Manufacturing and Selling Household Goods in Britain (1851-1914)

Manufacturing and Selling Household Goods in Britain (1851-1914)

This project was undertaken with Francesca Carnevali (University of Birmingham). The aim is to assess the impact of growing consumer demand, and foreign competition, on the production, marketing and selling of household goods in Britain in the period from the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the First World War. During the second half of the nineteenth century British consumers were able to turn their homes into Aladdin's caves filled with a wondrous range of goods. Central to the process of both growing acquisition and production were rising real incomes, the application of steam powered machines and the division of labour to what for centuries had been crafts. For this period, however, this is not a story of lowering costs thanks to mass production, but instead of the re-combination of custom and batch methods of production (specialty production) together with technology. Central to specialty production was the relationship between producers and consumers as the making of custom and batch made goods had to contend with endlessly fluctuating and complex demand.


The combination of a growing, but still very segmented market, and of increasing competition meant that manufacturers had to innovate in terms of production, marketing and selling. The fashioning of style-goods for larger and larger sections of society allowed manufacturers to expand the size of their business but only if they were able to sustain a strong connection with consumers and their changing desires. Decisions about how to organise labour, structure firms, invest in machinery, and sales methods were powerfully dominated by how much producers understood about what their customers wanted. In this process, entrepreneurial activity played a central role. This research will show how these strategies induced a process of creative destruction, whereby old ways of making things changed and technology, labour, skills and capital were recombined. So far, we have taken the case study of pianos in order to investigate the themes of the broader project.


Lucy Newton (2017) ‘”Made in England”:  Making and Selling the Piano, 1851-1914’, book chapter in People, Places and Business Cultures. Essays in Honour of Francesca Carnevali (Boydell and Brewer), pp. 127-152.

 Francesca Carnevali and Lucy Newton (2013) Pianos for the people: the manufacture, marketing and sale of pianos as consumer durables, 1850-1914. Enterprise and Society, 14 (1). pp. 37-70. ISSN 1467-2235 doi: 10.1093/es/khs042