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“The Error of our Ways: Historians and the Birth of Consumer Society” - page 6 / 19

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defence of luxury itself as the engine of the economy; in other instances it pointed to the importance of the provision of what Adam Smith called ‘decencies’ –  items discussed by McKendrick and revealed in the inventory analyses that seemed to be neither luxuries nor necessities.

Fourth, the greater density of goods, enabled society’s middle ranks, as well as aristocracy, to shape a labile and changing social identity through the consumption of  certain cultural artifacts and services.   Notions of gentility, politeness, respectability, femininity and masculinity were at least in part fashioned by particular patterns and practices of consumption.

Of course, because much of this research has been fuelled by its search for the origins of modernity, it offers a very partial view, one that privileges practices that look modern and overlooks those that seem traditional.   Thus there is remarkably little in this literature – with the exception of the work on foodstuffs - about what we might call ordinary consumption.  There is almost nothing about non-modern forms of consumption and exchange, such as barter and street markets or peddlers and chapmen, though work on this has begun. And there is very little about forms of consumption outside the marketplace, though more and more research – mostly by feminist historians and the historians of women – examines the complex affective relations – of memory, nostalgia, kinship, propriety and thrift – between people and material objects, not all acquired through the marketplace.  

Historical research into the early history of consumption – the same is true of the literature investigating the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – had tended to split apart into two main areas of investigation, which are not that easily connected.  The first is economic, quantitative and primarily concerned with the density of goods – the sheer numbers of  commodities – and the connection between consumption and growth.  

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