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“The Error of our Ways: Historians and the Birth of Consumer Society” - page 5 / 19

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Though the pattern and precise chronology might vary, according to class, wealth, gender and region, studies of the Netherlands, colonial America, seventeenth and eighteenth-century Britain and eighteenth-century France based on tax records, business records and above all inventories of possessions at death have all revealed a common pattern in which household goods – furniture, new fabrics, looking glasses, clocks, glassware and pottery – as well as clothing became more abundant.   There was clearly a much denser environment of manufactured goods than had earlier been supposed.   This growth in durables was matched by important changes in the consumption of such colonial perishables as tea, sugar and tobacco as items of mass consumption, defined in this literature as being used by 25% or more of the adult population regularly.  Much was  learned about the world of goods, though much more is known about their presence than about the processes by which they were made, distributed and consumed.

Secondly, the one area in which this issue of process was most extensively examined was in the field of marketing and retailing.  A 1759 government survey of shops in England and Wales revealed that Napoleon was right: there were nearly 138,000 retailing establishments, a density of 42 people per shop, nearly double that in mid-twentieth-century England or the United States.   Studies of eighteenth-century retail outlets show that not all were, as these figures might imply, small shops, but that a variety of shops, including arcades and large emporia, existed long before the nineteenth-century department store.  

Third, during the eighteenth century, as part of a larger debate about trade and the economy, a body of analysis emerged that rejected the long-standing moral condemnation of ‘excessive’ commodity consumption – so-called luxury rather than necessity.  Occasionally, as in the case of Bernard Mandeville,  this entailed the robust

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