I’ve read a lot of books on consumerism, some I would recommend and many I wouldn’t. I thought I had a pretty good handle on the subject until I read Empire of Things: How we became a world of consumers, from the fifteenth century to the 21st.
Frank Trentmann rightly points out that the historical perspective is largely absent from accounts of consumerism. We tend to associate it with post-war America – but that is not the birth of consumerism, just an acceleration of trends that go back centuries. It’s also not an American story, as consumer culture has emerged several times in different ways. Trentmann aims to put consumerism in its broader context, with a 500 year history rather than the usual 50. He wants to move beyond the Anglocentric accounts and offer a more global story, which will in turn shed new light on the social and environmental downsides of consumerism: “If we want to be able to protect the future, we need to have a more rounded understanding of the processes by which we reached the present.”
If that sounds like a epic undertaking, you’d be right. The book runs to over 800 pages. “Many chapters,” Trentmann acknowledges, “could have grown into books of their own.” It was seven years in the writing, and before that was a five-year multi-disciplinary research project called Cultures of Consumption. You won’t read a better researched book this year, or one with so many new insights per page.
We start with an overview of early consumerism, looking at how markets for goods differed in Ming China, the Netherlands and Northern Italy. It’s immediately obvious that our worries about waste, fast fashion, or over-spending are nothing new. Here are Chinese scholars in 1570 fretting about local dandies and their preoccupation with the latest silks. Or Venice trying to clamp down on lavish weddings in the 1330s, because people were flaunting their wealth and highlighting inequality. We are indeed living through the latest chapter in quite a long story.
If we’re talking about the width of sleeves in Venice in 1403, we are well into the fine detail of consumerism – and the main reason why the book is so long. A recurring tool is the inventories of people’s homes that were written up when they died, and by looking at them over the years we can see when certain things happened – when ordinary people started owning teapots, or hanging curtains, or wearing cotton. All sorts of intriguing trends unfold from the sum of these details. There are lots of histories of specific things in the book too, showing how new developments influenced demand – there’s a history of tea and coffee, shopping centres, how the cinema or the radio changed people’s leisure time, a section on Oxfam pioneering the charity shop, or Eugene Poubelle inventing the bin in Paris. Having looked at something in one part of the world, Trentmann will skip over and investigate parallel trends elsewhere – when recycling was catching on in Japan, what was happening in East Germany?
One of the recurring themes is how new technologies unleash new opportunities for consuming. The arrival of gas and electricity made it possible for people to spend more leisure time at home – with implications for home decor and furnishing. Standards also rise, driving up consumption. Piped water pushed up people’s standards of cleanliness. Washing machines changed our view of how often we should wash clothes. The book shows quite convincingly that most growth in consumption isn’t driven by status competition or shopping for novelties, but by rising standards of ordinary life. There’s a “curious mismatch between real trends in spending and the ink most theorists have devoted to the consumer as a shopper buying yet another handbag.”
Looking at the broader view of consumerism, it’s striking how many under-reported positives there are as well. Living in an era of excess, we can tend to focus on the downsides and miss some of the benefits that came earlier. Consumerism has been a democratising force, enabling societies to break down old hierarchies based on class. It can be emancipatory: being able to choose how they dressed was important for freed slaves or newly arrived migrants. “A shirt, a hat, a watch and a mirror were tickets to social inclusion and self-respect.” Colonials used to get annoyed at local people getting ‘ideas above their station’ and dressing like Westerners, but consumption in this context was a clear signal of equality and dignity. Lower castes in India have found a voice through consumer rights, where being a customer gives them a degree of respect that society doesn’t otherwise grant them.
This angle on consumerism lends a new perspective on development. Trentmann shows how Africans were not taken seriously as consumers, and so no effort was taken to develop a domestic market for goods in the colonies. The British empire saw its colonies as producers, not potential customers. Britain “found it difficult to embrace the African consumer, because consumption challenged the very distance between races that empire was founded on”. That’s a failure that has held back living standards in the developing world, but it didn’t benefit Britain either – the empire would have been even wealthier if it had nurtured demand overseas.
There’s too much in the book to do justice to it in a review here, and I feel like I’ve gone on too long already. Suffice to say that later chapters delve into some of the big questions around consumerism, including the environment, debt, and moral and spiritual implications. It’s comprehensive, ambitious, and a rewarding read. It contains the only accounts I’ve ever found of early consumerism in Africa or in ancient China. Don’t be daunted by the page count. It’s a book you can dip in and out of, and readers of history will find much to get their teeth into. Reading the long history of consumerism has made a lot of what I’ve read on the subject look narrow and reductive, including plenty of things I’ve written myself. So thank you to Frank Trentmann for expanding my horizons.