The rise of consumerism
- Article by: Matthew White
Shopping for glassware at Messrs. Pellatt and Green's, 1809
Image of Pellatt and Green’s glassware shop in St Paul’s Churchyard, London (1809) as an example of the rise in luxury goods in the early 19th century.View images from this item (1)
Shops and shopping
With improvements in transport and manufacturing technology, opportunities for buying and selling became faster and more efficient than ever before. And with the rapid growth of towns and cities, shopping became an important part of everyday life. Window shopping and the purchase of goods became a cultural activity in its own right, and many exclusive shops were opened in elegant districts: in the Strand and Piccadilly in London, for example, and in spa towns like Bath and Harrogate.
Shopping for fabric, 1809
Depiction of shopping for fabric from Rudolph Ackermann’s The Repository of Arts, Literature, Commerce, Manufactures, Fashions and Politics.View images from this item (1)
Advertisements for TiddyDoll the famous ‘Gingerbread Merchant’ and John Osgood’s Muffins and Tea-Cakes
These advertisements for ready-to-eat street food reflect how food became part of the city scene for those who could afford it.View images from this item (1)
The Itinerant Traders of London
Depiction of a street seller offering colourful boxes, from William Craig's Itinerant Traders of London, 1804.View images from this item (31)
Spectators at a Print-Shop in St. Paul’s Church Yard, London
The popularity of print-shops in the early 19th century is illustrated here as prints were bought and then shared amongst friends and relations.View images from this item (1)
Copyright: © Trustees of the British Museum
ClothesClothing and fashion was highly important to the wealthy. A single item of clothing often represented the most expensive item in a person’s possessions and new items of apparel were usually highly treasured.
Woollen garments that were heavy and difficult to clean began to disappear gradually after the first half of the century. These were replaced by cheaper printed cotton fabrics, that were first imported from India and then later manufactured in the expanding British textile trade in the north of England. Cotton clothes allowed ordinary men and women a greater choice of light and colourful clothing that was durable, easily washed and therefore more hygienic for the wearer.
Increasingly, from the late 1600s, men of all classes wore the familiar dress of the three-piece suit: breeches, a waistcoat and long coat. This was all set off with a ruffled shirt, stockings and shoes with buckles. For women, a bodice, petticoat and skirt were usual. Cheaper fabrics were printed with floral or patterned designs, though expensive items were made of silk and either embroidered or quilted. Hats remained in fashion for both sexes: tri-corn ‘cocked’ hats were usually worn by men, while women wore caps over which were tied wide-brimmed straw bonnets.
Gallery of Fashion
Examples of lavish women's clothing from magazine Gallery of Fashion, 1786.View images from this item (64)
FoodMost towns enjoyed fresh produce as a result of expanding domestic trade. London – as a busy seaport – had regular access to seafood, and tonnes of fresh fish were landed at the city quaysides every day. Fresh fruit and vegetables also arrived from the nearby market gardens and orchards of the home-counties, and elsewhere other towns held weekly agricultural and livestock markets.
Though wining and dining remained fashionable among the wealthy, for even the poorest members of society eating out was still possible. Most 18th-century towns had a range of cook-shops and taverns where meals could be bought cheaply and drinks such as coffee and chocolate could be consumed. By mid-century there were perhaps 50,000 inns and taverns in Britain catering to all manner of customers. Coffeehouses in particular became great centres of sociability, where politics were discussed and business transactions conducted. Many banks and insurance houses, such as Lloyds of London, owe their origins to this 18th-century ‘coffeehouse culture’.
Scene of drunkenness and debauchery from Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress
William Hogarth’s work shows the accepted normality of drunkenness in Georgian society with this image from A Rake’s Progress.View images from this item (1)
Copyright: © Trustees of the British Museum
Household thingsAs with food, over the course of this period the objects of everyday life that had once been too expensive for all but the wealthy gradually became accessible to the masses. Mass-produced, cheaper varieties of many household items were now within the grasp of the ordinary working man and woman, who began to enjoy the benefits of a ‘consumer revolution’.
Prosperity and expansion in manufacturing industries such as pottery and metal-wares increased consumer choice dramatically. Where once labourers ate from metal platters with wooden implements, ordinary workers now dined on Wedgwood porcelain. Consumers came to demand an array of new household goods and furnishings: metal knives and forks, for example, as well as rugs, carpets, mirrors, cooking ranges, pots, pans, watches, clocks and a dizzying array of furniture. The age of mass consumption had arrived.
Seating design, shown in the furniture catalogue, from The Cabinet Maker’s Guide
The sofa, as an 18th century luxury good, became more popular during the second half of the 18th century as seen by these Georgian seating designs from The Cabinet-Maker’s Guide.View images from this item (1)
Thomas Chippendale's The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker's Director
Thomas Chippendale's designs within The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker's Director(1854) influenced high-class tastes in furniture for aristocratic and wealthy consumers.View images from this item (3)
'Luxury' and slavesGreater purchasing power, together with a gradual fall in prices, led to rising demand for new consumer products. Sugar consumption in Britain, for example, doubled between 1690 and 1740, while the price of tea halved. But the wider availability of such luxuries had a darker side. Imports of raw cotton, sugar, rum and tobacco for example - that were shipped by the tonne into prosperous British ports like Bristol, Liverpool and London - all originated in the expanding plantations of South America and the Caribbean, where merchants depended heavily on African slaves as their primary source of labour.
Diagram of the ‘Brookes’ slave ship
This diagram depicting a slave ship loaded to its full capacity was widely known across the UK. It was an effective piece of propaganda used to raise awareness of the poor conditions on board the slave ships.View images from this item (1)
Advertisement in the London Daily Post, 'Any persons disposed to buy a Negro', 1740
Advertisement for ‘Any persons disposed to buy a Negro’ demonstrates the shocking attitude to slaves which existed in Georgian society. Slavery would not be fully abolished in the British territories until 1833.View images from this item (1)
Copyright: © Gale
Account of the Liverpool slave trade
Published in 1825, this account reveals the rapid expansion of the slave trade in 18th century Britain.View images from this item (2)
Anti Slavery speech made by an abolitionist political candidate in Hull, 1832
Whilst the Slave Trade Act was passed in 1807, the practice of enslavement in British territories was not outlawed until 1833. Speeches like this were used by abolitionists to formally campaign against slavery.View images from this item (1)
Copyright: © By permission of Wilberforce House Museum, Hull
The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.