The material revolution in the West. The common mortals could now find species that were sometimes provided only to the kings. (ALAIN DE BOTTON)

The material revolution in the West. The common mortals could now find species that were sometimes provided only to the kings. (ALAIN DE BOTTON)

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the countries of the West had witnessed the fastest, most radical transformation in living standards ever known in history.

The majority of the population of medieval and early modern Europe had belonged to the peasant class. They had been poor, undernourished, cold, fearful and dead – usually following some agony – before their fortieth birthdays. After a lifetime of work, their most expensive possession might have been a cow, a goat or a pot. Famine had never been far away and diseases had been rife; among the most common were rickets, ulcers, tuberculosis, leprosy, abscesses, gangrene, tumours and cankers.

Then, in early eighteenth-century Britain, the great Western transformation began. Thanks to new farming techniques (crop rotation, scientific stock-breeding and land-consolidation), agricultural yields began to rise sharply. From 1700 to 1820, Britain’s agricultural productivity doubled, releasing capital and manpower that flowed into the cities and was invested in industry and trade. The invention of the steam engine and the cotton power-loom altered working practices and social expectations. Towns exploded in size. In 1800, only one city in the British Isles, London, had a population of over a hundred thousand. By 1891, there were twenty-three such cities. Goods and services that had formerly been the preserve of an elite became widely available. Luxuries became decencies, and decencies necessities. Daniel Defoe, travelling around southern England in 1745, noticed the opening of large new shops with enticing window displays and products. Whereas, for much of recorded history, fashion had remained static for decades or more, it grew possible to identify specific styles for every passing year (in England in 1753 purple was in vogue for women, in 1754 it was the turn of white linen with a pink pattern and in 1755 of dove grey).

The British consumer revolution spread and expanded in the nineteenth century. Giant new department stores opened throughout Europe and America: the Bon Marché and Au Printemps in Paris, Selfridge’s and Whiteley’s in London, Macy’s in New York.

They offered ordinary people goods that previously had been the preserve of royalty. At the ribbon-cutting ceremony to mark the opening of a new twelve-storey Marshall Field’s in Chicago in 1902, the manager, Gordon Selfridge, explained that, ‘We have built this great institution for ordinary people, so that it can be their store, their downtown home, their buying headquarters.’ It was not, he said, just for the ‘swagger rich’.

A host of technological inventions transformed everyday life – and helped to alter mental horizons too: the old cyclical view of the world, where one expected next year to be much like (and as bad as) the last, gave way to a view that mankind could progress yearly towards perfection. To list only a few of these inventions:

Cornflakes were patented by J. H. Kellogg in 1895, after he had hit upon the concept by accident when the grain mixture he served the inmates in his sanatorium had hardened by mistake and been shattered into flakes.

The can-opener was patented in 1870.

The safetypin was invented in 1849.
The sewing machine was developed by I. M. Singer in 1851.
Ready-made clothes started to become more common from the 1860s; machine-made underclothes appeared in the 1870s.

The typewriter was invented in 1867 (the first manuscript to be typed was Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi in 1883).

Processed foods: By the 1860s, Britain’s Crosse & Blackwell was manufacturing twenty-seven thousand gallons of ketchup a year. In the early 1880s, the chemist Alfred Bird invented an egg-less custard powder. Blancmange powder was invented in the 1870s and jelly crystals in the 1890s.

Lighting: Stearic candles were used from the 1830s, replacing the much shorter-lived tallow-dip candles of old.

Sanitation: In 1846, Doulton began manufacturing glazed stoneware pipes which created a revolution in metropolitan sewerage. By the late 1870s, public toilets began to appear in Europe and America. George Jennings’s famous ‘pedestal vase’ of 1884 stunned the public by its ability to wash away, as its advertisement put it, ‘ten apples and a flat sponge with a two-gallon flush’.

The telephone was invented by Alexander Graham Bell in 1863.

Dry-cleaning was invented in 1849 by the Parisian tailor Jolly-Bellin who had accidentally spilt turpentine on to a tablecloth and found that the patch it had covered had been cleared of stains. From 1866, Pullars of Perth was offering a postal two-day dry-cleaning service anywhere in the British Isles and had improved on Jolly-Bellin’s cleaning fluid with a mixture of petroleum and benzene.

Material progress accelerated still further in the twentieth century. In his English Journey (1934), J. B. Priestley observed that a new kind of England had taken shape, a country of arterial roads and bungalows, where ordinary workers read tabloid newspapers, listened to the radio, spent their leisure hours shopping and looked forward to rising incomes year by year: ‘In this England, for the first time, Jack and Jill are nearly as good as their master and mistress.’

In The Lion and the Unicorn (1941), George Orwell sketched similar facets of the Western material revolution: ‘Nearly all citizens of civilized countries now enjoy the use of good roads, germ-free water, police protection, free libraries and probably free education of a kind. To an increasing extent the rich and the poor read the same books, and they also see the same films and listen to the same radio programmes. The differences in their way of life have been diminished by the mass-production of cheap clothes and improvements in housing. The place to look for the germs of the future England is in light-industry areas and along the arterial roads. In Slough, Dagenham, Barnet, Letchworth, Hayes – everywhere, indeed, on the outskirts of great towns – the old pattern is gradually changing into something new. In those vast new wildernesses of glass and brick, there is a rather restless, culture-less life, centring round tinned food, Picture Post, the radio and the internal combustion engine.’

In the economic expansion that followed the Second World War, Western, and in particular American, consumers became the most privileged, and most harried, on the planet. Across the United States new longings were created by the development of malls, which enabled citizens to shop at all hours in climate-controlled environments. When the Southdale mall opened in Minnesota in 1950, its advertising announced that, ‘Every day will be a perfect shopping day at Southdale.’

By the 1970s, Americans were estimated to be spending more time at the mall than anywhere else – besides their workplaces and their Taj Mahals.

 

 

 

 

Status Anxiety
Alain de Botton



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