Empire of Things: How We Became a World of Consumers, from the Fifteenth Century to the Twenty-First, by Frank Trentmann, Allen Lane, RRP£30, 880 pages, Published in the US by Harper in March
An average German today owns 10,000 objects. The average British household owns around £4,000 worth of clothes. It is estimated that 6-8 per cent of US adults suffers from compulsive buying disorder (“oniomania”). Having much more than we can use, we waste a lot: one-third of British clothing has not been worn in the past year; 350,000 tonnes of used clothing go into UK landfills annually; a quarter of every melon and more than a third of every lettuce ends up discarded. At Christmas, Duncan Weldon (formerly of BBC’s Newsnight) tweeted that he had binned the turkey.
Overwhelmed by possessions, many endeavour to curate their wardrobes and yearn to “be more with less”. “Project 333” has inspired thousands to box up all but 33 items of clothing (accessories, shoes, and jewellery included). Enthusiasts for the KonMari Method swear by the value of keeping only those possessions that actively bring them joy. So widespread is the impulse to sartorial minimalism that talk of wearing “a uniform” is as likely to reference Steve Jobs as it is Idi Amin.
Why oh why do we have so many things? Answers to this question are often conspiratorial or condemnatory in tone (“the adverts made us do it . . . it’s the logic of late capitalism”). Others upbraid us for our collective moral failings. Yet others focus on our individual psychologies and propose that hoarding, kleptomania or shopaholism be treated as forms of addiction. Yet would we really be happy with fewer choices or less stuff?
In Empire of Things, Frank Trentmann brings history to bear on all these questions. His is not a new subject, per se, but his thick volume is both an impressive work of synthesis and, in its emphasis on politics and the state, a timely corrective to much existing scholarship on consumption. Based on specialist studies that range across five centuries, six continents and at least as many languages, the book is encyclopedic in the best sense. In his final pages, Trentmann intentionally or otherwise echoes Diderot’s statement (in his own famous Encyclopédie) that the purpose of an encyclopedia is to collect and transmit knowledge “so that the work of preceding centuries will not become useless to the centuries to come”. Empire of Things uses the evidence of the past to show that “the rise of consumption entailed greater choice but it also involved new habits and conventions . . . these were social and political outcomes, not the result of individual preferences”. The implications for our current moment are significant: sustainable consumption habits are as likely to result from social movements and political action as they are from self-imposed shopping fasts and wardrobe purges.
When historians in the 1980s-1990s first shifted from studying production to consumption, our picture of the past became decidedly more individualist. In their letters and diaries, Georgian and Victorian consumers revealed passionate attachments to things — those they had and those they craved. Personal tastes and preferences hence came to rival, then to outweigh, abstract processes (industrialisation, commodification, etc) as explanations for historical change. The world looked so different! Studied from the vantage point of production, the late 18th and 19th centuries had appeared uniformly dark and dusty with soot; imagined from the consumer’s perspective, those same years glowed bright with an entire spectrum of strange, distinct colours (pigeon’s breast, carmelite, eminence, trocadero, isabella, Metternich green, Niagra [sic] blue, heliotrope). At the exact moment when Soviet power seemed to have collapsed chiefly from the weight of repressed consumer desire, consumption emerged as a largely positive, almost liberating, historical force. “Material culture” became a common buzzword; “thing theory” — yes, it really is a thing — was born.
Trentmann, a professor of history at Birkbeck, University of London, and author of the prizewinning Free Trade Nation: Commerce, Consumption, and Civil Society in Modern Britain (2008), draws on much of this earlier work. But his book’s tone is distinct. Histories of consumption often succumb to the “reality effect” produced by the detailed probate inventories, shop catalogues and advertisements on which they are based. Too often, they end up looking rather like inventories or shopping lists themselves. Trentmann keeps this impulse firmly under control, doing just enough to conjure time and place. From the pewter tankards, lace curtains, birdcages, and napkins characteristic of northern Europe in the late 17th century, he moves to the gas lighting and department stores of the Belle Époque, and then to the toasters, vacuum cleaners, and radios of the interwar period. For those who delight in lists, Empire of Things’ index — which runs to 50 pages and includes, inter alia, beer, Bolsheviks, boycotts, couchsurfing, cuckoo clocks, debt, decor, defence spending, furniture, furs, geopolitics, housewives, lust, nostalgia, shoes and Zanzibar — will have to suffice.
Fashion — highly visible and, for many critics, largely superfluous — has been a favourite terrain for historians of consumption. True to this precedent, Trentmann begins Empire of Things with collars, skirts and “short-sleeved linen jackets perfect for the summer season” — but his analysis becomes more innovative when he turns from glamour to infrastructure. Gas pipes, water mains and electric grids rightly play a central part in his story. It’s hard to imagine the modern consumer without them, but in all cases their establishment was driven by industrial, not individual, need. Business leaders dominated 19th-century town councils and demanded regular provision of gas and water for their factories, warehouses and retail establishments. Cities initially contracted with private suppliers for decades into the future, but the fixed profits in those contracts gave providers little incentive to expand. In many cases, the municipality itself therefore took over provision, reaping considerable gains in the process. With the resulting profits, cities expanded services — they built parks, playgrounds, libraries and swimming pools — which led to further increases in consumption. Public consumption expanded well before private consumption became widespread.
Overwhelmed by possessions, many try to curate their wardrobes and yearn to ‘be more with less’
Throughout, Trentmann effectively demonstrates the significant role of the state (be it nation, empire or city-state) and of politics in shaping consumption regimes. A central state, with uniform currency, measurements and taxation, facilitates market integration in a way that fragmented local authorities could not. A central state can mandate weekend closing and it can allow Sunday trading (both developments of the past 150 years). Centralisation hardly guaranteed uniform effects, however. For instance, Britain’s “Free Trade Empire” was decidedly “consumer-friendly” in the metropole but far less so in the colonies. The idea of colonised people buying European products threatened to undermine colonisers’ claims of cultural and commercial superiority. Bemoaning the loss of native “authenticity”, westerners kept the good stuff for themselves.
Consumption politics have taken many different forms. North American colonists famously dumped tea into Boston Harbor; they also urged their fellows to reject “the baubles of Britain”, thereby launching one of the first documented “Buy Local” campaigns in history. Abolitionists boycotted cane sugar from the Caribbean. The Gilded Age was the golden age of the citizen-consumer: in Europe and North America, social movements mobilised thousands in the name of ethical consumption. Millions of workers belonged to co-operatives in France and Britain; in the US, thousands of activists worked to abolish sweatshops. (For a time, they were largely successful.) Gandhi’s embrace of the Swadeshi movement turned the economics of self-sufficiency into an ethics of global brotherhood. Today, it may be movements such as Slow Food that get most of the media attention, but it is organisations such as the AARP (American Association of Retired People) that get most of the results.
Even when it turns away from the state, Empire of Things pushes repeatedly against the literature that conceptualises consumption as a matter of individual choice alone. Trentmann calls attention to company towns and other forms of corporate paternalism as “schools of a new [consumer] lifestyle”. Throughout most of the 20th century, economic growth coincided with companies’ provision of substantial non-wage benefits. Freed from spending wages on basics such as food or lodging, workers could buy more stuff.
Here, as at many other junctures in the book, the statistics are fascinating: in Japan in 2002, a third of employees lived in company housing or were paid a housing allowance; in continental Europe at the same time, a full 33 per cent of all meals eaten away from home were consumed in company canteens (worth €6bn, annually). The best story, though, is the one about Bat’a, the Czech shoe manufacturer, whose company towns reached across the globe to include East Tilbury in Essex and Batatuba in Brazil. In the interwar period, its 2,500-seat cinema in Zlín (Moravia) was the largest in Europe; Le Corbusier, impressed by the architecture and everything else, concluded that the town was a glimpse into “a whole new world, one with enough happiness to go around”. Would anyone say the same of Facebook’s or Google’s Silicon Valley campuses?
So capacious is this book’s definition of “consumption” that even time (that most precious resource) and religion are under consideration. Trentmann treats religion and consumption not as two distinct domains — a spiritual realm versus a material one — but as two forms of social-cultural experience that have transformed each other. Ferrero’s “Rocher chocolates” were named after the rocky grotto where Bernadette of Lourdes had her vision of the Virgin Mary. Many Evangelical Christians in the US today embrace the “prosperity gospel”, as do Pentecostalists in Africa and Brazil. Religious life, Trentmann tells us, is saturated with things.
On average, Europeans and North Americans today have more leisure than their ancestors did in 1900, but they are also more anxious about what they do with it. The cult of consumer choice is both blessing and curse. “In the past”, writes Trentmann, “there was less leisure, but what there was came in predictable, sequential chunks: church, lunch, then the afternoon walk. Today, there is more time off, but leisure is less [socially] structured and comes in a greater range of offerings . . . Free time [is] no longer primarily about freedom from work, but about the freedom to accomplish things.”
Seen in this light, the “New Minimalism” looks less like a reaction against the empire of things than it does its absurd culmination. Imagine the “average” German (cited above) working methodically through his or her possessions in true KonMari fashion. Two minutes per object would mean 20,000 minutes — over 300 hours, close to 42 full work days — of looking for the joy in each thing. Were each of the approximately 80m Germans to undertake this task, the total time spent would be staggering.
Rebecca Spang is a professor of history at Indiana University and author of ‘Stuff and Money in the Time of the French Revolution’ (Harvard)