Teaching Consumerism in World History

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Authored by

  • Peter Stearns
    George Mason University
    Fairfax, Virginia

The reasons to discuss teaching the history of consumerism in a world history survey are many, despite the large gaps in knowledge that still plague this tantalizing field. The subject is fundamental to understanding the modern world, including globalization. Studying consumerism helps connect students to wider issues in historical analysis and global understanding because it is something they themselves live. Consumerism also generates fascinating source materials—visual, textual, even quantitative—that further contribute to a lively teaching program, though admittedly we need to work on accessing opportunities outside the Western world. Finally, the subject is on the frontiers of historical knowledge, which can engage students and teachers alike in a sense of discovery. While there are important existing treatments of the subject, there are also open fields in such areas causation and comparison. Teaching, in this sense, can help build knowledge, providing another opportunity for student engagement. This article attempts to open the teaching of consumerism more widely by raising several key questions that, in my view, any instructor seriously interested in including consumerism must ponder. Adequacy of available answers varies, but the questions themselves provide useful orientation.

  1. Is consumerism worth teaching about? A former student of mine upon getting her first job a few years back identified the history of consumerism as the course she most wanted to offer, along with the more standard survey repertoire. Her new colleagues were aghast at such a frivolous subject, and negotiations proved difficult. The usable past has expanded, in terms of core history topics, and it is not surprising that partisans of older staples grow nervous. So we need to be able to justify consumerism rather than simply assume its inclusion. For those who may find the introductory arguments above insufficient, let me add another claim from a provocative comment by Michael Miller, author of the pioneering study on the French department store Bon Marché. In a book review, Miller argued that, in the context of the broader human experience, consumerism rather than industrialization is the more surprising development and the one that demands the most serious effort at historical exploration and explanation.1 I'm not absolutely sure I agree, but I do believe that Miller's point is worth considering and that it correctly indicates the validity of serious inquiry into the historical nature and evolution of consumerism as a set of fundamental interests and behaviors.

  2. How is consumerism best approached in terms of research and teaching? There are two principal channels through which consumerism can be addressed, both valid and ultimately combinable. Consumerism can be seen as a set of institutions and practices—particular kinds of stores, sales gimmicks, advertisements, even public policies. This is often the readiest initial entry to consumerism; this is why the first studies of eighteenth-century British consumerism focused on shopkeepers and their tactics and why efforts to trace consumerism in Russia may begin with the rise of department stores from the 1850s onward. But the second aspect of consumerism—what it meant to those involved—must not be neglected, and this involves consumerism as a set of personal interests, orientations, and motivations on the part of individuals themselves. Although difficult to access, this second aspect is what ultimately makes consumerism both intriguing and important. The combination of apparatus and personal motivations and meanings also raises important challenges for explanation: to what extent does apparatus cause individual desire and to what extent does desire have to come first, however then manipulated and channeled by apparatus? The question may gain different responses in different times and settings, but it emerges in any serious evaluation of any outcropping of consumerism.

  3. Is consumerism natural? To pose this question another way, will people normally become consumerist as soon as they have incomes significantly above subsistence—recognizing that subsistence itself is not a fixed quantity but depends on personal and cultural standards as well as objective necessities? This interesting question is itself part of the larger question of causation. Partisans of consumerism may incline toward the natural explanation, but many historians (whether partisans or critics) will find the topic more interesting if causation is viewed more complexly. There are certainly serious historical cases where people turn away from consumerist opportunities, even though they have the means to pursue them, in favor of other goals. Most reasonably well paid factory workers in the first generation or two of industrialization, for example, shunned the possibility of maximizing their pay—and therefore their opportunities to improve levels of material consumption—in favor of taking time off work, through absences or job changing, in order to heighten their sense of control over the pace of their lives. Admittedly, this orientation did not endure, and workers were pushed to accept a more market-driven definition of their work and wage, but it does suggest that consumerism is not absolutely inevitable. Not surprisingly, there are important cases outside the Western experience where the same issues emerge. Peasant reactions commonly suggest a preference for land over consumerism, and many traditional societies used economic surplus for religious rather than personal-consumerist display or for better but traditional costumes rather than novel, consumerist fashions, both of which challenge the assumption that consumerism is a natural phenomenon.

  4. Is consumerism premodern? Here is a crucial and complex question essential to a world-historical approach to the subject. A reasonable shorthand definition of modern consumerism involves 1) a serious commitment to the acquisition, display, and enjoyment of goods and commercial services clearly not necessary to subsistence however generously defined, and 2) participation in the process by social groups outside the upper classes. The first part of the definition emerges in many places before modern times, and there have been rarer hints of the second as well. Aristocracies quite commonly evolve from warrior qualities to what might be called consumerism; the process is familiar in Roman, Arab, and Chinese history, as well as in Western history by the later Middle Ages. We don't tend to call the result consumerist, but the label is not actually inappropriate. China, under the Tang and Sung and again under the Ming dynasties, frequently displayed symptoms of socially expansive consumerism in the cities, with style-setters among women and business families outside the aristocracy. Chinese consumer styles would even have impact elsewhere, as in European imitations of Chinese women's headgear in the later Middle Ages. To be sure, most periods of Chinese consumerism were followed by retrenchment and even attack, with some of the most flagrant consumer advocates actually executed. So it remains valid to warn against positing durable consumerism (outside an aristocracy) before recent centuries. But it is also valid to open more parts of world history to a consumer inquiry than we are accustomed to doing, and, in the process, to deepen our understanding of what constitutes consumerism and where the origins of the more familiar, modern process actually lie. Here, clearly, is an invitation both to imaginative teaching and to further scholarly consideration.

  5. Why did modern Western consumerism first emerge? Without going into great detail, the conclusive finding that Western consumerism began in its basic modern shape during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with appropriate sea changes both in commercial apparatus and in individual motivation, is one of the real discoveries of recent social history. We can fuss about exactly when, but the basic pattern seems clear and with it an understanding that consumerism preceded, rather than followed from, industrialization, though it would later be enhanced by it.

    Causation, however, is more elusive. Vital to world history is an appreciation of how much access to goods from other regions, such as sugar, helped stimulate broader consumer demand and the apparatus needed to sustain and enhance this demand.2 Likewise, rising prosperity for many, though not all, was a vital precondition. However, unless consumerism is simply natural, these do not provide adequate explanation. Sheer emulation of the aristocracy, though a factor, has also been discounted. Beyond these factors, debate focuses on the priority given to cultural change, perhaps along the lines that Colin Campbell persuasively presents, or the results of shifting social and gender relationships that tended to blur established patterns of identity and invited new, more individual, consumerist ones in their place.3 The discussion is important as a further means of finding out what early consumerism meant to the individuals involved.

  6. How can we make the march of consumerism, once established, something less than inevitable and triumphant? In a deeply consumerist age, how can we avoid tempting students to indulge in excessive teleology or presentism? An answer to these questions actually has two parts, the first involving periodization, the second embracing the resistances consumerism provokes. Some of the work on eighteenth-century consumerism has assumed that it was fully formed from the outset and that there is not a lot of interesting history once its initial manifestation is explained. This is probably incorrect, and an ability to periodize and explain significant subsequent changes, even in consumerism's Western paradise, is essential. This is obviously even truer on the world scale, where the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries are crucial periods in the development of consumerism. In neither case do we yet have the firm timeline that would be useful in organizing a teaching program. The link between consumerism and globalization is also complex; not only does the initial spread of consumer products and practices to many societies around 1900 warrant treatment, but also the more familiar trends of recent decades, including several retreats from consumerist practices such as those in China.

    Consumerism's inevitable march is also qualified by the important hesitations and objections that its practices always arouse, particularly (though not exclusively) in their early development. The triteness and hedonism of consumerism make it an inviting target to a variety of critics. These criticisms include religious objections, on grounds of inappropriate priorities; social objections, based on a sense that society has an established (often racial) hierarchy that consumerism threatens to overturn, allowing unworthy people to look and act just like their betters; and age-based objections to the consumer leadership of the young. Also fairly standard are attacks on women as particularly vulnerable to consumerism's encouragement of public display to the detriment of financial prudence and respectable family behavior. These objections, in some blend, crop up everywhere and help to explain such diverse key movements as Nazism and the Japanese government's attempt to discipline consumerism in the name of group loyalty from the 1920s through World War II. Consumerism has often also been attacked as foreign. Even umbrellas were protested in eighteenth-century England as effetely French. While in many societies resistance seems to lessen after a while (Western Europe after World War II, for instance), some anxiety or guilt about consumerism may persist in less explicit forms—even in the United States. And new movements against consumerism, based on religion or environmentalism or antiglobalism or other factors, remain an important part of world history even today. There is no inevitable trend toward unqualified acceptance.

  7. How can we compare consumerisms in world history? Here we deal with an open-ended set of issues sorely in need of further work to advance a teaching program. There is every reason to believe that consumerism, for all its hegemonic potential, should be treated like other comparative topics in modern world history: that is, it is a powerful force, but it arrives in different societies in different ways and encounters different traditional contexts through which its reception is shaped. Certainly the timing of consumerism varies from case to case. Levels of prosperity and poverty vary, as we well know, which in turn diversely affect the path consumerism takes. Different rates of urbanization play a similar role as variables.

    Traditionally more secular societies (like East Asia) may well be more open to consumerism than highly religious ones. Yet China, as we know, was long resistant to consumer products from the outside (a key factor in world history as Western merchants desperately sought goods, from paintings of nudes to opium, that would allow them to break through); even the industrialized West initially entered the Chinese market not through widely attractive goods but through lower prices for established types of clothing. The contrast with more rapid consumer impact on Japan is intriguing and adds significantly to an established comparative pairing for the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

    Returning to larger comparisons, different traditions concerning women will likely affect reactions to key aspects of consumerism, though one must caution against viewing consumerism only as a female concern. Contexts will also vary depending on degrees of prior emphasis on social and generational hierarchies. More work is clearly needed on precise aspects of comparison, such as variations in the nature, as well as the timing, of department stores, variations (if any) in rates of kleptomania, variations in political and cultural hostility to consumerism, and so on. Here is an area where both teaching and research can advance our understanding of consumerism and its role in recent world history.

  8. How can we deal with the United States' leadership role in global consumerism? Here again there are two parts to what must be seen as a complex question. First, dealing with the influence of American consumerism is a vital part of putting the United States into world history. When I ask my world history class to consider in what (if any) distinctive ways the growth of American power has shaped world history differently from the patterns earlier established by West European powers, a standard conclusion highlights the consumerist impact. The United States was better positioned than Western Europe to establish global consumer standards for two reasons. First, it had a larger and more diverse internal market, which allowed it to develop products better suited to lowest-common-denominator global tastes than what individual West European countries could generate. Second, the absence of an aristocratic or intelligentsia tradition in the United States meant that American consumerism was less trammeled by internal critiques and hesitations than was true in Western Europe—again with the result that it was freer to deploy globally. And, of course, the steady growth of U.S. power in the twentieth century meant that, as is always the case in world history, whatever culture it chose to project became attached to an aura of success that facilitated conversions.

    The United States must not, however, be seen as pushing global consumerism alone. The second part of this question involves taking a careful look at the global impact of European, Japanese, and other consumerisms. By the later twentieth century, for example, Japan was sharing world leadership in setting consumer standards in certain areas, such as animation, toys, and games, with powerful impact not only on East Asia but also the Middle East and the United States itself. Indeed, as Japanese popular culture became their number one export category by 2004, the nation was contributing heavily to what some called a global youth culture, and through its products was helping to shape the way people in many societies viewed babies as well. Explaining this surge and its impact form a challenging comparative task partly independent of the United States. Here again, we need to work for balanced materials that will allow due recognition of the various sources of global consumerism.

  9. How can we relate consumerism's history to other topics in world history? Because it is a new and oddly unfamiliar subject, the history of consumerism sometimes seems to stand on its own, with a separate if powerful dynamic. Yet wider relationships are inherent in both the causes and impacts consumerism involves. Some of these relationships surface relatively easily, as is the case with links to changes in economic trends, trade patterns, and cultural and social relationships. Nonetheless, these links offer new perspectives on existing issues. For example, consumerism provides a useful way to explore the ways social groups mark themselves off—or lose the ability to mark themselves off—from other groups. Consumerism's key role in modern gender relationships is another point that is fairly obvious but useful as a classroom topic.

    Other links may be more difficult to see initially but also offer interesting insights. For example, consumerism's relationship to religion—including religion's role as an alternative use of economic surplus—offers one way to highlight major cultural connections, along with the more explicit (if complex) links to more purely modern cultural currents such as romanticism, liberalism, or Marxism. Probably the toughest relationship involves the political, aside from particular movements, like Nazism, that clearly have consumerist targets. Governments have certainly played a role in trying to retard consumerism with sumptuary laws or, in more modern times, campaigns to limit consumerism in favor of national solidarity (as in interwar Japan). We need more work on other ways governments have been involved with consumerism, including the interaction between imperialism and consumerism or the role of consumerism in modern democracy. Even war may have a consumerist angle. War usually dampens consumerism, and in the twentieth century explicit management of consumerism was a key part of war efforts in industrial societies. But Lizabeth Cohen has recently shown how the American government not only rationed consumer goods, but also used images of (future) consumerist gains as a key element in motivational materials during World War II.4 And we may now have reached a point, at least in the United States, where promotion of consumerism has become an important part of mounting an acceptable and economically successful war effort, as citizens are told to go out and buy as part of the effort against terrorism. Again, there are rich and diverse opportunities for placing consumerism in a more conventional historical context, while adding to this context in turn. We've only begun to scratch the surface here in teaching programs, and there are some exciting prospects toward enriching the teaching of "standard" world history and the history of consumerism alike.

  10. Finally, what is a relevant assessment of consumerism? Some teachers may prefer to avoid assessments on grounds that we do not usually evaluate world historical developments unless they seem clearly awful (Nazism) or clearly marvelous (democracy, perhaps). But consumerism may seem to invite some evaluative comment in the effort of helping students see some nuance in the plusses and minuses involved, lest the phenomenon seem simply natural and benign. It's easy to be critical: consumerism is inherently selfish, hedonistic, and often trite. Furthermore, some studies suggest that, while the initial advent of consumerism increases reports of happiness in a society, the effect is short-lived; people in most mature consumer societies are neither more nor less happy than their counterparts in more traditional societies so long as these latter are reasonably stable. Some students of consumerism, like Gary Cross, have urged that history be used to highlight consumerism's rat-race qualities, at least in Western society.5 In this critique, emphasis rests on the frenzied devotion to the extensive work hours necessary to maintain contemporary consumer expectations, particularly in the United States, when another bargain might make much more sense in human and environmental terms.

    Yet, without pretending to refute the critique, I think that a careful historical look at consumerism introduces some desirable complexity. Consumerism involves materialism and acquisitiveness, and it tends to redefine emotions such as envy in these qualities' direction. However, consumerism has also been involved in the emergence of greater individuality; this may or may not be a good thing, but it is not simply greedy. In many societies, within and without the West, consumerism has often seemed quite liberating from traditional social constraints, which has been one of its key attractions for youth, women, and lower classes. And, more vaguely, it seems to provide a way for people to feel connected to wider global meanings, to transcend the parochial and become part of a larger, if trendy, movement. One of the images I most treasure from my own work on global consumerism involves the young man interviewed in a Hong Kong McDonalds®. He did not really like the food, he noted, for he could eat much better at a more traditional outlet; but he loved seeing and being seen at McDonalds® because it made his life seem more connected. Figuring out what this means, and the extent to which it transcends consumerism's undeniable reach into shallowness, remains a key interpretive challenge, one of the reasons teaching the subject is not only important but also deeply interesting.

Guide to Further Reading

Colin Campbell, The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism (Blackwell Publishers, 1989).

Lizabeth Cohen, A Consumer's Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (Vintage Press, 2003).

Gary Cross, An All-Consuming Century (Columbia University Press, 2002).

Lawrence Glickman, ed., Consumer Society in American History: A Reader (Cornell University Press, 1999).

Neil McKendrick, John Brewer, and John H. Plumb, The Birth of a Consumer Society: The Commercialization of Eighteenth-Century England (Indiana University Press, 1984).

Michael Miller, The Bon Marche (Princeton University Press, 1994, reprint edition).

Sidney Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (Viking Press, 1995, reprint edition).

Christine Ruane, "Clothes Shopping in Imperial Russia: The Development of a Consumer Culture." Journal of Social History 28 (1995): 765-82.

Peter Stearns, Consumerism in World History: The Global Transformation of Desire (Routledge, 2002).

Susan Strasser, Charles McGovern, and Mathias Judt, Getting and Spending: American and European Consumer Society in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge University Press, 1998).

Biographical Note

Peter Stearns is currently provost at George Mason University. He is editor of the Journal of Social History and is the distinguished author of numerous books on world history, including Consumerism in World History, Gender in World History, and World History: Patterns of Change and Continuity. Stearns is also the former chair of the AP World History Development Committee.


Gary Cross, An All-Consuming Century (Columbia University Press, 2002).

  1. Michael Miller, The Bon Marché (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994, reprint edition).

  2. On this process, see Sidney Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (Viking Press, 1995, reprint edition).

  3. Colin Campbell, The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism (Blackwell Publishers, 1989).

  4. Lizabeth Cohen, A Consumer's Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (Vintage Press, 2003).

This article was originally presented online at World History Connected Vol. 1, Issue 2. The online journal World History Connected is partially supported by the College Board and published in association with the History Cooperative. Copyright © 2004 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Reproduced here with permission.