Contemporary European History


Consumer Society – RIP. A Comment1


a1 Department of History, Classics and Archaeology, Birkbeck College, Malet Street, University of London, London WC1E 7HX;

Andreas Wirsching has written an ambitious paper about the rise of the ‘consumer society’ in the twentieth century and its implications for historical research. I should say at the outset that I am sympathetic to his warnings against a Whig history. The career of the ‘consumer society’ needs to be historicised. My main problem is that ‘the consumer society’ is used in multiple, slippery ways in this article which moves back and forth between treating it as an ideological construct, an analytical concept and as a material reality of how people live their lives. It sometimes appears as ‘paradigm’, yet at other times it is the real thing, ‘a burgeoning consumer society’.

Frank Trentmann is Professor of History at Birkbeck College, University of London. From 2002 until 2007, he directed the £5 million Cultures of Consumption research programme. His work has focused on the history of consumption, civil society and politics. He is the author of Free Trade Nation: Commerce, Consumption and Civil Society in Modern Britain (2008), which won the Whitfield Prize, and editor of several collections, including Consuming Cultures, Global Perspectives (with John Brewer, 2006) and Citizenship and Consumption (with Kate Soper, 2007). He is particularly interested in putting current debates about consumption in their longer historical context – the theme of his current book project for Penguin: The Consuming Passion: How Things Came to Seduce, Enrich, and Define our Lives, Eighteenth Century to the Twenty-First (forthcoming).


1 For references and further discussion, see my recent articles: Frank Trentmann, ‘Crossing Divides: Consumption and Globalization in History’, Journal of Consumer Culture, 9, 2 (2009), 187–220 [OpenURL Query Data]  [Google Scholar]; Frank Trentmann, ‘The Long History of Contemporary Consumer Society: Chronologies, Practices, and Politics in Modern Europe’, Archiv für Sozialgeschichte, 49 (2009), 107–28 [OpenURL Query Data]  [Google Scholar]; Frank Trentmann, ‘Materiality in the Future of History: Things, Practices, and Politics’, Journal of British Studies, 48, 2 (2009), 283–307 [OpenURL Query Data]  [Google Scholar].