Frank Trentmann: The material self

Consumer Culture Over the Centuries


In 1512, the Venetian senate ruled that no more than six forks and six spoons could be given as wedding gifts, and no gilded chests or mirrors at all. Fifty years later, it stipulated that only “ordinary pastry” or fruit in season could be served at banquets. In Florence, in 1497, the Dominican preacher Girolamo Savanarola went one step further and lit a “bonfire of vanities”, with books by Boccaccio smouldering on top of board games and precious foreign tapestries.

Today, it requires a leap of imagination to recall how, half a millennium ago, such modest luxuries as a special piece of pastry could trigger horror, revulsion and punishment. But that was the dominant atmosphere. In eighteenth-century Württemberg, Germany, women were fined a month’s pay or thrown in jail for sporting a fashionable cotton neckerchief. The pursuit of possessions seemed dangerous. It excited envy, set off an upwards spiral of showing off and overturned social and gender hierarchies. Respectable burghers would end up bankrupt spendthrifts, pulling down their towns with them. Worst was the desire for goods and novelties from afar – such as Indian cottons – because it threw local artisans out of work.

These attacks on luxury remind us how tremendously varied and changeable attitudes to material wealth have been in the course of history. And such an appreciation is an essential first step if we want to think about the future of possessions and wealth.

Luxury was suspect from the beginning of classical civilization. Plato, in his Republic (c.380 BC), described the corruption of a virtuous, frugal city by its citizens’ lust for comfortable couches and rich embroidery that drove them to wars of conquest and ultimately so “softened” them that they were unable to defend themselves. In Latin, it was easy to slip from the splendour of “luxus” to “luxuria”, riotous living, excess or lechery. For Christians, possessions might literally possess the soul, distracting believers from the true life of the spirit. In the eighteenth century, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the Genevan philosopher, warned how luxury brought with it inequality at home and slavery in the New World – someone, after all, had to grow the cocoa, sugar and coffee that consumers enjoyed in Paris and London.

Such voices never died away, but the tide started to turn in the seventeenth century. In the 1630s, Caspar Barlaeus, a Dutch polymath, praised trade for making people appreciate new things. Across the North Sea, Robert Boyle, the great scientist who is today remembered for his experiments with the air-pump, stressed that, far from evil, “greedy appetites” made people inquisitive and industrious. Why else had God furnished man with a “multiplicity of desires”? The yearning to satisfy these desires made people more, not less, in awe of the divine Creator. In the following century, enlightenment thinkers like David Hume defended the pursuit of moderate luxuries as a source of national wealth and cultural progress. New fashions made people more creative and productive, which, in turn, made countries richer and stronger. It is no coincidence that this new appreciation of private wealth went hand in hand with a broader vision of the benefits of trade, most famously expressed by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations, in 1776.

What gave these ideas uplift was an entirely new view about what it meant to be human.

For the old critics of luxury, the human self was something pure that existed apart from the material world. For champions of the new outlook, possessions ceased to be something invasive and corrosive. On the contrary, material things were an essential part of the human self.

People had a “material self”, in the words of William James, the Harvard psychologist and giant of the American intellectual scene in the late nineteenth century. A “man’s Self is the sum total of all that he CAN call his”, James wrote in 1890. This included his body, family and reputation but also his “clothes and his house… his lands and horses, and yacht and bank-account.” If they grew, their owners felt triumphant. If they faded, people felt a part of themselves was dying.

It was this “material self” that also pushed people to acquire homes and fill them with possessions. William James and his younger brother Henry, the novelist, wrote during a boom in home decorating and collecting. In The Spoils of Poynton (1896) Henry followed the intimate (and ultimately destructive) power that cabinets, chairs and other treasures had over the main character. In real life, furniture and possessions were means for families to cultivate and demonstrate their character.

In some ways, the embrace of a “material self” in the West was not all that ground breaking. After all, Shinto and Buddhism envisages a flow between spirit and objects. Things can take on divine qualities – hence the great commerce in gifts in Asian countries. Where the West was different was in its glorification of novelty – the pursuit of new trinkets, gadgets and products. This gave it a much greater drive and dynamism than, say, China, which in the late Ming period (1590-1644) also saw a rise in commerce but ultimately prized antiquities over novelty. Taste, here, remained more exclusive and backward looking.

That the West moved from a fear of being possessed to a cult of possession did not mean that suddenly “anything goes”.

For the “material self”, objects helped make the person but they also showed what that person was made of. It means the use and display of wealth remains powerful and controversial, and nowhere more so than for the super rich.

The most influential treatment of luxury and the rich to this day remains The Theory of the Leisure Classes, Thorstein Veblen’s scorching attack on the new rich of America’s gilded age in the 1890s. It was Veblen who coined the term “conspicuous consumption” to criticise how this new elite used richly decorated homes and expensively dressed wives to cement their social status. What irritated Veblen was not the lack of taste but that it was an “unproductive” use of wealth. The rich were “wasting” wealth that would have been much better spent on healthier cities, social reform and education.

Veblen’s anger blinded him to what was a much more interesting reality of riches. Status depended on real power as well as luxury. William Collins Whitney (1841-1904), for example, bred race horses and had yachts and luxury homes. He maintained, among others, a Venetian palace in New York City, a lodge with a golf course in the Blue Mountains, a 3,000 acre farm in Kentucky and a 800-foot stable on Long Island, complete with 84 box stalls and a mile-long training track. But he was also the US Secretary of the Navy in the late 1880s, and it was his great support for gun boats that gave him clout.

And the uses of wealth varied enormously. On the other side of the spectrum from Whitney was Hetty Green (1834-1916), “the witch of Wall Street”, worth nearly $100 million at the time or a dozen billion in today’s money. Green was the richest woman in America but she was also a Quaker. Hers was a life of frugality. She poured all her money back into business. She wore her clothes until they felt apart, lived in cheap hotels and used her local bank as her office rather than pay rent for one of her own. In between Whitney and Green, there were super-rich like Rockefeller and Carnegie, to whom charity was an essential part of being rich. “No man becomes rich unless he enriches others”, was one of Carnegie’s mottos. Carnegie gave away 90% of his wealth.

Since the “gilded age”, private wealth has continued to find different outlets, changing with generations and shaped by national cultures and value systems.

Whitney’s daughter-in-law, Gertrude Vanderbilt, for example, decided to devote her wealth to the public promotion of modern music and art in the inter-war years. The Whitney Museum of American Art is her legacy. Giving to charitable foundations and universities reached new records in the decades after the Second World War.

Luxury has evolved throughout history, partly because of changes in financial fortunes but also because of changing value systems and cultural contexts. Luxury can be used as a sign of distinction, to demonstrate one’s superior status and preserve a distance from the many. But in global capitalism, luxury cannot be all exclusive. It is a commodity, too. LVMH and other luxury brands would not exist otherwise.

Luxury goods are also about belonging, especially to the many millions in Asia for whom branded handbags and accessories are physical signs that one belongs to a global class of stylish consumers.

At the same time, we continue to find highly provincial cultures of luxury alongside the global jet-set that tends to get all the attention in the media. Take the German multi-millionaire Oliver Berking, for example. His family has made silver cutlery since 1874 which he sells to the rich across the world. His own life and leisure, however, remains rooted in his home town, Flensburg, where he is a member of the local Rotary club and spends his time restoring and sailing a classic wooden sail-boat, at 20 metres a far cry from the luxury yachts that cruise the Med and the Bermudas.

The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were much more inviting to possessions than previous eras. They provided the oxygen for modern consumer culture. But the lure of material objects does not mean that all wealth became fixated on their acquisition. Charity, legacy and fulfilment continued to rival the ostentatious luxury of goods. At a time when inequality is returning to the level associated with the “gilded age”, over a century ago, it is worth remembering the variety of riches in the past.

Frank Trentmann is the author of Empire of Things: How We Became a World of Consumers, from the Fifteenth Century to the Twenty-First (UK: Allen Lane/Penguin; US: HarperCollins, 2016)

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