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). Continue reading Economics of Downton Abbey: Financing a Wireless


Raise a Toast to…Champagne!

New Year’s Eve celebrations are all about traditions: champagne toasts, black-eyed peas, lofty resolutions that will (in my case) be abandoned by February. Champagne is synonymous with this and other celebrations, thanks in part to marketing tactics used by French wine merchants 150 years ago.

In the 19th century, wine was a finicky commodity. Champagne perhaps more so: it wasn’t until 1837 that Andre Francois figured out the appropriate amount of sugar for fermentation  to prevent a flat wine or an exploding bottle (Simpson, 2004).  Quality varied greatly. A bad year, or even a few lower quality grapes could ruin a wine. Infestations of phylloxera wiped out vines in the late 19th century, ruining entire vintages  and devastating regional wine production in France – the Champagne region included (Campbell, 2006). Simpson notes that there were few economies of scale in wine production: increased sales did not translate to lower production costs per unit.

Thus, it is perhaps not surprising that champagne marketing focused on things that could be controlled: the name, the brands, and high society connections. Négociants (wine merchants) for champagne cultivated elite buyers to become devoted consumers and attempted to attract new clients from the growing middle class in France and abroad.

Continue reading Raise a Toast to…Champagne!