The Rise of the Fashionable Eighteenth-century Shopper

Trade card

Trade card of J Robinson’s Bedstead Manufactory
© the Trustees of The British Museum

One of the distinguishing marks of the 18th-century is the steady rise in the standard of living amongst the better-off parts of British society. Compared with their Tudor and Stuart ancestors, the people of Georgian times lived in grander houses, had many more domestic and personal goods, and indicated their success in life though displays of the latest novelties, luxury and semi-luxury[1] goods.

Beginning with the nobles and the wealthiest land-owning gentry, this trend spread down through the social classes. By the end of the century, even members of the lower middle classes, such as shipowners, local shopkeepers and tradesmen, were intent on improving their households and copying the rich in the provision of domestic objects such as china, silverware (or at least silver-plated ware) and fine linens.

In looking at that period usually called the industrial revolution, there was for a long time a tendency to focus mainly on production and invention. Yet no one who wishes to remain in business will invent or produce anything unless they are certain that they can find a ready market for it; and one in which they can sell it for a price which will give them a satisfactory profit. Consumption produces production. Production, in order to expand and deliver greater profit, demands a constant increase in consumption. In this post, I look at the more neglected side of this equation: the rise and rise of the Georgian consumer.

Who was buying?

Patterns of consumption in the 18th-century were very similar to our own day. The huge gap between the income of the very rich and that of the poor continued to widen still more, yet those in the middle now generally enjoyed an income somewhat greater than the amount needed to satisfy the basic necessities of life. It was these middling folk who formed the bulk of eighteenth-century consumers of the new manufactured goods.

Merchants and manufacturers grew rich on the increase in trade at home, plus exports to continental Europe, Asia and to Britain’s growing empire. At the same time, members of the professional classes saw their incomes increase. Shopkeepers and tradesmen too improved their earnings potential steadily as the century progressed – though their wealth was never as secure. Farming moved from the hands of a myriad of local yeomen and cottagers, both using what they grew primarily to satisfy their own needs, to a market-based pattern where the land was enclosed, then grouped into larger farms run by prosperous tenant farmers with capital to invest in new farming methods.

Banking also produced an increase in available wealth, whether that was from the growing ease of obtaining credit or the ability to invest any surplus capital in relatively safe havens such as government bonds. The experience of the South Sea Bubble cured some of more reckless speculators, but it did little to hold back the rest from seeking to add to their income through investing in ‘the funds’.

Town versus Country

England was becoming an increasingly urban society. London set the pattern, and first the larger towns, then even quite modest market towns throughout the kingdom sought to provide the better-off elements of local society with fashionable facilities and diversions. From theatres to coffeehouses, from Assembly rooms and libraries to wider streets lined with modern brick housing[2] and, of course, the latest kind of shops, with large windows where consumer goods, fashionable fabrics and ‘toys’[3] could be displayed to those passing by. During this period, many of our ancient towns assumed much of the appearance they have today[4].

Even if the gentry still dominated the social scene in London, Britain’s towns usually contained a full range of the ‘middling sort’, from wealthy merchants to prosperous tradespeople of all kinds. It was these who provided the bulk of the consumers for the new goods. Shopkeepers became significant in the affairs of many towns. They wanted their houses too to be elegant and project the right image. To achieve this, they fitted them out with the latest domestic goods, as well as clocks, pictures on the wall and new, more fashionable furniture.

Shopping is seldom seen by historians as a distinctively ‘polite’ activity, yet it was a constituent element of a polite style of life. For many people of the middling sort with aspirations to politeness, the rituals of shopping were a pleasurable pursuit associated with the display of discerning taste in a social environment, all part of the Addisonian[5] model of politeness.

Consumer Gender

It would be wrong to stereotype the Georgian consumer by gender – even if the Georgians did this themselves! Much of our perception of shopping during Georgian days has been based on literary sources. Then, as now, writers delighted in portraying women as frivolous consumers of fashionable clothes and knick-knacks, rather than serious thinkers about what they bought. The ‘sex and shopping’ novel is definitely not a modern invention, even if the Georgian version tended to imply the second element rather than spell it out.

However, more careful study, based on wills and inventories, shows that while women did have rather different patterns of purchasing from men, it was no less practical. Many of the items listed by women were primarily means of making domestic life more fashionable and easier to manage. As well as clothes, women bought household fabrics, useful china, the new tea sets and silverware[6] and better furnishing fabrics and fittings. Wooden floors were covered by carpets. New, larger windows of crown glass were fitted with shutters for the night and curtains to set them off by day. Eating was transformed by the use of fine earthenware, instead of thick pottery, pewter or wood, and spoons, forks and knives of silver or silver-plate.

Just as now, Georgian men seem to have been more tempted by the latest gimmicks. They wanted ‘toys’, such as letter-cases, pocket books, snuffboxes and similar small, useful items that they could bring out to impress their friends; much as someone today might flourish the very latest model of mobile phone or tablet. They added fine polished buttons to their jackets and coats and shining silver or faceted steel buckles to their shoes. They might carry a ‘quizzing glass’[7] or a walking stick with a finely-decorated head. But men also bought new furniture, the latest china and earthenware to impress their dinner guests, clocks, watches, carpets, wallpaper and pictures for the wall.

For both genders therefore, shopping fast became an important social and leisure activity, as well as a way of displaying superior skill and knowledge in seeking out the latest goods and the best bargains. Even clergymen like Parson Woodforde went into the city to equip their houses with fashionable tableware and mahogany furniture[8].

Tempting them in

What made consumer goods desirable was fashion; what drove fashion was novelty and emulation of those judged the leaders of society; and what allowed the bulk of people to follow the very latest choices and tastes of fashion icons was advertising.

The growth of consumer goods could not have come about without a parallel growth in advertising. Not only did the 18th century see the establishment, then the phenomenal expansion, of newspapers and magazines in London and the provinces. Retailers were quick to see the potential newspapers offered for acquainting the public with the products they sold, just as newspaper proprietors saw the importance of income from advertising. Throughout the century, the number, length and complexity of retail advertisements placed in the newspapers grew. Improvements in printing only added to the pattern[9].

Of course, the newspaper advertisements of the day could not convey all that the retailers wished to show their prospective customers. Most could offer little more than limited variations in size and weight of type to draw the eye. Few contained engravings or woodcuts. But then, as now, the use of graphics in advertising usually produced better results than text alone. So retailers supplemented their advertising with trade cards, which could include fine engraving and illustrations. Some, like Josiah Wedgwood, added catalogues to display a fuller range of the goods they had on offer[10].

Many businesses extended the use of fine engraving to include elaborate headings on the printed paper they used for sending out bills and accounts to customers. Here too the desire was to demonstrate the superior standing and good taste of the retailer, in the belief that the same qualities would be extended in the consumer’s mind to the goods offered for sale. Since such engraving was expensive to produce, its widespread use indicates that it was found to be effective[11].

Selling the ‘British Brand’

Trading on the great increase in innovation in manufacturing techniques and materials, producers also sought to sell overseas; not by making goods already popular in other countries, but by spreading the idea that what was British-made was always going to be the most novel, fashionable and up-to-date thing to buy anywhere in the world.

To do this, they began by establishing certain locations for manufacture as home to the most desirable and highest quality goods in the home market too. Sheffield plate, Birmingham japanning and metalware, Bristol glass, Norwich worsteds, Staffordshire earthenware, and Axminster or Kidderminster carpets were soon established as the only ‘brands’ to buy, if you wished to produce the greatest effect on those who visited your home.

Consumer goods such as these were soon being exported all around the world, making some manufacturers immense fortunes. Even during a century of European wars, the demand for British goods throughout the continent never diminished significantly; and American independence made little impact on the trade there either – at least until the War of 1812. While the wealthiest gentry in Britain might demand genuine oriental luxuries, the middle classes – the bedrock of this consumer revolution – were perfectly happy to accept imitations that combined the look of the genuine item with lower cost and sometimes cheaper materials[12]. ‘British is best’ was soon generally accepted when it came to imitations of anything from Chinese porcelain or Japanese lacquerware to jewellery and antique bronzes.

The ‘Polite’ Society

During most of the 18th-century, aristocratic display still meant excess of every kind. In contrast, the middling classes favoured display through ‘politeness’: a demonstration of sound manners, good taste and moral improvement. Unable, or unwilling, to afford the most expensive, genuine luxury goods, they made a virtue of buying semi-luxury items. Instead of collections of antique, classical vases, they decorated their homes with the latest in Wedgwood’s imitations made in new materials by manufacturing processes able to combine good quality with keen pricing. Instead of genuine Old Masters, they bought fine copper and steel engravings of the same pictures. Worsted, calico and cotton replaced silk in clothes. Wallpaper replaced decorative plasterwork. Wallpaper replaced decorative plasterwork. Axminster, Wilton and Kidderminster carpets were themselves imitations of oriental, Brussels and French Aubusson and Savonnerie carpets and rugs, but made using cheaper and quicker manufacturing methods. Now they too were copied for those of lesser income.

Many also wished to show their knowledge of the latest discoveries of science, as well manufacturing and technological inventions. What they purchased and displayed was not a reflection of the disdain for convention that often goes with extreme wealth. It was rather an awareness of the latest trends, the best in taste, and, above all, the greatest attention to increasing convenience in all aspects of life.

Aristocratic excess excites us today, but it could never have been the basis for genuine economic growth. What that required was a large number of consumers, even if each individually could never command the wealth of a Duke or a Marquis. Burgeoning trade went hand-in-hand with the use of the wealth it brought about to buy the products it produced. Britain’s growing empire magnified the effect by allowing the importation of the additional raw materials needed and providing captive markets for what was manufactured. For a while, Britain basked in an amazing favourable climate for development of every kind. It reached its peak during the reign of Queen Victoria. Since then, unfortunately for us, other countries first caught us up, then passed us in the very skills of innovation and manufacturing technology that had made us for two centuries the foremost mercantile nation in the world.

Image to be added
© Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

  1. I use this term to encompass high-quality imitations of genuine luxury items, perhaps made using less expensive materials ,or by machine rather than by hand.  ↩
  2. Or, at least brick frontages to hide the old timber frames from sight.  ↩
  3. ‘Toys’ were all kinds of small, useful and decorative items, not distractions for children.  ↩
  4. It may be some indication of the impact these changes had in setting a pattern for ‘gracious living’ that Georgian is still the most popular style today for large houses.  ↩
  5. Joseph Addison (1 May 1672 – 17 June 1719), essayist and co-founder of The Spectator, was often held up as offering a model of how virtue, elegance and intellectual striving could be embodied in a culture of politeness and civility, which, when stripped of its antique, aristocratic components, could embrace the new sciences and the growing importance of commerce.  ↩
  6. The introduction of hot drinks like coffee and tea, in place of ale or small beer, demanded an entirely new range of appliances to make and serve. So did changes in eating habits, such having specific items for breakfast.  ↩
  7. A single lens with a short handle, usually hung around the neck on a ribbon. Something like a cross between a magnifying glass and the later monocle, but used more for effect than to correct vision.  ↩
  8. In September 1789, he bought a dozen silver tablespoons and half a dozen silver teaspoons in London. In November of the same year, he went to Norwich and bought two tables, a washstand and a dressing-table with drawers, all in mahogany.  ↩
  9. With no laws to curb exaggerated or imaginary claims, advertisements competed in offering fantastic benefits to those who bought, sometimes coupled with the public repudiation of the similar claims of rivals. Patent medicines especially claimed ‘cures’ on such a scale that, had they been true, disease would have been totally eradicated.  ↩
  10. Pretty much the full range of ‘modern’ promotional techniques were
    in use. Along with printed handbills, catalogues, trade cards and press advertising, retailers added discounts, special offers, and weekly novelties.
    Customer flattery too was applied with a liberal hand.  ↩
  11. Indeed, so fine were many trade cards that they were collected as forms of art in their own right almost from the start.  ↩
  12. Imitation was not a dirty word in Georgian times. Indeed, many leading manufacturers gloried in their skill in imitating the most admired items from the Far East or elsewhere.  ↩

About William Savage

Author of mystery stories set in Georgian Norfolk.
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