‘Anticipating affluence: Skill, judgement and the problems of aesthetic tutelage’ in Lawrence Black and Hugh Pemberton (eds), An Affluent Society? Britain's Post-War 'Golden Age' Revisited (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004). ISBN 0 7546 3528 7
The volume of essays in which this chapter appears arose from a conference called ‘Affluent Britain?’ held at the Department of Historical Studies at the University of Bristol in May 2002. The organizers, Lawrence Black and Hugh Pemberton, identified an absence in historical considerations of the term, although it had been widely deployed in the fields of sociology, political science and cultural studies. Acknowledging that affluence was ‘contested, contingent and relative’, they nevertheless sought to reconsider its value and saliency more than thirty years after Robert Skidelsky and Vernon Bogdanor coined the term for their pioneering collection The Age of Affluence, 1951-1964. The meeting brought together social, economic, political and cultural historians seeking to throw new light on, for example, the role of the state, changing popular expectations, and new consumer norms.
This forum offered an unusual and welcome opportunity to bring together elements of (ESRC funded) doctoral and (ESRC and AHRC funded) post-doctoral research to conjecture that the term 'affluence' might be used to reference a growth in the discriminatory abilities of the buying public. The idea of 'wealth' might then be extended to embrace a 'wealth of knowledge'. Using data including oral testimony from a pre-war location where refinement of choice, real and pretended, was a source of pride and satisfaction among skilled working men and their families, the paper considered issues of audience, reception, language and visual imagery through the prism of the post-war Council of Industrial Design’s consumer education work. (The Council’s archives are held at the University of Brighton).
In this way, it proposed that working-class affluence pre-dated the period with which it is most commonly associated, and suggested that the Council’s early government-sponsored educational work failed to meet the needs of its intended popular audience, less because of misplaced idealism than because of a mismatch between the language espoused in its literature and the language of technical appreciation used in the fertile terrain of the engineering industries. The work also fore-grounded the growing importance of male expertise in the realm of shopping.
As a result, a chapter following the same format was commissioned by the organizers for inclusion in a collection in Ashgate’s Modern Economic and Social History Series (Series editor, Professor Derek H Aldcroft). I particularly appreciated this opportunity to situate a study that took a strongly material culture approach alongside more mainstream social and economic accounts. The chapter also constituted the first outcome from my project within the research council funded Cultures of Consumption programme.
The book has been well received and is reviewed in English Historical Review, The Economic History Review and on EH.NET. Professor Fred Leventhal (Boston) appraised it as follows: "Illuminating essays on political culture, consumerism, industrial design, youth marketing and economic policy offer a persuasive reinterpretation of Britain’s new 'golden age'. This is a valuable scholarly addition to the literature on the period."