Consumer revolution, global goods, and proto-industry in north-western Germany from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries

September 1, 2022 | Blog
Home > Consumer revolution, global goods, and proto-industry in north-western Germany from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries

by Henning Bovenkerk (University of Münster) and Christine Fertig (University of Münster)

This blog post is based upon the authors’ article forthcoming in the Economic History Review.


The consumption of colonial and globally traded goods, such as tea, coffee, silk, and cotton, is one of the core factors of the concept of the early modern consumer revolution. The introduction of these new goods led to a fundamental change in consumption and material culture in great parts of north-western European, for example in England or the Netherlands. Research on different, often more distant, European regions questions the pan-European validity of the concept and assumes an exceptional situation in the North Atlantic trading centres and their environments.


Figure 1.   Eighteenth-century probate inventory

Source: Landesarchiv NRW, Abteilung Westfalen, B 103/Domkapitel Münster, Domdechanei, Akten Nr. 138.


In Westphalia, north-western Germany, the consumer and material culture developed from the seventeenth century onwards but, compared to the progressive north-western European regions, only with some delay. Our research, forthcoming in the Economic History Review, is based on the analysis of rural probate inventories. An example of an inventory is depicted in figure 1. Relying on these inventories, we show that the progress of the consumer revolution was far less rapid here, even though Westphalia borders the Netherlands; see figure 2. Cotton and even silk were introduced as new textiles for bedclothes, resembling similar trends toward more comfort in the more dynamic European regions. And from the end of the eighteenth century onwards, tea and coffee sets were found in the rural probate inventories, also indicating a rapid change of the culture of consumption of hot beverages.


Figure 2.   Location of Westphalia


Two things are striking about our findings. First, the introduction of sumptuary laws suggest that the consumption of colonial goods increased long before material culture changed. Legislation sought to prohibit the peddling of colonial and globally traded goods, including tea and coffee, in the countryside from the early eighteenth century onwards. Over time, the laws were reinforced, to the point of prohibiting the possession of utensils for the preparation and consumption of tea and coffee and prohibiting peasants’ wives and daughters from wearing lace made of imported fabrics. But eventually the laws had to be abolished in the 1780s, because they could not be enforced. Since legislation attempted to regulate the consumption of hot beverages before the changes in material culture appeared in the inventories, these findings suggest that the laws were not successful in preventing consumption, but pushed it into private, non-public spaces where legislation had little or no effect.


Secondly, after the lifting of restrictions in the eighteenth century, colonial goods such as coffee and tea were now also enjoyed with fine tableware. The development toward a new consumer culture progressed noticeably faster in areas where many households produced proto-industrial goods, such as linen, for supra-regional markets. In part, this was due to the increased market participation of these households, which sold products and likewise met their everyday needs at markets, rather than continue to produce for themselves goods such as food, clothing, or household items. This new behaviour facilitated more differentiated consumption patterns. On the other hand, these households quickly moved away from a traditional lifestyle oriented toward agricultural production rhythms and developed a new culture of everyday life.


The case of Southern Germany reveals how differently sumptuary laws could affect consumer culture; in southern Germany, they were part of institutions that eventually prevented a greater change in consumption—although there were also aspirations within society to do so. In north-western Germany, legislation tried the same, but was only successful insofar as the consumption of prohibited goods was conducted afar from the public, until the laws where finally repealed. In this way, sumptuary laws only delayed and slowed down the development, but they could not prevent the emergence of a new, pre-modern consumer culture in north-western Germany.



To contact the authors: