Life by its numbers and smells

International Trade and British Economic Growth from the 18th Century to the Present Day - The People and the British Economy, 1830-1914

May 22, 1998

During the days of expansion of economic history as a school and university subject in the 1960s, the best introductions to the subject were two small books published by Oxford University Press: T. S. Ashton's The Industrial Revolution and J. D. Chambers's The Workshop of the World. They were short, lucid and immediately approachable. Ashton's classic volume has recently been reissued as an attractive paperback, and it is now complemented (as a replacement for Chambers) by Roderick Floud's book, which has many of the same virtues of clarity, accessibility and lucidity. He sets out the major problems in non-technical language and illustrates the argument with relevant statistics and an eye for striking incident and detail. Floud has a typically Victorian penchant for numbers that would have impressed even Mr Gradgrind: we learn the number of fish-and-chip shops in 1888, the number of rose varieties on sale in 1826, the gallons of beer drunk. But we also get some sense of the texture of life: the noise, the smell, the dangers of life come across. In many places, the book stinks: from the overwhelming smell from the open sewer of the Thames, which drove Disraeli from the Commons in 1858, to the "odour of the slums" from frying fish, to the stench in Poplar in 1862 from 17 factories making manure from fish and night soil, 10 boiling bones, five making varnish, and 11 producing chemicals. Clearly, the 120,000 domestic gardeners who could buy 1,393 varieties of rose from one nurseryman in 1826 were fighting a difficult battle; no wonder that the garden gnome was introduced from Germany in the 1880s.

This texture makes the book an amusing and entertaining read, which gets points across with wit and economy. It rescues economic history from the abstract impersonality of much econometric history, that drove so many students away from the subject after the 1960s. Floud is hinting at a cultural approach to the economy: not just at how much people ate, but at how they dined; not just at what was produced, but how it was consumed. Indeed, he opens with Adam Smith's maxim that "consumption is the sole end of and purpose of all production" which he feels that too many economic historians, including Chambers, ignored; they wrote about production, the combination of resources to produce the total output of the economy, but showed much less concern for how they were consumed. Perhaps Floud does not go as far as he might in pursuing the implication of Smith's remarks, for more attention is still paid to producing than consuming. Perhaps in another 30 years, the balance will have shifted still further, as more historians turn to the culture of consumption, the growth of advertising, the development of fashion or even the social history of smell. Until then, Floud's short book will surely be as successful as Chambers's in introducing students to the subject, engaging their attention and stimulating them to further reading.

One feature of Victorian Britain was that its economy became "open", with a free movement of labour, capital and goods across its boundaries. The collection of essays edited by Peter Mathias and John Davis considers the relationship between foreign trade and economic growth over the past three centuries, asking whether trade was the agent of growth or trade the product of industrial development in the first half of the period, and whether trade was the symptom or cause of decline in the second half of the period. The essays are balanced, sensible discussions by leading scholars that suggests there is no simple answer. What the volume does not explore is the sort of issue hinted at by Floud: the way in which trade changed the culture of consumption throughout the world, so that Indian textiles or Chinese porcelain prompted imitation and popularisation within Britain, and British manufactures fundamentally changed social structures among indigenous peoples in North America. The technical economic accounts of trade and economic growth can be integrated with the cultural and social histories of collisions and collusions between different material cultures, whether the impact of Birmingham guns and axes on the peoples of North America, or exotic plants and German garden gnomes on suburban England.

Martin Daunton is professor of economic history, University of Cambridge.

International Trade and British Economic Growth from the 18th Century to the Present Day

Editor - Peter Mathias and John A. Davis
ISBN - 0 631 18116 4
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £45.00
Pages - 169

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