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consumption history

The first book in the series I am copy-editing (and more), Worlds of Consumption, is now available. Decoding Modern Consumer Societies, edited by Hartmut Berghoff and Uwe Spiekermann (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), offers an introduction to and stocktaking of the relatively young field of consumption history.

Since I have a vested interest in the project, I won’t try to convince you that it is the best thing since sliced bread, but I will say that I have learned a lot and that I am firmly convinced of the value of consumption history. Indeed, I have included consumption history in my last two courses, Belinda J. Davis, Home Fires Burning: Food, Politics, and Everyday Life in World War I Berlin (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2000) for my graduate course on war and society and Uta G. Poiger, Jazz, Rock, and Rebels: Cold War Politics and American Culture in a Divided Germany (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000) for my modern Germany course for undergraduates.

For more information about the German Historical Institute’s new book series, Worlds of Consumption, please view the linked PDF file on Dropbox, which includes tables of contents for Decoding Modern Consumer Societies as well as for two volumes that will appear later this year, The Development of Consumer Credit in Global Perspective: Business, Regulation, and Culture, edited by Jan Logemann, and The Rise of Marketing and Market Research, edited by Hartmut Berghoff, Philip Scranton, and Uwe Spiekermann.

Yesterday I asked how I could integrate the consumption history I’m learning into my teaching, and I pointed to a couple examples where it’s already there. But I missed a glaringly obvious one: the Great War.

Consumption is a vital part of the story in Gerald Feldman’s classic Army, Industry, and Labor in Germany, 1914—1918 (1966), insofar as the purchasing power of labor was inextricably linked to Germany’s social and political stability and, therefore, the country’s ability to produce sufficient armaments to continue fighting. The point is more accessible in Roger Chickering, Imperial Germany and the Great War, 1914—1918 (1998 and 2004), which I have used in a course on the Great War and will use again next fall in one on modern Germany. There is also Belinda Davis, Home Fires Burning: Food, Politics, and Everyday Life in World War I Berlin (2000), which I will be using in a graduate course on war and society this summer.

I also usually bring up a much earlier aspect of consumption history when I address the Enlightenment and the public sphere: coffee houses. To make this point, there is a delightful reading from before the Enlightenment on the Internet Modern History Sourcebook: “The First English Coffee-Houses, c. 1670—1675.”

Of course, none of this is informed by a specific historiography of consumption history, but it does point out how this topic is already in my teaching. But there’s a difference between including a topic and addressing it systematically. To think about war and society in Europe, I can at least draw on the periodizing nomenclature of cabinet war, people’s war, and total war to help describe the level of societal involvement in interstate conflicts over the past few centuries (Stig Förster et al.). If such language and periodization exists for understanding consumption history, I have not yet learned it.

Perhaps the main point is to recognize modern consumer societies as having a history in the first place, instead of taking them as a direct reflection of human nature and, hence, rendering them ahistorical, as too often happens in simplistic political rhetoric that opposes capitalism and communism—rhetoric that invariably finds its way into student spoken and written comments. I sometimes try to do this with economic thought in the early modern period, but historicizing capitalism should be a central historiographical problem for the modern era, too.

Since I began my editing job a little over a year ago, I have begun learning a little about a lot of history that I had previously never experienced. While my editing has included a variety of smaller projects as diverse as the interests of the institute’s fellows and recent alumni, my main area of responsibility is editing a new series on consumption history. Two volumes are under contract, and a third will be very soon, but I’ve been forcing myself to sit on my hands and not go into details here until things are actually published.

Meanwhile, I have begun to wonder how I might integrate what I’m learning about modern consumer societies into my teaching. Connections sometimes come up spontaneously in class, but maybe I could do something more meaningful. Well, in the past I have used Emile Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames (aka The Ladies’ Paradise), which I first encountered as a teaching assistant for Sandra Horvath-Peterson. And next fall I will use Uta Poiger’s Jazz, Rock, and Rebels: Cold War Politics and American Culture in a Divided Germany in a survey of modern Germany. But how could I approach the issue more systematically (when I am able to make some time for reflection)?

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