The Economic History Review

Consumption conundrums unravelled

Volume 68 Issue 3
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Pages: 830-857Authors: Sara Horrell, Jane Humphries, Ken Sneath
Published online: December 17, 2014DOI: 10.1111/ehr.12084

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While consumption has moved to centre stage in accounts of Britain’s industrialization, evidence on the mass transformation of homes and expenditure on novelty is hard to reconcile with the poor living standards experienced by many working people. Part of the conundrum arises from the limitations of available probate evidence, but the motivational drivers behind raised consumption can also be questioned. Was it changed tastes or falling prices because of improved technology which prompted the purchase of new goods? Utilizing evidence from an alternative source, property stolen through housebreaking and burglary as reported in the Old Bailey Papers and Proceedings for 1750-1821, we identify those goods that were commonly stolen as the fashion icons of their day, trace such goods back to their original owners, thus linking ownership and status, and through analysis over time show how consumption evolved. This analysis incorporates the influence of price and real incomes on ownership, allowing the influence of price and fashion on consumption patterns to be identified separately. The findings show that, in addition to price and income effects, fashion had a strong influence, but this was not just emulation; differentiation too was evident. The evidence points to a complex interplay between desires and differentiation, aspiration and affordability, in determining the goods that people possessed.