailing Revolution in the Eighteenth Century? Evidence from North-West England’, Business History 46:2, 2004, pp. 171-194

Stobart, Jon, ‘Leisure and Shopping in the Small Towns of Georgian England. A Regional Approach’, Journal of Urban History 32:4, 2005, pp. 479-503

Stobart, Jon, Hann, Andrew, Morgan, Victoria, Spaces of Consumption. Leisure and shopping in the English town, c. 1680-1830, London: Routledge 2007

Stobart, Jon, Spend, Spend, Spend! A History of Shopping, Stroud/Gloucs: History Press 2008

Stobart, Jon, ‘Gentlemen and shopkeepers: supplying the country house in eighteenth-century England’, Economic History Review 64:3, 2011, pp. 885-904

de Vries, Jan, The Industrious Revolution: Consumer Behavior and the Household Economy, 1650 to the Present, Cambridge: CUP 2008

Wallis, Patrick, ‘Consumption, retailing and medicine in early-modern London’, Economic History Review 61:1, 2008, pp. 6-53

Walsh, Claire, ‘Shop Design and the Display of Goods in Eighteenth-Century London’, Journal of Design History 8:3, 1995, pp. 157-176

Walsh, Claire, ‘The design of London goldsmiths’ shops in the early eighteenth century’, in: David Mitchell, ed., Goldsmiths, Silversmiths and Bankers: Innovation and the Transfer of Skill, 1550 to 1750 (Centre for Metropolitan History Working Papers Series 2), Stroud/Gloucs, 1995, pp. 96-111

Walsh, Claire, ‘Social Meaning and Social Space in the Shopping Galleries of Early Modern London’, in: John Benson, Laura Ugolini, (eds.), A Nation of Shopkeepers: Five Centuries of British Retailing, London: I.B. Tauris, 2003, pp. 52-79

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