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Unit information: A Consumer Revolution: The Rise of Consumer Culture in Britain (Level I Lecture Response) in 2014/15

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Unit name A Consumer Revolution: The Rise of Consumer Culture in Britain (Level I Lecture Response)
Unit code HIST25004
Credit points 20
Level of study I/5
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 1 (weeks 1 - 12)
Unit director Dr. Masterson
Open unit status Open




School/department Department of History (Historical Studies)
Faculty Faculty of Arts


The consumer revolution transformed British society, inflaming tensions between the different classes and challenging gender norms. Starting in the eighteenth century, the trappings of modern consumer culture emerged: notions of ‘lifestyle’, celebrations of conspicuous consumption, ‘shopping’ as an activity, the power of advertising and the distrust of manufacturer manipulations. Using a rich array of printed sources, this unit charts the development of consumer ‘education’ from the eighteenth-century etiquette guides seeking to teach elite Georgian England everything they needed to know about from fish knives to fornication, to the nineteenth-century household management manuals for the desperately genteel middle-classes, through to the product placements of the twentieth-century that permeated all levels of society with glossy images of better lives. While exploring how consumer culture exploded in size and diversity, this unit will draw upon exciting new scholarship to focus on a series of common themes: tensions between ‘expert’ advice and user testimonies, the role of the Empire in fuelling the consumer revolution both materially and aesthetically, the impact of women’s consumption on gender roles during a period of political transformation, how fashion became the battleground between self- expression and mass market homogeny, and, finally, the enduring and divisive debate as to whether material consumption was the measure of human happiness or the source mass conflict.

Intended learning outcomes

On successful completion of this unit students will have developed: (1) a broad understanding of the ways in which the British consumer culture developed in the modern era; (2) the ability to analyse and generalise about the impact of the rise of consumerism on British society; (3) the ability to select pertinent evidence/data in order to illustrate/demonstrate more general issues and arguments; (4) the ability to derive benefit from, and contribute effectively to, large group discussion; (5) the ability to identify a particular academic interpretation, evaluate it critically, and form an individual viewpoint.

Teaching details

1 x 2-hour interactive lecture per week.

Assessment Details

1 x 3000 word essay (50%) and 1 x 2 hour exam (50%)

Reading and References

  • John Benson, The Rise of Consumer Society in Britain (New York: Longman Publishing, 1994).
  • Lorna Weatherill, Consumer Behaviour and Material Culture in Britain, 1660-1760 (New York, Rutledge, 1988).
  • Elizabeth Kowalski-Wallace, Consuming Subjects: British Women and Consumer Culture in the Eighteenth-Century (New York, Columbia University Press, 1997).
  • Brent Shannon, The Cut of His Coat, Men, Dress and Consumer Culture in Britain, 1860-1914 (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2006).
  • Catherine Hall and Sonya O. Rose (eds.) At Home with the Empire: Metropolitan Culture and the Imperial World (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2006).
  • Matthew Hilton, Consumerism in Twentieth-Century Britain: The Search for a Historical Movement (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2003).