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.
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.
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.