In Praise of Lolly

Linda Colley

  • The Birth of a Consumer Society: The Commercialisation of 18th-Century England by Neil McKendrick, John Brewer and J.H. Plumb
    Europa, 355 pp, £18.50, July 1982, ISBN 0 905118 00 6

The American historian J. H. Hexter once complained that the myth of an assertive and ascendant middle class had distorted accounts of almost every century of English history. Yet for the 18th century – a period in which the myth had at least some substance in reality – the charm of the bourgeoisie has proved discreet, indeed has often been discounted. In the 1950s and 60s Sir Lewis Namier and his clique concentrated almost exclusively on Georgian England’s political and parliamentary élite; in the 1970s and 80s E.P. Thompson and his comrades have stigmatised these same patricians while rescuing the plebs: both lobbies, it would seem, are as averse to describing the middling sort as they are to occupying the middle ground of historical controversy. The economic historians have been scarcely more forthcoming. Individual industries and their captains have been chronicled but not, thus far, what the embourgeoisement of the 18th century meant for the average English consumer.

In a book as lively, as diverse and as rich as the society it describes, Neil McKendrick, John Brewer and their joint mentor, Sir John Plumb, have gone far to rectify this omission. Moving from pots to strops, McKendrick explains the varied entrepreneurial skills of a tycoon, Josiah Wedgwood, and a comparative tiddler, George Packwood. In the resourceful salesmanship of men like these, in the escalating expenditure on fashion, in the new and extravagant cults of pet-breeding, gardening, children’s literature, theatre-going, sports and hobbies analysed by Plumb, can be seen emerging an affluent and emulative society so cheerfully conspicuous in its consumption, and so enthusiastic in its pursuit of leisure, that even Thorstein Veblen might have marvelled. This 18th-century English consumer revolution was, we are told, the necessary counterpart to the industrial revolution. And, John Brewer argues, this explosion and diversification of consumer goods and retailing skills had political and not just social and economic repercussions. In the 1760s the Wilkites used the new advertising techniques to market their own brand of radicalism and demanded voting rights for men with moveable as well as landed property.

This is a seductive and exciting interpretation: is it also an accurate and comprehensive one? One problem, perhaps, is that, of the three sections in this book, the first, by McKendrick, relies on research done largely in the late 1950s and 60s, while the third, by Plumb, consists of essays which were published separately in the 1970s. This does not vitiate the scholarship, which is high, the detail, which is fascinating, or the prose style, which is usually compelling. But it does mean that at times the paeans to commercialism are too expansive for current, recession-bound taste, as well as out of step with more recent economic history. Deriving as they do from that confident, even innocent age between the publication of Galbraith’s Affluent Society in 1958 and the Energy Crisis of 1973-4, these essays seem to extend to 18th-century England the spirit of ‘You’ve never had it so good’. They also assume an industrial take-off in the second half of that century.

Yet a conscious desire to maximise resources, enhance individual life-styles and champion modernity characterised many Western European states in the 18th century, and not just England. In most states these trends necessarily operated independently of substantial industrial change. Limited industrialisation may have caused a uniquely wide dissemination of consumer goods and attitudes in England, but again one needs to be careful.

Too much of the evidence for lower-class consumerism cited by McKendrick is literary and too much is drawn from London. In many Northern manufacturing towns there seems to have been no marked proliferation of shops selling luxury goods, nor even second-hand clothes and furniture shops established, until the 19th century. The suggestion that lower-class housewives could dust their own Wedgwood and not just lust after their betters’ sits rather uneasily with McKendrick’s information that, by 1784, 80 per cent of Wedgwood’s total products were being exported. Certainly more people in England were comfortably off by 1780 than had ever been the case before and credit networks were extensive. Even so, for many, spending must have been circumscribed by this period’s acute shortage of specie and the exceptionality of money wages. Far more systematic analyses of the extant sales invoices, of inventories and provincial trade directories, are needed before vague phrases like ‘social emulation’ can be tested, or evidence of late-18th-century mass consumerism used decisively.

As Plumb implies in the three chapters he contributes to the book, it was middle not lower-class confidence and cash-consciousness which came of age in this period. And it is the middle class and its money which John Brewer has repeatedly and rightly diagnosed as being at the heart of the Wilkite movement. This emphasis is both tonic and unusual. It is ironic that historians of 18th-century England – only too prone to attribute self-interest to their more gentrified high or low-political protagonists – normally approach the more modest adherents of radicalism in a spirit of piety. Those who protest are almost always invested with an ingenuous zeal for political reform; they are even (though this is more problematic) allowed an onset of class sentiment; seldom, however, will their activism be explained in terms of an onset of debt.

Yet, as Brewer shows, in the 1760s and 70s the complexities and strains of the cash nexus could radicalise the middling sort in at least four ways. Reliance on credit dictated bourgeois scrutiny of the foreign wars and London politics on which interest rates depended. Lax aristocratic creditors aroused hostility and a determination to evade their commercial (and electoral) clientage. Clubs of tradesmen formed to protect their members against arrest for debt and business failure could be assimilated into Wilkite organisation. Finally, and most picturesquely, the commercial enterprise and artifacts of trade groups like the potters, printers and publicans were used to embellish the Wilkite message.

Occasionally Brewer seems too keen to attribute political monogamy to the god of commerce: ‘Can it be argued that commercialisation and a certain type of politics continued to work in tandem?’ It’s doubtful. Promiscuously, commerce catered to any interest-group with money, and Wilkite sales techniques were swiftly adopted by more conservative lobbies with far more economic power. In the 20th century it is royal and not radical souvenir mugs which have swamped and captured the market. This, however, is a small point. The cogency, the originality and the sheer cleverness of Brewer’s two essays – finished more than five years ago – have survived intact an editorial gestation more reminiscent of the leisured than of the entrepreneurial classes.