Economics of Downton Abbey: Selling Heirlooms

(Season Five, Episode Eight) I have just a quick post for today, and want to touch on two things: the sale of the Piero della Francesca painting and the war memorial unveiling.

The della Francesca

We learn in this episode that Lord Grantham decides to sell the della Francesca painting to build cottages on the estate. Many landowners strapped for cash sold non-land assets, and the sale of paintings was not uncommon through the early 1900s. These sales picked up following the Great War when landowners faced even heftier taxes on their estates. By selling family heirlooms like art collections and jewelry, they hoped to avoid losing their estates entirely. Historian David Cannadine provides background to these sales in his excellent book, The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy. It’s ironic that originally these wealthy British elites had bought many of the paintings from impoverished aristocrats elsewhere in Europe. Now, paintings owned by the newly impoverished British aristocrats were being purchased by a new class of wealthy elites across the Atlantic. Between 1880 and 1930, wealthy Americans “effectively created an international art market” (p. 112). As they were looking to buy art, the British elite needed to sell it.  It appears that Lord Grantham will avoid a recurrence of his past financial missteps and is jumping into the art market with spectacular timing. After World War I, art prices soared “higher than ever before” (p. 115), and Cannadine cites prices for artwork from estates that in many cases reached hundreds of thousands of pounds.  Some families, who regarded these heirlooms as sacred, found the (financially necessary) break-up of their art collections painful. Others, however, were happy to have the cash. It seems like Lord Grantham falls somewhere in the middle, and he views the sale of  the della Francesca “for a purpose” as honoring his father’s idea of estate management.

A Memorial for Archie

Finally, a word on Archie, Mrs. Patmore’s nephew who was shot for cowardice. I wrote about the stigma surrounding cowardice in episode three. At the end of this episode, we see Archie recognized at the unveiling of the war memorial. However, even with Lord Grantham’s kind and meaningful gesture, the stigma cannot quite be erased. Archie was honored publicly but without mention of how or why he died, and his name did not join those of the other soldiers on the main memorial. The underlying “separateness” is hard to miss.

Further Reading

For anyone interested in the British aristocracy and the economic and social change that took place in Britain at the turn of the century, I highly recommend Cannadine’s book. In particular, reading this book while watching Downton Abbey adds nuance and perspective to what we see on the show. As Cannadine writes in the preface, “For those Americans whose image of Britain is primarily derived from such television programs as Mystery and Masterpiece Theater, who believe that the British aristocracy has always consisted of comic and lovable eccentrics, and who regret the abolition of titles and aristocracy in their native land, this book may contain some shocks and surprises.”

Cannadine, D. [1990] 1999. The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy. Vintage Books: New York, New York.


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: A Place for Ms. Bunting

Sarah Bunting
Sarah Bunting, played by actress Daisy Lewis, on Season Five of Downton Abbey

(Season Five, Episode Five)

On Episode Five we watch Sarah Bunting say her goodbyes. A polarizing figure in the Downton universe, she deserves her own post for her final appearance on the show. So today, I’m making my case for her to join a teachers’ union.

First, a little background: In the 1920s women’s employment opportunities rested in a narrow band of job options.Ms. Bunting was one of the lucky women who made it into the professional ranks. The majority of women worked in the service industry – mainly in domestic service – and those lucky enough to join professional fields were pushed toward “caring positions;” 90% of female professionals worked as teachers, nurses and midwives (Horn 2010 [1995]).   Continue reading Economics of Downton Abbey: A Place for Ms. Bunting

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