Steering the free market through a food crisis? Fiscal policy and meat consumption in Brussels during the 1840s

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By the 1840s the Brussels city council had become distinctly liberalin its approach to the economy. Even the meat sector, onceuniquely intensely regulated by urban authorities, had shedalmost all early modern regulation and was largely left to the freemarket. However, the 1840s subsistence crisis and rising foodprices increased pressure on lawmakers to intervene. This paperexplores how, rather than returning to older consumer-protectinglimits on the market such as price-setting, the council used itsfiscal authority to ease its citizens’burden. What appears fromdiscussions on taxation is a great willingness to try to influencethe free market through changing tax rates in favour of theinterest of poor and labouring consumers. Unlike the shift fromprices to health the literature suggests (Horowitz, Pilcher andWatts [2004].“Meat for the Multitudes: Market Culture in Paris,New York City, and Mexico City over the Long NineteenthCentury.”The American Historical Review109, no. 4 (October2004): 1055–1083.doi:10.1086/530749), this consumer interestwas interpreted as relating both to meat prices and meat qualityand salubriousness. While the explicit focus on urban consumerswas new, many arguments repeated early modern concerns ofgreedy butchers preying on poor consumers, with price andhealth as twin priorities. The new liberal regime, facing crisis,used new tools, but traditional discourse and conceptions ofgovernment responsibility persisted.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)31-48
Number of pages18
JournalHistory of Retailing and Consumption
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 7 Mar 2023

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was supported by the Research Foundation Flanders (FWO) [grant number 1145822N]. The author would like to thank the participants of the workshop ‘Politics and Consumption’ where this paper was initially presented for their feedback. Particular thanks go out to workshop organisers Charris De Smet and Silvia Pizzirani as well as Professors Ilja Van Damme, Wouter Ryckbosch and Marnix Beyen for providing comments on the paper at various stages. In addition, a special thanks to the anonymous reviewer for the helpful comments. Finally, the author would like to thank the members of HOST (Research Group on Historical Research into Urban Processes of Transformation) at the VUB for their valuable input as well as Elise Pressley for linguistic support.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2023 The Author(s). Published by Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group.


  • liberalism
  • free market
  • fiscal policy
  • consumer
  • meatIntroductionOn


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