Cultural Transformation in the Consumer Society

Emergence of the Victorian Music Hall as a Popular Entertainment Industry

Essay, 2007

15 Pages




1. Understanding the New Cultural Trend: Growth of Consumerism

2. Innovations that Contributed to the Development of New Leisure

3. The Social Foundations of the New Leisure: An Urban Demand

4. A Brief History of the Music Hall as an Entertainment Industry

5. The Role of the Halls in Reflecting and Shaping the Social Identities


Works Cited


The nineteenth century society was facing revolutionary changes due to the developments in the economic field which began with the Industrial Revolution. What followed after was the rapid growth of wealth, population and free time. Prompted by the innovations in businesses and transportation, in R.J. Evans’ words, “the life of the nation was centring more and more in the towns.”1 A crucial cultural break already occurred in the eighteenth century upon the shift from an agrarian society to that of an industrialized society which could be characterized by its widespread consumerist attitude. In the nineteenth century the transformation was complete. Moreover, the historically established hierarchical structure of the Victorian society was encouraging the extravagant spending on luxuries, since the possession of them was a manifestation of status.

Eventually consumerism became a cultural trait fashioning the interests of the British society in the field of leisure as well. The focus of this essay is the emergence of the music hall, a popular mass entertainment industry, as a by- product of the urban consumer society. It was popular in the sense that it gradually encompassed a wider social spectrum, and it was a profit-orientated industry in the sense that it directly charged for the entertainment it supplied upon a large-scale demand. It developed, became widespread and exploited the leisure market it contributed to create. Most importantly it became a cultural phenomenon by offering popular forms of entertainment that expressed the mainstream social trend: consumerism

In this paper I would like to demonstrate the historical antecedents of the cultural change Britain went through in the nineteenth century as it finds its expression in the construction of a new type of urban institution: the music hall. I will scrutinize the drives that brought in its emergence as a mass entertainment industry by presenting the economic and social factors that prepared the necessary background. By relating the innovations that reshaped the Victorian population, I will try to illustrate the ground upon which this new institution was built. By giving an account of the responses from different sections of the society, I will try to establish the music hall as a product of the new urban population. After delivering a brief history of its evolution I will try to portray the great success it attained. Finally, I will analyse one of the popular entertainment forms it offered in order to understand the values it represented and how it reflected and shaped the cultural trends.

1. Understanding the New Cultural Trend: Growth of Consumerism

Eighteenth century witnessed the rise of a consumer society in parallel with the emergence of the Industrial Revolution. Neil McKendrick relates that there was “a consumer boom” that “reached revolutionary proportions”2 and expounds that “the consumer revolution was the necessary analogue to the industrial revolution, the necessary convulsion on the demand side of the equation to match the convulsion on the supply side.”3 Thus McKendrick marks the birth of a consumer society in the eighteenth century England, able to, therefore willing to afford for luxuries since possession of them was perceived as a statement of status within the society.

Conspicuous consumption, the extravagant spending on goods and services that are acquired mainly for the purpose of displaying wealth, was becoming widespread among the aspiring middle classes. Even among the upper levels of working classes there were ones who had their share in the new trend of extravagant spending on consumer goods. McKendrick observes that:

These characteristics - the closely stratified nature of English society, the striving for vertical social mobility, the emulative spending bred by social emulation, the compulsive power of fashion begotten by social competition- combined with the widespread ability to spend (offered by novel levels of prosperity) to produce an unprecedented propensity to consume: unprecedented in the depth to which it penetrated the lower reaches of society and unprecedented in its impact on the economy.4

The consumer society was to face more dramatic changes in lifestyle owing to the growing accumulation of wealth and increasing free time later on. The emerging social changes gradually covered the understanding of leisure as the consumerist attitude towards material goods was being reflected upon the means of entertainment. In the nineteenth century the society had even more buying power, a greater proportion of the population were able to satisfy their immediate needs, and had the means and time to access entertainment. By the second half of the nineteenth century music hall emerged to satisfy the new needs of the modern consumer society.

2. Innovations that Contributed to the Development of New Leisure

The Industrial revolution was the major innovation as it was the foundation stone of the urban development. Evans explains that “as the factories were largely run by steam power, the new towns grew up on the coalfields” and accordingly “a great shift in the centre of gravity of the population took place.”5 This tendency continued the rapid formation of new towns where industries were piled up and the economic activity was dense. The most immediate effect was the growth in the production of consumer goods, resulted in the aforementioned rise of the consumer population.

By the 1850s the industries had been firmly established and businesses were more efficient and prolific due to the great advances in technique and technology in almost all fields. Evans names the country at this stage as “the workshop of the world” given to the fact that “the first chaotic experimental stage of the Industrial Revolution was over, and society was beginning to form an ordered pattern.”6 This, of course meant, greater economic stability for the people indulged in urban economic activities. Moreover Evans establishes that:

Better communications, probably the most important material factor, had made an immense difference. First the canals, and the vastly improved road system, which reached its zenith in the late ’thirties, and then, suddenly, to an even greater extent, the railways, brought the farmer within reach of markets and the materials on which technical advance depended.7

The railways, first of which was introduced in 1825, according to Evans “played a bigger part than any other single factor in the building of modern society.”8 It contributed to the growth of the towns and cities, gave momentum to industries by feeding them with the required raw materials with greater speed. It also expanded the markets and increased the opportunities for trade. It fostered the consumerist attitude while raising the overall standard of living by sustaining the production, by increasing the variety of goods available in towns and cities and by creating more time and wealth to spend on leisure.

Furthermore, railways not only transported goods but people, thus bringing mobility to crowds and playing a great role in promoting their communication. According to Peter Bailey “rail travel both stimulated a general public curiosity and helped to break down regional insularities of mind and practice.”9 Another important factor contributing to “the expansion of leisure,” according to Bailey, is “the growth of the cheap press and the increase in newspaper advertising.”10


1 R. J. Evans, The Victorian Age: 1815- 1914, 2nd. ed. ( London: Edward Arnold Ltd., 1968), p. 160.

2 Neil McKendrick, John Brewer and J. H. Plumb, The Birth of a Consumer Society: The Commercialization of Eighteenth-century England (London: Hutchinson, 1982), p. 9.

3 Ibid., p. 9.

4 Ibid., p. 11.

5 Evans, op. cit., p. 5.

6 Ibid., p. 151.

7 Ibid., p. 69.

8 Ibid., p. 78.

9 Peter Bailey, Popular Culture and Performance in the Victorian City (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998), p. 16.

10 Ibid., p. 16.

Excerpt out of 15 pages


Cultural Transformation in the Consumer Society
Emergence of the Victorian Music Hall as a Popular Entertainment Industry
Humboldt-University of Berlin  (Centre for British Studies)
British History
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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503 KB
cultural, transformation, consumer, society, emergence, victorian, music, hall, popular, entertainment, industry
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Serda Brauns (Author), 2007, Cultural Transformation in the Consumer Society, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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