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History Victorian Era (1837-1901)

The Social Cost of Cheap Food

Labour and the Political Economy of Food Distribution in Britain, 1830-1914

by (author) Sébastien Rioux

Publisher
McGill-Queen's University Press
Initial publish date
Sep 2019
Category
Victorian Era (1837-1901)
  • Paperback / softback

    ISBN
    9780773559004
    Publish Date
    Sep 2019
    List Price
    $34.95
  • Hardback

    ISBN
    9780773558991
    Publish Date
    Sep 2019
    List Price
    $110.00
  • eBook

    ISBN
    9780773559585
    Publish Date
    Sep 2019
    List Price
    $34.95

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Description

The distribution of food played a considerable yet largely unrecognized role in the economic history of Victorian and Edwardian Britain. In the midst of rapid urbanization and industrialization, retail competition intensified and the channels by which food made it to the market became vital to the country's economic success. Illustrating the pivotal importance of food distribution in Britain between 1830 and 1914, The Social Cost of Cheap Food argues that labour exploitation in the distribution system was the key to cheap food. Through an analysis of labour dynamics and institutional changes in the distributive sector, Sébastien Rioux demonstrates that economic development and the rising living standards of the working class were premised upon the growing insecurity and chronic poverty of street sellers, shop assistants, and small shopkeepers. Rioux reveals that food distribution, far from being a passive sphere of economic activity, provided a dynamic space for the reduction of food prices. Positing food distribution as a core element of social and economic development under capitalism, The Social Cost of Cheap Food reflects on the transformation of the labour market and its intricate connection to the history of food and society.

About the author

Sébastien Rioux is assistant professor of geography and Canada Research Chair in the Political Economy of Food and Wellbeing at Université de Montréal.

Sébastien Rioux's profile page

Editorial Reviews

“A concise yet compelling book that accounts for large structural change in the distribution sector without neglecting the diverse experiences of the working-class actors whose labours were essential to its functioning.” Labour / Le Travail

"The Social Cost of Cheap Food provides an insightful perspective on the distributive function of the British food system and its important impact on the consumption levels of the working class as well as the wider political, economic, and social dimensions bound up in it." Cultural and Social History

"Cheap food, Rioux convincingly posits, is the answer to the question of how modern free market societies have succeeded in shoring up living standards for workers even in the face of stagnating wages. In a capitalist society, viewed from the point of view of consumers, cheap food looks like an unequivocal democratic good, because it enables people to feed themselves, even on relatively low incomes. Cheap food, Rioux explains, can counter-balance "the structural effects of pay cuts, temporary employment, and economic uncertainly." The missing part of the picture, however, is that cheap food is also one of the factors pushing large swathes of the workforce into exploitation and poverty. Cheap food and cheap labour go hand in hand, and this is as true today in the US as it was in London in the 1880s.” Times Literary Supplement

“With eloquent figures and vivid detail, Rioux draws the working and living conditions of these distribution toilers out of the shadow and re-evaluates their proper contribution to late nineteenth-century capitalist economy.” Food and History

“This book is thought-provoking and one of the first books, if not the only book, that attempts to understand the nature and meaning of those who labor in the middle of our food system, the middlemen—essential, invisible, yet marginally understood actors in our global food system.” American Historical Review

"A welcome and important book, The Social Cost of Cheap Food highlights the significance of food distribution to the economic development of Victorian Britain and the enduring role played by retail markets, hawkers, and small shopkeepers in feeding the country's burgeoning population." Martin Purvis, University of Leeds