A consumer society
Some commentators (such as Smollett) deeply disapproved of consumerism, linking it to the 'luxury' that was believed to have brought about the fall of the Roman Empire. Others, like Dr Johnson, saw it as the means of spreading prosperity among the poor.
Trade and Empire
The growth in consumerism was linked with international trade, which, between 1740 and 1780 increased by a third, and was one of the most remarkable periods of expansion in modern history. The original impetus came from outside Europe. A demographic surge in China created a consumer demand which attracted growing numbers of British and Dutch merchants. The Chinese gold they brought back to Europe, together with the rapidly expanding output of the Brazilian mines, helped alleviate the chronic shortage of specie, and allowed the stabilization of European currencies. It was also linked with the growth of Empires.
In the eighteenth century products from the tropics and sub-tropics became commonplace, with huge commercial and political repercussions.
From the 1650s, as inventories and criminal records reveal, ordinary people began to acquire possessions that had previously been the preserve of the elite. They slept on mattresses rather than loose straw and sometimes in beds. They began to sleep apart from their children, not in separate rooms, but in separate beds. They bought additional clothing, most of it second-hand. By the end of the eighteenth century an increased amount of clothing and bedding was made from cotton. Ordinary urban dwellers began to use wallpaper and buy clocks and watches. In 1675 only one in ten Londoners’ inventories after death mentions clocks; in 1715 more than half did. It was the age of the small shopkeeper. In England the word ‘shoplift’ was used from the 1680s.
From the late 17th century people began drinking hot drinks (tea, coffee, chocolate) from china cups and many social occasions focused around the consumption of these drinks. Surveys of probate inventories and the Old Bailey records of stolen goods suggest that the 1720s saw a marked extension into the middling ranks of china, porcelain, tea and coffee pots, knives and forks and glassware. In 1675 only 9 % of English families had pewter plates. In 1725 they were owned by 45%. But pewter was going out of fashion as households that owned earthenware rose from 27 to 57%. By 1725 cups and other utensils for hot drinks were to be found in 15% of European families.
Walnut was being replaced by mahogany, a tropical American hardwood first imported to England in the 1670s. The historian Amanda Vickery has described how the Lancashire gentlewoman Elizabeth Shackleton bought mahogany furniture from Gillows of Lancaster.
The Chinese probably made the first true porcelain during the Tang dynasty (618-907) and for centuries they made the world’s finest porcelain (‘china ware’). By the 1100s the secret of making porcelain had spread to Korea, and in the 1500s and to Japan. As trade with the Orient grew during the 17th century porcelain (named from the Latin porcella, a sow) became popular with Europeans. By 1791 the East India Company had imported 215 million pieces of porcelain.
But by the early 18th century porcelain was also manufactured in many parts of Europe and beginning to compete with Chinese porcelain. In 1756 the town of Sèvres began producing its characteristic soft-paste porcelain. Hard-paste porcelain (Dresden ware) was produced at Meissen in Saxony from 1710.
Worcester porcelain was first produced in 1751. During its early years the factory produced soft-paste porcelain, much of it decorated with Chinese designs in blue underglaze. The willow pattern is said to have originated c. 1780 at the Caughley Porcelain works in Shropshire. It tells the story of Koongse and her lover Chang.
Cream ware: Cream coloured earthenware was first produced in Staffordshire between 1730 and 1740. The principal ingredients were white-firing clay and ground flint, the flint being used to increase the whiteness and strength of the composition. The result was a durable body, varying in tone from buff to a deep cream colour, which required the application of a clear lead glaze and a second firing to make it impervious to liquids.
Josiah Wedgwood (1730-95) carried out an enormous number of trials to perfect the cream coloured earthenware body. He commenced work whilst still in partnership with Thomas Whieldon in Fenton, although his first really successful cream ware was produced at his Ivy House Works after 1759. It is probable that cream ware was amongst the first of Wedgwood’s productions as an independent manufacturer.
In 1765 Wedgwood opened his first London showrooms in Charles Street, off Grosvenor Square, and in June he received a commission to make an elaborate tea service in green and gold creamware for Queen Charlotte. In the following year he was officially appointed potter to her majesty and his creamware was renamed Queen's ware.
In 1770 Wedgwood received his first order from Empress Catherine II of Russia. Three years later she commissioned a large dinner and dessert service of nearly 1000 pieces for the Chesmensky Palace, familiarly known as La Grenouillière (the frog marsh). The ‘Frog’ service, then the largest ever ordered from a British potter, was decorated with hand-painted landscapes and a frog emblem at Wedgwood's Chelsea decorating studio, and supervised by Bentley. Its completion in 1774 marked the removal of the firm's London showrooms from Great Newport Street to even larger premises in Greek Street, where the service was displayed, by invitation, to the public. (This great service is now permanently exhibited at the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg.) This was the most influential development in the history of British pottery. It achieved almost a monopoly of the high-quality earthenware tableware market in Europe.
Wedgwood was a skilled marketer. From 1772 it was Wedgwood's policy to mark everything made at his Etruria works in Staffordshire. He was the first earthenware potter consistently to mark his goods and the first ever to use his own name, which was impressed in the clay. He and Bentley undertook market research, cultivating influential patrons (several of whom permitted him to copy objects in their private collections), enlisting the help of ambassadors, and taking pains to produce wares suited to specific markets. In 1771–2, in a daring and ultimately successful experiment in inertia selling, unsolicited parcels of ware were sent to many of the noble houses of Germany in the hope of attracting orders and advertising the quality of the goods. Between 1773 and 1787 Wedgwood issued illustrated catalogues of his Queen's ware and ornamental wares, the later editions being published in French, German, and Dutch translations.
Coffee is indigenous to Abyssinia and Arabia. It was first mentioned by an Arab physician at the end of 9th century. In the 15 and16 centuries it was cultivated in Yemen. In 1600 it was cultivated in India. The Dutch transported a coffee plant from Mocha to Holland in 1616 and started to cultivate it in Ceylon in 1658 and in Java in 1696.
The first coffee house opened in St Mark’s Square, Venice, in 1647. In 1650 the first English coffee house opened in Oxford. It was called the Angel and run by a Lebanese called Jacob. London’s first coffee house opened 1652 at the sign of Pasqua Rosee's Head in Change Alley, Cornhill. By Queen Anne’s death there were 500 coffee houses in London. In 1660 the Café Procope in Paris was the forerunner of numerous French coffee houses.
Tea was predominantly a domestic beverage and consumed by women as much as men. Many female domestic servants allegedly refused to work in any establishment where tea was not provided.
Until the Assam plantations were cultivated in the 1820s, tea came from China. It had been known there since 273BC. The first reference in Japan dates from AD 815. In 1595 and 1599 Jan Hugo van Linschooten sailed to India with the Portuguese and published an account of his travels which included a section on tea. In 1595 Portuguese harbours were closed to Dutch. This encouraged exploration in Java. In 1602 the Dutch East India Company was founded. In 1607 the first Dutch ship reached Japan and took tea to Java. In 1610 first tea transported to Holland from Java
The word tea (used in all European countries except Portugal and Russia) is based on tay from the Amoy dialect rather than the Cantonese ch'a. This is because the Dutch had established Batavia as a base in Java in 1596 and traded with ships from Amoy. The Portuguese traded out of Macao where Cantonese was spoken.
Pepys first drank tea in 1660. His wife tried it on the recommendation of an apothecary. In 1713 the East India Company negotiated a right of access to Canton and from then on regular supplies could be guaranteed. In 1706 the first tea shop was opened in the Strand by Thomas Twining to cater for ladies of fashion. It allowed women to mix shopping and pleasure and proved extremely popular. At home the tea party was a very inclusive event, a ceremony performed with kettle, teapot, china and silver. Ladies offered tea in the parlour in the same way as gentlemen bought ale in the tavern – it was all part of 18th century sociability. By 1720 9 million pounds were shipped in by the East India Company, increasing to 37 million by mid-century – in spite of punitive duties and the complaints of moralists like Jonas Hanway.
Tea, coffee and chocolate were all drunk with sugar. The production of sugar, first from cane and later from beets, is one of the oldest and best studied technological processes. As early as 327 B.C. Alexander the Great reported cultivation of sugar cane in India. At that time, sugar was extracted from the cane by chewing and sucking. Later, a syrup was extracted by means of pressing and boiling the cane. This process which was first practiced in India in about 300 A.D. became the basis for producing sugar in solid form.
Sugar arrived in Europe from the crusades but it was initially a rare and expensive commodity. In the 1390s, a better press, which doubled the juice obtained from the cane, was developed. This permitted the economic expansion of sugar plantations to Andalusia and the Algarve. In the 1420s, sugar was carried to the Canaries, Madeira and Porto Santa Maria.
In 1493, Columbus stopped at Gomera in the Canary Islands, for wine and water. He stayed a month and when he finally sailed he took with him cuttings of sugarcane to Santo Domingo, the first to reach the New World. The Portuguese took sugar to Brazil. Approximately 3000 small mills built before 1550 in the New World created an unprecedented demand for cast iron gears, levers, axes and other implements. Specialist in mold making and iron casting were inevitably created in Europe by the expansion of sugar. After 1625, the Dutch carried sugarcane from South America to the Caribbean islands from Barbados to the Virgin Islands.
Sugar entered Britain in the 17th century as an apothecary’s ingredient. It was commonly sold in solid cones and required a sugar nip to break off pieces. A few thousand tons were imported in the 1650s; 23,000 tons in 1700; 245,000 in 1800.8 Sugar halved in retail price during the 17th century and dropped a further 20% by 1750. Total sugar imports for domestic consumption doubled from the 1660s to the end of the 17th century and doubled again by the 1730s.
With the European colonization of the Americas, the Caribbean became the world's largest source of sugar. Sugar cane could be grown on these island at vastly lower prices than sugar beets could be grown in Europe, or cane sugar imported from the East. Reacting to this increasing craze, the islands took advantage of the situation and produced up to ninety percent of the sugar that the western Europeans consumed. The largest sugar producer in the world, by 1750, was the French colony known as Saint-Domingue (Haiti). Sugar counted for 93% of the exports of Barbados.
African slaves became the preferred plantation worker as they were better able to fight off the diseases of malaria and yellow fever than the European indentured servants. (Most local Native Americans had died from European diseases like smallpox.)
Tobacco is native to the Americas. It began as an apothecary’s ingredient and alehouses provided both tobacco and china-clay pipes for their patrons. It was increasingly provided in shops. Smoking quickly became a masculine pursuit (though Dr Johnson’s wife, Tetty, was a life-long smoker). It was first grown commercially round Chesapeake Bay (the border between Maryland and Virginia) when in 1612 John Rolfe introduced a superior species of tobacco from Trinidad. The imported plants (Nicotiana tabacum) flourished in the Tidewater's soil and climate; soon a tobacco craze hit Virginia. The early settlers of Maryland followed suit and by mid-century, the Chesapeake colonies were exporting large and profitable tobacco cargoes, and their prosperity thereafter rose and fell with fluctuations in the international market. From 1617 to 1793 tobacco was the most valuable staple export from the English American mainland colonies and (later) the United States. The quantity of tobacco shipped to Great Britain rose from twenty thousand pounds in 1617 to over 40 million pounds in 1727. The main port of entry was Glasgow – this was the reason why the Glasgow merchants were overwhelmingly in support of the union with England in 1707.
The outbreak of the American War of Independence in 1775 sparked the beginning of the end of the tobacco age. The American planters were heavily in debt to the Glasgow merchants and collection of these debts was impossible during hostilities. Glasgow tobacco fleets were also seriously threatened by hostile action. In 1783 when peace came, the now independent United States could send tobacco direct to Europe, cutting out the Glasgow merchants.
Tobacco profits dramatically increased the demand for labour. When early hopes that the Indians would work for the English proved ephemeral, a system of indentured labour (whereby one worked usually for four or five years in exchange for passage to America and all necessities during the period of service) was linked to head rights of fifty acres of land (sometimes one hundred acres in Maryland) to anyone who paid a person's passage to the colony. Indentured servants remained an important part of the Chesapeake labour force throughout the colonial era, but by the late seventeenth century they were no longer its core. In the eighteenth century, Maryland imported substantial numbers of British convicts as bound labourers, usually with terms of seven years, but again the supply fell short of the need.
Rice was to Carolina what tobacco was to the Chesapeake. From the middle of the eighteenth century it was also grown in Georgia. It was the fourth most valuable export crop from British America after tobacco, sugar and wheat.
Arab merchants brought cotton cloth to Europe about 800 A.D. When Columbus discovered America in 1492, he found cotton growing in the Bahamas. By 1500, cotton was known generally throughout the world. Cotton seed are believed to have been planted in Florida in 1556 and in Virginia in 1607. By 1616, colonists were growing cotton along the James River in Virginia. During the 18th century an increasing number of clothes were made from cotton, which was lighter and easier to keep clean than wool. The invention of the cotton gin in the USA in 1793 greatly speeded up the production of cotton, and increased the prosperity of Liverpool and Manchester.