Empire of Things: How We Became a World of Consumers, from the Fifteenth Century to the Twenty-First by Frank Trentmann, book review

Charting the 500-year history of wanting things we simply don't need

Marcus Tanner
Thursday 21 January 2016 16:41
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Carried away: television programmes like ‘Sex and the City’ helped to legitimise the fetishisation of consumerism
Carried away: television programmes like ‘Sex and the City’ helped to legitimise the fetishisation of consumerism

In the early 1650s, England had one coffee house – in Oxford. Fifty years later London and most capital cities in Europe had hundreds of them, and by 1750 every servant in Paris expected to start the day with a café-au-lait. The astonishing rise of coffee – from unknown substance to exotic treat to something that almost everyone uses – is just one fragment of the story of the rise of consumption over the past five centuries.

The point at which people were in a position to start buying and using stuff they fancied but did not actually need to stay alive remains contested. While some date the birth of the modern consumer "culture" to the Industrial Revolution, Trentmann argues for a much earlier date, around the 1500s. He writes that incomes in several northern European countries like England by then had risen to the level where large numbers of people, not just nobles, could splash out on a few luxuries.

Wills from the time show a spike in the number of people of the "middling sort" leaving stuff to their nearest and dearest – jeweled knives, books, fancy furniture and suchlike.

The rise in disposable income was only one factor kick-starting consumption. Urbanisation was also key. The village might boast a forge and blacksmith. The city had shops, whole streets of them. Availability was another factor. The discovery of the Americas and a quantum expansion in overseas trade, the author writes, resulted in masses of previously unknown goodies like tea, chocolate, sugar and tobacco arriving on quaysides all over Europe. Like coffee, they were rapidly democratised. One moment, only half a dozen people in Europe knew about them. The next, everyone wanted a nibble, a sip or a puff.

Trentmann says that the more we consumed, the more anxious we became about it. Consumerism has never had an easy ride. Governments tried to curb consumption which, as the name for the disease suggests, was long identified with wasting assets. In England, James I tried to ban tobacco and Charles II wanted to close the coffee houses. All over Europe, "sumptuary" laws forbade the lower classes from buying expensive clothes. Many countries banned imports.

The Catholic Church continued to preach against indulgence and foster the cult of abstinence and mortification – one reason, perhaps, for the slower spread of the throwaway culture in Catholic southern Europe, even among the prosperous classes. Socialists took up the struggle against buying stuff – an inherently private activity – in the 19th century and environmentalists did the same later on.

The results of these campaigns appear to have been meager. Communists were dedicated and thorough opponents of the culture of private consumption and seized control of China in 1949. However, although the People's Republic is still communist today, it is also now a consumer society par excellence. In the West, moral revulsion against the excesses of consumerism is stronger than in the East – and equally ineffectual. We swap, share and recycle like crazy but the volume of stuff we buy rises regardless. Thanks to an explosion in gadgets, Trentmann says, we consume three times more electricity per household in Britain than we did in the 1970s. We chuck out more unused food than ever.

Trentmann has written a suitably gigantic book for a gigantic subject but the mass of detail he provides never overwhelms. This is a book that can be dipped into and enjoyed at leisure. The first half, in which he describes how the consumer culture took off, is especially fascinating. You can't not learn something new here.

He closes his epic tale on a sombre note, warning that unless a cultural revolution takes place, which frees us from our addiction to buying, consuming and then throwing things away, we risk submerging the entire planet in waste. Judging by our record so far, don't hold out your hopes.

Allen Lane, 30. Order at £27 inc. p&p from the Independent Bookshop

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