Empire of Things

The following are two excerpts from Prof Frank Trentmann‘s new book, Empire of Things How We Became a World of Consumers, from the Fifteenth Century to the Twenty-First (UK: Allen Lane, 2016; USA: HarperCollins, 2016).

In the book, which has been released today, Prof Trentmann unfolds the extraordinary history that has shaped our material world, from late Ming China, Renaissance Italy and the British empire to the present. Astonishingly wide-ranging and richly detailed, ‘Empire of Things’ explores how we have come to live with so much more, how this changed the course of history, and the global challenges we face as a result.

EmpireOfThings_MockUp_Front - Copy (2) Introduction

We live surrounded by things. A typical German owns 10,000 objects. In Los Angeles, a middle-class garage often no longer houses a car but several hundred boxes of stuff. The United Kingdom in 2013 was home to 6 billion items of clothing, roughly a hundred per adult; a quarter of these never leave the wardrobe. Of course, people always had things, and used them not only to survive but for ritual, display and fun. But the possessions in a pre-modern village or an indigenous tribe pale when placed next to the growing mountain of things in advanced societies like ours.

This change in accumulation involved a historic shift in humans’ relations with things. In contrast to the pre-modern village, where most goods were passed on and arrived as gifts or with the wedding trousseau, things in modern societies are mainly bought in the marketplace. And they pass through our lives more quickly.

In the last few hundred years, the acquisition, flow and use of things – in short, consumption – has become a defining feature of our lives. It would be a mistake to think people at any time have had a single identity, but there have been periods when certain roles have been dominant, defining a society and its culture. In Europe, the High Middle Ages saw the rise of a ‘chivalrous society’ of knights and serfs.

The Reformation pitched one faith against another. In the nineteenth century, a commercial society gave way to an industrial class society of capitalists and wage workers. Work remains important today, but it defines us far less than in the heyday of the factory and the trade union. Instead of warriors or workers, we are more than ever before consumers.

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. Taste, appearance and lifestyle define who we are (or want to be) and how others see us. Politicians treat public services like a supermarket of goods, hoping it will provide citizens with greater choice. Many citizens, in turn, seek to advance social and political causes by using the power of their purse in boycotts and buycotts. Advanced economies live or die by their ability to stimulate and maintain high levels of spending, with the help of advertising, branding and consumer credit. Perhaps the most existential impact is that of our materially intensive lifestyle on the planet. Our lifestyles are fired by fossil fuels. In the twentieth century, carbon emissions per person quadrupled. Today, transport and bigger, more comfortable homes, filled with more appliances, account for just under half of global CO2 emissions. Eating more meat has seriously disturbed the nitrogen cycle. Consumers are even more deeply implicated if the emissions released in the process of making and delivering their things are taken into account. And, at the end of their lives, many broken TVs and computers from Europe end up in countries like Ghana and Nigeria, causing illness and pollution as they are picked apart for precious materials.

How much and what to consume is one of the most urgent but also thorniest questions of our day. This book is a historical contribution to that debate. It tells the story of how we came to live with so much more, and how this has changed the course of history.

Age of Ideologies

She was just nineteen and lucky to be alive. Heidi Simon had been born the year Hitler came to power. Frankfurt am Main, her hometown, was among the cities worst hit by Allied bombing; the 1944 raids killed thousands and left half the population homeless. Now, in 1952, Heidi was one of the winners in an amateur photography competition to celebrate the American Marshall plan. Recovery had barely begun. The entries reflected the harsh realities of post-war Europe: ‘Bread for all’; ‘No more hunger’; ‘New homes’. She scooped one of the top prizes: a Vespa moped plus prize money. The officials at the Ministry for the
Marshall Plan may well have been surprised by her response. She was very happy about winning but, she wrote, to be honest and without trying to sound ‘impertinent’, she wondered whether she could not rather have a Lambretta than a Vespa. For the entire last year she had ‘passionately’ longed for a Lambretta. The Ministry refused and sent her the Vespa.

This snapshot of young Heidi Simon, tucked away in the German federal archives, is a reminder of how the large forces of history intersect with the material lives and dreams of ordinary people. The Marshall Plan was a critical moment in the reconstruction of Europe and the advancing Cold War divide between East and West, but its recipients were far from passive. Heidi’s outspoken desire for a particularly stylish consumer good in the midst of rubble also challenges the conventional idea that consumer society was the product of galloping growth in the age of affluence, the mid-1950s to 1973. It jars with the sometimes instinctive assumption that people turn to goods only for identity, communication or sheer fun after they have fulfilled their basic needs for food, shelter, security and health.

It is no coincidence that this psychological model of the ‘hierarchy of needs’, initially proposed by the American Abraham Maslow in 1943, gained in popularity just as affluence began to spread. According to this theory, Heidi Simon should have asked to trade in the Vespa for bricks and mortar and perhaps some savings bonds, rather than hoping for an upgrade to the 123cc Lambretta with its sleek single-piece tubular frame.

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