Consumption patterns and living standards in towns around the Baltic, c. 1540-1860: Probate Evidence from Three Towns in Denmark and Southern Sweden

Lilla Sparbanksfoajén Session 5: Pre-Industrial Households and Markets organized by Marcus Falk


Marcus Falk, Erik Bengtsson


Towns and cities played a crucial role in early modern European economies, as centers of trade, administration and handicrafts. This paper uses probate inventories from three southern Swedish towns, Malmö, Ystad and Falkenberg, from the mid-1500s (Malmö), early 1600s (Ystad), or late 1600s (Falkenberg) to map the evolution of consumption and living standards in these towns until the 1860s. The probate inventories are comprehensive lists of goods held by the household of a deceased person; it was made mandatory to make an inventory in Sweden in 1734, but our archival research highlights that for a few towns, especially in what before 1658 was Denmark, plenty of inventories are preserved already from much earlier years. These list goods of various categories, including various metals, textiles, furniture, kitchen utensils, and items of art, which makes probate inventories a very fitting source for the study of consumer culture and material living standards. There is a social bias in that the more affluent segments of the towns’ populations will be best represented in the inventories, so our study will focus on traders, burghers, and artisans: those who owned enough goods to be probated already in the 1500s and 1600s. There is a growing economic history literature on market integration in the Baltic in the early modern period (e.g., Andersson and Ljungberg 2015; Marczinek, Maurer and Rauch 2022) and the list of goods in the probate inventories can address how connected inhabitants of south Swedish towns were to European markets. Previous research on seventeenth and eighteenth century probate inventories from Stockholm has focused on textiles (Aldman 2018; Andersson 2017) and this will be one of the type of goods that we look at, alongside the classical “consumption revolution” goods of tea, coffee, sugar and porcelain (cf. Shammas 1990; Ahlberger 1996; de Vries 2008; Rönnbäck 2010). Another line of research has focused on the great merchants, also using probate inventories (Müller 1998). Our study also connects to the debate, based on GDP per capita estimates (Edvinsson 2013) or real wages (Gary 2018), on early modern living standards and economic growth in Sweden. Compared to the study of great merchants on the one hand, and labourers on the other, our study promises to add more fine-grained information about consumption capacity and living standards among the middling sort, in between the extremes of the social hierarchy. By shedding light on this group, we will also be able to discuss the role of towns in the Scandinavian economies in this period, and the degree of trade integration


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