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“The Error of our Ways: Historians and the Birth of Consumer Society” - page 4 / 19





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the time and place - of the birth of consumer society.   Though the explanation for this historical preoccupation is complex, having to do both with developments internal to history and those outside it in society at large, one of the main motives for this growing literature was a mixture of national pride and field chauvinism.  The birth of consumer society was spotted in late seventeenth and early eighteenth-century Britain and America, in sixteenth and even thirteenth-century England, in Renaissance Italy, the seventeenth-century Netherlands, eighteenth-century France, and even eighteenth-century Russia.    

Of course, for those whose focus was on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and who saw consumer society in terms of mass consumption and the end to a regime of needs for a majority of citizens, such views were a distraction from the radical shift which heralded ‘modern’ consumer society.   But for the most vehement proponent of the birth of consumer society thesis, there was a definite continuum.  “To speak of a birth”, writes McKendrick, “indicates the organic nature of the whole development, and the need for a long preceding  period of growth, and the necessity for many further stages before the maturity of ‘a society of high mass consumption’, would be reached”.   The impression was of a continuous progression from the eighteenth century to the present.  (This, despite the fact, for instance, that the percentage of GNP devoted to consumer expenditure declined by 20% between 1880 and 1959!)

I want to put McKendrick’s formulation under more severe scrutiny, but before I do so, I also want to point to the significant gains and findings prompted by the search for the origins of consumer society, for though as will be clear I see the quest as misguided, like many misplaced actions it has had unintended good consequences.   

First, the research that followed in the wake of The Birth of a Consumer Society radically increased our knowledge of the material environment of societies in the past.   

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