GRE Reading Comprehension
Historians have only recently begun to note the increase in demand for luxury goods and services that took place in eighteenth-century England. McKendrick has explored the Wedgwood firm's remarkable success in marketing luxury pottery; Plumb has written about the proliferation of provincial theaters, musical festivals, and children's toys and books. While the fact of this consumer revolution is hardly in doubt, three key questions remain: Who were the consumers? What were their motives? And what were the effects of the new demand for luxuries?
An answer to the first of these has been difficult to obtain. Although it has been possible to infer from the goods and services actually produced what manufactures and servicing trades thought their customers wanted, only a study of relevant personal documents written by actual consumers will provide a precise picture of who wanted what. We still need to know how large this consumer market was and how far down the social scale the consumer demand for luxury goods penetrated. With regard to this last question, we might note in passing that Thompson, while rightly restoring laboring people to the stage of eighteenth-century English history, has probably exaggerated the opposition of these people to the inroads of capitalist consumerism in general; for example, laboring people in eighteenth-century England readily shifted from home-brewed beer to standardized beer produced by huge, heavily capitalized urban breweries.
To answer the question of why consumers became so eager to buy, some historians have pointed to the ability of manufacturers to advertise in a relatively uncensored press. This, however, hardly seems a sufficient answer. McKendrick favors a Veblen model of conspicuous consumption stimulated by competition for status. The "middling sort" bought goods and services because they wanted to follow fashions set by the rich. Again, we may wonder whether this explanation is sufficient. Do not people enjoy buying things as a form of self-gratification? If so, consumerism could be seen as a product of the rise of new concepts of individualism and materialism, but not necessarily of the frenzy for conspicuous competition.
Finally, what were the consequences of this consumer demand for luxuries? McKendrick claims that it goes a long way toward explaining the coming of the Industrial Revolution. But does it? What, for example, does the production of high-quality pottery and toys have to do with the development of iron manufacture or textile mills? It is perfectly possible to have the psychology and reality of a consumer society without a heavy industrial sector.
That future exploration of these key questions is undoubtedly necessary should not, however, diminish the force of the conclusion of recent studies: the insatiable demand in eighteenth-century England for frivolous as well as useful goods and services foreshadows our own world.
According to the passage, Thompson attributes to laboring people in eighteenth-century England which of the following attitudes toward capitalist consumerism?
- A Enthusiasm
- B Curiosity
- C Ambivalence
- D Stubbornness
- E Hostility