One of the reasons why I find the eighteenth century so fascinating is the constant discovery of ways in which the preoccupations of that time exactly mirror our own, more than two hundred and fifty years later.
We know we live in a ‘consumer society’, with all the perils that produces along with the benefits. It’s arguable that we are not the first to live thus. The Georgians were, to my view, the first to live in that way. It worked for them much as it does for us, with rising living standards interrupted by periodic panics over the excessive ease of obtaining credit, lax banking standards and ballooning government debt.
Subsistence economies arise where available resources are barely sufficient to allow a population to survive. While a few at the top may be hugely rich compared to the others, no subsistence society can support a large-scale elite without the risk of popular revolt.
However, when resources grow to the point where they exceed subsistence needs, society faces a choice. In theory, growth of the economy could slow to match no more than population growth. Everyone would live adequately, but no more. Of course, human nature being what it is, this never happens. When people have enough for their basic needs, their thoughts turn towards luxury.
Consumerism means an economy in which production and wealth are driven, not by need, but by desire. The more people want, the more opportunities that creates for others to make a living by supplying that want. When everyone buys, then buys more, those who make what is bought grow rich and provide ever greater opportunities for employment and investment.
The trouble is that this creates an endless cycle that can only be interrupted or slowed at the peril of recession, unemployment and misery. For everyone to become more prosperous, everyone must spend more of what they earn. And if their earnings will not sustain such constant spending, they must borrow.
The upper classes in Georgian times lived on credit, probably to a greater degree that ever before or since. They didn’t simply obtain loans, they enforced the giving of lavish credit by local shopkeepers and suppliers by the simple expedient of delaying payment, often for many months. Indeed, to pay your bills on time was taken as a sign of social inferiority. Since purchases by the rich were a major source of eventual profit to these suppliers, they were prepared to wait.
Profligate sons obtained massive credit in the belief that their wealthy fathers would be forced to pay eventually, if only to prevent the heir to the estate ending up in a debtors’ prison. And if the fathers had to mortgage their estates or borrow from their friends to pay these debts as well as their own, who cared so long as the money kept circulating?
In the same way, members of the Royal Family could amass amazing levels of debt due to the belief that the government would be forced, in the end, to pay them off to avoid public scandal. If the government ran out of ready cash, they too could borrow from those who believed that they would be forced to settle or roll-over those borrowings eventually. Just as today, sovereign debt was judged by the likelihood of a country being able to keep the debt rolling over, not by its ability ever to pay it all off.
Logically, once you have bought an item, you don’t need to buy another one until the first one wears out. Of course, if everyone acted on this principle, trade today would collapse. We are even frightened of deflation – systematically falling prices – because it tempts people to put off new purchases in the hope of getting a better price in the future.
The mechanism that keeps everyone buying endlessly is, of course, fashion. Last year’s clothes may be perfectly wearable, but they are bound to be unfashionable now. Fashion must change constantly to keep up the level of purchasing needed to be fashionable.
In the Georgian era, exactly as today, fashion was king. The richest could afford to stay abreast, whether in clothing, furnishings or other forms of conspicuous consumption. As you went down the social classes, each tried to keep up as best they could, often re-working last year’s clothes to match the trend. The design of buildings and interior decorations changed as well, quickly for the rich, slower for everyone else.
Nor were the wealthy and titled the only trendsetters. Courtesans and mistresses were even more likely to be the arbiters of fashion, perhaps because of their need to stay desirable for as long as possible, having no other source of income. Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, had a compliant husband and a marriage seemingly based on mutually-ignored adultery, but this was unusual. Rich men collected mistresses like flashy cars. More artistically-inclined ones collected Old Masters or classical sculptures from newly-discovered Pompeii or other archaeological sites – or had copies made if the originals were beyond their means.
In Norfolk, where I live, you can visit several large Georgian houses that display perfectly this tendency for rebuilding, extension and redecoration. Outside, some date from the seventeenth century. Inside, they show every change of fashion since they were built. The richest families had the newest houses, some constructed purely to show off their collections of the most fashionable art and sculpture.
Not until Victorian times, when fashion moved from pure display to mock-utility (a separate room for every activity or time of day) did this passion for showing-off in the most visible ways abate.
Emulation of the Rich
Social emulation was – and still is – a powerful spur to innovation and industry. Today, huge corporations, like Apple, exist mostly to service our endless desire to possess the latest gadget and show it off to our friends. That drives research and discovery at a frantic pace. Consider what a home computer of the 1980s could do, compared to today’s latest models. Even our cars carry more computing power now that most of the vast mainframe monsters that lurked in specially air-condition rooms thirty years ago. Would the pace of innovation and scientific discovery have been the same without the spur of fashion to provide markets for these goods? I very much doubt it.
Such a constant pattern of trying to ‘keep up with the Joneses’ was new in Georgian times and produced much hand-wringing by self-appointed moralists. Christianity saw poverty as blessed and humility as a virtue. How could this work in a society in which industry and employment depended on the opposite?
Maybe one of the reasons why the industrial revolution came to Britain before other countries was that our society at the time was most ready to absorb more goods, newer goods and more technically advanced goods on the required scale. We also had the Empire, both as a source of cheap raw materials and a captive market for whatever production could not be sold profitably at home.
Vices are hugely profitable. Ask any drug baron! The Georgian vices of gambling, whoring, sodomy and adultery created a market in all these activities which was truly vast in relation to the size of the population of the time. Despite the constant railing of churchmen against vice and sin, the rich indulged themselves and the poor used whatever they had, even if it was just their bodies, to tap into this source of wealth.
Vice was also a good source of extra profit for businesses offering a legitimate kind of business. Until late in the Georgian era, the theatre provided a popular source of entertainment, while many of the actresses provided an even more popular source of sexual excitement for the rich. Women who served in eating-places and taverns could add to the earnings of the house by selling their favours at the same time. The Georgian diarist, Sylas Neville, comments casually that he asked a pretty serving girl at a tavern for a kiss – and expected to get it – and exhorts himself to be content with that. Clearly, he assumed more would be available if he asked. The choice was his.
While newspapers gleefully carried tales of vice and debauchery, and printed pornography grew into a massive business, a sense of unease grew. Where would this stop?
The upper classes continued to insist that only they could combine fashionable profligacy with proper refinement and taste. Few believed them. Commercialisation and industrialisation were making luxuries available more widely than ever and thus undermining the traditional distinctions of rank. Merchants and manufacturers could possess greater wealth than titled aristocrats.
As a result, periodic moral panics arose, targeting this or that aspect of fashionable vices or luxuries. We see the same today, as the media settle on some morally-suspect activity and display all their ability for hypocritical denunciation of what funds their existence. King George III tried to hold the moral high ground and display proper majesty at the same time. His sons undermined all his efforts by raising debauchery to new levels of wild expense.
In the end, the Victorians solved the problem of keeping trade humming along and still claiming to be virtuous by the simple expedient of raising hypocrisy to an art form. On the surface, they portrayed themselves as moralistic and high-minded; underneath, the number of prostitutes – adults and children – reached new highs. A new classicism in visual arts were patronised, partly because it offered an excuse for displaying nudes. Pornography flourished as never before, assisted by better forms of engraving, then early photography.
Nothing really changes.
William Savage lives near the beautiful North Norfolk coast in Eastern England and writes historical mystery novels set in Norfolk between 1760 and 1800. The first book in the series, “An Unlamented Death“, appeared in January 2015. A second book, “The Fabric of Murder” will be published on May 1st, 2015.
Will is also a local historian. In that guise, he researches topics relevant to the general period of his historical writing, gives talks to local groups and societies and is a regular volunteer guide at a nearby National Trust property. He finally has time for doing all this now he has retired.