The notion of human beings as consumers first took shape before World War I, but became commonplace in America in the 1920s. Consumption is now frequently seen as our principal role in the world. People, of course, have always “consumed” the necessities of life—food, shelter, clothing—and have always had to work to get them or have others work for them, but there was little economic motive for increased consumption among the mass of people before the 20th century.
Quite the reverse: Frugality and thrift were more appropriate to situations where survival rations were not guaranteed. Attempts to promote new fashions, harness the “propulsive power of envy,” and boost sales multiplied in Britain in the late 18th century. Here began the “slow unleashing of the acquisitive instincts,” write historians Neil McKendrick, John Brewer, and JH Plumb in their influential book on the commercialization of 18th-century England, when the pursuit of opulence and display first extended beyond the very rich.
But, while poorer people might have acquired a very few useful household items—a skillet, perhaps, or an iron pot—the sumptuous clothing, furniture, and pottery of the era were still confined to a very small population. In late 19th-century Britain a variety of foods became accessible to the average person, who would previously have lived on bread and potatoes—consumption beyond mere subsistence.
Categories: Economic History