you are here: home > research projects > the housewife in early modern rural england

go to cultures of consumption home page
go to the about us page
go to news
go to page about projects
go to events page
go to publications page

click to go to links page




project findings | PROJECT OUTLINE |

The Housewife in Early Modern Rural England: Gender, Markets and Consumption

Consumption in seventeenth-century England was a complex process. For those who could afford it, a wide range of choices was available. Wealthy households combined a range of strategies to supply their needs and wants: some items were home-produced, some were commissioned from specialists, while others were purchased ready-made. This project has analysed the household accounts of Alice Le Strange, a member of the Norfolk gentry, for the years 1606–1653. Research shows that production and consumption were much more closely related than in today’s developed modern economies. Women’s management of the domestic sphere involved overseeing the production of food and clothing as well as everyday consumption. Consumption typically involved direct personal relationships between consumers, producers and traders.  

ran from October 2003 to June 2007

image illustrating findings

click here to view the findings summary sheet for this project>>

Project team
Jane Whittle award holder
Elizabeth Griffiths

Dr Jane Whittle
History Department
Exeter University
Amory Building, Rennes Drive

01392 263292


The findings of this project will be published as a book:
Jane Whittle and Elizabeth Griffiths, Consumption and Gender in the Early Seventeenth-Century Household: The World of Alice Le Strange (Oxford University Press, 2009).

The database of the household accounts will be deposited with the ESRC data archive.


Project outline

The following is the text of the project's original proposal


Being a housewife has long been viewed as the stereotypical role of married women in the economy. As housewives, women manage the home, and take responsibility for day to day consumption needs. Such views stretch back in time to at least the medieval period. Thus historians have assumed that the work of housewives had little significance to the wider economy and remained unchanged over time. This project challenges these assumptions through the study of one early seventeenth-century gentry household.

By examining the household's consumption patterns in detail over a forty-three year period it will illuminate the role a housewife and other workers in providing for the household's needs. It will show how this involved production and processing as well as purchases, revealing how the development of the market and retailing has transformed the nature of the household, and gendered roles within it, over time. The research will involve the computerised analysis of a uniquely comprehensive series of household accounts, kept by Lady Alice le Strange of Hunstanton in Norfolk, dating from 1610-1653.

return to outline menu


This project will be the first detailed study of housewifery in pre-industrial England. As well as illuminating the economic and social role of married women in that period, it will correct views of the novelty, or not, of the modern housewife and her housework in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The project will allow processes of consumption, and work within the household, to be examined in detail with a significant quantity of data. Further, a study of the housewife and the cycle of consumption within a household creates a fresh perspective on the economy of early modern England. It is a perspective which starts with the home, with the provision of consumption needs and desires of family and household, and then moves out to examine how these goods and services were procured: who does the work, who takes the decisions, how and when can items be acquired, what is the motivation behind such acquisitions? The project will be highly sensitive to the importance of social status in determining the nature of women's work and shaping consumption patterns. Although focusing primarily on an upper class, gentry household, the data will also allow the lives of servants, labourers and farmers to be studied via their economic and social connections with the household.

History provides a crucial perspective for studies of contemporary consumption. Claims are made for the modernity of consumer culture, proceeding from a 'consumer revolution' in the eighteenth century, yet in truth we know little about how consumption was organised on a day to day basis in the period before 1700. This project offers an opportunity to make real comparisons and achieve a sophisticated understanding of how consumption changed over time, and the role of women's domestic work in that change. Further, the study of pre-industrial households presents a challenge to our theoretical understanding of consumption. In a era when production and consumption were not always separated by market transactions, and when hired employees lived and worked within the home, just how can we make clear analytical distinctions between production and consumption?

return to outline menu


The most important questions for the project are:

  • What was a housewife's role in an early modern England?
  • What was the pattern of consumption in one historic household over a forty-three year period?
  • How were the household's needs procured in an era before shopping?

return to outline menu


The project combines a detailed study of one early seventeenth-century gentry household, with a concern for wider issues of gender, markets, consumption patterns and economic development. The primary source of evidence is an unusually full set of household accounts, covering a period of 43 years in an unbroken series, and written by the lady of the house. They record income, purchases, wage payments, and home-production and consumption of food and drink in meticulous detail. This information will be entered onto a database, and analysed alongside other documents relating to the household, its economy, and workforce.

Although hardly typical of early modern households in general, gentry households played an important and distinctive role as nodes of conspicuous consumption with multiple connections with local and national economy and society. Households such as this employed the same number of servants and labourers as a medium-sized village, while its wealth exceeded that of many small communities. The project aims to analyse both the internal organisation of the household, in terms of work and consumption, and its external links - economically to providers of goods and services, socially to other households, gentry and non-gentry. Comparisons will be made with existing studies of the English gentry, changing consumption patterns, the organisation of labour, the development of markets, retailing and transport, and gender in early modern England, bringing together a number of disparate debates to construct an original perspective on economic development.

return to outline menu


The outcome will be a better understanding of consumption as a historical process, and of how women's work contributed to this process. It will illuminate the impact of economic development and market expansion on consumption and work over the centuries, providing a comparison with patterns found in the modern world. The project's findings will be published as a book. The historical documents studied will be preserved and made available to future research in computerised form. Teaching materials from the project will be made available on the internet for school and university students.


TOP | home | ABOUT US | NEWS | PROJECTS | events | PUblications | CONTact US


ahrc logoesrc logobirkbeck college logo