- Consumer revolution
The term consumer revolution refers to the period from the late sixteenth century to the nineteenth century in which there was a marked increase in consumption of various goods and products by individuals from different economic and social backgrounds. The consumer revolution allowed a diverse group of individuals to purchase similar items, that previously may have only been available to those of middle to upper classes. This revolution allowed individuals who were not necessarily wealthy to indulge, and consume products that were necessity as well as those that were not. This was a period of transition in terms of how individuals were spending money and what they were spending money on. The consumer revolution blossomed in early modern Europe, or what would be commonly identified as Europe (countries such as Britain, France, and Spain) and the Mediterranean (Italy and the regions that consisted of the Ottoman Empire), and eventually spread throughout the world. The consumer revolution marks a departure from a traditional mode of life that was dominated by frugality or scarcity to that of mass consumption by numerous individuals.
There were a number of contributing factors which helped to create the consumer revolution. The Industrial Revolution was a major contributor to the consumer revolution. A great quantity of goods were being produced, for fairly cheap price points, which allowed consumers of all economic backgrounds to partake in buying a greater array of goods than ever before.
Moreover, the expansion of trade and markets also contributed to the burgeoning consumer revolution. As individuals were constantly going to different locations, they brought with them items from home, as well as acquired new goods from the regions they were frequenting. For instance, 'English' merchants brought into Ottoman ports tobacco they had obtained from the Atlantic trade.
Therefore, with the constant migration and movement of individuals, goods spread throughout early modern Europe, in a variety of ways. With goods becoming cheaper, and more abundant because of the production that the industrial revolution created, as well as through the influx and importation of goods to and from different locations, the consumer revolution was conceived.
Types of products consumed
Individuals were able to consume a number of items, some which were necessity, and other considered to be of a desirous or luxurious nature. Regardless, consumers were able to purchase more goods, for cheaper prices than ever before. Some of the more popular items that were consumed in early modern Europe and the Ottoman Empire were tobacco, coffee, and clothing. These types of items all contributed to and fueled the ever changing consumer market of supply and demand.
Tobacco was one of the key items in the consumer revolution. There was a rise in the popularity of tobacco in regions that constituted the Ottoman Empire for instance, towards the end of the sixteenth century and into the seventeenth century. As individuals became increasingly exposed to tobacco through its importation for instance, issues of morality and legality erupted. Many opposed the consumption of tobacco, while others embraced smoking for various reasons (a new pastime, a social practice, etc). The consumption of tobacco spurned individuals to spend money on tobacco itself, but also on items that were associated with it. For instance, pipes made of different materials, as well as the water pipe or the hookah became part of the tobacco market. This is relevant to the consumer revolution in the sense that regardless of the controversy that accompanied tobacco, individuals were still willing to buy this item, and goods associated with it. Tobacco was not necessarily an item that was vital for survival, but individuals were able to consume it because as the number of smokers increased, and the demand for tobacco increased, a market for this product was born. Merchants within the Ottoman empire realized the lucrative nature of tobacco, and began to produce much of this product in regions closer to the Empire, which meant that the price for tobacco would drop making it more affordable for a mass market.
It is important to examine the range of goods that individuals were interested in, and what was popular at the time and why it helped to change the market and the way that individuals spent their money.
Cultural and societal significance
Coffee was also an item that came into high demand during the consumer revolution. In fact, there was a huge debate over the consumption of coffee as well, but as in the case with tobacco, coffee became a product of high demand, and ultimately proved superior to those trying to suppress its consumption. The impact of coffee upon culture and society was that it created a communal environment. That is, coffeehouses began to emerge to not only meet the demand for the actual beverage, but also as a place of business, and ultimately, a place where individuals from different rungs of the social hierarchy could interact with one another over their common enjoyment of the beverage. It is apparent that coffee was not the enemy; rather, many individuals were intimidated by the fact that items which could be consumed by a number of peoples, and were no longer exclusive. Coffeehouses created a mutual environment or a level playing field amongst individuals of all economic and social backgrounds. It was almost as though coffee or a product like tobacco blurred cultural and societal restrictions because, due to the consumer revolution's effect on their availability and price, they could now be enjoyed by a more diverse demographic and were no longer so exclusive.
It is also important to note that this purchasing ability gave minority members a visible presence. For instance, women had been the predominant agents of purchases, but the market expanded because of their presence. That is to say that the consumer revolution created a market in which women had more opportunities than ever before. There was a wider market, from street corners, to the actual market place, to the later development of department stores, the power that accompanied a woman due to her purchasing ability that had come about in part because of the consumer revolution gave women a new sense of power in terms of how they spent their money, but also in terms of how businesses would expand the market to appeal to women.
Different goods impacted the way that individuals conducted themselves and treated others (when goods were consumed). That is to say that, coffee for instance had individuals who were staunchly opposed to its consumption and those who thoroughly enjoyed the beverage and atmosphere that it created. What the consumer revolution brought about was a mixing of peoples from different rungs of society through their mutual affection for products that many individuals, no longer just those from the upper rungs of society could enjoy. A new type of culture or society emerged because of the consumer revolution. One in which many individuals had more than ever before, and consuming products became a practice that was beyond survival. A culture of consumption was created.
Products that were consumed also had political significance. Coffee and tobacco proved to be two items that were controversial. Some individuals believed that these types of products were dangerous to the moral fiber of the individual consuming them as well as the moral fiber of society. Therefore, products that were being consumed at a more rapid rate that ever before were often a source of tension within society, for the population was often split on their views of the various goods.
Disunity was created in the sense that those opposed to it were in conflict with those individuals who were choosing to partake in their newfound purchasing power or ability to acquire a variety of goods with those who believed that such goods (as tobacco and coffee) were harmful. But in the wider scheme of things, it was not necessarily the products alone that created this disunity. Rather, it was the fact that individuals were making choices that were outside of rules of the particular society, which often worried many in power because this type of independence invoked a certain fear because people now had more choice and ability. Moreover, the participation of individuals from different backgrounds in the market meant that those who were wealthier or represented a certain prestiege were now being put upon the same level as those they had considered their social inferiors which meant that the political, social and cultural influence that the wealthy had was now being deduced because middle and lower class individuals now had a purchasing power which they had previously been denied.
Women are an example of the political paranoia that did ensue because of the consumer revolution. There was a sense of independence associated with the increased consumption of goods. Women were often in charge of the domestic spending, not only in terms of survival, but also in regards to how their home looked and how their family looked. Granted, individuals were each on a different economic scale, but the fear that grew from the purchasing power of women was that if women were given this power, then it could potentially overlap into the political realm, and chaos would ensue because ultimately, women were just not capable. Although this was quite ironic, given that women were in charge of so much, this view which really stemmed from the latter portion of the consumer revolution (the nineteenth century), the fact of the matter was that individuals were fear stricken when it came to the fact that individuals such as women were exposed to increasing independence because of spending ability.
Politically, the consumer revolution created a sense of unity within various communities in the sense that a greater number of individuals could buy similar items and enjoy similar goods in a way that had not previously existed. This section is meant to further expand on how products could create or be the source of political unity, or the source of disunity in the community.
Moreover, politics is related to the consumer revolution in the sense that it fostered trading relationships and relationships between various regions, so the political economy that occurred is important to understanding how this revolution helped to alter society.
The consumer revolution meant that a vast number of individuals had the greater ability to purchase wider array of goods than ever before. Some of these items were indulged in, not because they were necessity but because they became a part of social climate. At the same time, political, social and cultural fear arose because of the consumer revolution because individuals now had more choice, and an increasing independence, which meant there was a loss of power for those who were classified as higher upon the social hierarchy. The consumer revolution had both positive as well as negative attributes politically, socially and culturally.
The consumer revolution spanned much of early modern Europe, with goods such as tobacco, coffee, clothing, as well as furnishings (more so in the nineteenth century) becoming more readily available to a wider demographic.
- Economic materialism
- Conspicuous consumption
- Industrial Revolution
- The Ottoman Empire
- Industrious Revolution
- ^ Fairchilds, Cissie. “Review: Consumption in Early Modern Europe. A Review Article”. Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 35, No. 4. (Oct., 1993), pp. 851.
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-  Ibid.
-  Grehan, James. 2006. “Smoking and ‘Early Modern’ Sociability: The Great Tobacco Debate in the Ottoman Middle East (Seventeenth to Eighteenth Centuries).” The American Historical Review 111 (5): pp. 1361.
-  Ibid, pp. 1352.
-  Ibid, pp. 1356.
-  Ibid, pp. 1355.
-  Ibid, pp. 1358.
-  Roberts, Mary L. 1998. "Gender, Consumption, and Commodity Culture." American Historical Review 103: pp. 821.
-  Ibid, pp. 818.
-  Ibid, pp. 822.
Fairchilds, Cissie. “Review: Consumption in Early Modern Europe. A Review Article”. Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 35, No. 4. (Oct., 1993), pp. 850–858.
Grehan, James. 2006. “Smoking and ‘Early Modern’ Sociability: The Great Tobacco Debate in the Ottoman Middle East (Seventeenth to Eighteenth Centuries).” The American Historical Review 111 (5): 1352-77.
Roberts, Mary L. 1998. "Gender, Consumption, and Commodity Culture." American Historical Review 103: 817-44
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