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A Respectable Living and Women’s Work, England, 1270-1860

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This paper argues that the cost of living respectably can be measured by what it cost to board and lodge the reputable. The methodology allows for changes in the composition of consumption, the introduction of new goods, and the inclusion of the costs of the household services needed to turn commodities into livings. Over 4200 observations, drawn mainly from primary sources, trace levels and trends in board and lodging costs for Britain, 1270-1860. Used to deflate wage series, the board and lodging costs provide an alternative account of long-run trends in living standards which can be compared with conventional welfare ratios.

Over 4200 observations, drawn mainly from primary sources, trace levels and trends in board and lodging costs, taken as indicating trends in the costs of a socially and culturally defined standard of respectable living. Essentially, the paper endogenizes the materiality of respectability and reads its value from the market signals of the past. In this way the paper provides an alternative approach to the cost of living, which, while not replacing conventional indeces, accommodates changes both in the composition and kind of goods and services considered essential for decency and in the cost of the domestic labour needed to transform this changing collection of material inputs into a decorous lifestyle. In this way it circumvents the problems with Laspeyres cost of living indices relating to new goods and to shifting expectations, and simultaneously uncovers the importance of household services in living costs. Respectable living, as it evolved in terms of both the categories of goods and services included and the particular components of those categories, required more and more expensive domestic labour. While the commercialized sector of this labour has been barely recognized, the unpaid sector has been totally ignored. To the extent that domestic labour was provided unpaid by a household member it would drop out of the cost of living as conventionally measured but the board and lodging approach reveals its necessity for a respectable living. The support wage-earners afforded domestically-occupied family members was recompense for productive activity, and a legitimate charge on family earnings not a gratuitous hand-out for a non-worker. Comparisons between board and lodging costs and the costs of the respectability basket both in relation to men’s wages provide a fresh perspective on living standards. They suggest that rising expectations muted the gains implied by standard welfare ratios. Periods of convergence and divergence identify eras when new goods and services, permanently excluded from the basket, edged into respectable living as understood by aspirant forebears and became reflected in costs. This alternative history of living standards suggests that the quest for respectability through its pressure on wages contributed to the industriousness of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, and provided more work for those specialized in ‘housewifery’ whether waged or unwaged. And this raises a final more speculative point. A hedonic regression identifies the cost of the domestic labour needed to provide board and lodging of different types in different times and places, and so provides a market equivalent for the value of unpaid domestic service. Relaying these market equivalents into a full-scale computation of the historical values of unpaid domestic service would provide wholly new insight into understanding women’s contribution to economic growth and wellbeing, a vital task for the future.

This talk is part of the Core Seminar in Economic and Social History series.

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