Frank Trentmann begins his dazzling book on consumption with the improbable assertion that the ‘typical German owns 10,000 objects’. I look anxiously around my flat and, even allowing for the quantity of read and unread books, the shirts, ties, sweaters, shoes and socks, the cups, spoons and crockery, the CDs, the knick-knacks and the rubbish, I am nowhere near the typical German. Nevertheless, while one billion people do not have enough to eat, and most barely survive, the rest of us live a life characterised by a superabundance of goods. When did it all start?
Historians often divide between ‘continuists’, who insist that what we think is new is actually old, and ‘rupturists’, who see a revolutionary turning point in any novelty. When it comes to the so-called consumer revolution the dispute can be acute. Did it exist much earlier than we think?
Trentmann belongs to the continuist wing of the profession, though he is too good a historian to deny that the consumer society of today is quite different from that of the past. He accepts that the 1950s and 1960s saw ‘unprecedented increases’ in disposable income in the West (how could