Economics of Downton Abbey: Financing a Wireless

Season Five, Episode Two

This week Downton was abuzz with talk of the wireless. They set up a wireless at Downton and we hear the first broadcast speech by King George V at the opening of the 1924 British Empire Exhibit. The exhibit was a tribute to modern scientific achievements. Having the King deliver a speech over the wireless while at the event was, as one Times reporter wrote, “another marvel of modern science which helps to knit the Empire together.”

The wireless had potential for people of all backgrounds to come together to listen. As the Times noted after the event, “More wonderful still was to think that even while we who were present were hearing [the speech]…it was being heard…all over London, the United Kingdom, and the Empire.”

Header from the first issue of the Radio Times, September 28, 1923.
Header from the first issue of The Radio Times, September 28, 1923.

At the time of the King’s broadcast, the use of the wireless for entertainment was just taking off. The BBC formed in 1922 and, as Rose notes, broadcasts were improving in clarity and quality. Bowden and Offer (1994) note that the need for a radio quickly became seen as “imperative” (p. 735). With even this small snippet of Downton Abbey showing the discussion surrounding the King’s speech on April 24, it is easy to see why. If the King is supporting the wireless, so must the Crawleys…and all of Britain.

Diffusion of the Home Wireless

The home radio became the first entertainment consumer durable that penetrated the majority of households, regardless of class (Todd 2005). Bowden and Offer argue that this is due in part to the idea of the home wireless as a “status display.” Unlike other durables, like washing machines or vacuums, the radio (and later, the television) is on display for visitors and has important implications for the social standing of the household. Furthermore, as Bowden and Offer note, “as the medium became a staple of discourse…access to a radio…was required to avoid social exclusion” (p.740).

Diffusion studies, which track the spread of an innovation through a population, are used to gain insight to societies through examination of responses to and implementation of the innovation.  One of the most interesting things about the wireless is that home radios began to fill houses all over England, regardless of economic background. Compared to the diffusion of other home appliances, the diffusion of the wireless was rapid – within 10 years, fifty percent of British households owned a radio. The vacuum cleaner, on the other hand, took 40 years to get to that level of penetration in England and Wales (Bowden and Offer, 1994).

Financing a Wireless Purchase

By examining its diffusion, Bowden and Offer find that the wireless was fairly insensitive to price and income. Radios were expensive, but that didn’t stop people. Purchasing on credit had been around for a while – since Singer popularized it as a way to finance home sewing machines – but the 1920s saw a big rise in hire purchases, a form of installment credit where the durable was technically rented until the final payment was made. Hire purchase credit contracts expanded from two million in 1924 to almost seven million by 1937 (Scott 2002).

The system, heavily used by working-class and lower middle-class families for durables including the wireless, could be expensive and at times exploitative with high interest rates and predatory practices. Business historian Peter M. Scott examines the social history of hire purchases, and it is pretty grim. As Scott and Walker (2012) write, the idea of “affordability” was maintained by extending the repayment period (and accruing even more interest), even when people were in over their heads. The practice went unregulated until legislation passed in 1938.

To make things even worse, purchasing unnecessary luxuries on credit – or “’being furnished on the hire’” as one complainant called it – was frowned upon (Scott 2002, p. 208). Being found out could potentially ruin the social standing people worked so hard to gain through the purchases. Thus, the social stigma around using hire purchases made people keep them secret. When swindled, people were reluctant to admit they had been doing it in the first place and couldn’t warn friends to avoid certain dealers. The predatory nature of the practice only grew through this secrecy.

All the same, the hire purchase provided access to otherwise unaffordable consumer items that were socially imperative.  In the case of the radio, even though its costs well-exceeded savings for some families, social status could be maintained – or propped up – by having one, so people took the risk. While the Crawleys could buy their wireless outright following their trial run, many residents in Downton village would need to use a hire purchase.

Further Reading

Bowden, S. and A. Offer. 1994. Household Appliances and the Use of Time: The United States and Britain since the 1920s. The Economic History Review 47(4), pp. 725 – 748.

Scott, P. M. 2002. The Twilight of the Interwar British Hire Purchase. Past and Present 177, pp. 195-225.

Scott, P. M. and J. Walker. 2012. Working-Class Household Consumption Smoothing in Interwar Britain.  The Journal of Economic History 72(3), pp. 797 – 825.

Times [London, England]. 24 Apr. 1924. “The King’s Speech.” p. 14. The Times Digital Archive. Accessed on January 10, 2015.

Times [London, England]. 24 Apr. 1924. “The Unseen Audience.”  p. 17. The Times Digital Archive. Accessed on January 11, 2015.

Todd, S. 2005. Young Women, Work, and Leisure in Interwar Britain. The Historical Journal 48(3), pp. 789 – 809.

Image: The header of the first issue of The Radio Times, via BBC.co.uk. Retrieved January 12, 2015.

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