Empire of Things

Cross-posted from Imperial and Global Forum Prof. Trentmann is on the advisory board for the Imagining Markets project.
The following are two excerpts from Prof Frank Trentmann‘s new book, Empire of Things: How We Became a World of Consumers, from the Fifteenth Century to the Twenty-First (UK: Allen Lane, 2016; USA: HarperCollins, 2016), cross-posted fromBirkbeckIn the book, Prof. Trentmann unfolds the extraordinary history that has shaped our material world, from late Ming China, Renaissance Italy and the British empire to the present. 

EmpireOfThings_MockUp_Front - Copy (2)Introduction

We live surrounded by things. A typical German owns 10,000 objects. In Los Angeles, a middle-class garage often no longer houses a car but several hundred boxes of stuff. The United Kingdom in 2013 was home to 6 billion items of clothing, roughly a hundred per adult; a quarter of these never leave the wardrobe. Of course, people always had things, and used them not only to survive but for ritual, display and fun. But the possessions in a pre-modern village or an indigenous tribe pale when placed next to the growing mountain of things in advanced societies like ours.

This change in accumulation involved a historic shift in humans’ relations with things. In contrast to the pre-modern village, where most goods were passed on and arrived as gifts or with the wedding trousseau, things in modern societies are mainly bought in the marketplace. And they pass through our lives more quickly.

In the last few hundred years, the acquisition, flow and use of things – in short, consumption – has become a defining feature of our lives. It would be a mistake to think people at any time have had a single identity, but there have been periods when certain roles have been dominant, defining a society and its culture. In Europe, the High Middle Ages saw the rise of a ‘chivalrous society’ of knights and serfs.

The Reformation pitched one faith against another. In the nineteenth century, a commercial society gave way to an industrial class society of capitalists and wage workers. Work remains important today, but it defines us far less than in the heyday of the factory and the trade union. Instead of warriors or workers, we are more than ever before consumers.

In the rich world  – and in the developing world increasingly, too  – identities, politics, the economy and the environment are crucially shaped by what and how we consume. Taste, appearance and lifestyle define who we are (or want to be) and how others see us. Politicians treat public services like a supermarket of goods, hoping it will provide citizens with greater choice. Many citizens, in turn, seek to advance social and political causes by using the power of their purse in boycotts and buycotts. Advanced economies live or die by their ability to stimulate and maintain high levels of spending, with the help of advertising, branding and consumer credit. Perhaps the most existential impact is that of our materially intensive lifestyle on the planet. Our lifestyles are fired by fossil fuels. In the twentieth century, carbon emissions per person quadrupled. Today, transport and bigger, more comfortable homes, filled with more appliances, account for just under half of global CO2 emissions. Eating more meat has seriously disturbed the nitrogen cycle. Consumers are even more deeply implicated if the emissions released in the process of making and delivering their things are taken into account. And, at the end of their lives, many broken TVs and computers from Europe end up in countries like Ghana and Nigeria, causing illness and pollution as they are picked apart for precious materials.

How much and what to consume is one of the most urgent but also thorniest questions of our day. This book is a historical contribution to that debate. It tells the story of how we came to live with so much more, and how this has changed the course of history.

Age of Ideologies

She was just nineteen and lucky to be alive. Heidi Simon had been born the year Hitler came to power. Frankfurt am Main, her hometown, was among the cities worst hit by Allied bombing; the 1944 raids killed thousands and left half the population homeless. Now, in 1952, Heidi was one of the winners in an amateur photography competition to celebrate the American Marshall plan. Recovery had barely begun. The entries reflected the harsh realities of post-war Europe: ‘Bread for all’; ‘No more hunger’; ‘New homes’. She scooped one of the top prizes: a Vespa moped plus prize money. The officials at the Ministry for the Marshall Plan may well have been surprised by her response. She was very happy about winning but, she wrote, to be honest and without trying to sound ‘impertinent’, she wondered whether she could not rather have a Lambretta than a Vespa. For the entire last year she had ‘passionately’ longed for a Lambretta. The Ministry refused and sent her the Vespa.

This snapshot of young Heidi Simon, tucked away in the German federal archives, is a reminder of how the large forces of history intersect with the material lives and dreams of ordinary people. The Marshall Plan was a critical moment in the reconstruction of Europe and the advancing Cold War divide between East and West, but its recipients were far from passive. Heidi’s outspoken desire for a particularly stylish consumer good in the midst of rubble also challenges the conventional idea that consumer society was the product of galloping growth in the age of affluence, the mid-1950s to 1973. It jars with the sometimes instinctive assumption that people turn to goods only for identity, communication or sheer fun after they have fulfilled their basic needs for food, shelter, security and health.

It is no coincidence that this psychological model of the ‘hierarchy of needs’, initially proposed by the American Abraham Maslow in 1943, gained in popularity just as affluence began to spread. According to this theory, Heidi Simon should have asked to trade in the Vespa for bricks and mortar and perhaps some savings bonds, rather than hoping for an upgrade to the 123cc Lambretta with its sleek single-piece tubular frame.

Imperial History and Film Culture

Cross posted from Imperial and Global Forum

three roads to tomorrow (1958)
Screenshot from the BP-sponsored Nigerian documentary ‘Three Roads to Tomorrow’ (1958), available for viewing at the Colonial Film Project.

David Thackeray
University of Exeter

What value do film culture sources have for historians of imperial history and how do we locate them? Readers of this forum (or at least those based in the UK) are likely to be familiar with the AHRC Colonial Film project but many key sources for the study of imperial film remain obscure to those outside film studies circles.

Media History Digital Library is perhaps the most useful resource for considering the culture of world cinema-going in the colonial era. Building on the resources of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and a host of other collections, this site offers a range of film magazines from across the world as well as key pieces of government legislation.

Cinema St. Andrews provides access to various digitised resources, including a full run of the Colonial Film Unit’s magazine Colonial Cinema.

For historians of the Francophone world ina.fr the website of the Institut national de l’audiovisuel is an invaluable resource, with a range of free-to-access online films.

Some key national film collections are now accessible by Youtube including a collection of National Film and South Archive of Australia movies, films held by Archives New Zealand and the National Film Board of Canada. Recently theBritish Movietone archive also became available online.

Those with an interest in the changing culture of cinema-going in the early twentieth century may also be interested in the Object Stories series curated by the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum and University of Exeter.




In my own teaching, I use colonial film to think about the changing trade relationship between Britain and its empire during the mid- twentieth century. As the Youtube clip above demonstrates, the ways in which west Africa was presented in non-fiction film changed dramatically over time- with the growth of interest in promoting colonial development in the late 1940s and eventual decolonisation in the late 1950s.

Students are split into groups and given a film from the Colonial Film archive to consult. One of the things that they find most surprising is the range of groups which are using film to present stories of changing imperial trade relationships: British companies such as Cadburys and BP, as well as colonial and Dominion governments.

One of the comments that crops up most is the relationship between the Orientalising discourses of colonial film and modern day attempts to promote trade. Opinion is divided on how successful advertising campaigns such as Cadbury’s ‘Zingolo’ (2009) are at evading the motifs of earlier presentations of west Africa in colonial film. However, what is clear is that this legacy remains significant to the present day.*



* Readers may be interested in following the ongoing efforts on Bristol Record Office to recatalogue and maintain the former collections of the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum, which formed an important facet of the Colonial Film project.


Boycotting Apartheid: The Global Politics of Fair Trade

Cross-Posted from Imperial and Global Forum

David Thackeray

As  a  child  there  were  few  experiences  I  looked  forward  to  more  than  a  trip  up  to  London  with  my  father  to  visit  Hamleys  toy  store  in  the  run-up  to  Christmas.  Rather  unusually  perhaps,  these  visits  to  the  capital  were  also  occasionally  marked  by  a  stop  at  South  Africa  House  to  see  the  Anti-Apartheid  picket  of  the  embassy,  organised  to  call  for  the  release  of  ANC  leader  Nelson  Mandela.  We  had  moved  to  the  UK  from  New  Zealand  a  few  years  beforehand,  and  Dad  would  always  use  such  occasions  to  regale  me  with  proud  memories  of  the  protests  which  greeted  South  Africa’s  notorious  rugby  tour  in  1981.  When  the  Springboks  came  to  our  home  city  of  Hamilton,  a  key  centre  of  Maori  culture,  crowd  protests  led  to  the  abandonment  of  a  test  against  the  All  Blacks.  Another  game  became  a  farce  when  flour  bombs  and  leaflets  were  scattered  over  the  pitch  from  a  light  aeroplane.

Over  recent  months  I’ve  been  assessing  the  history  of  the  anti-apartheid  movement  as  part  of  a  wider  attempt  to  understand  the  role  that  ideas  of  moral  economy  in  trade  and  consumerism  played  in  debates  about  Britain’s  economic  identity.  While  the  outpouring  of  praise  from  world  leaders  for  Nelson  Mandela,  following  his  recent  passing,  might  suggest  that  the  anti-apartheid  boycott  had  overwhelming  support  at  the  time,  in  fact  it  was  highly  controversial  and  contested  from  many  sides.

'Look before You Buy,' Anti-Apartheid Movement London, United Kingdom 1977

The  Boycott  Movement  was  launched  in  London  in  1959  (and  renamed  the  Anti-Apartheid  Movement  the  following  year).  While  it  is  sometimes  identified  as  part  of  the  emergence  of  a  series  of  ‘new  social  movements’  in  the  1960s,  the  AAM,  especially  in  its  early  years  shared  many  characteristics  with  earlier  humanitarian  campaigns.  Much  like  the  short-lived  boycott  of  Japanese  goods  movement  of  the  late  1930s  it  drew  heavily  on  the  support  of  labour,  internationalist  and  religious  organisations.  Both  movements  faced  similar  problems  in  convincing  the  public  that  a  boycott  would  work  effectively.

A  key  part  of  the  problem  here  (and  one  also  faced  by  those  who  sought  to  encourage  the  practice  of  ‘Buying  British’)  was  that  it  often  proved  hard  for  the  consumer  to  discern  the  national  origin  of  a  product.  Under  the  Merchandise  Marks  Act  of  1926  producers  were  free  to  label  their  goods  as  ‘foreign’  or  ‘empire’,  as  appropriate.  Prosecutions  for  merchandise  mark  infringement  were  rare,  particularly  after  1945,  and  hampered  by  the  lack  of  international  co-operation  or  standard  practice  on  the  matter  (despite  some  efforts  at  co-ordination  by  the  League  of  Nations  and  the  British  Board  of  Trade  and  Colonial  Office).  Key  trade  organisations  such  as  the  co-operative  movement  were  divided  on  the  boycott  issue  and,  despite  the  Sharpeville  massacre  in  1960,  policies  on  stocking  South  African  goods  differed  from  region  to  region.  While  merchandise  mark  legislation  was  strengthened  in  the  1960s  and  1970s,  it  still  provided  a  number  of  loopholes.

national sport apartheidOver  time,  the  boycott  grew  to  encompass  other  issues  such  as  opposition  to  sporting  ties  with  South  Africa,  an  important  facet  of  spreading  the  global  visibility  of  the  movement.  In  New  Zealand’s  case  in  particular  it  also  arguably  played  a  significant  role  in  helping  to  define  a  new  national  identity  following  the  severing  of  trade  links  from  the  imperial  age,  with  Britain’s  entry  into  the  EEC  in  1973.  Aside  from  calling  for  an  end  to  sporting  ties  with  the  Boks,  Halt  All  Racist  Tours  highlighted  unequal  living  standards  between  Pakeha  and  Maori  and  the  thorny  issue  of  land  rights  in  the  wake  of  the  Waitangi  settlement.  Anti-apartheid  quickly  grew  into  a  global  humanitarian  campaign,  whose  concerns  outgrew  those  of  the  formal  territorial  boundaries  of  South  Africa.

By  focusing  on  the  power  of  multinational  business,  anti-apartheid  also  arguably  played  a  vital  role  in  setting  the  parameters  of  contemporary  debates  about  ‘fair  trade’  and  ethical  business  practice.  The  divestment campaign  of  the  1980s achieved  some  notable  coups,  particularly  Barclays’ withdrawal  from  South  Africa  in  1986.  Yet  at  the  same  time,  other  companies  such  as  BP  sought  to  promote  ethical  practices  in  the  country.  The  petrol  company  produced  social  reports  and  invested  in  black  education,  even  drawing  the  support  of  figures  such  as  Alan  Patton,  one  of  the  most  celebrated  white  South  African  opponents  of  apartheid.  Throughout  its  lifetime  anti-apartheid’s  fortunes  waxed  and  waned  and  opinions  differed  widely  about  the  most  effective  means  to  pressurise the  South  African  government.  As  well  as  revealing  much  about  the  politics  of  social  movements  in  the  latter  half  of  the  twentieth  century,  the  history  of  anti-apartheid  can  provide  useful  insights  into  the  dilemmas  facing  organisations  such  as  the  Occupy Wall Street, Fair Trade,  and  anti-WTO  groups  which  seek  to  promote  ethical  business  practices.


Welcome to the Imagining Markets website


Welcome to the Imagining Markets website. These pages provide  information and news on two projects hosted in the University of Exeter’s History Department in connection with the AHRC’s Care for the Future theme: ‘Imagining Markets: Conceptions of Europe, Empire/Commonwealth and China in Britain’s economic future since 1900’ (AHRC network, 2014-16), established by David Thackeray, Andrew Thompson and Richard Toye, and David Thackeray’s AHRC Research Leadership Fellowship: ‘Backing Britain: Imagining a nation’s economic future since 1900’ (2014-15).

Both projects are united by an interest in connecting historical and contemporary ways of thinking about Britain’s future global economic orientation, and involve a range of activities staged with project partners from the fields of public policy and heritage organisations.