The Working Classes in the USA and Britain

Two book reviews

Susan Porter Benson, Household Accounts: Working Class Family Economies in the Interwar United States. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2007. xiii + 233 pp. $45 (hardcover), IBSN:978-0-8014-3723-6.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Marianne Ward, Department of Economics, Loyola College of Maryland.
Published by EH.NET (February 2008)

The late Susan Porter Benson has left us with a fascinating account of the consumption patterns of working class women and their families in the interwar United States. The findings are based on interviews of working class women by agents from the Women's Bureau of the U.S.Department of Labor in the 1920s and early 1930s and studies of families confronting unemployment in the late 1920s and 1930s.

The main themes of the book are laid out in the introductory chapter.Consumption patterns for working class families in the interwar period highlighted a constant battle against insecure and irregular incomes, lack of access to credit, and the use of non-market alternatives to secure consumption goods and services. In this environment, family relationships took center stage, and emerged as the source of both conflict and cooperation regarding the allocation of household resources. The struggle for survival that characterized daily life led Benson to characterize the emergence of mass consumption in the 1920s as a "class" phenomenon rather than a "mass" phenomenon (p. 12).


Andrew August. The British Working Class, 1832-1940. Harlow: Pearson Longman, 2007. ix + 286 pp. Notes, bibliography, index. $33.40 (paper), ISBN 978-0-582-38130-8.

Reviewed for H-Albion by Dennis Dworkin, Department of History, University of Nevada

In the 1960s and 1970s, the working class--and particularly the British working class--had a special place in historical writing. It was at the center of the new social history and history from below, in large part because of E. P. Thompson's enormously influential The Making of the English Working Class (1963). Yet, Thompson's book built on a tradition of radical historiography in which the British working class was important to the historical process broadly conceived. It was the world's first industrial proletariat and central to Karl Marx's understanding of the historical dynamic of capitalism and the transition to socialism. The British working class's experience had universal implications.

Certainly, much has changed since the heyday of the new social and labor history. The end of communism, the rise of identity politics, the decline of the labor movement, the advent of post-Fordism, and a host of other changes have contributed to a declining interest in the working class within historiography. As a result of the impact of the linguistic turn, the new cultural history, postmodernism, and postcolonial studies, the fields of labor and social history are less central than they once were. Yet, at the same time, there has been an outpouring of theoretical discussion that has revised our understanding of class, and historians have produced a more complex and nuanced picture of British working-class life. The theoretical transformations have been analyzed at length, including by me in Class Struggles (2007). Andrew August's The British Working Class: 1832-1940 is a highly readable overview of British working-class history that builds on the achievement of numerous social, cultural, and feminist historians, while deploying numerous primary sources to make its principal points.