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Consumption, 1700-1870

Horrell, Sara (2014) Consumption, 1700-1870. In: Floud, Roderick, Humphries, Jane and Johnson, Paul, (eds.) The Cambridge Economic History of Modern Britain: Volume 1: Industrialisation, 1700–1870. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 237 - 263. ISBN 9781107631434

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Identification Number: 10.1017/CHO9781139815017.009


Consumption has long been a key component of the historiography of Britain's industrial revolution. Early writers emphasised the importance of both home demand in creating a market for the mass-produced products of the new industries and of an export stimulus, particularly for cotton, in enabling the growth of manufacturing (Gilboy 1967; Davis 1979: 62–7). More recently the role of exports has been downgraded. Rather than instigating industrial growth, expansion of exports was the response required to Britain's increased demand for imports, particularly of tea, sugar and coffee, between 1745 and 1760 (Deane and Cole 1969: 40–98); even in the crucible of the industrial revolution, 1800–30, it was the preceding technological improvement that reduced the price of cotton and led to this product's domination of the export scene (Thomas and McCloskey 1981). However, consumption, through home demand, has taken on a life of its own. Consumer revolutions have been identified for numerous epochs in history (de Vries 2008: 37–9) but, for the pre-industrial and industrial revolution eras, the revolution in consumption was not just one of scale but also of structure. Consumers desired a new range of goods and this drove changes in production processes and in the relationship between households and markets. Economic historians accept that consumption played a role in industrialisation, but versions vary in both nature and chronology and the particular variant can be linked to the grand narratives of the industrial revolution on offer. In some accounts, a consumer revolution preceded and played a causal role in industrialisation (de Vries 1994, 2008); in others, a shift in demand coincided with industrialisation but is not necessarily given an autonomous role (McKendrick 1974, 1982); a third links the emulative desires generated by luxury consumption to imperialist expansion, overseas trade and innovative production (Berg 2002, 2004). Others are more sceptical about the widespread transformative role of cupidity and point to the very gradual percolation of the benefits of economic change to those in the bottom half of the income distribution (Feinstein 1998; Horrell and Humphries 1992).

Item Type: Book Section
Official URL:
Additional Information: © 2014 Cambridge University Press
Divisions: Economic History
Subjects: H Social Sciences > HD Industries. Land use. Labor
H Social Sciences > HN Social history and conditions. Social problems. Social reform
H Social Sciences > HC Economic History and Conditions
R Medicine > RA Public aspects of medicine > RA0421 Public health. Hygiene. Preventive Medicine
JEL classification: N - Economic History > N3 - Labor and Consumers, Demography, Education, Health, Income, and Wealth > N33 - Economic History: Labor and Consumers, Demography, Education, Health, Income and Wealth: Europe: Pre-1913
Date Deposited: 22 Nov 2019 13:27
Last Modified: 15 Sep 2023 10:11

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