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: 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: 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

Economics of Downton Abbey: A Party for the Working Class

Season Five, Episode One

“When did we last have a Prime Minister who understood the working class? Never. That’s when,” says  Jimmy as the servants sit down to eat.

The formation of the Labour Government in 1924 marked an unprecedented time in Great Britain. To the upper class, it indicated that their marriage of social and political power might be crumbling. No wonder Lord Grantham was unsettled by the village offering Carson chairmanship of the committee for the new war memorial: at the local level he was being cast aside for someone who more closely understood the townspeople, and on the national front he could no longer trust the government had his interests in mind. “What worries me is that our government is committed to the destruction of people like us and everything we stand for,” he says.

Resolutely Working-class

Poster Issued by the Labour Party in 1910
Poster issued by the Labour Party in 1910, depicting the Labour Party ramming the doors of the House of Lords

Prior to the creation of the Labour Party in 1900, political (and social, and economic) power largely rested with the privileged. Indeed, membership in Parliament remained unsalaried until 1911, perpetuating the idea of membership as a gentleman’s occupation.

The working class remained a distinct social stratum in the early 20th century, separate and apart from the middle and upper classes, where perhaps lines blurred a bit more easily. For the leaders of the Labour Party, it was important to identify with workers and speak to their needs.

Leon D. Epstein (1962) argues that the working class background served as a source of pride and potentially even as an advantage for Labour MPs. This is in contrast to stories often told of people climbing the social or occupational ladder who shed their pasts to fit in. Typically those rising in the ranks make use of social and cultural capital, concepts heavily featured in academic work on social mobility. Sociologist James Coleman (1988) defines social capital as the quality and types of relationships that allow for otherwise difficult achievements. Cultural capital relates to the social assets and status of an individual (see for instance, DiMaggio 1982). It’s about who you know and how you act. Social and cultural cues are critical for integration into a group you wish to be a part of, and getting them right is hard to do. Remember when Sir Richard wore the wrong hunting tweeds in Season Three? As someone with ‘new money’ he could afford to dress to the nines, but the Crawley family – always appropriately attired thanks to their ‘old money’ upbringings – noticed when the clothes didn’t quite fit the occasion.

Continue reading Economics of Downton Abbey: A Party for the Working Class