Economics of Downton Abbey: It’s Electric

Episode Five of Downton Abbey seems to be setting the stage for several larger story lines. Mr. Napier and Mr. Blake have arrived not, as Mary initially thought, to help the landowners, but to analyze whether the sales of great estates will affect food production. And of course, there are some growing worries with Edith (pun intended).

I’m working on a more detailed post for next week to go along with the themes developing in episodes five and six. In the meantime, let’s take a quick look at technology and efficiency.

Economic Growth Through Technology

In Britain, advancements in technology developed at a rapid pace in the inter-war period, improving industry efficiency and easing household burdens. Aldcroft (1967) notes that World War I was a “sharp stimulus” for technology and modernization (p. 323). Following the war, progress continued. Through technology, industries saw increased productivity with minimal additional capital.  Technological advancements boomed primarily due to electricity. The broad transition from steam to electric power resulted in an increase in the use of electric power in industry from 25 to 66 percent across the sector between 1912 and 1930 (Aldcroft, p. 318).

In the inter-war years technological advances spread beyond major industries and moved into households, bringing many societal benefits and new ways of doing things. The use of electricity made way for a new type of night life that extended beyond house parties – dining out, heading to night clubs, and all that jazz. The mass availability of motorcars made it easier to travel. And, of course, new appliances made housework easier and faster.

Household Technology

Sewing machine manufactured in England in the 1920s
Sewing machine manufactured in England in the 1920s

This season we’ve seen Mrs. Patmore fear the worst with the thought of having a refrigerator in the house. She worries that the refrigerator, while preserving food, may not preserve her job. (However, as a cook, she’d likely be one of the last servants to go.) And Baxter’s electric sewing machine is an object of absolute fascination below stairs. I recently wrote about the first wave of sewing machines that appeared in the late 19th century – they were created with the household in mind and marketed to women as time-saving machines needed in the home. Financing was structured so that even modest households could afford one. It truly was a machine that changed the way a house was run.

Interestingly, a study by Bowden and Offer (1994) makes the argument that “time-saving” technologies for household upkeep took longer to spread to households than “time-using” technologies, like the motor car or the radio. They write, “this reflects the uneven pace of technological change, which has found it easier to increase the attractions of leisure than to reduce the burden of housework” (p. 732). They point out that time-saving technologies are not for display and do not show off status as well as leisure products. While on the whole this makes sense, I would argue that, at Downton, having a refrigerator would highlight status and position of the Crawleys. As a new technology that was not yet available or affordable for most households, I’m sure it would be brought up in dinner conversation.

Downton Abbey subtly addresses adaptation to technological developments through the changing opinions of its characters: Mrs. Patmore comes around to the idea of the sewing machine when she needs to quickly fix her hem. In Season One, Daisy was terrified to turn on the lights when cleaning out the upstairs fireplaces because she didn’t trust electricity. By Season Four she is enthusiastically using the electric mixer in the kitchen (much to the dismay of our dear Luddite, Mrs. Patmore).

I look forward to seeing what other appliances are brought into the great house.  Thoughts on technology at Downton welcome in the comments!

The blog got a boost in traffic this week through this article on The Guardian by Emma Brockes. It’s a fun read, be sure to check it out! (Here is my post that’s linked.)

And, while I was finishing up this piece, I saw a great article in the Washington Post by Steven Mufson about “Downtonomics.” It touches on technology and other economic themes of the show – worth a look.

Further Reading

Aldcroft, D. H. (1967). Growth in Britain in the Inter-War Years:  A ReassessmentThe Economic History Review, New Series, Vol. 20, No. 2, pp. 311 – 326.

Bowden S. and A. Offer. (1994). Household Appliances and the Use of Time: The United States and Britain since the 1920sThe Economic History Review, New Series, Vol. 47, No. 4, pp. 725 – 748.

Image: Sewing Machine – Straight Stitcher – Jones, 1920s. Accessed via


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