What Is a Consumer Revolution?

M. McGee

The consumer revolution describes a period in Western history where advancements in manufacturing and transport processes led to an increase in the availability and sales of a wide range of products. This period lasted from just after the European Renaissance until the early years of the Industrial Revolution. The basic concepts of modern consumerism began during these years. These concepts colored every aspect of life during these centuries and had an enormous impact on historical and cultural events.

The consumer revolution gave people more access to goods.
The consumer revolution gave people more access to goods.

This time in history was sparked by the most basic economic concept: supply and demand. Before the revolution, raw material acquisition and manufacturing processes kept the supply of all but the most basic of goods very even with demand. As a result, many potential consumers didn’t have enough money to buy the things they wanted. Essentially, the very act of wanting the product upped the demand and price so it was out of reach.

Materialists may gain satisfaction by purchasing goods that are likely to last a long period of time, such as a home.
Materialists may gain satisfaction by purchasing goods that are likely to last a long period of time, such as a home.

As technologies improved, the supply of certain products began to outstrip the demand. This led to the prices on these goods dropping to within the range of lower-income people. As these people began to exercise economic power for the first time, the increase in money flow encouraged the development of new technologies. This made more goods available, which increased money flow even more, so on until the cycle culminated in the consumer revolution.

Many of the goods that were paramount to the consumer revolution were consumables. The exploration of the Americas and increased trade with Eastern countries created a surplus of spices, tobacco and coffee. Since these items are all consumed in use, the demand never dropped even as the supply created price fluctuations. Other goods, such as cloth, furthered spending in non-consumables as well.

The consumer revolution had two main effects on society. On a cultural level, it began to reduce the separation between social classes. As more people had access to goods, the difference that once marked the ‘haves’ from the ‘have-nots’ began to lessen. This viewpoint was increased through the social aspects of coffee drinking or smoking; people of various social strata would often be in the same place, performing the same activity.

On a political level, the consumer revolution brought extreme turmoil. As the differences between social groups diminished, the common people became increasingly dissatisfied with their position in the government. All-powerful kings and an elite nobility became less of an ideal when commoners saw little difference between their ‘betters’ and themselves. The result of this friction often spilled out in the political revolutions that marked the 18th and 19th centuries.

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Discussion Comments


It's hard to believe that at one point in time, it was difficult to get things like coffee and sugar, and access to them meant that you are privileged somehow. There is often a shortage of goods during wartime but it's temporary phase. It's difficult to imagine what life would be like without access to these goods all the time.


@ddljohn-- The consumer revolution did bring social classes together but it would be far fetched to attribute political revolutions to the consumer revolution only. I'm sure that there were many other factors involved.


This is an excellent article which also mentions the effects of consumer revolution.

The issue of how money and spending ability impacts social and political structures is still discussed today. Although Europe and the Americas experienced consumer revolution in the 18th century, there are still areas of the world where people have difficulty getting goods and do not have the finances to purchase as they would like.

The idea behind some of the development projects in places like Afghanistan is not only to improve the local conditions and help people improve their lives and attain livelihood. The goal is also to help such people realize the need for equality and democracy. The discussion about this theory goes both ways. Some people argue that it is not possible to bring about democracy through financial assistance and development projects. Others argue the opposite.

But if we look at history, greater spending power does empower the people.

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