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“The Error of our Ways: Historians and the Birth of Consumer Society” - page 3 / 19





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Society (1982), to which I contributed,  the other The Culture of Consumption edited by Richard Fox and Jackson Lears (1983),  but soon spread far beyond them.  From the outset this literature was concerned with the origins and development of something that was considered modern.  The search for consumer society was a search for modernity and the emphasis, whether on eighteenth-century acquisitiveness or the late nineteenth-century department store, was on the first signs of what in its maturity was to be a full-blown, modern consumer society.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in Neil McKendrick’s provocative thesis that there was a consumer revolution in the late eighteenth-century that gave birth to the first consumer society in Britain.  This revolution, he argued, took the form of the greater enjoyment than ever before of material possessions, especially of pottery, textiles and metal goods produced for and sold in the marketplace.  It was made possible, he claimed, by greater wealth which was more equitably distributed than in other nations, and by the existence of a society which was more open and less formally stratified than elsewhere in Europe.  These circumstances affecting demand were complemented by shrewd entrepreneurship, marketing and advertising strategies exemplified in the practices of industrialists like Josiah Wedgwood, the pottery magnate.  Central to this account was the role of emulation, particularly middle class emulation of the aristocracy, and the consequent efforts at social distinction pursued by the aristocratic elite.  The social system, in this account, was not only graded and ordered through emulation, but was driven by it.  This impulse or desire was the steam in the economic machine.   

Though immediately subject to severe criticism from those outside the discipline of history, the immediate effect of the claims in The Birth of a Consumer Society among historians was to launch a plethora of studies which claimed to locate the date and site –

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