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Although the consumption of luxury goods, such as textiles and jewelry, occurred among elites in societies from the earliest times, the spread of consumerism since the eighteenth century is considered a significant development in world history. This fascination with nonessential goods is in part a result of economic growth and prosperity as well as a shift away from nontraditional values.
Consumerism involves a devotion to the acquisition of goods not needed for basic, or even embellished, subsistence. It is further associated with a desire for novelty, even a commitment to faddism, rather than contentment with established styles sanctioned by tradition. The spread of consumerism, socially and geographically, is one of the most significant developments in world history over the past two to three centuries. Growing commitments to consumer culture represent not only a sign of economic change and growing prosperity, but also a significant shift in values.
Consumerism is not, of course, entirely modern. Elites in various societies indulged in aspects of consumerism from the advent of civilization if not before. Bursts of consumerism occurred, for example, at various points in Chinese history, as wealthy landowners and aristocrats built houses with showy furniture and fancy gadgets, and showed off a parade of eye-catching costumes. The passion of Roman elites for Chinese silks was an example of consumerism, and so was the domestic indulgence in jewelry common in wealthy Muslim homes in the Middle East. As historians increasingly grasp the importance of interregional trade in premodern history, particularly by about 1000 CE, they also detail a growing array of consumer interests. Cotton cloth made in India, for example, with colorful designs, became extremely popular in Japan and other parts of eastern Asia, and ultimately in western Europe. Chinese porcelain gained widespread attention as an export item all around the Indian Ocean (and again, a bit later, in Europe).
There were, however, several constraints on consumerism in traditional societies. One was the poverty of the majority of the population, which precluded significant consumerist commitments. Even elites frequently shied away from full-blown consumerism, particularly in the sense of avid interest in novelty as opposed to established styles. Religious objections often surfaced, and many societies devoted surpluses to glittering religious expenditures more than personal consumerism. Many societies periodically enforced sumptuary laws, which punished displays that were nontraditional or that threatened established social boundaries. Leading consumerists in China were sometimes actually put to death by a government intent on maintaining traditional styles and values. Consumerism, in other words, was not an automatic result of wealth.
Until fairly recently, historians treated consumerism (if they paid any attention at all to what was sometimes seen as a frivolous topic) as a result of industrialization. As output and living standards rose, people were encouraged to use surplus to buy new goods. While this relationship retains partial validity, major discoveries in the past two decades locate the effective origins of fully modern consumerism in western Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. A craze for buying new things and keeping up with the latest fashions spread widely in Western society, affecting urban populations particularly but creeping into the countryside as well—as with domestic manufacturing workers in eighteenth-century Switzerland who defied village customs by indulging in urban-style clothing. Massive markets for secondhand clothing developed, for people who had the consumerist urge but not the money to follow through easily, and thefts of fashionable clothing rose as well. Not only clothing but household furnishings and tableware reflected growing consumerist interests, and there were also some intriguing sidelights, like the frenzy for tulip buying (including paintings of tulips) that swept through Holland in the second quarter of the seventeenth century.
This modern consumerism had three characteristics. First, it was cross-class. While social distinctions were not obliterated, one of the joys of modern consumerism involved buying the same kinds of styles as one’s betters—if perhaps of lower quality. Many social critics noted this feature, bemoaning (and exaggerating) the loss of the ability to tell a person’s social station by looking at his or her clothes. Consumerism also crossed gender lines. Women were often unduly blamed for frivolous consumerism— men participated heavily as well—but it was true that women found considerable self-expression in consumerism. New interests in tea sets and silverware, for example, followed from women’s new authority to regulate mealtimes in the family, and furniture and clothing often sparked interest.
Second, modern consumerism involved a new apparatus of shops and commercial inducements. Scholars have found the basic elements of consumerist apparatus present in places like Britain in the later eighteenth century. Not only did shops spread, but owners became adept at arranging goods in enticing window displays; they offered loss leaders to lure people in for bargains as a result of which they would also end up buying other goods; they advertised widely, often using aristocrats to testify to the qualities of products like razors or teas. Josiah Wedgwood, a leader in pottery production in eighteenth-century Britain, kept careful track of the shops that sold his goods, experimenting with new styles but with enough market research to learn what ones were catching on, what ones should be pulled back. There were even early signs of consumerist leisure: commercial circuses, for example, began in France in the late seventeenth century (though they had been known earlier in Asia). By the late eighteenth century otherwise traditional rural festivals were beginning to import entertainers from the cities.
Third, modern consumerism acquired new meanings for the people involved. Of course it reflected Europe’s growing prosperity (for those with some property—not yet for everyone). It also reflected new levels of international trade. Mass enthusiasm for imported sugar has been labeled the first instance of modern Western consumerism, while the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century interest in tea and coffee helped support the larger enthusiasm for new tableware. But cultural change was involved as well. For many people, religious focus was declining, and consumerism was an outlet for growing secularism. A more commercial society blurred class lines, while population growth jeopardized established place. Many children, for example, could no longer count on inheriting land or artisanal shops from parents. They might do all right financially—working for wages in domestic manufacturing for instance—but they did not have access to conventional social markers. Consumerism, as a means of showing a new kind of identity and success, could play a crucial role in this context. Growing interest in romantic love, another current of the eighteenth century, also contributed to the commitment to acquisition, particularly, of course, in personal apparel. Additionally, modern consumerism involved a new desire for personal comfort. The use of umbrellas, for example, provided shelter from bad weather, though some British stalwarts objected to this “unnatural” indulgence as umbrella purchases became common in the eighteenth century. Historians debate the precise mix of factors involved, but they agree that consumerism reflected serious values changes, and not simply the imposition of new lures by greedy shopkeepers.
It is clear, finally, that modern consumerism preceded industrialization in the West, helping in fact to promote it through heightened demand for products like clothing. Growing enthusiasm for cotton cloth, one of the motors of early industrialization, reflected not only its cheapness but also the ability to dye it in bright colors, catching the eye of eager consumerists.
Industrialization and Social Critiques
Consumerism and industrialization combined to promote further changes in commercial apparatus. A cluster of shops in Paris merged in the 1830s to form the world’s first department store, and the spread of this kind of outlet marked the further progress of consumerism on a global basis. By the 1860s and 1870s, scientists and popularizers were also noting a brand-new consumerist disease, kleptomania, both in Western Europe and the United States, with middleclass women the most common victims. Here was a sign, if a deviant one, of the kind of personal passion that modern consumerism could entail. Emotional definitions changed. Envy had traditionally been criticized as a debasing emotion, but by the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries it began to be praised as a motivation for healthy consumerism.
Modern consumerism made many people uncomfortable, which is not surprising given the magnitude of change involved. From the late eighteenth century onward, criticism dogged the phenomenon. Religious authorities objected to secularism—though by the late nineteenth century some mainstream Christian groups came to terms with consumerism, noting that a good appearance was one of God’s blessings. Social critics of course attacked the presumptions of the lower classes and the weaknesses of women. Emile Zola’s novel Germinal was a long harangue against department stores and women’s frailty, which distorted family budgets and led to ruin. Medical authorities might get into the act, noting the bad health effects of too much indulgence (particularly, of course, in food and drink). Socialists sometimes opposed consumerism in the name of purer proletarian tastes; but sometimes they merely insisted that workers be given the means to join in consumerism. Anticonsumerism was also an element in anti- Semitism in Western Europe, with Jews blamed for department stores and other lures to depraved taste. While some of these reactions eased over time—there was less anticonsumerism in the West by the later twentieth century—they remain a factor.
Modern consumerism began to spread beyond western Europe during the nineteenth century. The United States followed European fashions in its imports of clothing and food from the 1840s onward, though there had been some signs of consumerist interest earlier. The purchase of watches in rural New York, in the 1820s, has been traced to a desire to copy English fashion, only later leading to an actual interest in keeping more accurate track of time. Department stores spread to major Russian cities by the 1850s, indicating a new upper-class interest in stylish consumerism. Japan’s opening to the West involved quick assimilation of many consumer interests. Department stores began to mark the fashionable Ginza district in Tokyo by the 1890s. The same kinds of outlets showed up in Western-influenced Shanghai by the early twentieth century. These geographical extensions of consumerism were not automatic. Asian department stores often mixed traditional displays with Western-style consumerism. They offered concerts and other lures to demonstrate that consumerism was culturally acceptable. Even with this, many locals stayed away, convinced that there was nothing in these outlets that they wanted; and of course there was massive criticism of consumerism not only along the lines already present in the West, but on grounds of its debasing foreignness. As before, the spread of consumerism involved really new values, including an interest in challenging existing social lines and power structures, and the process did not occur overnight.
The spread of consumerism also brought new possibilities for protest. A number of boycotts developed, seeking to use denials of consumerism as a means of attacking foreign intervention or other issues. The Boston Tea Party, before the American Revolution, was a consumerist protest of sorts. By the 1920s Indian nationalists and others frequently used boycotts of foreign products to attack British imperialism, with some success. African Americans employed boycotts in places like Baltimore during the interwar period to protest racial injustice. Boycotts were involved in attacks on apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s. By this point, also, human rights groups frequently spurred boycotts against multinational companies accused of shoddy labor practices in Third World countries. Other kinds of consumer movements in the twentieth century sought protection against fraud and poor quality.
The Twentieth Century and Beyond
Consumerism intensified in the twentieth century. Again, both apparatus and motivation were involved. Advertising became slicker, using new imagery and technology and appealing more deeply to emotion. The first real advertising agency arose in the United States, in the 1870s; the phenomenon spread to Europe during the early twentieth century. Not only growing prosperity but also growing discontent with work promoted new levels of consumerist interest. Many factory workers, bored or nervous on the job, turned to consumer pleasures to compensate. The same pattern could affect middle-class people, increasingly employed in large, faceless bureaucracies and unable to claim traditional satisfactions in personal entrepreneurship.
The new wave of consumerism, from the late nineteenth century onward, fueled by these developments, involved the increasing commercialization of holidays like Christmas. As consumerism globalized, Christmas also became widely popular, even in Muslim societies, for its commercial appeal, while other holidays, like Ramadan, began to include more consumer items like greeting cards.
Global consumerism involved the growing participation of children, surrounded from infancy with store-bought items like teddy bears (named for the American president). Experts began to urge parents to use toys and other consumer items to encourage good behavior. Consumerism also spread widely to the field of leisure, as most mass leisure came to involve purchased pleasures and spectatorship, from sports to movies.
Western leadership in twentieth-century consumerism increasingly involved American initiatives, as the United States became the world’s leading consumer society. By the 1990s, however, Japan claimed a share in pioneering consumer fashions, as the sale of “cool” products became the nation’s large single export category. A key challenge in consumerism research involves careful comparative analysis (as yet ill-developed) to recognize common elements in the phenomenon but also key variations, including efforts to establish consumerist patterns different from those in the United States.
By the later twentieth century, also, consumerism increasingly intertwined with a global youth culture. Many young people found participation in consumer fads a means of expressing themselves against parental and other adult control. Again, consumerism had meanings, in terms of power relationships and personal expression, which went beneath the surface. The idea of participating in cosmopolitan styles, and being seen in the process, provided significant incentives for many young people.
The geographical spread of consumerism continued, of course. Soviet Russian society attempted to “co-op” consumerism, with state-run department stores like GUM; but the merger never entirely worked, and consumerist dissatisfaction with communism played a role in the collapse of the system. Urban African participation in consumerism began at least by the 1920s; Chinua Achebe’s novel No Longer at Ease, set in 1920s Nigeria, deals with the inroads of consumer culture on traditional family values. Latin American participation increased: by the later twentieth century a trip to Disney World in Florida, complete with shopping spree, was a standard expression of family success and doing right by one’s children. The idea of Christmas shopping spread to Muslim Istanbul, while the purchase of gifts and cards was increasingly added to the religious celebration of Ramadan.
Access to consumerism remained uneven, of course. Many rural areas in Asia and Africa were barely touched, and this fact added to the increasingly important rural–urban divide in countries like China. Outright resistance continued as well. The rise of religious fundamentalisms from the 1970s onward represented in part a protest against consumerist values, including their frequent association with sensuality and sexual license. Many post-communist Russians resented consumerist displays by the “new Russian” middle class, partly, of course, from envy but partly from an older belief that community sharing should take precedence over individual expression. The process of assimilating consumerism has continued into the early twenty-first century.
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