Standards of Living

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Norman J. G. Pounds

A century ago a Polish peasant, who had been born a serf under Russian rule, wrote an account of his life. "About 1870," he wrote, "the peasants began to build proper brick chimneys, when the iron cooking stove came in, which [is] used everywhere in the kitchens." This simple innovation clearly made a great impression on him. It facilitated cooking, made his kitchen more comfortable, and marked a sharp improvement in his standard of living. Thus it has always been. Small increments, resulting from innovations made by unknown people, have been adopted and diffused. Individually they have been small; in the aggregate they have amounted to a series of revolutions.

The concept of standard of living is difficult to define and impossible to measure with any degree of precision. So many factors influence it, and those which seem favorable or unfavorable to one person might have the opposite effect on another. Standards of living are relative; they admit of no absolute measure, and comparisons between those of one society or community and those of another are always difficult and sometimes impossible. For any one person a satisfactory standard of living is that which he or she has come to expect. It is generally recognized that some people enjoy a higher and some a lower standard of living. There was a time when people were urged to be content with the lot which God had ordained for them. Now most people expect, or at least hope, that the human condition will, with or without their efforts, improve in the course of time.

The level of one's disposable income sets an upper limit to one's standard of living, and within the limits thus set there is an immense range of choices, so that, in effect, one "good" may be exchanged for another. The smaller the disposable income, the more restricted is this range of choice, and, at the very lowest levels, income covers only the barest necessities. An income below this level would, theoretically at least, fail to sustain life.

Standards of living are generally conceived or measured in terms of material things which one uses or enjoys. These range from things which are essential to maintain life to those which, however desirable they might appear, can nevertheless be dispensed with. Briefly stated, they can be said to fall into five categories: food and drink; housing; tools, appliances, and domestic equipment; entertainment and intellectual pursuits, including art; and, lastly, the satisfaction derived from parks and gardens and public buildings. Some of these "goods" are measurable. The possession of a television or a dishwasher or a bathroom is thus used to measure and compare standards of living, and for this reason questions are often asked about them in the decennial censuses. They measure current improvements. Lastly, the level of education, as well as physical and mental health and all the factors which influence bodily fitness, must be considered. In these spheres the progress made during the last century dwarfs all that had been accomplished during the whole preceding period of human history.

A key confusion about standards of living in early modern Europe involves the concept of a subsistence economy. Most peasants, who made up the bulk of the population, did produce most of what they consumed locally. But this did not mean, except for years of harvest failure, that all were confined to the barest survival. Some peasants had a wider margin, in terms of foods, festival clothing, and the like. Indeed, festivals themselves involved considerable village expenditure, and they were frequent occasions in many parts of Europe.

Further, standards of living clearly improved for many rural and urban west Europeans in the early modern centuries. Although a minority of propertyless people may have suffered deteriorating standards. This showed in better furnishings, new diet items like sugar and tea, and so on. By the eighteenth century, a full-fledged consumer society began to emerge, with eager attention to new clothing styles, manufactured china and other home items, clocks and watches, and so on. The definition of an appropriate standard of living was changing before the onset of industrialization throughout western Europe.


Health and life expectancy are major factors considered by historians in discussing standards of living. Both underwent a profound change during the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Life expectancy has increased, and certain causes of death have been virtually eliminated in the more developed countries. At the beginning of the modern period life expectancy at birth varied but averaged little more than thirty years. The death rate was especially high among children, and all ages suffered high rates of death from epidemic diseases, many of them induced by environmental conditions.

The plague, which had first appeared in Europe in the mid-fourteenth century, remained virulent for more than three centuries. Its last appearance in England was in 1665 and in France in 1720, but it remained endemic in the Balkans into the nineteenth century, and the Habsburg empire did not terminate its quarantine regulations against the Ottomans until the 1870s. The vector of the plague was the symbiotic relationship of the flea and the black rat. This nexus could be broken only by an improvement in living conditions which destroyed or at least reduced the rat population. It is a measure of relative living standards within Europe that the plague disappeared from the west more than a century before it vanished in eastern Europe.

Other epidemic diseases which were environmentally determined were typhus and cholera, both of which ravaged society, especially in the crowded environments of congested cities. The vector of typhus was the body louse, which was able to multiply in the crowded, insanitary conditions of prisons and barracks—hence its alternative names, "jail" and "trench" fever. Both were eliminated only by more sanitary conditions and a liberal use of soap in personal hygiene and the laundering of clothes. Cholera was a latecomer on the European scene, though it had long been endemic in Asia. It was spread through polluted drinking water. It probably reached Europe first in the ships of Asian traders, but did not spread widely before the 1830s. Its spread was closely linked with the practice of taking water from underground sources which had been contaminated by sewage overflowing from cesspits. It was not wholly eliminated until a piped water supply, drawn from rural reservoirs, became available and a more effective system of sewers had been constructed.

Because the nature and source of disease were not understood before the later nineteenth century, there was little inducement to separate sewage disposal from the domestic water. Recurring epidemics of waterborne diseases were a fact of life. It was not until 1854 that John Snow, a London physician, plotted occurrences of cholera on a map and found that they clustered around a well in Soho, which supplied the neighborhood with water for drinking. The well was closed and the miniepidemic ceased. It was thus learned empirically that polluted water was likely to spread disease. But improvements came very slowly because the nature of pathogens was not determined until late in the century. The last severe outbreak of cholera from polluted water was in Hamburg, Germany, in 1890.

Other diseases both impaired the quality and reduced the duration of life, among them smallpox and a range of intestinal disorders. These have, at least in the more developed countries, been reduced to insignificance by developments in medical science and improvements in the environment. The medical advances of the last century and a half, which include the development of hospital design and management and the use of antiseptics and anesthetics, have together revolutionized both surgery and medical practice.


Nothing illustrates better than diet the components of a standard of living. The level of calorie and protein intake essential for the performance of bodily functions varies between individuals and also depends to some extent on climate and the type of work to which a person is accustomed. Great physical exertion and a cold climate both demand a greater food intake. A good or high standard of living demands a diet considerably above the physiological minimum. In most developed countries a consumption of at least two thousand calories a day can be considered adequate, but a truly satisfactory diet also requires a certain volume of protein and specific vitamins. An adequate diet might consist of tasteless or unpalatable foods, but a good standard requires that more appetizing foods be substituted for those that merely satisfy one's biological needs. Eating becomes more than a physiological necessity; it is a pleasurable pursuit. A highstandard diet is marked by the consumption of a higher quality of food, inevitably at a greater cost. If the means are present to pay for them, the consumption of meat and other high-order proteins is likely to increase beyond one's physiological needs—sometimes with deleterious medical consequences.

In most societies there are occasions during the year when people indulge in excessive feasting. These convivial occasions can be regarded as part of the entertainment in which society at large participates. Some are celebratory, even religious, but among them are those which have an economic basis. In earlier European societies one year's harvest was expected to supply sufficient food to last until the next. As supplies one by one became exhausted, so a final, ceremonial eating marked the exhaustion of a particular comestible. Simnel cakes, a traditional Easter or springtime food in parts of Europe, marked the exhaustion of the supply of wheat of the highest quality. In similar fashion, the Christmas or midwinter feast followed the slaughter of the farm animals which could not be fed through the lean months of winter. The long-distance transport of foodstuffs, refrigeration, and other methods of preservation have, at least in the developed world, ended such seasonal periods of scarcity and made their accompanying feasts redundant. Some have, however, retained their importance in the social calendar, though they no longer possess any economic or dietary purpose.

Standards of living have sometimes been raised by the introduction of a new and particularly prolific crop. The potato, introduced into Europe from the New World, is an example. In some countries, notably Ireland, it quickly became a basic foodstuff and contributed to a sharp increase in population. Its failure in 1848 owing to a plant virus led to famine and severe mortality. Corn, or maize, has played a similar role, though more as animal feed than human. The development of refrigeration and the import of exotic and tropical foods from distant parts of the world has further extended the range of available foodstuffs, though usually at a high monetary cost, without any commensurate increase in the nutritional value of the diet.


Shelter from the elements has always been the second essential of human existence, and there is good archaeological evidence for some form of shelter from a very early date in human prehistory. The development of housing can be traced in considerable detail since structures have survived from the Middle Ages and earlier relatively intact. As a general rule, local materials were used, and, as far as Europe was concerned, the commonest and most widespread has always been timber. Good constructional timer was abundant everywhere except in a few arid regions, such as parts of Spain. Hardwoods, chiefly oak, were used for a framework, and the spaces were filled in with wickerwork and plastered with clay. Such homes have continued to be built until the present, and villages in much of central and eastern Europe remain mainly of wood. The rival to timber construction has been building in stone and brick and, in a few areas, of adobe, clay "lump," or "cob." The last has been important only in the absence of quality timber. Stone and brick construction represent a higher and more expensive mode of construction, even when the materials could be obtained locally. Broadly speaking, stone construction prevails in areas where a good quality of stone, usually limestone of Jurassic age, occurs. In England, for example, there is a "Stone Belt," within which masonry construction has prevailed. Brick making requires clay of a particular quality, and this is also highly localized. Brick building characterizes the historic cities of northern Europe, where good stone is scarce and clay relatively abundant.

From the Middle Ages most rural construction has been in timber, but urban building has been increasingly in stone or brick. The reason lies not so much in the greater wealth of cities as in their liability to disastrous fires. As early as the late twelfth century the city of London, for example, prescribed stone walls and slate or tile roofs as a precaution against its frequent conflagrations.

Standards of housing have risen during the past five centuries by countless small increments, achieved slowly and diffused gradually throughout the continent. Most innovations were made in the west, especially in France, the Low Countries, and Great Britain, and in the homes of the rich. The diffusion of these innovations took two forms, spatial and social. Most were adopted first by the well-to-do, who were able to afford the initial investment. Gradually they spread socially downward until, usually in simplified form, they were adopted in the homes of the poor. The downward diffusion of the masonry-built chimney, mentioned at the beginning of this article, was such an innovation. It called for capital rather than skill. A hearth could be built against an external wall, instead of being placed in the middle of the floor, and the smoke could pass upward through what was effectively a stone-built tunnel. Few innovations could have been more simple and few could have contributed more to the comfort of the home.

Glazed windows were a comparable innovation. They first made their appearance in the home during the Middle Ages, but remained very small and admitted little light. Then, in the sixteenth century, advancing technology permitted the manufacture of larger sheets of glass. This in turn encouraged architects to construct homes with large windows. The consequence was the well-lighted interior. The use of windows which could be opened and shut—casement or sash—spread socially downward and in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries began to appear in the homes of the lower classes.

Another feature of daily life which underwent a gradual improvement throughout modern times was domestic illumination. One forgets how dark it was after the sun had set, how difficult to read or perform domestic tasks indoors, or to walk about outside. The importance of spinning as a domestic occupation was due in part to the fact that it was a simple manipulative task and could be performed in the glow of the fire smoldering on the hearth. Any more effective lightning had to be supplied by candles, usually of tallow and smelling abominably, waxed tapers, or oil-burning lamps. These gave way to gas lighting in the cities in the later nineteenth century, but it was costly since it required a network of iron pipes. It spread slowly to poorer homes and eventually to street lights. This was a development of great social importance, since it facilitated movement in greater security after dark.

A feature of homes from the sixteenth century onward has been greater attention to hygiene and privacy. The number of bedrooms increased, and they came to be better furnished with closets and beds. The indoor toilet first appeared in castles and fortified houses, where it might have been difficult or even dangerous to go far afield. In the grander homes they began to appear in in early modern times, and there were even attempts—with little success—to construct a flushing system. This called for a piped water supply, which was nowhere available before the late eighteenth or nineteenth century. Water was obtained from wells and springs or from the nearest river, and it was often polluted and always unreliable.

The lack of adequate provision for disposing of sewage before the middle or even the later years of the nineteenth century meant that the water supply was often severely contaminated. Conditions were always worse in cities than in the countryside because it was more difficult to separate wells from the cesspits in which human waste was collected. Where possible the latter was discharged into a river, but this only removed the source of infection to other communities farther downstream. In some cities, such as London, cesspits were even dug beneath the basements of houses. The medieval coroners' rolls, which recorded the causes of accidental death, even noted a case of drowning in such a subterranean but nonetheless domestic cesspit. In no sphere of human activity did the improvements of modern times do more to raise standards of living than in the provision of sewers, either of masonry or of glazed pipes, to carry away domestic effluent.

A piped water supply complemented a sewage system and brought about comparable improvements in the living standards of all classes. It required, however, a reservoir to collect and hold water and, all too often, a pumping mechanism to lift the water to a level from which it could flow downhill to the homes in which it was to be used. The city of Bath, England, had such a system late in the eighteenth century, but the lack of pumps limited the supply to the low-lying homes, and these often found it more convenient—and certainly cheaper—to continue to dip their water from the river. The revolution in sanitation and water supply did not take place in much of Europe until the early twentieth century, and there remain areas, notably in eastern Europe, where even today it has barely begun.


The evidence for rising living standards is most apparent in items of domestic and daily use. Within living memory they have increased in number and sophistication, and what had once been available only for the wealthy and privileged have now become necessities for the masses. This has resulted, on the one hand, from expanding real incomes and, on the other, from economies achieved in the mass production of goods. New items are constantly being fed into the body of consumer goods, while others pass out of fashion, become obsolete, and cease to be made. The types of goods with which people have furnished their homes and which they have chosen to enjoy or display have changed greatly over five centuries.

Fortunately, individual collections of durables can be studied, not so much from surviving homes, furnished and equipped, for there are few, but from inventories of personal possessions made at the time of death. The making of a will and the "proving" of it after death fell within the jurisdiction of the medieval church. It was the duty of the ecclesiastical authorities to supervise the implementation of a will, and this involved preparing a list, with their valuation, of the chattels or movable possessions of the deceased. These have survived in large numbers in England, but less adequately in continental Europe. In each instance they listed the possessions of the deceased from clothing and bedding to domestic fittings and furniture. Such household goods as pots and pans and the wrought ironwork used to suspend pots and cuts of meat before the fire were all listed, together with the tools of whatever trade the deceased pursued. In using these probate inventories one must be aware of the fact that they may not be complete; occasionally a will bequeaths an item which is not mentioned in the accompanying inventory. Moreover, the poor were were not required to make a will. In England the cutoff point was the possession of chattels to the value of £5. Difficult though it may be to conceive of worldly goods of a lower total value, it is clear that a majority of the population possessed no more. An unusual Norfolk will of 1758 recorded a widow whose total assets were worth only £1 8s. 9d. ($2.20). Of this her bed made up £1 1s. In effect, she had no property beyond her clothes and a cooking pot. Table 1 illustrates how great was the spread between the rich and well-off and the mass of the impoverished population.

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Among the categories of worldly goods, clothing is the least dispensable, although it performs obviously nonessential functions as well. Because it varies in style and quality and is subject to changes of fashion, clothing has become a status symbol, indicating a certain level of wealth or social importance. Hence some people have dressed above their station in life, leading authorities to prohibit excesses of dress for certain classes. Such sumptuary legislation has a long history. Control of both clothing and food was not unusual during the Middle Ages, but laws became increasingly difficult to enforce and were mostly abandoned during early modern times. Thereafter the question of dress tended to be influenced by fashion but controlled by the ability to pay for it. The regular laundering of clothes is a fairly modern development, as are many aspects of personal hygiene. It was restricted by the fact that soap was not generally available even in western Europe much before the nineteenth century and also by the fact that not everyone possessed a change of clothing. The prevalence of typhus was due in part to the prolonged wearing of soiled clothing infested with the body louse. Underclothes were rarely worn before a light fabric—at first linen and then, from the mid-eighteenth century, cotton—had become widely available. Such light fabrics lent themselves to more frequent washing, with consequent improvements in both health and comfort.

Historians have debated the standard of living under early industrial conditions, particularly in Britain. Optimists claim that wages went up, and point to signs of greater consumption of meat, purchase of cotton clothing, use of other new popular items like forks. Pessimists highlight high housing costs and frequent slum conditions, and some evidence of deteriorating health standards. The debate has been inconclusive overall, and is no longer active. There is general agreement that by the later nineteenth century, in western Europe, material standards of living were improving for most groups.

There was an underclass in most parts of Europe, and in some places it made up a majority of the population. It was undernourished, lived in cramped, unhygienic homes, and scarcely possessed the barest necessities for civilized living. Despite the progress in the material conditions of life between the Middle Ages and the twentieth century, this underclass scarcely benefited. At most, it can be said that it became numerically smaller until only small islands of extreme deprivation remained. The gap between the material conditions of the middle and upper classes and those of the humblest began to widen in the later seventeenth century, became wider still in the eighteenth, and in the nineteenth opened into the yawning gulf which did much to inspire the writings of Freidrich Engels and others.


While the fact of progress in material standards of living cannot be doubted, this advance is extraordinarily difficult to measure. It varies from place to place and from one class to another. Furthermore, it cannot be disputed that there have been times when standards declined, usually for a restricted period and often over a limited area. There is no effective measure of anything as subjective as a standard of living. The Bureau of the Census and comparable bodies in Europe make it a practice to inquire into living standards. Questions may range from the possession of a bathroom to domestic appliances. But these are only surrogates. It is assumed that a person who possesses them is likely also to have a certain range of other goods and, in material terms, to belong to a particular class. On this basis one might claim that people in one area enjoy a higher standard than those in another. But this is only a rough measure of material backwardness or well-being. It does not take into consideration the fact that people usually have a range of choice between the various "goods" available, and it cannot measure the levels of satisfaction they offer. In the last resort, the only objective measure other than life expectancy and stature is the disposable real income available to the family or individual, and even this is often very difficult to evaluate, especially where there is some degree of self-sufficiency.

A key question about standards of living involves how much one should go beyond material living conditions—food, shelter, consumer items—to different, sometimes less tangible aspects like health or even quality of work. In the industrial revolution debate, for example, it is more likely that workers suffered from a sense that their work life was becoming harsher and stranger than that their food standards were deteriorating.

If it is difficult to measure the degree of satisfaction afforded by material things, it is almost impossible to extend quantifiable comparisons to nonmaterial things. The length of the working day or week is a good example. We do not have to go back many centuries before we reach a time when the working day was as long as the human constitution could tolerate. During the early phases of the industrial revolution it could be ten to twelve hours for factory workers, and these would have been filled with hard, monotonous toil. After allowing eight hours for sleep, there was little or no time left for social or recreational activities. Such conditions, sometimes excused by the need to accumulate the fixed capital present in factories and machines, were described in horrifying and only slightly exaggerated detail by Engels in The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845) and by Charles Dickens in Hard Times (1854). In the course of time these conditions provoked a feeling of revulsion, and statutory limits were placed on the length of the working day. First its length was reduced in stages of an hour or half hour, and then a half day off became the rule, at least in Western, industrialized societies. Without these reductions there could have been no organized sport, for there would have been no time during the daylight hours for a game of football (soccer). Organized football, as distinct from the unorganized brawls which took place between villages at certain seasons, dates from the second half of the nineteenth century, when for the first time working men had the leisure to play or to watch. The slow reduction in the length of the working day is the chief incentive in the development of those leisure activities which must be seen as major components of the standard of living. These developments represent an improvement in the standard of living which is both obvious and difficult to quantity.

Overall, the issue of standards of living looms less large in twentieth-century European history, although the pace at which consumer expectations rose was unprecedented and the pressure to keep up with innovations weighed upon many individuals and families. An important body of scholarship has assessed the impact of twentieth-century wars (especially World War I) on standards of living, particularly in Germany and Russia. Developments in eastern Europe after the Russian Revolution and then again during the decline of communism in the 1980s and 1990s also raise important questions. In Russia, living conditions, as evidenced by mortality rates, seemed to drop dramatically among some groups over the last two decades of the twentieth century.

But during the span of half a millennium human life has been transformed for the majority of the population. For most it has ceased to be, in Thomas Hobbes's words, "nasty, brutish, and short," and has become long, filled with interest, and freed from the prospect of imminent death from epidemic disease or medical ignorance. The gap between those best endowed with worldly goods and the rest has been narrowing. Life has also become fuller and more enjoyable in less material ways. Compulsory schooling has become the rule in all European countries, and illiteracy, even in the least-developed countries, has been reduced to a very small minority of the oldest of the population. This has opened up the pleasures of reading to a vast number, even if many do not take full advantage of their opportunity. Related to this rising level of education is increased interest in the arts, literature, music, and the theater. But underlying all these developments have been the reduction in the length of the working day, the increase in leisure, the rising gross national product, and the increase in real wages in even the least advanced of European societies. Without these underlying factors the truly revolutionary changes in Europe's living standards could not have been achieved.

But is there any kind of measure which can be used to appraise the chronology and extent of this improvement? It is possible to trace improvements in housing because enough early structures have survived, and in comfort because inventories tell us how they were furnished. But how well were people fed, and were improvements in this respect commensurate with improvements in material things? Records are highly selective. They tell of gargantuan feasts, but these were almost by definition only occasional, and for most people and certainly for all the poorer classes diet was usually coarse and at times unappetizing and nutritionally inadequate. If it were possible to throw all these components together, and thus to come up with a series of indices showing the overall improvement in standards of living, we should find, first, that the graph for the poorer classes would be much flatter than that for the better-off and, second, that growth was far from continuous; there were times when standards stagnated or even fell. Continental Europe was ravaged by intermittent warfare, in the course of which crops and farm animals were seized and homes and other buildings destroyed. The Thirty Years' War (1618–1648) was such a period, and it was continued in eastern Europe by the no less devastating Potop or "Deluge," when Russian, Swedish, and other armies lived for years at the expense of the land which they ravaged. Every decade or so the accumulated resources of parts of Europe were consumed or destroyed by marching armies. Bismarck claimed that there was evidence in the Germany of the late nineteenth century of the destruction wrought during the Thirty Years' War of two and a half centuries earlier. The longest period of peace ever known in western and central Europe was from 1815 to 1864, and this was also a period of significant growth in living standards.

Just as the chronology of progress was interrupted by periods of decline, so there were areas where the overall pace of progress was slower than elsewhere. Warfare, poor administration, and an oppressive class structure have sometimes caused this backwardness. The most backward area of Europe in these respects was without question the Balkans. It had suffered from an inefficient and shortsighted rule from the time of the Ottoman invasions in the fourteenth century, and to these factors were added the conservative attitudes and unwillingness to innovate or change which characterized Turkish rule. Not until the Ottomans were driven from most of the Balkans did attitudes begin to change. Rapid progress has been made in some parts, but areas remain where earlier attitudes to society and progress linger, where feuding and civil war are endemic, and living standards remain far below the European average.

Standards are also often below those of Europe as a whole in areas where physical conditions are harsh and the accumulation of capital assets slow and difficult. Such conditions occur in the far north of the continent, where climatic conditions are adverse and agriculture difficult and unrewarding. It costs more merely to live in such environments, leaving less for discretionaryuses. A dense rural population, with cultivated plots too small for economic exploitation, can also depress living standards. Before the land reforms of the twentieth century, there was an impoverished peasantry in much of eastern Europe, especially in Galicia, as well as in other over-populated areas of Europe, such as southern Italy and Sicily. The situation has to a considerate extent been relieved by the breakup of large estates, thus making more land available for the peasantry, and also by migration to the cities and employment in manufacturing. In the perception of most of the rural population urban living offered advantages denied to them in the countryside. The city became the "Promised Land," as it is called in the title of a novel by Wladyslaw Reymont (1867–1925) about the industrial city of Łźodź, Poland. But it is doubtful whether all migrants from the countryside could afford to enjoy the amenities offered by the city. All too often the delights of the "Promised Land" have proved illusory.

See alsoCliometrics and Quantification (volume 1);Modernization (volume 2);The Population of Europe: The Demographic Transition and After (volume 2);Public Health (volume 3);Consumerism (in this volume);Literacy (in this volume); and other articles in this section.


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