By Frank Trentmann
What we consume has become the defining feature of our lives: our economies live or die by spending, we are treated more as consumers than workers, and even public services are presented to us as products in a supermarket. In this monumental study, Empire of Things, acclaimed historian Frank 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.
Ian Thompson on The Guardian wrote:
"historian Frank Trentmann has written the first total history of consumption. Empire of Things is an original, ambitious account [...] Trentmann rejects this dichotomy, arguing that 'consuming is too diverse and its history too rich to fit either extreme model: complacent mass consumption or individual freedom.' [...] Empire of Things is divided into two sections. The first is broadly chronological, tracing consumer culture from the fifteenth century to the present day and examining various factors that have transformed it. The second places current trends in historical context-investigating, for example, how consumption has transformed religion, ethics, and generational identities. Trentmann manages to convey both the everyday impact that consumption has on people's lives and the sweeping changes it has undergone over several centuries. [...] Three main takeaways emerge from Trentmann's detailed narrative. First, contrary to the popular view, modern consumer culture did not originate in the United States. [...] Second, Trentmann argues that material culture is not unique to liberal democracies. [...] Finally, Trentmann argues that consumption is a political phenomenon as much as an economic one, owing equally to changes in public policy and to markets. [...] Much of Empire of Things deals with history, but Trentmann discusses a particularly contemporary subject in his epilogue: the relationship between consumption and equality."
James Sheridan on The Irish Times wrote:
"Attitudes to material acquisition have varied greatly down the ages. Frank Trentmann, in his ambitious history of the subject from medieval times to the present, carefully puts the case for and against. [...] Trentmann, a professor of history at Birkbeck, University of London, eschews moral judgments. But in the book’s second half he appears to question the value of fair trade and other 20th century, quasi-Christian consumer movements. Affluent consumers in the west are made to feel virtuous by buying Oxfam coffee and tea. ('Those so inclined can be buried in a fair trade bamboo coffin made in Bangladesh,' he adds.) At any rate, citizen-consumers in the west have the luxury of ethical consumption, while others do not. [...] Though fraught with inelegant-sounding sentences ('We can see the schizophrenic nature of empire in this early wave of globalisation'), Trentmann’s history of five centuries of material culture is impressive in its breadth and scholarship."
Rebecca Spang on FInancial Times wrote:
"Frank Trentmann’s book charts the origins of consumerism in order both to analyse and understand its causes, side effects and ultimate trajectory. [...] Arguing that the study of the consumer has since the 1980s and 1990s been undertaken by a series of unsuitable researchers such as anthropologists, who instead of viewing goods for their practical applications saw the consumer as a purchaser of items, based on their cultural significance rather then their practical and affordable traits, Trentman in this book seeks to explore this everyday practical reason for consumption. Therefore, utilising his background as a professor of history at Birkbeck College, University of London, Trentmann seeks to analyse his topic through the use of historical trends, which chart the transformation of attitudes, philosophies and cultures over periods of time. Through these means he proposes that by careful research of the historical trajectory of consumerism we can uncover its long-term implications and evaluate potential solutions caused by humanity’s increasing addiction to the overconsumption and waste of resources. [...] while Trentmann gives enormous detail on the rise of consumerism, he also deals with a series of political thoughts on the subject discussing Marxist and neo-liberal agendas and detailing both their successes and shortcomings. [...] The author also explores various contemporary political arguments about whether the demand for goods and services is driven by public or private investment or is the world transiting from a materialistic base, where individuals’ desires was satisfield in the acquisition of goods, to one where experiences are central to a person’s self-worth [...] With such an enormous scope it is fair to say that the author has been able for the most part to produce a thoroughly encapsulating and enjoyable account, which is well written and very accessible to academic and non-academic audiences."
"His is not a new subject, per se, but his thick volume is both an impressive work of synthesis and, in its emphasis on politics and the state, a timely corrective to much existing scholarship on consumption. Based on specialist studies that range across five centuries, six continents and at least as many languages, the book is encyclopedic in the best sense. [...] Empire of Things uses the evidence of the past to show that 'the rise of consumption entailed greater choice but it also involved new habits and conventions . . . these were social and political outcomes, not the result of individual preferences'. The implications for our current moment are significant: sustainable consumption habits are as likely to result from social movements and political action as they are from self-imposed shopping fasts and wardrobe purges. [...] Throughout, Trentmann effectively demonstrates the significant role of the state (be it nation, empire or city-state) and of politics in shaping consumption regimes. [...] Even when it turns away from the state, Empire of Things pushes repeatedly against the literature that conceptualises consumption as a matter of individual choice alone. [...] So capacious is this book’s definition of 'consumption' that even time (that most precious resource) and religion are under consideration. Trentmann treats religion and consumption not as two distinct domains — a spiritual realm versus a material one — but as two forms of social-cultural experience that have transformed each other."
Table of Contents of Empire of Things
- Three Cultures of Consumption
- The Enlightenment of Consumption
- Imperium of Things
- The Consumer Revolution Comes Home
- Age of Ideologies
- Inside Affluence
- Asia Consumers
- Buy Now, Pay Later
- Not So Fast
- From the Cradle to the Grave
- Outside the Marketplace
- Home and Away
- Matters of the Spirit
- Throwaway Society?
About Frank Trentmann
Frank Trentmann is Professor of History at Birkbeck College, University of London, and directed the £5 million Cultures of Consumption research programme. His last book, Free Trade Nation (2009), won the Whitfield Prize for outstanding historical scholarship and achievement from the Royal Historical Society. He was educated at Hamburg University, the LSE and at Harvard, where he received his PhD. In 2014 he was Moore Distinguished Fellow at Caltech.