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Production and Consumption in English Households, 1600-1750

Author(s):Overton, Mark
Whittle, Jane
Dean, Darron
Hann, Andrew
Reviewer(s):Shammas, Carole

Published by EH.NET (April 2005)

Mark Overton, Jane Whittle, Darron Dean and Andrew Hann, Production and Consumption in English Households, 1600-1750. London: Routledge, 2004. xii + 251 pp. $104.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-415-20803-3.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Carole Shammas, Department of History, University of Southern California.

This monograph, based upon 8000 probate inventories from the counties of Kent and Cornwall, traces the production and consumption history of English households in the seventeenth and first half of the eighteenth century. The last few years have witnessed a flood of publications on the history of consumption, much of it devoted to contemporary opinion and attitudes on the subject and some of it rather thinly researched. This book, coming out of a project based at the University of Exeter and funded by the Leverhulme Trust, offers a substantive body of data that socio-economic historians interested in early modern standards of living and economic change will consult again and again.

The authors, Overton, Whittle, Dean and Hann, corroborate some findings in earlier consumption studies but raise questions about other conclusions. As in previous work, they find little evidence of the anti-consumer peasant and consider ownership of consumer durables, generally, to be growing from 1600 to the mid-eighteenth century. The proportion of wealth taken up by consumer goods does not increase over time, which is in keeping with other research pointing to a drop in prices and the resort to cheaper less permanent products, like glass and pottery, which cost less to purchase but had to be replaced more often. Yet in contradiction to prevailing theories, they contend that increased market consumption did not result in a growth of by-employments nor decrease household production for home use. They make much of the contrasting consumer cultures of Kent and Cornwall. They argue for the reverse of a consumer revolution in the latter and maintain that the primary cause cannot be attributed to poverty. So what was happening in Cornwall? Remoteness, resulting in less interest and information about some commodities is their brief answer. The authors also warn that their findings only apply to fifty percent of the population, as the lower forty percent and the top ten percent are not, in their view, represented in their inventory samples.

It is difficult not to be impressed by the level of research in this book, grateful for the data on a wide variety of consumer and producer durables, yet also frustrated by the authors’ limited view about what they can do with the fine database they have assembled, their resistance to any wealth analysis of the contrasting material life of Kent and Cornwall, and their failure to explore more fully the economic circumstances that caused the inventoried wealth levels of these two counties to diverge so dramatically.

My difficulties start in Chapter 2 when the authors discuss the limitations of their inventory samples. Usually reviewers have to chastise authors for trying to stretch the significance of their data too far across the wealth spectrum, but that is not the problem here. Overton et al. are right to conclude that wealthier decedents are underrepresented in their samples because they did not include inventories from the Prerogative Court of Canterbury where most of the wealthy had their estates probated. [Parenthetically, they also probably lost a lot of mariners, as those who died abroad or at sea also went to the Prerogative court regardless of wealth level.] For their purposes, which are very much to gauge rural household production and consumption, these exclusions are not of much consequence. What mystifies me, however, and does have a deleterious impact on their analysis is the assertion that their samples tell them nothing about the lower forty percent of the population, when it becomes quite clear from the comparison they make between the hearth tax evidence from Kent, which does purport to cover all households, and their Kent inventory sample that twenty percent of the latter comes from the one-hearth, lower 45 percent of the population. True, the poor are under-represented, but they are there in hefty enough numbers to analyze. All that has to be done is to breakdown the tables on ownership of consumer and producer durables by wealth level and one has controlled for the under-representation. In the five chapters which have tables showing the incidence of consumer or producer goods, however, the authors only allow breakdown by wealth in one of them.

The aversion to controlling for wealth leads to some less than convincing conclusions. First is the challenge, based on their evidence from Kent, to Jan de Vries’ argument that increased consumption of market goods by early modern rural householders led to more specialization and a drop off in household production for home consumption. Yet in the one table (p.144) that breaks down ownership of goods indicating household production activities — baking and brewing and dairying — it appears that baking was minimal for the bottom quartile (which by inference from the Hearth Tax means the lower half of the population) in not only Cornwall but Kent from 1600 on and that dairying for use declined from already modest levels in 1600 by nearly fifty percent by 1700-1749. Only brewing picked up among this group in Kent. As the indication of brewing for home use only required the presence of beer/ale in the house, these proportions might be somewhat inflated. Furthermore the authors show a big drop in both counties in cloth production, whether for home use or for market, during the seventeenth century. The story, here, seems to be that yeomen level households, relieved of cloth production, milling, and other tasks moved their workforce, particularly women towards enhancing the meals they prepared by new cooking, home baking and brewing with materials from the maltster. On the other hand, in Cornwall, generally, and Kent among households in the lower half of the wealth distribution production for use remained at low levels or declined over the period.

Similarly, the insistence that wealth disparities have little to do with the growing differences in the ownership of producer and consumer goods strains credulity, when one looks at the table (p.140) showing median wealth in Cornwall in 1660-1749 to be from one-third to one-half of that in Kent, whereas earlier in the seventeenth century it had been at 75 percent. Median material wealth (wealth minus financial assets — the measure of wealth preferred by the authors) was likewise affected. By the second quarter of the eighteenth century, it constituted less than one-fourth of the figure in Kent. Logistic regressions showing coefficients greater for county than for wealth prove little for several reasons, some technical, but substantively they make little sense when the gap in wealth is so great between the two counties. The variable county becomes almost a proxy for wealth. That point brings me back to the question of what is going on here. Remoteness? American colonies were even more remote yet inventory studies do not show patterns like those in Cornwall. There might be many more places like Cornwall in eighteenth-century Britain as the consumption situation in Scotland, Wales, and in the North borderlands is far from well understood. Granted more than just economic resources go into consumer decisions, but having shillings is one of the most basic. Why the relative economic position of households in places like Cornwall seems to deteriorate so badly over the course of the seventeenth and early eighteenth century is a very important question. Is it all an artifact of what gets recorded in inventories, always a possibility of course, or does the great Atlantic expansion have victims in Britain as well as elsewhere in the empire? This book by Overton et al. makes one wonder.

Carole Shammas’s most recent book is A History of Household Government in America (University of Virginia Press, 2002).

Subject(s):Living Standards, Anthropometric History, Economic Anthropology
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):18th Century