The Shopper’s Revolution

Almost from the beginning of their history Americans have been great consumers of goods, and they still are. Jobs may be fleeing the country, wages and salaries may be flat, and capital investment may be sluggish, but Americans’ remarkable propensity to consume goods continues. Consumption is the workhorse of the American economy, comprising nearly three quarters of the GDP, which is proportionally very much more than any other developed nation. Indeed, shopping at the mall now seems to be the American way of life. We have TV channels dedicated to home shopping, and with new magazines like Lucky and others on the way, we even have the birth of an entirely new genre of magazine, one devoted exclusively to selling goods.

Such a powerful force in American life has always attracted the attention of scholars, from Thorstein Veblen to David Reisman and John Kenneth Galbraith. It is not surprising that it should interest recent historians as well. Last year saw the publication of the much-celebrated A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America by Lizabeth Cohen. In her book Cohen argued that mass consumption largely shaped post–World War II American society, including not only the economy but politics and culture as well. Now in his new book T.H. Breen, professor of history at Northwestern University, has reached back two centuries and tried to connect the Americans’ extraordinary consumptive power with nothing less than the origins of the American Revolution.

Although there were earlier studies of consumption in early modern England, it was the publication in 1982 of The Birth of a Consumer Society: The Commercialization of Eighteenth-Century England by Neil McKendrick, John Brewer, and J.H. Plumb that brought the subject into the mainstream of historical study. That book argued that eighteenth-century England experienced nothing less than a “consumer revolution.” More people than ever before in human history had the pleasure of acquiring material goods:

Objects which for centuries had been the privileged possessions of the rich came, within the space of a few generations, to be within the reach of a larger part of society than ever before, and, for the first time, to be within the legitimate aspirations of almost all of it.

The book seemed suddenly to open up a new field for study, and a flood of books and articles on consumption in the English-speaking world followed.

With his new book T.H. Breen, who is one of the most imaginative and productive of early American historians, has carried scholarly interest in consumption in the eighteenth century to a new level. Never before has anyone given such political and cultural weight to the buying and selling of goods in colonial America. Although he suggests that the term “consumer revolution” may be an exaggeration, he has no doubt that the colonists’ increasing purchase of British manufactured goods in the middle decades of the eighteenth century fundamentally transformed their position in the empire.

American historians, Breen writes, have not generally appreciated the importance and…

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