When did overseas trade start to matter for living standards? Traditional real-wage indices suggest that living standards in Europe stagnated before 1800. In this paper, we argue that welfare rose substantially, but surreptitiously, because of an influx of new goods as a result of overseas trade. Colonial luxuries such as tea, coffee, and sugar transformed European diets after the discovery of America and the rounding of the Cape of Good Hope. These goods became household items in many countries by the end of the 18th century. We use three different methods to calculate welfare gains based on price data and the rate of adoption of these new colonial goods. Our results suggest that by 1800, the average Englishman would have been willing to forego 10% or more of his income in order to maintain access to sugar and tea alone. These findings are robust to a wide range of alternative assumptions, data series, and valuation methods.
Hersh, J., & Voth, H.-J. (2011). Sweet diversity: Overseas trade and gains from variety after 1492. Working paper.