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Empire of Things:
How We Became a World of Consumers, from the Fifteenth Century to the Twenty-First
by Frank Trentmann
We are a people in thrall to the cult of consumerism. While the super-rich flaunt their wealth with shameless abandon, perfectly ordinary people ape the dinner habits of their social superiors. The latest women's fashion craze, to have sleeves more than a foot wide, looks simply ridiculous, but women themselves seem not to care. Recreational drugs, once too expensive for most people, have become ubiquitous. So, too, have unnecessary house alterations and exotic pets: the current must-have domestic companion, apparently, is a rat. And where the hipsters lead, the rest of us trail meekly behind.
Such, at any rate, was the view of the poet Lin Sumen, writing in the Chinese city of Yangzhou in 1808. We believe that we live in an age of unprecedented luxury and abundance. But that was precisely what Lin thought, too. For as the Birkbeck historian Frank Trentmann argues in this enormous, dense and utterly fascinating book, consumerism has a far longer history than we usually think.
As early as the 15th century, when his book begins, rich Europeans were splashing out on spoons, forks, eggcups and drinking glasses. As the engine of international commerce roared on, so the European house began to fill up with things. By the year 1700, a typical Dutch farmhouse was stuffed with a 'clock, carpets and curtains, paintings and books, and some porcelain dishes standing on eight-sided tables'. Today an average German owns 10,000 different things. Yet as early as the 1670s, a typical Dutch dairy farmer owned 18 linen shirts. Men used to work because they had to, wrote the Scottish thinker James Steuart in 1770, but 'men are forced to labour now because they are slaves to their own wants'.
Appropriately enough, given the subject, Empire of Things is a bustling department store of facts and figures. An intriguing section on the rise of tea, coffee and chocolate gives a flavour of the sheer breadth of Trentmann's project. The first western coffee house, the Angel, opened in Oxford in 1650. By the end of the century, there were hundreds in London alone, often playing up their exotic associations: at Don Saltero's in London, customers sipped their coffee while stuffed crocodiles and turtles stared down from the ceiling. Frightened that coffee houses encouraged depravity and dissent, European authorities often tried to close them down. Frederick the Great banned coffee altogether in 1769. Yet far from being an essentially Mediterranean pleasure, coffee is most popular the further north you go. In 1913, the world's keenest coffee drinkers were the Dutch, the Danes and the Swedes, who drank at least eight times as much as the Italians. Even today, nobody drinks more coffee than the Finns.
What makes Trentmann's book such a pleasure to read is not just the wealth of detail or the staggering international range, but the refreshing absence of moaning or moralising about our supposed addiction to owning more stuff. As he points out, fear of consumerism is as old as consumerism itself. The Catholic Church has always been critical of what it used to call 'luxury', and Pope John Paul II claimed that people had become 'slaves of 'possession' and immediate gratification'.
Today you are more likely to hear such complaints from priggish columnists in The Guardian, trembling with horror that ordinary people spend their weekends in Westfield instead of canvassing for Jeremy Corbyn. But Trentmann is having none of it. As he shows, consumerism has actually been one of the great liberating forces of the modern age. The characteristic consumer durable of the 1950s and 1960s was the washing machine, but not for nothing was Hotpoint's model called the Liberator. And far from being necessarily individualistic, consumerism can be one of the great collective pleasures. Fifty years ago, critics shuddered at the rise of mail order and hire purchase, all part of a wicked capitalist conspiracy to oppress the poor. But Trentmann quotes a British catalogue agent from the 1970s. 'Every Friday evening,' she says, 'my neighbours and friends would come and sit in my kitchen, drink tea, look at the catalogue again - [and] pay their cash.' That doesn't sound too sinister to me.
Even credit, says Trentmann, gets an unfairly bad press. 'Think what you do when you run into debt,' wrote Benjamin Franklin in 1732: 'You give to another power over your liberty.' But this is easily overstated. The rich have always shuddered at the thought of letting poor people have credit cards, and columnists routinely trot out debt figures as an indictment of the ordinary consumer's financial ignorance. Yet a recent study of the British people's financial affairs found that only 4% were behind with their credit repayments by more than two months. Contrary to what you might think, writes Trentmann, the vast majority of people are quite capable of managing their credit commitments.
In his epilogue, he yields to a little doom-mongering himself, urging us to alter our ways before we smother our planet in unwanted plastic. The irony, though, is that his book is the best advertisement for shopping I have ever read, so busy and colourful that no review can do more than scratch the surface. From Victorian department stores to modernist kitchens, from tea to toasters, his book revels in the things that most historians tend to overlook. I never knew that Ferrero Rocher chocolates were named after the grotto at Lourdes, reflecting their founder's intense Catholicism. Nor did I ever suspect that, as late as 1966, only five in 100 German men changed their underwear every day. That fact alone, profoundly disturbing and immensely satisfying, is worth the price of this book.
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