Consumerism in 18th Century England and Scotland

Being able to visit London and Edinburgh gave me a better understanding of the current culture and the culture of the cities during the 18th century. One thing that really stood out to me that took place in the 18th century was the rise of consumerism. It was very prevalent in the readings that we did before we went on the trip, and also when we visited historical sites in London and Edinburgh. In the readings, more specifically Humphry Clinker, we talked about consumerism and the mixing of classes because people in lower classes were able to afford the same things as the people in the upper classes. People of lower classes were on the streets in their fancy coaches and had nice clothes on, which threw off some people because the upper class were no longer clearly visible to anyone walking down the street. The historical rise of consumerism is something you can see today in museums, books, and movies.

In London we were able to visit two places that I feel expressed consumerism well. The first place is the Victoria and Albert Museum. Here you could see over time how people collected more items and how those items changed. Items became more extravagant and luxurious. Clothing items changed dramatically, for example, dresses became bigger, so big that women couldn’t fit through doors. Beds had more to them including very fancy oriental decorations on some. Other items like furnishing changed to reflect consumerism as well. I saw a silver platter that had a picture of the city of London engraved on the platter. All of these embellishments made life more luxurious and people were enjoying the benefits of a society with better access to goods.

A luxury dress

A luxury dress at the V&A Museum

The second place in London is Soane’s House. Soane was an architect and a collector of many things. In his home he had all kinds of artifacts covering every wall. He had a vast collection of books, many paintings and drawings (some were works of his own), many moldings from Greek, Roman, and Egyptian backgrounds, and some sculptors. Soane collected many items and would use these items to educate others. Back in this time people would go on a “grand tour” and they would take two years to go all over Europe and learn about different cultures. Many people passed through Soane’s doors and were able to educate themselves through his collection of books and art. Because Soane was acquiring more and more things he had a very good collection to learn many different things about history and culture.

When our class moved on into Edinburgh the move to consumerism was also prevalent during the 18th century. When we went to Gladstone’s Land we could see how a home would look in the beginning of the 18th century for a wealthy family. Comparing that with how the poor lived in Mary King’s Close, it was very easy to see how consumerism had reached the wealthy in Edinburgh. First, the people that had money had many rooms in their house to fill with all of the consumer goods. The wealthy people had sturdy furniture to hide valuables in, spacious kitchens with many utensils and room for the servant to live, and many lavish things like painted ceilings and beds with curtains that wrapped around the bed for privacy. These people had conveniences that came with the rise of consumerism.

When the new town was built in Edinburgh these modern conveniences that came with consumerism followed the wealthy to their new homes. In the Georgian House that we visited we could see how beautiful and lavish the homes were decorated. People had huge spaces to entertain guests. The walls were covered with paintings and there were high-end furnishings in every room. The bedroom had amazing decorations on the walls and including the bed. The kitchen for the house was absolutely huge. The servants had so much room to cook and prepare meals. They had ovens, and new utensils, and new inventions to cook, like the self-turning meat rotisserie. The servants had amazing living conditions compared to how they were treated in the beginning of the century. The butler had his own spacious room and the servants had a room specifically dedicated to their sleeping and living. There was even a move from a chamber pot to an early working of the toilet in this house. This house does however show the negative side to consumerism. The man who built the home was massively in debt because of the home and trying to impress people with his home and collection of things. In the end, he was forced to sell the property to pay off all of his debts.

The outside of the Georgian House.  Taken from:

The outside of the Georgian House.
Taken from:

Something that followed consumerism in the 18th century was a rise in tourism. Many authors were writing books about different places in England and Scotland and the people reading the books would read about them and want to visit to have the same experience as the characters in the book. One writing that majorly affected tourism was Sir Walter Scott’s The Lady of the Lake. This is a poem that mentions a loch in Scotland, Loch Katerine. Once people stated reading this poem they were flocking to Loch Katerine to see all of the sights so beautifully described in The Lady of the Lake. This relates to something in our society today. Many people flock to Loch Ness in search of the Loch Ness monster that has been talked about in books and fables for many years now. While Loch Katrine

isn’t the biggest tourism site today, you can see how people would be interested just like people are interested in Loch Ness. Humphry Clinker also influenced tourism because they main characters are on a journey through England and Scotland and there are many scenes that describe the beauty of both places. People are influenced by the way that Matthew Bramble completely changes character through the book. He has this horrible attitude about traveling and different places that he encounters on the trip. This all changes when he gets to Scotland and he is completely taken back by it. People now want to see that place and the culture that could change the mind of a grumpy person who seems to not like anywhere. I can personally say that after visiting Edinburgh and very few other parts of Scotland like Loch Katrine, I too see how Bramble got to the conclusion that he did.

Beautiful scenery from Loch Katrine

Beautiful scenery from Loch Katrine

Overall, consumerism played a huge role in 18th century London and Edinburgh. In fact, it continues to play a big role today. Consumerism pushes our markets and creates jobs for many people. Consumerism in the 18th century helped make social classes more equal, encouraged more people to take adventure and see what the world had to offer, and created a movement that continues today for bigger and better things.

One final thing I would like to say about this trip is that it was amazing! I never thought I would enjoy going to Scotland so much!! I came into the class not expecting to learn anything or even care about the classwork, but it turned out to be very interesting and fun for the most part. I’m so grateful that I was able to have this experience and now be able to compare 18th century UK culture with today’s. It was such an amazing opportunity to learn and travel with such an amazing and resilient crowd. I will miss everyone and I will always have the tidbits of info I know about 18th century British literature in my head!


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