Consuming Passions by Judith Flanders has to be one of the most information-dense books I have ever read. I’m used to blasting through novels in a few hours, but despite finding Consuming Passions extremely interesting, I’ve barely been able to get halfway through its 500 pages after at least a dozen hours.
The book tells the simple yet incredibly intricate story of how the Industrial Revolution changed the consumption habits of British people; from newspapers to holidays to museums to clothing. A lesser (but perhaps more commercially-savvy) author could easily have split this book into five novels; a writer for the New Yorker probably could have spun off several years’ worth of articles. I began putting in bookmarks for particularly interesting pieces of information, and eventually gave up when I realised I’d ruin it that way.
It’s essentially impossible to summarise the book, but there are a few interesting bits and pieces that I’ve pulled out:
Sophie von la Roche, in 1786, wrote to her family in Germany describing the contents of the daily papers (which she numbered in London at twenty-one). The proportion of news to advertisements and announcements was fairly standard:
“The notices in to-day’s paper run: . . .
- Plays produced at the Haymarket theatre; names of actors and actresses… following by the prices of the seats…
- Plays at the small Sadler’s Wells theatre, where to-day’s programme offers a satire on magnetism and somnambulism in particular, and where tumblers and tight-rope walkers may be seen…
- At the Royal Bush, Mr Astley’s amphitheatre; men, boys and girls in trick-riding; fireworks; short comedies and ballets…
- Bermondsey Spa, a place where firework displays are held, announces that the scaffolding has been well and strongly made.
- The royal Circus; adults and children in trick-riding, children in comedy and pantomime; Italians in dancing and buffoonery.
- Two fine large green tortoises for sale.
- A notice against some piratical printer.
- Discovery of new pills.
- Notice of maritime matters…”
This excerpt brought home a few things to me. Firstly, that people in 1786 were really very sophisticated; I’d certainly be interested in seeing a satire on magnetism and somnambulism! I’d always had this bizarre notion that people in the past were somehow slower and less intelligent than we are today; perhaps it’s because we’re trained to view the past through the perfect hindsight-enabling prism of history textbooks. I never really got a feeling of what day to day life was like in my history lessons.
Secondly, I felt vaguely sad that we know so little about life only two hundred years ago. We don’t have many sources for what newspapers were like back then, so we have to resort to summaries like this one.
Early on in the book, there’s a wonderful section describing how retailers, in the space of a few years, effectively invented all of the sales techniques we take for granted today; money-back guarantees, branded produce, paid advertisements, attack ads, puff pieces, and inertia selling.
Inertia selling caught my eye, not merely because it sounds cool and scientific, but because it’s so audacious:
[Wedgwood] pioneered inertia selling, by sending parcels of his goods – some worth as much as £70 – to aristocratic families across Europe, spending £20,000 (altogether the equivalent of several million today), and following up each parcel with a request for payment or the return of the goods. Within a couple of years he had received payment from all but three families.
Wedgwood was evidently the very master of sales, and Flanders provides this brilliant 1770 letter from him to a colleague, describing a whole host of major new selling techniques (marked in bold by Flanders, paragraph breaks by me):
Wo’d you advertise the next season as the silk mercers in Pell mell do,
- Or deliver cards at the hosues of the Nobility & Gentry, & in the City,
- Get leave to make a shew of his Majesty’s Service for a month, & ornament in the Dessert with Ornamental Ewers, flower baskets & Vases
- Or have an Auction at Cobbs room of Statues, Bassreliefs, Pictures, Tripods, Candelabrias, Lamps, Potpouris, Superb Ewers, Cisterns, Tablets Etruscan, Porphirys & other Articles not yet expos’d to sale. Make a great route of advertising this Auction, & at the same time mention our rooms in Newport St
- & have another Auction in the full season at Bath of such things as we now have on hand, just sprinkled over with a few new articles to give them an air of novelty to any of our customers who may see them there,
- Or will you trust to a new disposition of the Rooms with the new articles we shall have to put into them & a few modest puffs in the Papers from some of our friends such as I am told there has been one lately in Lloyd’s Chronicle.
Damn, this guy was sharp. No wonder we still know his name now.