What we consume has become the defining feature of our lives: our economies live or die by spending, we are treated more as consumers than workers, and even public services are presented to us as products in a supermarket. In this monumental study, acclaimed historian Frank Trentmann unfolds the extraordinary history that has shaped our material world, from late Ming China, Renaissance Italy and the British empire to the present. Astonishingly wide-ranging and richly detailed, Empire of Things explores how we have come to live with so much more, how this changed the course of history, and the global challenges we face as a result.
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What we consume has become a central—perhaps the central—feature of modern life.
Our economies live or die by spending, and we increasingly define ourselves by our possessions. This ever-richer lifestyle has had a profound impact on our planet. How have we come to live with so much stuff, and how has this changed the course of history?
In Empire of Things, Frank Trentmann unfolds the extraordinary story of our modern material world, from Renaissance Italy and late Ming China to today’s global economy. While consumption is often portrayed as a recent American export, this monumental and richly detailed account shows that it is, in fact, a truly international phenomenon with a much longer and more diverse history. Trentmann traces the influence of trade and empire on tastes, as formerly exotic goods like coffee, tobacco, Indian cotton, and Chinese porcelain conquered the world, and explores the growing demand for home furnishings, fashionable clothes, and convenience that transformed private and public life. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries brought department stores, credit cards, and advertising, but also the rise of the ethical shopper, new generational identities, and, eventually, the resurgence of the Asian consumer.
With an eye to the present and future, Trentmann provides a long view on the global challenges of our
relentless pursuit of more—from waste and debt to stress and inequality. A masterpiece of research and storytelling many years in the making, Empire of Things recounts the epic history of the goods that have seduced, enriched, and unsettled our lives over the past six hundred years.
Praise for Empire of Things
“Empire of Things is a masterpiece of historical research . . . a delight to read.”—The Times (UK)
“Empire of Things is something to behold; a compelling account of consumerism that revels in its staggering breadth and depth. Frank Trentmann has written a necessary and important book about one of the defining characteristics of our times.”—Amanda Foreman, author of Georgiana, winner of the Whitbread Prize, and A World on Fire
“Impeccably scholarly, vividly detailed, and delightfully written, Empire of Things is the indispensable starting point for anyone who wants to understand how, in the last half millennium, every effort to restrain consumers has failed, while revolutions in consumption keep piling up stuff and waste.”—Felipe Fernández-Armesto, author of Millennium and Civilizations
“In this magisterial volume, Frank Trentmann takes us through time and across national borders to provide a comprehensive history of how people the world over have come to live with more and more things. Here is the crucial backstory to every consumer exchange.”—Lizabeth Cohen, author of A Consumers’ Republic
“Empire of Things is an extraordinary, Braudelian achievement. It is impossible to imagine that any one person would be able to do a better job than Frank Trentmann.”—John Brewer, author of The Pleasures of the Imagination, winner of the Wolfson History Prize
Frank Trentmann is Professor of History at Birkbeck College, University of London, and directed the £5 million Cultures of Consumption research programme. His last book, Free Trade Nation, won the Whitfield Prize for outstanding historical scholarship and achievement from the Royal Historical Society. He was educated at Hamburg University, the LSE and at Harvard, where he received his PhD. In 2014 he was Moore Distinguished Fellow at Caltech.
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