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The Industrious Revolution: Consumer Behavior and the Household Economy, 1650 to the Present

Author(s):Vries, Jan de
Reviewer(s):Voth, Hans-Joachim

Published by EH.NET (May 2009)

Jan de Vries, The Industrious Revolution: Consumer Behavior and the Household Economy, 1650 to the Present. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. xii + 327 pp., $23 (paperback), ISBN: 978-0-521-71925-4.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Hans-Joachim Voth, Department of Economics, Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona.

This is an impossible book. Had someone told me a few years back that somebody ? anybody ? was trying to write a book so short, yet so ambitious in scope, I would have laughed and filed it under ?impossible and pretentious?– and I would have been wrong. In his latest book, Jan de Vries sets out to examine the “Industrious Revolution,” following on from his Economic History Association Presidential Address (published in the Journal of Economic History in 1994). The final result is closer to a comprehensive overview of work, consumption, and well-being in Europe and North America, from the early modern period to the present. It is written from a particular vantage point: that of the household. The book represents a tremendous accomplishment: it is staggeringly erudite, insightful, stimulating, and on all the main points, convincing.

De Vries examines how households interacted with the evolving opportunities in the labor market and the changing range of goods and services. The intellectual starting point is emphatically Beckerian: households first convert part of their available time into labor income. Money is then combined with more time in the household to produce “Z-commodities” that satisfy our wants. Enjoying these Z-goods is what leisure time is for. To take an everyday example: Labor income buys edible produce; then, the meal is cooked, using non-market time; consuming it claims more of the residual time available. Gradually, households accumulate Z-capital ? the ability to produce or appreciate Z-goods. Generating this kind of capital takes time, energy, and money ? think Sebastian and Charles in “Brideshead Revisited,” teaching themselves about wine while slowly emptying the dynasty’s cellar, or the discerning palates of EUI students and faculty after a few years under the Tuscan sun. From this point of view, the ultimate budget constraint facing us all is time, not money ? it’s literally all we have to spend.

Over the last five hundred years, total hours of work ? both in the household and outside ? have shifted dramatically. To Marx, it was in the nature of capitalism itself that the lower classes ended up working more and harder. De Vries traces the rise of industriousness, defined as a combination of long hours of market work for adult males, and wide-spread participation in the labor market by women and children, to its peak in the nineteenth century. Then, for a period of less than a century, the “male breadwinner household” took over. While men worked long and hard, women became homemakers. Children started going to school.

De Vries locates his Industrious Revolution in the long eighteenth century. In the first chapter, he summarizes the theory on how work and leisure combine to satisfy desires. The second chapter fuses observations from the history of economic thought with social history, and explains how ?luxury? became acceptable ? having long been regarded as suspect in many societies, and heavily curtailed through sumptuary laws banning conspicuous consumption. Holland led the way. The burghers of the newly independent state invented a new type of luxury. While Old Luxury had a distinctly aristocratic and somewhat decadent air to it, aimed at communicating grandeur and taste, the New Luxury emphasized usefulness in the form of domestic comfort.

The next two chapters explore the supply of labor, as well as the consumer demand into which the newly-acceptable desire for practical luxury was translated. Undoubtedly, annual working hours for fully employed males had become very long by 1850 or so ? some 3,500 or so ? scarcely imaginable for workers today who often work 1,600 to 1,900 hours in most developed countries. Women and children often worked side-by-side with the men. When did hours get so long? To say anything of substance about actual hours worked before 1800 is not for the faint-hearted; existing data is staggeringly scarce [Voth 2001]. De Vries does a good job surveying the existing literature, and making a strong case for a universal rise of hours among the middling and lower sorts in Northwestern Europe at some point during the early modern period.

Why did so many Europeans start working more regularly, perhaps harder, and definitely much longer, at some point in the early modern period? De Vries essentially argues that by 1800, there were many ?new goods? to work for. Consumption baskets for the sixteenth century show that beer and bread were consumed in staggering quantities (182 liters and 182 kg per annum according to Allen 1992). While we mostly evaluate consumption in later centuries with no more than a slightly modified consumption basket, there were many other things to spend one’s money on. De Vries details the interrelated rise of fashion and of “breakable” goods; the rise and fall of hard liquor consumption, such as the gin craze; and the growing use and availability of furniture, of cutlery, ceramics, bed linens, underwear, pokers, playing cards, etc. It is the striking difference between largely stagnant day wages on the one hand, and rising consumption as reflected in probate inventories on the other, that is one of the best bits of evidence in favor of the ?Industrious Revolution.? Thus, what I have elsewhere called the “sirens of consumption” (Voth 1998) lead households to work more, and harder.

The process did eventually go into reverse. Hours per full employee have fallen precipitously. Before that happened on a large scale, women and children exited the labor force. Having developed a taste of goods over home-made services, why did the industrious households of the seventeenth and eighteenth century give way to the male-breadwinner household of the Victorian period? De Vries? answer to some extent is health. As knowledge about what made people sick spread, cleanliness became more important. Wages rose, and much of the gain was transmuted into keeping wife and children at home ? the former making the beds, cleaning the stove, mending the socks, and the latter learning in school. Feminists and ?progressive? critics have long seen the women’s exit from the labor force (at least after marriage) as a sign of male domination ? ?patriarchy? in short. De Vries begs to differ. Far from a sign of male suppression, the male breadwinner household gave ample power to women. Men handed over their pay packets, and got a warm, clean home, well-behaved children, plus some pocket money in exchange. As De Vries argues: ?The contemporary vestiges of the breadwinner-homemaker household suffer the condescension of contemporary historians and other social scientists, who often suppose themselves to be liberated from a structure of Western society as long lasting as it was suffocating. It deserves a more serious scholarly treatment. Far from eternal, it was literally a moment in Western family history. Far from suffocating, it was, in its prime, a powerful vehicle of modernization and economic advance. It was the indispensable producer of many of the final consumption commodities that we … associate with the finest achievements of modern society.?

A reviewer of Gerald D. Feldman’s monumental history of the hyperinflation [Feldman 1997] compared the prodigious production of the author with the output of the Reichsbanks’ printing presses. (I think it was meant as a compliment, despite the obvious thought that Reichsbank paper by 1923 was almost completely worthless.) In a similar vein, I thought of calling Jan de Vries’ latest work a true Stakhanovite accomplishment, but then remembered that Alexey Grigoryevich Stakhanov’s widely-praised “production miracles” in Stalinist Russia were later found to have been staged. The sheer amount of hard work that went into every aspect of these chapters is hard to convey. Surveying the rise of consumer items through the prism of probate inventories shows the author confidently mastering the abundant historical literature in four or five languages. De Vries’ reconstruction of Europeans’ increasing consumption of ?colonial luxuries? ? sugar, tea, and coffee ? alone is going to be useful for all scholars working in the area. (While this phrase is beloved by reviewers, this one put his pen where his praise was ? and immediately re-wrote a draft of his paper called “Sweet Diversity” [Hersh and Voth 2009].)

The book will be an invaluable reference for anyone working in early modern economic history. I also expect to see it used as a textbook in advanced undergraduate classes. If there is a fly in the ointment ? and every conscientious reviewer is expected to find one ? it is the almost complete disconnect with behavioral economics. The households making decisions in De Vries? world are of the sturdy Dutch burgher type depicted on the cover; work and consuming is a sober, serious business for them. They have preferences, income, and a range of choices, and then make decisions without too many further complications. De Vries, by allowing for a bit of endogenous preference formation, is departing to some extent from the more rigid basics of household decision-making models. Yet there is no struggle here of ?present selves? with ?future selves,? no hyperbolic discounting, no perennially unfulfilled desire to start saving … tomorrow (for an overview, see Mullainathan and Thaler 2001). This is not quite how some early modern observers saw (in particular) lower class consumers. Sir Frederick Eden (1797), in his The State of the Poor, was highly critical of the dietary choices made by Southern English families. He argued that choosing the quick kick of sugar and tea over more substantial fare was welfare-reducing. From his point of view, the incomes of the poor were not the issue; it was their consumption patterns. Of course, rigorous economic analysis is on shaky ground already when we allow for changing tastes (Becker and Stigler 1977); perhaps, a more detailed analysis of consumers in their full, often self-contradictory glory would have made this a truly impossible book. The profession will be grateful for the one it got.


Robert C. Allen, 2001, ?The Great Divergence in European Wages and Prices from the Middle Ages to the First World War,? Explorations in Economic History 38(4): 411-47.

Gary Becker and George Stigler, 1997, ?De Gustibus Non Est Disputandum,? American Economic Review 67(2): 76-90.

Frederick Eden, 1797, The State of the Poor, London.

Gerald D. Feldman, 1997, The Great Disorder: Politics, Economics, and Society in the German Inflation, 1914-1924, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jonathan Hersh and Hans-Joachim Voth, 2009, ?Sweet Diversity: Colonial Goods and the Rise of European Living Standards after 1492?, Available at SSRN:

Sendhil Mullainathan and Richard H. Thaler, 2001, ?Behavioral Economics,? in N. J. Smelser and P. B. Baltes, editors, _International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, New York: Elsevier:1094?1100.

Hans-Joachim Voth, 1998, ?Work and the Sirens of Consumption in Eighteenth-Century London,? in: M. Bianchi, editor, The Active Consumer. Novelty and Surprise in Consumer Choice, London: Routledge.

Hans-Joachim Voth, 2001, Time and Work in England, 1750-1830, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hans-Joachim Voth is ICREA Research Professor of Economics at Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona, a Research Affiliate at CREI (Barcelona), and a Research Fellow in the International Macro Program at the CEPR, London. His latest publications include ?Betting on Hitler: The Value of Political Connections in Nazi Germany? [with Thomas Ferguson], Quarterly Journal of Economics (2008); ?Interest Rate Restrictions in a Natural Experiment: Loan Allocation and the Change in the Usury Laws in 1714? [with Peter Temin], Economic Journal (2007); and ?Why England? Demographic Factors, Structural Change and Physical Capital Accumulation during the Industrial Revolution? [with Nico Voigtlaender], Journal of Economic Growth (2006).

Subject(s):Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII