Empire of Things

Empire of Things: How We Became a World of Consumers, from the Fifteenth Century to the Twenty-First
Frank Trentmann
Allen Lane  862pp  £30

The novelist Fanny Burney was one of the first writers to use the word ‘shopping’ in print. ‘We have been a shopping’, announces the eponymous heroine of her 1778 novel Evelina, ‘to buy silks, caps, gauzes, and so forth’. Burney’s book provides a perfect picture of both the thrills of 18th-century London with its brightly lit shopping malls, entertainment palaces and sumptuous pleasure gardens – a bewildering array of goods and diversions – and the deep-seated anxieties about vanity, greed and sexual impropriety which came hand in glove with this rampant consumerism.

Georgian Britain is widely regarded as the fount of the lust for luxury, which has led directly to our unprecedented levels of consumption. Yet, as Frank Trentmann’s magisterial survey makes clear, both the joys of shopping and the soul searching go back much further. He traces the history of human consumption from Renaissance Italy and Ming-dynasty China to the present day – a 600-year global love affair with buying more stuff – in a book which combines a sweeping study of themes with impressive detail. While most of the 15th- and 16th-century world lived hand to mouth, ‘hotspots of consumption’ in Italy and China, such as Venice and Nanjing, revelled in luxury goods. Italian nobles spent their disposable income on new-fangled items such as forks and eggcups, while even artisans could afford satin gloves and paintings. Domination of the seas shifted the axis of wealth to Britain and the Netherlands in the 1600s and 1700s. New trade routes brought tea, coffee, cocoa and tobacco in ever greater volumes. The average Dutch farmer owned 18 linen shirts, while in London, visitors noted, even beggars wore shoes.

Although Trentmann disparages the recent glut of biographies about single commodities for attempting to pin too much on one item, he charts the huge impact some of these new imports unleashed. Transporting the sweet potato from the New World to China freed peasants to switch from cultivating rice to feed their families to producing silk for mass export. Cheap dyed Indian cotton transformed British clothing from dreary seas of grey, black and white to kaleidoscopic colours and patterns. 

Novelty and variety turned shopping into a leisure pursuit and, as people felt their identities increasingly bound up in their possessions, so they imprinted their initials on cutlery and china. Yet Trentmann also puts this consumer rush into sharp perspective. By 1700, European ships brought a combined total of 230,000 tons of goods from Asia a year – equivalent to two container ships today.

Imperial expansion, faster steamships and higher wages raised consumption to new levels, with Britain leading the charge. The end of the 19th century saw the arrival of the department store – Harrods opened in 1895 – with lavish window displays and annual sales, as well the craze for home furnishings, mass production of foods and the assertion of consumer power. In 1898 one consumer activist declared: ‘Let us hope that the 20th century will be that of consumers!’ His wish was duly fulfilled.

Trentmann charts the explosion of new goods, services, experiences and fashions – rock ‘n’ roll, cars, home ownership, holidays, youth culture, mobile phones – which have raised consumption to unparalleled heights as well as unprecedented levels of anxiety about our ever stronger addiction to ‘stuff’. 

As Trentmann shows, concerns about our consuming passions are as old as our consuming habits. The philosopher Seneca warned of our enslavement to pleasure, while in AD 413 Augustine of Hippo blamed our collective greed on original sin. Arguably, from Eve’s first bite of the apple to our obsession with Apple, humans have desired things they do not need and worried about it afterwards. 

This is a huge book dealing with huge issues and it is no light read. Therein lies its success and its shortcoming. In the sheer breadth of coverage and depth of analysis, Trentmann provides an incomparable survey for scholars of consumerism. He writes simply and stylishly to convey grand ideas with a pithy turn of phrase. Yet for ordinary mortals, the dizzying detail can make it hard to see the wood for the trees, to divine the message from the mess of things. Like a modern department store, it is best perhaps to sample its pleasures in manageable chunks. 

Trentmann is optimistic that his historical insights will provide hope for the future. There are important lessons here – if we can only stop consuming long enough to listen. 

Wendy Moore's latest book is How to Create the Perfect Wife (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2014).

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