Diets, hunger and living standards during the British industrial revolution

Emma Griffin

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Throughout the twentieth century, historians debated what happened to the living standards of ordinary men, women, and children during the British industrial revolution. But where this historical question once attracted attention from across the methodological spectrum, the past two decades have seen cultural and qualitative approaches eclipsed by statistical accounts written by economic historians. In this article, I will argue that the marginalisation of social and cultural approaches to historical living standards has been to the detriment of our understanding. Through an analysis of two discrete sources of evidence – nineteenth-century budget data and working-class autobiography – this article sheds new light on the diets and living standards of the labouring poor. It rejects the optimism/pessimism dichotomy that continues to frame quantitative analyses and presents a more nuanced account that examines how experiences varied according to region, gender and age. The article concludes that it is not only that it is possible to incorporate cultural change into our analyses of living standards, but that it is necessary to do so in order to grasp this period in all its complexity.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)71–111
Number of pages41
JournalPast and Present
Issue number1
Early online date9 Jan 2018
Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2018

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