The Centre for International Business History

Inferring Behaviour from Household Budget Data

What forces shaped and constrained consumers’ and households’ expenditure and related behaviour before World War II? We examine key questions such as: were some workers willing to cut back on “essentials” to maintain appearances; what forms of credit were used to enable households to buy goods they couldn’t fund from that week’s wage (and how effective and efficient were they); how paid employment influenced access to resources within the household; and how firms adapted their marketing strategies to meet the requirements and realities of working-class budgeting.

  • we show that families at the bottom end of the Edwardian white-collar income spectrum demonstrated middle-class status through observable consumption, at the cost of squeezing other expenditures, including ‘necessities’, such as food. This had negative economic impacts, lowering living standards due to inefficiently high budget shares for positional goods in order to demonstrate “distinction”. For more details see.
  • we show that households made extensive use of expenditure-smoothing devices commonly ascribed to less developed economies. Families' reliance on expenditure-smoothing is shown to be inversely related to household income, while households also used these mechanisms more intensively during expenditure crisis phases of the family life cycle, especially the years immediately after new household formation. For more detail see.
  • we explore how resources were allocated within the household, using data on  discretionary leisure spending. Breadwinner–homemaker households were
  • characterised by strong power imbalances that concentrated resources—especially for individualized expenditures—in the hands of those family members who engaged in paid labour.
  • The 1930s witnessed an intense struggle between gas and electricity suppliers for the working class market, where the incumbent utility—gas—was also a reasonably efficient (and cheaper) General Purpose Technology for most domestic uses. We show that both utility providers developed strategies of credit provision and fuel tariffs that went at least some way toward meeting working-class household requirements, a process that was largely driven by competition between local gas and electricity undertakings. For more details please see.
  1. Scott, Peter and James T. Walker (2015), ‘Demonstrating distinction at “the lowest edge of the black-coated class”: the family expenditures of Edwardian railway clerks’, Business History.***
  2. Scott, Peter, James T. Walker and Peter Miskell (2014), ‘That’s Entertainment: Analysing Household Choice between Forms Entertainment and Leisure in Interwar Britain’, Economic History Review.****
  3. Scott, Peter and James T. Walker (2012), ‘That’s the Way the Money Goes: Expenditure Smoothing and Household Budgeting in Interwar Britain’, Journal of Economic History, 72(3), 797-825.***
  4. Scott, Peter and James T. Walker (2011),‘Power to the People: Working-class Demand for Household Power in 1930s Britain’, Oxford Economic Papers, 64(4), 598-624.***
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For more information please contact Valerie Woodley, International Business and Strategy School Administrator by email at or by phone on +44 (0) 118 378 7667.