The Industrial Revolution and Patterns of Consumption

“Bridgewater Foundary” in 1839. One of the earliest factories during the Industrial Revolution. Retrieved via wikimedia.1

The Industrial Revolution was a time of major change and adaptation.


There are many aspects in history books about Britain that make us perceive it as a great country, it was the occurrence of the Industrial Revolution that set them apart from other European countries. This was a period of time of rapid development, which led to several significant socioeconomic changes. One aspect of life that was heavily impacted by the Revolution was the consumption patterns of citizens; which can be defined as the use of goods and services by an individual. Incomes increased, leading consumers to drastically change what they bought on a daily basis. Below, we will explore specific aspects of consumption and how they were affected as a result of Great Britain’s Industrial Revolution.



In order to understand the rise or fall in consumption we first need to look at the wages that workers earned during the Industrial Revolution. It can be assumed that if the amount workers made increased during this time, then consumption should simultaneously increase as well.  Some historians, however, believe that the real wages did not increase even though production increased. This side is arguing that although production went up, the money increase from those increased productions did not make its way into the the pockets of all the workers and in turn, not benefiting their real wages.   The “real wages”, which are the wages that have been adjusted for inflation, are the ones we will be focusing on. It is these numbers that will give us the most accurate representation of how wages impacted consumption.

Real Wages Increasing

GDP Per Capita [Gross Domestic Product in comparison with other countries during the Industrial Revolution]. (n.d.). Retrieved May 06, 2016.2

According to Nicholas Crafts and Terrance Mills, from 1840-1910 the real wages almost doubled. This is a result of such high productivity rates in the factories that formed throughout the Industrial Revolution. This relationship can be seen through both the Gross Domestic Product  graph  and the Productivity graph.

“Impact of the Industrial Revolution and the Textile Industry.” Textile Industry. Industrial Revolutions in Britain, 17 Feb. 2012. Web. 20 Apr. 2016.3

When looking at the productivity chart, notice when the greatest gain is. (1850-1870). This growth in productivity of the output of English cotton spinning and weaving directly correlates to a rise on the Real Wages graph. This increase in productivity results in more products being sold. More products being sold ties directly to having more cash flow which means higher wages for the employees.

Real Wages Decreasing

Isambard Kingdom Brunel Preparing the Launch of ‘The Great Eastern by Robert Howlett Crop.jpg. April 4, 2014.

On the other hand, there is also data that suggests the complete opposite of an increase in real wages. Eric J. Hobsbawm published a book titled “Industry and Empire,” in this book he discusses the Industrial Revolution from 1750-1850. Hobsbawm argues that “there is no dispute about certain classes of population whose conditions undoubtedly deteriorated” when referring mainly to Agricultural Laborers (1 million in 1851).  With all of the technical progress taking place at such a rapid rate, a decline in occupations is inevitable. Eric continues to explain that “between 1805 and 1833 wages fell from 23 shillings a week to 6 shillings per week”.  This decrease in real wages is actually a result of increased productivity. Productivity that results from new technology, not new labor.4

Isambard Brunel, one of the greatest figures coming from the Industrial Revolution, was a British engineer who focused his talents in the building of railways and ships.5 Pictured in the bottom left picture is Brunel at a London shipyard at the launching of his 700 ft. ship named the “Great Eastern” that holds nearly 4,000 passengers. A truly revolutionary design for this era, however this ship comes at a price. In the picture to the right look at the many workers who seemingly slave away in dangerous working conditions in the building of the Great Eastern circa 1852.

Great Eastern Launch Attempt.jpg. April 5, 2005.

Eric J. Hobsbawm tells us that Brunel and entrepreneurs just like him were forced to “press even more harshly on their labor” to meet the demands during this Industrial time period. It should be noted that the success of men like Brunel came from the backs of laborers such as the ones pictured in the shipyards.

When looking at both sides of the argument of whether or not real wages increased during the Industrial Revolution, it should be taken into account that  F.W. Botham and E.H. Hunt collaborated to write “the Economic History Review” . This is an article  that focuses on wages in Britain during the Industrialization. They explain that “…better wage data would enable comparison of the demographic experiences of counties or parishes with different wage trends…”6

Household Impact

Grimm, Samuel. Mansfield Mill. 1773. The British Library, London.

Since workers’ wages were effected during this time, this led to a drastic change in every aspect of their lives. Industrialization is the product of technological advancements triggered by population growth. Increased middle and upper class incomes during this time were due to increase in the efficiency of agriculture, cheap labor due to an increased population, and the redistribution of income towards property owners. This intensified income inequality and increased the demand for manufactured goods.7

No matter which side of the argument you are on as to whether wages increased or decreased, wages and income were a major part of everyday life for citizens. Many working-class households spent three-quarters of their income on food alone during the end of the eighteenth century. In the beginning of the nineteenth century it dropped to two-thirds of total income. Laborers spent six-sevenths of their income on necessities.

Paying rent was almost universal after 1800 and rent increased for most workers. This fact supports the claim of redistribution of income to property owners.  For those who could collect their own firewood, and for miners and agricultural workers who received free coal, fuel expenses were much smaller.  However, other industrial workers had higher fuel expenses.

Those who lived in more urban areas did not have the opportunity to rely on self-provisioning, like those who resided in rural areas did. Rural families could keep livestock to live off of, grow potatoes, and make their own beer.  This helped cut down on necessity expenses, however, it gave families very little surplus income.8

Transportation and Consumption

Transportation played a key role in the change of consumption patterns.  After the invention of the steam engine in 1785, manufacturers could ship their products in a much more efficient and convenient way. Before the Industrial Revolution, most products were shipped to port towns. Port towns are towns that are on the coast or on a river. Many of the products that the ships would bring in would be sold in that town. It was very difficult for people at the time to transport products in bulk over land.  The steam engine allowed for the transportation of products to go more inland via train. Shops were being set up in more inland cities, which exposed more local consumers to the cheap products that were being made at this time.9

Transportation before the Industrial Revolution was mainly done by walking, carriage, canal boat, or horseback. People who had higher income were usually the ones who got to use the carriages and/or horses, resulting in others to travel by foot. However, the Industrial Revolution was able to successfully change this aspect of life. There were immense amounts of technological advances in transportation with the steam engine and the railroad. These two systems of transportation created a cheaper and quicker way to travel on land. This allowed for people to travel into the bigger cities where they could buy products that might not be available in their village. People at the time could also travel to other countries. This expanded their purchasing variety even further by allowing consumers to purchase goods foreign to their country. This included products such as food, clothing, or raw materials. Consumption was forever changed once buyers were able to obtain products from outside of their town and even their country.10

How Consumption Patterns of Food Were Impacted

Bridge, Albert. Steam Train Ardee. Photograph. Geograph. Accessed April 29, 2016.

What is one thing that everyone has to buy? Food, of course! This was no different in the 1700s and 1800s. As stated previously, consumers spent a majority of their income on necessities such as food. However, even though most of their income was spent on food, consumers did not have much to income to spend to begin with. This left lower class families with inadequate diets and nutrition. Prior to major transportation systems, families were restricted to buying their food locally. Items such as meat and dairy were scarce and a rarity for lower class families. It was common for families to experience famines within their towns. Widespread famines led to people not getting enough calorie intake and also getting sick.  Before industrialization took place, this type of lifestyle was common among many citizens.11

During the 1700s, newly developed agricultural systems significantly increased the amount of food consumers could buy. Larger amounts of crops could be produced, offering more amount and variety to consumers. Certain areas of Britain specialized in the creation of products. For example, south-eastern England specialized in grain. As previously discussed, transportation was one of the several aspects improved upon during the Industrial Revolution which allowed for these areas to distribute their specialized food. When transportation networks were invented, this allowed for food products to be distributed more evenly among the lower classes. This went hand in hand with an increase in wages. With higher wages, consumers with lower class status were now able to purchase foods from different areas and of higher quality.  An everyday task such as buying food was one of the many aspects of life heavily impacted on from the advancements during the Industrial Revolution.12

The Impact of Available Goods on Consumption

Industrialization led to increased amounts of goods produced.  During the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, England imported a kind of cloth from India called calico.  These were very popular with upper and middle class ladies for clothes and home furnishings, such as curtains and upholstery.

The introduction of new industrial machinery allowed British cloth makers to make imitation calicoes at a higher volume than previously produced. Instead of using a printing press, or block printing the cloth a yard or two at a time, the cylinder press allowed the cloth to run through printing continually.  Production was now measured in miles of cloth produced, instead of yards produced.13

An engraving showing cloth rolling through the printer.15

Now that cloth is being produced at a high volume, who buys all that cloth?  Although imported calicoes were originally popular with the upper class, domestic calicoes were produced in such volume that the price dropped to become affordable to the laboring classes, who coincidentally had extra money to burn from their new, higher wage, factory jobs.  By the mid nineteenth century, the working class had the highest amount of consumers purchasing calicoes. This is just one example of how working classes were now able to obtain a wider variety of products including higher end “luxury” items as a result of the industrial revolution.14

The Industrial Revolution was a time of major change and adaptation for citizens in Great Britain. Consumption patterns were just one of the many aspects of life that were altered during this time. These alterations led citizens to drastically change their life and what they were able to buy. Changes such as these were monumental during that time, and their significance is still recognized today. The Industrial Revolution in Great Britain set the stage for what would become a heavily industrialized world that we live in today. Just think, how would you be able to buy items from other areas and of differing quality if it wasn’t for the Industrial Revolution?


  1. Bridgewater Foundary. 1839. Photograph. Accessed April 15, 2016.
  2. GDP Per Capita [Gross Domestic Product in comparison with other countries during the Industrial Revolution]. (n.d.) date accessed May 6, 2016,
  3. “Impact of the Industrial Revolution and the Textile Industry.” Textile Industry. Industrial Revolutions in Britain, date accessed 20 Apr. 2016,
  4. Eric Hobsbawm, Industry and Empire: The Birth of the Industrial Revolution (New York: The New Press, 1999), 70-71.
  5. “Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806 – 1859),” date accessed April 5, 2016,,
  6. F. W. Botham and E. H. Hunt, “Wages In Britain During the Industrial Revolution.” The Economic History Review 40:3 (1987): 380–399.
  7. Samuel Grimm. Mansfield Mill. 1773. The British Library, London.
  8. Sara Horrell, “Home Demand and British Industrialization,” The Journal of Economic History 56:3 (1996): 561-604.
  9. Lewis Hackett, “Industrial Revolution.” International World History Project, last modified 1992,
  10. New World Encyclopedia contributors, “Industrial Revolution,” New World Encyclopedia, date accessed April 10, 2016, (accessed April 10, 2016).
  11. John Komlos, “The New World’s Contribution to Food Consumption during the Industrial Revolution.” The Journal of European Economic History 27:1 (1998): 67-82.
  12. Catherine Eagleton and Artemis Manolopoulou, eds. “The Industrial Revolution and the Changing Face of Britain,” British Museum, last modified 2010,
  13. Lara Kriegel “Culture and the Copy: Calico, Capitalism, and Design Copyright in Early Victorian Britain”. Journal of British Studies 43:2 (1994): 233–65.
  14. Ibid.
  15. George Routledge, ed. The Pictorial History of the County of Lancaster (London: Manning and Mason, 1844), 62. Accessed March 29, 2016,

Originally published by Foundations of Western Culture, University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license.



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