Empire of Things by Frank Trentmann: Summary & Notes

Front cover of Empire of Things by Frank Trentmann.

In short

Empire of Things chronicles the rise of consumerism throughout the centuries, from ancient China, Renaissance Italy, industrial era Britain, and finally to modern-day societies. It shows that in many ways we become what we consume and that consumption shapes our overall identities.

It’s a very detailed account, even a bit too much at times with the book clocking in at almost 900 pages. But if you’re interested in consumption and how it has evolved over history, Empire of Things is definitely an interesting read.

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Book Summary & Notes

“Hume showed how bodily pleasure and pain shaped our identity and passions. An encounter with a new object was one way in which intelligence and feeling were inspired and strengthened. When the ‘soul’ applied itself to understand a novelty, Hume wrote, it moved with difficulty at first. This difficulty excited ‘the spirit’ and was ‘the source of wonder’. Over time this stimulus wore off. […] To trigger the sense of wonder, new objects needed to keep coming. Novelty’s psychological effect fascinated the Scottish Enlightenment and put fashion and obsolescence in a new light. Far from being artificial or alienating, new things helped make us who we were. Stop their flow and the self would lose some of the impressions that kept it alive.”

“It is the diffusion of luxury therefore among the mass of people, and not an excess of it in the few, that seems to be most advantageous, both with regard to national wealth and national happiness.” There would always be rich and poor, but in Malthus’s mind there was at least a chance now that the proportion of the poor would diminish by joining the middle class. More consumption was one step in the right direction.”

“A ‘man’s Self is the sum total of all that he CAN call his,’ [William] James observed. This did not mean ‘only his body and his psychic powers’ or his family, work and reputation, but also ‘his clothes and his house…his lands and horses, and yacht and bank-account’. All these gave an individual ‘the same emotions. If they wax and prosper, he feels triumphant; if they want and die away, he feels cast down.’ People had a ‘material self’ as well as a social and spiritual self, and a pure ego.”

“The home was the nursery of that ‘material self’. ‘Its scenes are part of our life,’ William James wrote, and it awakened ‘the tenderest feelings of affection’. Any writer on domestic harmony could have written this. James went further. People, he wrote, had a ‘blind impulse’ to find a home and improve it. they had an ‘equally instinctive impulse’ to collect possessions, which became ‘parts of our empirical selves’. This explained ‘our depression at the loss of possessions’; it felt like ‘a partial conversion of ourselves to nothingness’.”

Ernest Dichter: “he believed that the spread of affluence would slow down competitive status-seeking. Instead of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’, individuals would spend more energy developing their ‘inner Joneses’, retire earlier, bake their own bread and design their own distinct outfits and home interiors. By developing a pleasurable relationship with things, we would make them ‘our tools’, ‘freeing ourselves from tyranny’. Dichter’s Handbook of Consumer Motivations (1964) took readers from food and shelter to things of a ‘higher order’, including art, patriotism and plants. It mirrored his vision of personal progress from ‘the human being as a thing person to the human being as a think person’. […] Dichter’s please for a new hedonism was not ‘spend now, worry later’. Looking forward to leisure would encourage people to plan ahead and save, he believed – optimistically, as it turned out in the case of America.”

“Socialism was hugely wasteful. Housing was so cheap that once a family had secured a large flat there was no reason to give it up once the children had moved out. At parties, hosts used to cool beer under (free) running water in the bathtub. Socialism was a recipe for private austerity and public squalor.”

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