The study of consumption – ‘the use of goods in the satisfaction of human wants’1 – has been fashionable in the field of eighteenth-century studies for the past two decades. The publication of John Brewer, Neil McKendrick and J.H. Plumb’s The Birth of a Consumer Society in 1982 can justifiably be identified as the starting point, beginning as it did with an analysis of the rise of consumption in Britain, looking at the meaning of possessions, and types of consumption, ranging from food and drink to art, literature and leisure activities. The late Roy Porter has also played a major role, editing, along with Brewer Consumption and the World of Goods in 1993. John Brewer went on to publish The Pleasures of the Imagination, and with Ann Bermingham, The Consumption of Culture 1600–1800: Image, Object, Text. Outside of this small group, Maxine Berg established a project in Warwick dedicated to the study of luxury and consumption in the eighteenth century, which produced a number of volumes on this subject.2 This approach to eighteenth-century history has not gone uncontested. Historians from right and left have expressed doubts about the current vogue for studies of eighteenth-century consumption and consumerism. At an early stage Edward Thompson dismissed Paul Langford’s description of Britain as ‘polite and commercial’, and others have expressed concerns that this new interest in customer demand will obscure the role of class conflict. From a more conservative standpoint Jonathan Clark has seen the interest in consumption as a revival of the whiggish school of history, reading backwards from modern consumer-capitalism.3


Leisure Activity British Government Consumer Society Consumer Item British Empire 
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© Martyn J. Powell 2005

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