EMPIRE OF THINGS by Frank Trentmann


How We Became a World of Consumers, from the Fifteenth Century to the Twenty-First
Email this review


A wide-ranging exposition of the human life of buying, selling, and trading from the Renaissance until now.

This book is the result of a lifelong study of man and his need to acquire, and Trentmann (History/Birkbeck Coll., Univ. of London; Free Trade Nation: Commerce, Consumption, and Civil Society in Modern Britain, 2008, etc.), who directed Birkbeck’s Cultures of Consumption research program, seems to cover every single aspect of trade and markets since the Renaissance. He begins with early Ming dynasty China and 17th-century England and the Netherlands. The Black Death created a new labor market, raising wages, making for cheaper goods, and fostering the growth of the middle classes. The discovery of the New World brought Spanish silver to the marketplaces, monetizing trade for travelers to the Far East as well as those in Europe. New settlers provided cheap new commodities and an additional customer base. Class distinction plays an enormous part in consumerism, especially the way people dressed. The elite demanded sumptuary laws to prevent lower classes from dressing above their stations. Novelty was the fuel for consumer societies, fed by adaptation, innovation, and imitation. As people moved to the cities, their desire for goods only increased. It’s hard to find an area the author missed, though he is distressed over having to omit Brazil. Throughout the book, the quotes from economists demonstrate how the values of things change, from being defined by the producer to being demanded by the consumer. The growth of literacy and the arrival of piped water, gas, and electricity all worked together over the years to make a field of study as broad as can be imagined. In an exceedingly comprehensive, overlong narrative, Trentmann takes it all in and explains the importance of coffee, tea, cotton, pensions, credit cards, and household waste. Most fascinating, perhaps, is how little the facts of consumerism have changed over centuries.

A masterly work best suited to those who study marketing and are undaunted by the dense, detailed narrative.

Pub Date: March 29th, 2016
ISBN: 978-0-06-245632-8
Page count: 848pp
Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1st, 2016


NonfictionABSOLUTE VALUE by Itamar Simonson
by Itamar Simonson
NonfictionTHE NAKED CONSUMER by Erik Larson
by Erik Larson
by Leo Panitch