Empire of Things: How We Became a World of Consumers, from the Fifteenth Century to the Twenty-First
The dictum “Less is more” is usually attributed to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who in 1947 summed up the principles of minimalism in an interview with Philip Johnson.1 Nobody knows who coined its unrepentantly exuberant, even vulgar, offspring, “More is more.” It’s been credited variously to the postmodern architect Robert Venturi, to the fashion designer Gianfranco Ferre, to the novelist Stanley Elkin, to the graphic designer Deborah Sussman, and sometimes to the spangled queen of glitz herself: Dolly Parton.
Both “Less is more” and “More is more” are the catchphrases of a consumer society faced with unimagined plenty. Following World War II, “Less is more” suggested unease with mass abundance: restraint became an emblem of refinement. Two decades of uninterrupted prosperity later, “More is more” poked fun at its abstemious parent. It is also a fitting description of the way we live now. Even if you think yourself a reluctant shopper, consider all of the resources used to create our material world: the steel to build our homes (especially the Miesian ones), the natural gas to fire our furnaces, the aluminum in our smartphones and tablets. In the world’s richest countries, consumption has ballooned by over a third in the past few decades to the point that in 2010, each person in the thirty-four richest nations consumed over 220 pounds of stuff every day.
How did we come to be such voracious, irrepressible consumers? And how has all of this consuming changed the world? Those are the questions at the heart of Frank Trentmann’s Empire of Things, a more-is-more sort of book, each of its nearly seven hundred pages of text jam-packed with telling facts and counterintuitive provocations. Trentmann deals with five hundred–plus years of history, from the Renaissance city-states, with their tastes for gilded goblets and Oriental silks, to present-day China, where state capitalism has proven that liberalism is no requirement for booming consumerism. It’s a book about material objects (such as a department store window featuring a model of St. Paul’s Cathedral composed entirely of hankies), but even more, about all of the consumption that cannot be so readily seen—unspectacular, everyday acts such as changing your underpants daily (only 5 percent of German men did so in 1966).
Empire of Things is that rare tour d’horizon that expands your sense of what should count as the subject. To equate consumption with shopping, Trentmann argues, is to miss the main story. Consumption is as much about state intervention (infrastructural investments in gas and water or welfare programs) as it is about the…
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