Consumer society in the modern sense did not exist before the industrial revolution, and the middle and upper class women who patronized the shopping and entertainment district in the West End of London from 1860-1914 were in the vanguard of the capitalist consumer culture. Erika Rappaport avoided either celebrating this culture or condemning, but attempted to illustrate its origins within the nexus of revolutions in manufacturing, retailing, transportation and class relations that took place in the world's first industrialized society. Ideally, of course, the proper and 'respectable' role for bourgeois women in the Victorian period was that of wives and mothers, while men controlled the public sphere of business, the professions and politics. Women who ventured into the public sphere, even as consumers and pleasure-seekers, seemed to be straying outside of their expected domestic sphere, even if not as radically so as the suffragettes who smashed the shop windows in the West End in 1912 and fought openly with the police. By the standards of the time, of course, this was absolutely shocking behavior for 'ladies', and the police had trouble distinguishing them from the common 'women' of the streets, whose treatment had never been so genteel. Indeed, this window smashing was yet more evidence that some women were not prepared to accept their assigned roles as wives, mothers and passive consumers, and they used the networks of clubs, cafes, educational institutions and theaters to organize for women's rights. As other historians like Eric Hobsbawm and Harold Perkin pointed out, the number of middle and upper class consumers in Victorian Britain was never large -- perhaps only 20% of the population -- and even though wages and living standards rose in the 19th Century, the majority of the population remained at or below subsistence level. A true middle class consumer society did not exist anywhere before 1945. In spite of this, Britain moved in the direction of greater political democracy in the 19th Century, particularly after 1867 when the elites were certain that the working class was no longer revolutionary and socialistic as it had been during the mass protests in favor of the People's Charter in the 1830s and 1840s.
By the 1860s and 1870s, London's West End had already become Britain's most fashionable shopping and entertainment districts in the world, attracting consumers from all over the country as well as tourists from abroad. A typical West End shopper was "invariably envisioned as a wealthy woman," and for those of their class who cared about fashion, the West End was the center of pleasure and diversion (Rappaport 4). Victorians had developed a new ethos of "bourgeois femininity" for middle and upper class women that isolated them in the private, domestic sphere, but the shopper and public pleasure seeker seemed to violate these unwritten rules and longed for "goods, lights, and public life" (Rappaport 5). None of this existed before industrialization, but manufacturers and retailers soon realized that women had become the primary consumers in the family, while advertisers have known this for as long as there has been advertising. Governments in both world wars also understood this perfectly well, which is why their public relations work on the need for rationing, conservation and recycling centered on women. Capitalist merchandizing in the West End was designed to appeal to female consumers, and women shoppers also visited clubs, theaters, and restaurants in addition to buying clothes, furniture and other luxury goods.
Shopping in the modern sense did not exist before the Industrial Revolution, which was also a revolution in transportation, family life and the use of public space. Promoting consumption was essential for commercial and industrial capitalism, and this required making appeals to married women who were supposed to "remain apart from the market, politics, and public space" (Rappaport 6). Women in the 19th Century were also becoming increasingly interested in the educational and employment opportunities in the growing cities, as well as work with local governments, joining clubs and charitable organizations, and reform and feminist politics. By the 1860s, the City of London was already associated with the 'masculine' world of trade, insurance and finance, while the East End meant the poor and the working class, and the West End with 'feminine' pleasures and consumption. West End streets and neighborhoods like the Strand, Oxford Street, Piccadilly, and the Burlington Arcade "became famous for having some of the most sumptuous boutiques, innovative stores, and pleasurable amusements in Europe" (Rappaport 8). England's gentry and nobility had townhouses there in Mayfair and Belgravia, and these were the largest consumers of luxury goods and entertainment. Bankers, merchants and industrialists also moved into these areas in the 19th Century, while Regent Street was the home to royalty as well as the "epicenter of the West End shopping district" (Rappaport 9). Foreign tourists, provincial capitalists as well as the wealthy London commercial and professional classes all patronized the West End as well, and the shops also had plenty of items that would appeal to men. Langham Place was the center of the feminist movement in Victorian Britain, and new, American-style department stores opened there as well.
Historians have written extensively about the supposed commercial revolution of the 17th and 18th Centuries, but far less about the rising consumer society of the 19th Century. Retailing changed greatly in the 19th Century from traditional country fairs and public markets to "fixed shops and fixed prices, and a greater emphasis on visual appeal" (Rappaport 12). Both the Left and Right have criticized mass consumption and passive consumers as part of the decline of the rational public sphere in modern times. Rappaport found that similar discussions and debates were already occurring in the Victorian period, and in fact are a standard feature of modernity. She did not find "a binary opposition between an active male producer and a passive female consumer," since even in the 19th Century the image of the female consumer as a "victim or an emancipated woman" was already hotly contented ground (Rappaport 13). Rappaport did not attempt to enter the debate on either side, but attempted to describe how gender was constructed in a given historical context. She examined all facets of female consumption in the West End, including credit, transportation, women's clubs and newspapers, the audiences of plays and musical comedies, and the development of department stores. Suffragettes smashed the shop windows in the West End in 1912, but up to World War I "bourgeois women's role in the city was most clearly that of shopper and pleasure seeker" (Rappaport 221). In fact, more 'respectable' women feared to be associated with these actions and retailers feared the loss of their business. For the police and government officials, "there had long been a confusion about how to identify shoppers, prostitutes and feminist activists" in the West End, and the suffragettes took full advantage of that confusion (Rappaport 216). Like protesters of the past and the present, they understood that the economic and political power concentrated in the West End would ensure that their demands would be noticed. Middle and upper class women who patronized the clubs, shops and theaters of the West End became the nucleus of Britain's feminist movement, meeting in cafes and restaurants there, and using modern methods of mass advertising to broaden their appeal.
Real incomes increased 400% in Britain during the 19th Century, especially for the middle and upper classes, but in 1848 only 1.18% of the population made more than 200 pounds per years, about the same percentage as 1867. In 1801-67, there was "a shift in income distribution toward the rich and the well-to-do," while working class wages actuirally declined in 1820-40 (Perkin 110). From 1790 to 1850, new classes also came into existence for the first time in history, and had to learn "their new relationship with each other" (Perkin 113). Eric Hobsbawm also cautioned against exaggerating the size of Victorian Britain's middle class or the level of consumption that the majority of people were able to sustain. In 1867, over 75% of the population consisted of manual workers and wage laborers, with only about 500,000 of these in craft or skilled worker unions (Hobsbawm 132). In 1871, there were only about 100,000 clerks and white-collar workers, although middle class suburbs began to emerge in the 1870s. Small shopkeepers and skilled workers mostly still lived in working class areas, although they were able to spend more on watches, clothing, pianos and other consumer goods than the unskilled. In 1865-66, about 200,000 families had incomes over 300 pounds, while 42,000 earned between 1-5,000 pounds and just 7,500 had incomes over 5,000 pounds, which was "very substantial wealth in those days" (Hobsbawm 134).
Early industrial entrepreneurs like Robert Owen and Richard Awkwright made enormous fortunes in a very short time, when the competition was still very thin. Free trade and laissez faire economics were dominant from the 1830s until the rise of the Labour Party in the 1880s and 1890s and the Conservative shift to protectionism and imperial…