Credit and Debt in Victorian England
The majority of Victorian society’s economic dealings can be summed up in two words: credit and debt. These ominous specters, which seemed to haunt Victorian England, were simultaneously able to evoke feelings of delight and doom in their “victims of vanity”.
There were several different factors that contributed to the Victorian’s propensity to abuse their credit, and as a result, fall deeply into debt. In her essay, “A Husband and His Wife’s Dresses”, Erika Rappaport discusses the significant role that gender played in the credit and debt “epidemic” that plagued Victorian society. Rappaport gives a fairly detailed account of the progression of buying on credit in Victorian society. In her essay, Rappaport states that “for most of the nineteenth century, consumer credit was still informal and was based on personal trust and a financial and moral assessment of the buyer” (165). Essentially, buying on credit was based on social position rather than financial stability. She comments that in the nineteenth century, selling on credit was still a widespread practice, and “many of the commodities that filled the Victorians’ homes and adorned their bodies were bought with its help” (167). Rappaport states that buying on credit “helped middle-class families on limited income set up households”, and that “approximately 80 percent of all sales in the small, elite shops of metropolitan districts were offered on credit” (167). However, as time progressed, informal store credit became increasingly risky. Consumers began to travel longer distances in order to buy their goods, and it became increasingly less common to conduct business with neighbors and relatives. As a result of these changes, “wholesalers turned to newspapers and trade papers to learn about the creditworthiness of their customers”, and “the larger firms began to restrict the extension of credit and ultimately insisted on cash” (165). However, many small urban retailers did not have these resources available to them, and were forced to rely on the credit economy.
Up until the 1960’s, the male proprietor was considered responsible for all of the things that were bought or sold by any member of his household. Essentially, any dependent or member of his household traded on his name, using his credit. Rappaport writes that, “wives frequently bought goods trading on their husband’s credit, but they usually did so in local shops and markets” (166). However, “by the 1860’s, untold numbers of women traveled from the suburbs and provinces for a day’s shopping in the West End of London” (166). London merchants began to target women as a new “easy market”, and men began to worry about their economic stability.
In 1864, the Jolly v. Rees case, settled in the Court of Common Pleas, “made it legal for a husband to deny liability for his wife’s debts if he could prove that the purchased goods were not necessary and that he had forbidden her to pledge his credit”...