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Empire of Things

Posted on Apr 8, 2016

By Carlos Lozada

    A detail from the cover of “Empire of Things: How We Became a World of Consumers, From the Fifteenth Century to the Twenty-First.” (Harper)

To see long excerpts from “Empire of Things” at Google Books, click here.

“Empire of Things: How We Became a World of Consumers, From the Fifteenth Century to the Twenty-First”
A book by Frank Trentmann

There are lots of books about a single thing that supposedly changed everything. They all sound the same, with titles like “Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World” or “Tea: The Drink That Changed the World” or “The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger.” They’re all true, to a point, but all exaggerated — magnifying the influence of one item or product to tell a bigger story.

    Book Cover Image
    Empire of Things: How We Became a World of Consumers, From the Fifteenth Century to the Twenty-First
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Frank Trentmann, a historian at Birkbeck College, University of London, takes this model and flips it: He has written a book about everything in order to illuminate the story of individual daily life. “Empire of Things” is a massively ambitious — and just plain massive — history of what and how and why we consume, a work spanning continents, centuries, ideologies, political systems, faiths, and lots and lots of physical stuff.

Though we can be described as voters or households or taxpayers or workers or whatever label suits the political calendar, Trentmann thinks our identity as consumers trumps all others. A typical German owns some 10,000 objects, he notes, while a standard Los Angeles garage may not house a car but rather hundreds of boxes of random stuff. “Instead of warriors or workers, we are more than ever before consumers,” Trentmann writes. “In the rich world — and in the developing world increasingly, too — identities, politics, the economy and the environment are crucially shaped by what and how we consume.”

But the way we think about that consumer culture is all wrong, Trentmann argues. In particular, he contests the notions that consumerism is a U.S.-driven phenomenon; that it emerged with the post-World War II economic boom; that it flows from market forces; and that it invariably reflects a move toward secularism, superficiality and transience.

Trentmann does what historians do, finding stories of personal acquisitiveness as far back as Renaissance Italy, where households began accumulating silverware and table items as markers of “domestic sociability and politeness,” and Ming Dynasty China, where “antiquities and original pieces of art were stocks to be cherished for life.” In the Netherlands, local lotteries in the 1600s offered wine goblets and silver sword handles as minor prizes; the powerball gave you a full silver table service worth 4,000 florins.

For as long as people have yearned for more stuff, intellectuals have chastised them for that desire. Even Plato’s “Republic” followed the “decline of a virtuous, frugal city as it was corrupted by the lust for luxurious living,” Trentmann reminds readers. But his true nemesis is more recent: John Kenneth Galbraith, author of “The Affluent Society” (1958), in which the late economist argued that modern society seeks not only to fulfill our needs but also to create new ones, propelling us to live beyond our means, go into debt and thus strengthen the power of business. Though Trentmann acknowledges that the book has been enormously influential in cementing popular notions of consumerism, he dismisses it as “not a sober empirical study but a piece of advocacy to justify greater public spending.”

The irony of a statist and anti-consumerist tract is that, as Trentmann makes clear, governments have been major drivers of consumption patterns and growth throughout history. “Empire” is not just a metaphor here; imperialism and co­lo­ni­al­ism take up big chunks of the author’s attention, as they created demand for and interest in new goods, on the part of both the subjugators and the subjugated. In particular, the post-Waterloo expansion of British power liberalized world trade, unleashing the movement of more stuff. “British rule brought armies and tax collectors,” Trentmann writes, “but it also spread new norms, habits and behaviours. It changed the terms of consumption.”

Without producing mini-commodity biographies, Trentmann examines the role of cotton — “the first truly global mass consumer good,” with Indian dyed cotton reaching East Africa as early as the 11th century — and explores how tea, coffee and chocolate traversed the globe, thanks to the power of conquest or proselytism. “The first European chocoholics were Jesuits and Dominicans in the New World,” Trentmann deadpans. Legacies of empire and trade affect what people think of as local or national products, the author explains. “In Belize today, treasured local dishes have their roots in imperial trade, which prized imported fish and tinned fruit over the local catch,” he writes. “The new local is the old global.” Trentmann traces how popular concerns about products evolved from place of origin to price and now, with the fair-trade movement, to supply-chain conditions.

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