In his 1998 book, The Economy of Obligation historian Craig Muldrew examines the expansion of what he calls “marketing” in Elizabethan England. By this term he means the specialized commercial relations we now take for granted: “the way in which goods were bought and sold, and moved around by traders, wholesalers and other middlemen, and how credit was used to facilitate such exchange and create wealth generated through profit.” Over a relatively short period, England went from an economy dominated by household production and direct selling by local farmers and craftsmen to a more complex and extended commercial order.
Goods like coal, soap, iron, and textiles traveled around the country, becoming much more readily available to ordinary people outside London. In the Norfolk town of King’s Lynn, for example, the amount of soap imported from London more than tripled from 1566 (when Shakespeare was a two-year-old) to 1586. The economic expansion included entertainment as well. Alehouses boomed, as did consumption of beer, formerly a luxury. A popular music industry began, with 3 million to 4 million printed ballads sold for a penny or two each in the late 16th century. Foreign goods like sugar, currants, lemons, and peppercorns became more common. In 1581, Muldrew reports, “21,000 oranges and lemons reached Norwich in time for [London’s] Bartholomew Fair.”
In what has been called the “great rebuilding” of rural England, homes installed glass windows, plaster ceilings, and, most important, fireplaces with chimneys. Many added rooms, along with more and better furniture and kitchen tools. “Such improvements,” Muldrew observes, “mean there must have been a concurrent growth in the market for the services of carpenters, glaziers and bricklayers, and in the sale of material manufactures for such rebuilding and furnishing.”
Muldrew combs through probate inventories, counting the number of items listed to find out just how much stuff people owned. Here’s an example, showing the average numbers of goods (not including clothing) per household in Chesterfield. The numbers are small, but the percentage increase is significant.
Even poor people had more goods than their ancestors. Farmers exchanged straw for feather beds and wooden plates for pewter. William Barat, a mariner, died with goods worth a paltry £2 4s, while owing £6 9s. “He had just one hearth in the kitchen and most of his possessions consisted of old things of little value,” Muldrew writes, “but he still possessed a number of inexpensive ‘luxury’ goods including satin towels, hangings in the hall, pewter flower pots, valences for his bed and painted cloth.” The better-off Richard Rastryck, a Southampton porter, left £10 worth of household goods in 1575, suggesting a modest standard of living. Nevertheless, writes Muldrew, “there were over 225 items in a five-room house with two hearths. These included three flock beds, six feather pillows, four spice plates, a number of pieces of pewter, five silver rings and a number of painted cloths.” Many of these goods were old or cheap, but that’s the point. Thanks to the expansion of trade, transportation, and specialized production, for the first time, ordinary people had access to goods once considered luxuries.
The transformation increased the country’s prosperity but was also disruptive in ways that resonate today. Rents rose, and labor was no longer as short as it had been in the previous era. “After 1540 consumption expanded, but the previous security disappeared, as families had to compete for work,” writes Muldrew. “Some did well, while others failed.” More goods were available, raising the standard of living, but attaining it felt less certain.
What struck me the most about Muldrew’s findings (and I’m still reading the book) is the way the gains were skewed. Some ordinary farmers and tradesmen benefited from the expansion of markets for their goods and services. Others did not. So within the same original social class, there were winners and losers.
So the losers didn’t have to be objectively worse off to feel that way. Muldrew cites mason John Clark, whose estate included only 17 items worth a mere £1 6s. “But even he owned better quality goods than someone in a similar situation might have 30 years earlier, for he had a half feather, half flock bed and a painted hanging, but he was very much poorer than many of his neighbours.” Of such contrasts is economic nostalgia born.
What was much more important than any absolute rise or decline in the living standards of poor families was the fact that many of their neighbours had become much wealthier over the course of the century, and it was in comparison to their improved standard of living that poorer households seemed worse off. Also, because wealthier households had bettered themselves, they consequently interpreted the lack of mobility, or downward mobility, of poorer households as competitive failure.
Similarly, if in the mid-20th century an American family was solidly middle class (say, the third quintile of income) and its children went to college, they’re likely now in the top two quintiles of income. If they didn’t go to college, they’re much less likely to have risen and may be relatively worse off than their parents. Either way, however, they have a lot more stuff, including goods and services that were unimaginable 50 years ago. But, like the Elizabethans, contemporary Americans who feel poorer than their former economic peers resent their relative decline, while the upwardly mobile mistake their rise for personal superiority. Both groups tend to forget what the recent past was really like. And commentators decry the terrible state of things.
This essay was originally published on Virginia’s blog.