How we became a world of consumers

Some years ago, I was starting a new consumer organisation, which took the name of Consumer Focus. This was the daughter of the National Consumer Council, which I had led, and was to be a state body here in the UK.

A new organisation is full of hope and life for the future, but often empty, except for what individuals bring to it, of insight about the past. We look forward more comfortably than we look back. So I asked the historian, Birkbeck Professor Frank Trentmann, to write a Letter from the roots and experiences of consumer action in the past.

What Frank sent, in 2008, pointed to areas of opportunity, but was cautionary:

“Instances of consumer representation can be counted on a single hand. In Britain, the final stages of the First World War saw the establishment of a Consumers’ Council, which was formally dissolved in 1920. At the municipal level, the rising wave of municipalized services made no provision for consumer representation as such. Consumer Leagues went into decline, and consumer questions migrated to other domains recognised by the state – such as housing. Consumer representation played little more than the role of a footnote in the nationalisation of industries after World War Two. Michael Young’s National Consumer Council in 1975 can be seen as reversals of this trend, but the overall pattern remains overwhelming. Compared to other policy domains and other dimensions of citizenship, consumption occupies a marginal place in the formal apparatus of power.”

He wasn’t wrong. I left Consumer Focus when the set-up was complete, but within two years the organisation had been axed by the Coalition Government.

Frank went on to say that “like other social movements, consumer advocates tend to see their history as a progressive path of awakening and achievement. Certainly, the history of consumers is rich in achievements. But it is not only a progressive saga of democracy, welfare and fairness upward and forward. The inter-war years, for example, saw the rise of a new imperialist conservative movement of housewives and shoppers. Several hundred thousand conservative women urged housewives to buy British and imperial goods. They organised national shopping weeks, initiated public fetes, rallies and ceremonies, with empire pudding competitions and Kenyan coffee tasting stalls. British housewives, they urged, should not simply think about the cost to themselves. Consumption involved public responsibilities. Shoppers had a duty to use their power as consumers for the strength of the empire and the British race. Here was a racist antecedent of FairTrade.”

The research Frank Trentmann has completed over many years now has culminated in an extraordinary book that he has now published – to critical acclaim, most recently in the Financial Times. The book is called Empire of Things: how we became a world of consumers, from the fifteenth century to the twenty first.


At over eight hundred pages, it is comprehensive – who needs War and Peace? – and I think fair to say, a landmark treatment of the history of consumer experience and action over time.

I loved it. The book has all the colour of eclectic curiosity, cataloguing everyday life across cultures and continents but also the wisdom of wide-ranging commentary and dry insight and humour. All of today’s commentary around consumer life is gently tested.

Clothing, for me, emerges as one of the heroes of the book. For many over time, sumptuary laws set out what you could wear, depending on your status. In Nuremberg in 1693, local patricians set down what kind of cap women could wear, with ladies of noble families permitted to wear a silken cap with a sable or marten border. Wives and daughters of ‘respectable merchants could also wear a velvet cap, but were prohibited from adding gold lace or buckles. Shopkeepers were limited to rims of simple fur, not marten, with neither silver nor gold in use.

These lasted longer in the US – the 1735 South Carolina Negro Act forbade African Americans from wearing their master’s cast-off clothes and restricted them to white Welsh plains and other cheap fabrics. Even so, slaves found their own identity, spending a little hard-earned cash made from raising chickens or growing cotton on the side, on silk ribbons and looking glasses.

In Istanbul in 1758, a Christian and a Jew were hanged by Sultan Mustafa III for wearing yellow leather boots reserved for Muslims. In East and West Africa in the eighteenth century, before colonisation, there were fashions for the latest Indian cottons and glass beads from Venice.


The story of clothing is a reminder of how bound up it is in systems and cultures of power, class and gender, as well as how often consumption has been enveloped in moralities, for better or for worse.


As Frank concludes in 2008, in his letter for a new, hopeful and now lost organisation: “awareness of such complicated pasts will also help us to reflect on our own values and unspoken assumptions.”

One thought on “How we became a world of consumers

  1. Thanks, Ed. Looks like a really interesting read. I’m sure Frank Trentmann draws attention to our lost sense of the etymology of “consumption”, i.e. to use up or to waste, and the implications of uncritically defining citizens as consumers for a sustainable future.

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