Measurements of the historical 'standard of living' have formed a major preoccupation for social and economic historians for more than a century. The debate over the standard of living has been dominated by two broad groups of historians. Those who have thought that general living standards improved during the period of classic industrial revolution (roughly between 1780-1850), and those who have claimed that the welfare of people underwent a general decline. Those who have assumed an improvement, have frequently been referred to as 'optimists' and those who have argued for a decline have been called 'pessimists'. These historical perceptions have often acted as points of focus for disagreement about the effects of industrial capitalistic development upon working-class life and welfare. In spite of their differing views on living standards, historians on both sides of the debate have employed similar sources and methods in their descriptions of the welfare histories of social groups and classes.
Traditionally, these have been anecdotal evidence (evidence taken from reports of royal commissions and select committees for example) or quantitative evidence (the purchasing power of people calculated from surviving evidence of prices and incomes). Evidence left behind by working-class people themselves (household budgets or diaries and autobiographies, for example) have also been used to demonstrate the welfare of the working-class. Each of these sources of evidence has its limitations. It has been argued that they do not reflect adequately the standard of living of large sections of the population. A number of reasons have been suggested for their insufficiency as a means of assessing welfare.
Anecdotal evidence of living standards was sometimes collected by social inquirers who were active in campaigning for change. Their evidence may have been influenced by their desire for chang and they may, therefore, have selected unrepresentative examples of living standards to support their appeals for change on behalf of a particular social group (child workers or slum dwellers, for example). The use of anecdotal evidence may have achieved the goals of social reformers, but can the evidence itself be described as unbiased Can we say that the reports of campaigners and social inquirers reflect the 'typical' living or working conditions of people historically Real wages have been criticised on the ground that they measure predominantly the incomes of male heads of households. Wage data, therefore, do not permit historians to examine the conditions of most females and children whose contributions to household economies and, therefore, to the macro-economy, must have been of great importance. 1 Wage-data also prove less reliable for the study of standards of living in earlier centuries since, the further back one looks, the more people were paid in kind (agricultural workers, for example, might have been compensated for their generally low wages by the provision to their families of farm produce). When the standard of living is calculated using wage-data it can be said to have improved throughout the period 1780-1850 (except for the period of the Napoleonic Wars).
Wages rose during a period for which much anecdotal evidence suggests that living standards declined. In order to get around some of the problems presented by the use of real-wage data in calculating living standards, historians have also looked to evidence of household budgets: budgets that have survived which indicate the income and expenditure of families. Like anecdotal evidence, these sources suffered from a bias in selection. Sometimes household budgets were elicited by social inquirers who were concerned with distinguishing the spendthrift household from the household which practised frugality..