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Laura Sefton
PhD researcher, History, University of Birmingham

Learning to Consume: Childhood, Citizenship and the Reproduction of Capitalism

Just as children became protected from commercial exploitation by the legal regulation of their labour, they were increasingly exposed to the pressures of the market as consumers. The children's market remains an intensely governed space, continuously re-imagined by those with both financial and emotional investments in the symbolic value of children. My research focuses on this important shift in twentieth-century British history and begins to rewrite the child into the history of consumer society. 

Children's consumption habits remain contested and controversial. For some, the child consumer represents the very worst of capitalism; their desires created and manipulated in an essentially exploitative market, in which they are exposed to 'too much, too soon'. Yet it is also a space in which the very essence of childhood is increasingly defined and, crucially, one in which children themselves are active participants, imagining, exploring and creating their own identities.

Using various archival records, I will examine the interplay between the State; child experts; schools; parents and families; and market actors, including advertisers, marketing strategists and retailers, These groups worked alongside, and against, each other to define children as consumers, each taking responsibility for their protection. I suggest that educating children to become responsible consumer-citizens has been essential to the survival of capitalism. By ensuring that children acquire the skills and knowledge to participate in a capitalist economy by adulthood, capitalism ensures its own reproduction.

Professor Matthew Hilton 
Dr Matt Houlbrook

Scholarly/Public Engagement Activities 


  • 'From Piggy Banks to Saving Books: Responsible Child Consumers in Britain', Re-imagining Childhood: Images, Objects and the Voice of the Child, Conference for the Centre for the Study of Play and Recreation and The Society for the Study of Childhood in the Past, University of Greenwich (May 2015).

  • Co-authored MBS Working Paper No.2 on the challenges facing postgraduates today. 

  • Blog posts written for Modern British Studies at Birmingham on the History Manifestoacademic reading and British history books.  

  • Articles Editor, Journal of History and Culturesa peer-reviewed online journal dedicated to pioneering new research in history and cultures. 

  • Member of the Social History Society.

  • Member of the M3C Student Advisory Forum, representing students at the University of Birmingham.  

Other Research Interests:

  • Consumer history, in particular consumer politics and questions of consumer citizenship. 
  • Advertising and marketing history. 
  • Imperial consumption, particularly relating to the British Empire in the early twentieth century and especially the work of the Empire Marketing Board.
  • Histories of childhood and sociology of the child.
  • Relationship between state, citizenship and markets more broadly.