The Evolution of Keeping Up With the Joneses, as Seen in 17th Century German Villages

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When was consumerism, in the modern sense, born? Researchers say it was at least a century before the Industrial Revolution brought cheap, mass-produced goods to the world. Hoarding, and the popularity of storage units, came a bit later.

Sheilagh Ogilvie, a University of Cambridge professor of economic history, is leading a team that is cataloguing the possessions of thousands and thousands of households in the 1600s, 1700s, and 1800s in the Württemberg region of Germany. Why? By transcribing and examining these exhaustive, hand-written lists—created originally by local officials when a marriage or death occurred—researchers seek to track the evolution of consumerism.

As a Boston Globe story featuring Ogilvie’s work put it:

When did women start buying butter and beer at the market, instead of churning or brewing at home? When does the first nutmeg grater or coffee cup appear, indicating the arrival of exotic goods? Or for that matter, when do villagers start wearing an imported cotton fabric like calico?

According to researchers, European households truly began accumulating stuff in the pre-Industrial Revolution era—the mid-1600s in wealthier countries such as England and the Netherlands, and several decades later in the less affluent regions of central Europe. In other words, just like today, the poor tended to follow the consumerist patterns first tread by the rich. In fact, the rise of consumerism pretty much created the need for the Industrial Revolution. Per the Globe story, it was the “increased consumption of luxury items that led to a desire for more income, changing people’s working habits and spurring the creation of faster, more efficient production models.”

Cheaper and faster production meant cheaper prices for goods—which in turn meant more people could afford them, which in turn meant more people saw their neighbors with these items and wanted them as well.

The concept of keeping up with the Joneses is surely much older than that, though. In a Q&A with “In Cheap We Trust” author Lauren Weber, she noted:

The phenomenon of “keeping up with the Joneses” is probably as old as the Egyptian pyramids, if not older. After all, how would it look if one pharaoh had 100 gold goblets and the next one only had 90? Like ours, early human societies used possessions as one way of measuring a person’s power and status.