The Economic History Review

Respectable standards of living: The alternative lens of maintenance costs, Britain 1270–1860

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Authors: Jane Humphries
Published online: June 11, 2024DOI: 10.1111/ehr.13357

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This paper argues that in all societies there is considerable agreement about what goods and services are needed to provide a decent living, and that this standard can be measured by the expense involved in maintaining people of good standing. Maintenance costs include two components of living costs that are neglected in conventional approaches. First, in contrast to the usual focus on a fixed basket of commodities, maintenance costs capture changes in the composition and quality of the goods required for a respectable lifestyle. Second, unlike conventional accounting, they include the costs of the household services required to turn the basket commodities into livings. Ignored in the conventional methodology, the inclusion of these costs represents a core innovation. More than 4600 observations, drawn mainly from primary sources, trace levels and trends in maintenance costs for Britain from 1270 to 1860. These can be compared with established cost of living indicators to offer a complementary perspective on real consumption that accommodates aspirational goods and the input of household labour. The struggle to support families at respectable standards emerges as driving industriousness and motivating prudence among a class that played a major role in economic development.