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.

The AHA meeting is on, and, as usual, I am not there. The reason is money. Even when this meeting has been local, I have been unable to afford the fees. I mention this on a history blog, because tight pecuniary circumstances affect a lot of historians who are adjunct professors or are in other poorly paid temporary positions. Brian Croxall teaches English, and his paper delivered in absentia at the recent MLA conference speaks to many of us. He not only highlights the money problems, but he also describes the adverse impact that this has on the scholarship and teaching of adjunct faculty, who can find themselves out of the loop.

Yes, there are social media and the internet, but occasional face-to-face contact is also necessary. The low status of blogging and social media in the academy place severe limits on the internet’s ability to compensate for insufficient face-to-face contact. Not enough work or ideas ever make it onto the open web. Of course, new media and email offer more opportunities to communicate, but even historians are human and thrive on the serendipitous and productive moments that arise through informal gatherings at academic conferences between panels and papers.

I usually avoid talking about my pecuniary circumstances, but the current economic climate combined with trends towards increasing reliance on temporary faculty makes the public relevance of my private situation clear. Indeed, sometimes I wonder at just how much in the mainstream of American economic thinking I was, when I set out to become a historian. Sure, doing a Ph.D. set me apart from those who focussed their efforts on maximizing income. But my decision was informed by the same boundless optimism that fed the housing bubble. The biggest difference? The law does not allow one to walk away from student loans when the thing one obtained through them has less value than the original purchase amount.

Related Articles:

Three and a half years ago, Gordon Bigelow published a prescient article in Harper’s Magazine about the limitations of extreme free market ideology called “Let there be markets: The evangelical roots of economics.” In it he points to the differences between Adam Smith’s understanding of moral behavior and the common wisdom about the market in our own times. He shows the crucial contribution that British evangelical authors made to this free market ideology in the early decades of the nineteenth century, and he points to the clear failure of their thought and policies during the Irish famine. These links might not be new for historians specializing in this subject matter; however, they provide food for thought for the rest of us. Besides reminding us to question the social, cultural, and political assumptions of economic theory, Bigelow’s piece offers a good example of how history can engage the public on important issues in forums outside the narrow confines of the academy.

[Hat tip for this reference: Cooper, who blogs about Darfur.]


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