Economics of Downton Abbey: Echoes of Marx

(Season Five, Episode Seven)

Portrait of Karl Marx taken in 1875.
Portrait of Karl Marx taken in 1875.

While watching episode seven, I kept thinking about how it could be used to teach some of Karl Marx’s fundamental principles.  Marx is a polarizing figure in a lot of ways – most economists don’t think much of his economic theory – but many of his observations on inequality and exploitation retain a powerful impact. Writing in the mid-nineteenth century, Marx continues to be cited in contemporary academic works exploring issues of class, wealth accumulation, economic inequality, and labor.

There are several directions to take this analysis – Downton Abbey is a gold mine for examination of everything Marx saw wrong with capitalism – but I’ll stick with three topics that stood out in Episode Seven: labor, ruling ideas, and property. Continue reading Economics of Downton Abbey: Echoes of Marx


Economics of Downton Abbey: Not Just a Haircut

(Season Five, Episode 6)

If any are tempted to rail against modernism there is a vague, anticipatory comfort in the thought that when another half-century has passed our present surroundings will have taken on a rich stain of the antique.

…Our great-nieces will laugh, and we shall sigh, while we tell of the ancient battle of Bob and Shingle, and how bold their great-aunt felt when first she was fashionably shorn.

– The Times, September 22, 1924

In this episode of Downton Abbey – where the women seem to be finally taking charge of something, be it big or small, upstairs or down – Mary decides to chop her hair into a bob. This wasn’t a coincidence. Historian Mary Louise Roberts looks at the politics of women’s fashion, including bobbed hair, in 1920s France. She argues that the bob was interpreted as “visual fantasy” of female liberation. Mary’s decision to cut her hair resonates with this argument. Earlier in the episode Mary makes a remark that Lord Gillingham doesn’t think she can know her own mind, ostensibly because she is a woman. By chopping her hair she is outwardly asserting her independence and challenging the traditional view of a how a woman should behave.

Short hairstyles are prominent in this 1926 Vogue cover by artist Eduardo Benito
Short hairstyles are prominent in this 1926 Vogue cover by artist Eduardo Benito

Roberts writes that in France, a woman’s bob, along with her modern “boyish” dress, presented a “visual language for upheaval and change and figured in a political struggle for the redefinition of female identity” (p. 684). In Great Britain, a similar redefinition was occurring: women’s organizations were on the rise to fight for equal pay and equal franchise and young women gleefully shocked their elders through their dress and actions (Horn [1995] 2010).  As Mabel remarks in this episode, Mary seems “more than able to choose which laws to keep and which to break” – and she is doing just that. Continue reading Economics of Downton Abbey: Not Just a Haircut

Economics of Downton Abbey: Building on the Estate

(Season Five Episode Four)

First, I am so glad that Lord Grantham is supportive of Mrs. Patmore’s efforts to have Archie remembered alongside other soldiers. Even if it is prohibited, it’s a nice gesture recognizing the unfair stigma surrounding cowardice during World War I.

And now on to this week’s topic: building on the estate.

Episode Four continued the conversation about a potential housing development on the estate. A prospective builder from Leeds envisions a “whole field of houses.” The Crawleys would get a percentage of the sales, an offer worth considering. As Tom says, it’s a “lump of capital with no outlay” meaning that they would not be responsible for maintenance or upgrades.

Farmland on the Highclere Estate, where Downton Abbey is filmed.
Farmland on the Highclere Estate, where Downton Abbey is filmed.

I’ve written about estate management and land sales for seasons three and four. As landlords were considering smaller estates, the housing industry was taking off in Britain. The housing boom in the 1920s has been labeled the “backbone” of the British economic recovery by several economic historians (see Humphries 1987, p. 325). Following the war there was a housing shortage that encouraged government intervention. Municipalities were given subsidies by the government to build houses. Rising real incomes and decreased building costs also made housing more affordable. Residential construction grew throughout the 1920s, with a boom in 1927. By 1939, four million suburban homes had been built, with one million subsidized by local authorities (Hollow 2011).

Building Societies

Economic historian Jane Humphries argues not enough credit is given to the rising popularity of building societies which opened the doors of home-ownership to the working and lower-middle classes in the interwar years. Building societies helped create the savings that made it possible to own a home rather than rent. As Sir Harold Bellman – who was the chairman of the Abbey Road Building Society in the 1930s – writes in 1933, “a building society is a combination of investors and borrowers operating under a measure of Government control to promote the ideals of thrift and home-ownership” (pp. 2-3). Depositors had special protection, and the pooled funds went towards financing homes.

Participation in building societies grew rapidly in the 1920s, especially for the middle class (see Humphries 1987). In the time of Downton, 1924, the working class still had limited prospects for home-ownership; it is estimated that only about 8 or 9% of the working class owned a home in the 1920s, with this number growing more rapidly in the ’30s (Scott 2008). Continue reading Economics of Downton Abbey: Building on the Estate

Economics of Downton Abbey: War Memorials (or Sympathy Butters No Parsnips)

(Season Five, Episode Three)

The debate over the war memorial for Downton village has come up in all the episodes of Season Five thus far. I like this storyline; it represents a conversation that was happening in communities across Britain. Following the end of the Great War, people, quite naturally, wanted to commemorate the fallen soldiers in some way. The appropriate way to do so became a topic of national discussion. Debates swirled in newspapers across Britain, including the Times, with letters being written urging commemoration to take one of a variety of forms: scholarships, hospital additions, parks, or monuments, to name a few. As one Times editorial stated, “Memorials should add to the beauty of Britain and commemorate not only the soldiers but what they were fighting for: happiness.”

I highly recommend Alex King’s book, Memorials of the Great War in Britain, used here to flesh out insights about the continuing debates driving this plot line of Downton Abbey. The book’s discussion of the symbolism of and institutional influence on war memorials illuminates the many tensions and difficulties involved with creating the right kind of remembrance.

The Meaning of a Donation

The war memorials for the Great War were, for the most part, erected and paid for by local communities to commemorate local people who had been killed. While the national debate demonstrated a “uniformity of aims and attitudes” (King, p. 20), the decisions of what to do remained within each community. Public meetings were held and planning committees formed. Voluntary contributions were seen as the only appropriate way to raise funds for their creation, and community members were called upon to contribute.

Appeal for the Dover Memorial that appeared in The Times. A list of those who contributed (and the amounts) also appeared in the paper.
Appeal for the Dover Memorial that appeared in The Times. A list of those who contributed (and the amounts) also appeared in the paper.

This reminds me of Viviana A. Zelizer ‘s argument that the meaning of money and its exchange is strongly linked to the surrounding social relations and situations. In other words, a dollar is not always just a dollar (or, in the case of Downton Abbey, a pound isn’t always a pound), and money can be earmarked and valued in different ways.

With the memorials, money used for a donation was differentiated from other spending and earmarked as a way to express gratitude for soldiers’ service to their country. As King notes, a donation was seen as a concrete recognition of soldiers’ service. Participation from all classes and backgrounds was encouraged, regardless of amount, to make the memorial truly representative of the community.

Monetary donations for the creation of war memorials were socially embedded in a very public way, further adding meaning to this spending. Lists of who donated often appeared in papers and in town centers, praising those who valued the sacrifice of soldiers….and guilting those who hadn’t yet contributed. King writes that public appeals used language of “moral exhortation, local patriotism, …and even self-interest in the evasion of a future sense of guilt” (p. 32).

The intense community involvement could add a lot of pressure, and sometimes open up old wounds, as we see in Episode Three.

Continue reading Economics of Downton Abbey: War Memorials (or Sympathy Butters No Parsnips)

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