Empire of Things: How We Became a World of Consumers, from the Fifteenth Century to the Twenty-First
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“Empire of Things isn't just an insightful and surprisingly entertaining read, but a crucial one.”—NPR
What we consume has become a central—perhaps the central—feature of modern life. Our economies live or die by spending, we increasingly define ourselves by our possessions, and this ever-richer lifestyle has had an extraordinary impact on our planet. How have we come to live with so much stuff, and how has this changed the course of history?
In Empire of Things, Frank Trentmann unfolds the extraordinary story of our modern material world, from Renaissance Italy and late Ming China to today’s global economy. While consumption is often portrayed as a recent American export, this monumental and richly detailed account shows that it is in fact a truly international phenomenon with a much longer and more diverse history. Trentmann traces the influence of trade and empire on tastes, as formerly exotic goods like coffee, tobacco, Indian cotton and Chinese porcelain conquered the world, and explores the growing demand for home furnishings, fashionable clothes and convenience that transformed private and public life. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries brought department stores, credit cards and advertising, but also the rise of the ethical shopper, new generational identities and, eventually, the resurgence of the Asian consumer.
With an eye to the present and future, Frank Trentmann provides a long view on the global challenges of our relentless pursuit of more—from waste and debt to stress and inequality. A masterpiece of research and storytelling many years in the making, Empire of Things recounts the epic history of the goods that have seduced, enriched and unsettled our lives over the past six hundred years.
balanced each other out. ‘A highly refined economic system daily puts forth a mass of products and sets forces in motion which nobody wants and which bring advantage to none . . . which many scorn as unworthy, absurd and mischievous.’ Artists and writers were no better. Everywhere, standards were declining, resulting in ‘cultural disorder’. ‘Serious activity’ and ‘play’ had contaminated each other. Slogans and PR ruled. Decorum and respect were on the wane. Radio could not teach people to think,
were the most advanced societies not only commercially but, as we shall see, also in learning to live with change and trusting people to monitor and fashion themselves. Still, in the seventeenth century, they were the exceptions, not the norm. Most societies steered a third, middle path, making some allowance for new tastes by creating ever more finely detailed codes of dress. In a new regulation in 1693, the patricians of Nuremberg tolerated the fashionable short jacket that replaced the
a more profound impact on rural than on industrial communities south of the border. Just as important as conditions in the receiving country is where remittances come from, for migrants bring back ideas of the good life as well as money. In 2009, the World Bank conducted household surveys for the Africa Migration Project and compared who had a mobile phone, radio, TV and access to a computer. In Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal and Burkina Faso, there was a difference between households receiving
living, as we have seen, notably in the Netherlands and England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. What was new in the late nineteenth century was that many churches lost their old qualms about material corruption and openly preached that God promised material abundance for everyone. Henry Ward Beecher, a Congregationalist social reformer and abolitionist, told American audiences that luxury was the sign of pious men. Beecher himself liked jewellery and shopping. It helped that he
(processed with sulphites) eliminated the dependence on rags; the first chemical pulping mill opened in 1890, in Sweden. The earlier regime of recycling, in which waste from households flowed back to farms and industry, unravelled at both ends. Waring’s philosophy relied on the collaboration of citizens, but residents proved less conscientious than rag pickers about separating materials. Physical analyses of rubbish revealed how much valuable material now ended up in the bin. In Washington DC in