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Empire of Things: How We Became a World of Consumers, from the Fifteenth Century to the Twenty-First

3.79  ·  Rating details ·  499 ratings  ·  82 reviews
What we consume has become the defining feature of our lives: our economies live or die by spending, we are treated more as consumers than workers, and even public services are presented to us as products in a supermarket. In this monumental study, acclaimed historian Frank Trentmann unfolds the extraordinary history that has shaped our material world, from late Ming China ...more
Hardcover, 848 pages
Published January 28th 2016 by Allen Lane (first published December 1st 2015)
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Apr 05, 2016 rated it really liked it
Frank Trentmann is a successful British historian who hangs with some very good people in Europe and America and who has been sufficiently successful in his grantsmanship that he directs a substantial research program in "Cultures of Consumption". The intent of his new book - Empire of Things - is clear from its subtitle - "How we became a world of consumers, from the Fifteenth Century to the Twenty-first. So much for the overly focused narrow view of professional historians! At least he is taki ...more
Oct 16, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
‘Empire of Things’ is a heavy book, both literally and figuratively, which is why it took me so many months to read. As usual in such situations, though, getting through the latter half took much less time than the first. Trentmann is clear from the start that he cannot hope to cover the whole global history of consumerism in all its immensity. Nonetheless, he makes a very impressive effort and covers a huge amount of ground, giving the reader a great deal to think about. Perhaps the defining fe ...more
John FitzGerald
I abandoned this after reading about a third of it -- half of that third was at the beginning a quarter in the middle, and a quarter at the end. Trentmann begins by saying (on p. 6) that one of his goals is to "explain how consumption evolved the way it did over the last five centuries." We quickly find out that it evolved differently in and within different countries and that no one has valid ideas to explain how it developed in even one of those places. This is also his general conclusion in t ...more
Aug 14, 2016 rated it liked it
A very well-researched, comprehensive history of consumption and consumer culture. In his introduction, he explains that he plans to break from traditional studies of consumerism/consumer culture: temporally (by tracing its origins back much earlier--to the Renaissance--and focusing on its evolution across time in a nonlinear path influenced by changes in politics, culture, society, and connectivity), geographically (by not reducing it to an American phenomenon exported abroad and surveying the ...more
Emma Sea
Mar 22, 2016 marked it as non-fiction-to-read
$25 for the kindle edition?
but too big to carry on the bus in dead tree :(
Rodrigo Acuna
Mar 06, 2016 rated it it was amazing
"Reflections on what we own and how it owns us."

An amazing book that explores history and countries from a consumers points of view, revealing a lot more about humanity than I would ever have expected. It is like putting on the most unusual filter or tinted colour glasses and seeing a world makedly exposed to its desires and wants removing morality and political agendas to show how even the most powerful of ideologies bend to the will of its consumers and how that feeds all our need and inequiti
Feb 27, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Dealing with the elephant in the room first - this book is huge and dense and scary, don't let it put you off! It is a remarkable work that provides an amazing insight into how people have lived, what they treasured and how tastes have changed. It is remarkable not just how much changes, but also how much stays the same.

Part 1 of the book provides a chronological view of material possessions which occasionally gets bogged down and over-whelming, but stick with it. Part 2 takes a thematic approac
Apr 22, 2016 rated it liked it
I'm conflicted; this book wasn't bad by any means but was just too long, there was too much what I would consider ancillary stuff packed in. I was interested to learn about human history as relates to "stuff"/our enduring love of items, and it covered some of that, but also anything ever that could be considered consumption, like eating and houses and health care and basically everything? So it was diluted things too much, I think I would have enjoyed a more focused analysis of just one aspect o ...more
Sep 10, 2019 rated it liked it
A whopping big boi this was! Took me a good 6 weeks of setting daily reading goals as you know was in the midst of moving countries and attending weddings. I had tried to read this book a year ago but lost hope after 50 pages! Alas we have finished him up and would recommend but only if you're in no rush to finish up a book. This book is MASSIVE but very interesting, one can get bogged down in the details as it is largely details. But learned lots of fun and yet always slightly depressing facts. ...more
Ailith Twinning
Oct 18, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2017
How the hell have more people not read this? What the hell is wrong with people. . ..

Right, so what this is, is Part 1: The History of Consumerism Part 2: A discussion on consumerism, mostly as it is today. And, Part 3: A couple pages at the end of "We can reduce our consumption!"

Part 1: Easily the best version of this I have ever read. For why? It approaches it from the blazingly obvious and yet ubiquitously ignored direction. 1: Humans have a kind of similarity over time. What drives us doesn'
Jonathan Mckay
Jun 24, 2019 rated it it was ok
Upon discovering this book, a globe trotting history spanning view of consumers and consumer culture, I was excited. Placing current events through the lens of history is an appealing prospect, and this subject is doubly interesting.

The book starts off far back in history, detailing the gradual transition to where human economic activity reached the level that would make consumerism even possible. I love that the author was able to take European, Asian, and Indian examples, which makes for a mo
Feb 02, 2016 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
First, I didn't actually read the Kindle edition. Anyway, there is a lot of interesting material here but for the love of Pete, as someone who knows a good bit about the topic I can only say this could have been said in half the space. Maybe I knew a bit too much about the topic to appreciate the many, many, many examples used, but I just felt this dragged out far too long. ...more
Paul moved to LibraryThing
Unstructured litany of interesting transformations in consumerism. Keeps jumping around geographically and chronologically like a time-travelling jittery bunny with ADHD on speed.
Reza Amiri Praramadhan
Consumption has come a long way from a word that served as archaic definition of tuberculosis to an essential part of our lives. Throughout history, it has shifted between vice and virtue, become an engine for significant shift of history, like how colonialism and imperialism were partly fueled by increasing demand of many things, and even become main selling point of various ideologies. This book left nothing uncovered, which makes me feel overwhelmed more than once. So many information contain ...more
Grof J. Kešetović
Mar 04, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Phew! It took me quite a while to read this book! A rather large but enjoyable book that defines the rise of modern society and it's very core on which it developed itself - consumerism. I kinda looked at myself and thought "my gosh, this is absolutely who were are now!" and continued to compare how everything is just destined to become as it is now. It is natural for us to gorge in luxury, in things we don't need and there is a good reason to it - we're suckers for pretty, eye appealing product ...more
Jan 25, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Wouldn't have guessed it from the title but this was refreshingly nuanced and without a trace of the moralising tone and scaremongering most consumerism discourse seems to be keen on. It also doesn't happen very often that a book with such a global outlook actually manages to correctly interpret the history of such an often-forgotten part of the world as Eastern Europe. I wish the chapters had a bit more structure and offered brief conclusions, as particularly the earlier history felt rather ane ...more
Tara Brabazon
Nov 17, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Oh yes. I love books. I love big books - more. Written in the Braudelian mode, the Empire of Things is big in size, but ambitious in goal. It explores the history of consumerism in the last 500 years.

Americanization. Veblen and conspicuous consumption. Globalization. Shopping Centres. Everything that we would expect to be here is present in this book. But the detail, the rigour and the sweeping international context makes this book both a delight to read and disturbing - in equal measure.

The me
Steven Kaminski
Mar 26, 2019 rated it really liked it
For many reasons I often go on a minimalism kick...what is the least that I need to live, what is the least to make me happy...what is the most important. I remember an Old West Wing episode where a character was riffing on how Free Trade stops wars. And this book sort of ties together the threads of how we got so invested in 'Stuff' but more importantly how they shape our environment. We live our lives and our lives are shaped by stuff. If you want to test that try going a half day without your ...more
Todd Stockslager
Jun 29, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
Review Title: Consumption assumptions

Trentmann has written a unique history of consumption across time and geography, starting at the beginning with the definition of the word and how it has changed over the centuries. It is an ambitious effort, at times hampered by the breadth and the nature of the topic, but ultimately a valuable asset worth reading.

What does it mean to consume, to buy and own material possessions? Trentmann traces the transition of the meaning from " use up" to "use". He als
Mar 09, 2017 rated it liked it
3.5 stars

This wide ranging history of consumption provides lots of detail, so much so that the author's thesis (how we consume is culturally mediated) often gets lost in the shuffle. The author goes from late-Renaissance Italy to present-day America, Europe, and select Asian countries. Overall, I found it to be full of interesting detail, but the author's insistence on viewing consumption from a variety of perspectives belied the fact that as people get richer, they consume (and waste) more. No
Apr 05, 2020 rated it it was ok
This book simply tries to do too much. A history of every non-essential thing in every country across five hundred years. In the introduction Trentmann writes "My intention has been to follow major themes across time and space, not to try to be encyclopaedic." But the resulting book very much comes across as "encyclopaedic". How can it not when it has frequent passages such as this one from 1609 listing the Chinese goods for sale to the Spanish in Manila.

white cotton cloth of different kinds and
1st book for 2018.

This is a long book that took me too long to read. After dipping into this book on-an-off basis for several months I can't write a particularly insightful review. I have read a number of "big" history books in the last year, and I many salient facts away from any of them. Perhaps it's a problem of not having a sufficient background in history to allow me to place all the facts I read in a useful conceptual framework; so they just mostly get lost along the way. Perhaps I have A
Oct 17, 2018 rated it it was ok
I really don't think this book was worth my time.
It consists of two parts, and having read the first one I put it away for several months. I decided to finish it just a couple of weeks ago, simply because I had already dedicated so much time to it and felt guilty about quitting.
Although packed with facts (most of which is just trivia), the book fails to provide a well-argued analysis of consumerism across centuries. Rather, from time to time, in between tons of anecdotes, a two-three page select
Mar 16, 2017 rated it liked it
Man... this was a long book. The subject material is interesting, even if the thesis that consumption is culturally defined isn't too controversial or anything, but how many examples is too many? Trentmann criticizes so-called "commodity biographies" as being too narrow, or trying to explain too much with too small of a scope, but in this book he has committed the opposite error; trying to explain a relatively simple and agreeable premise by dwelling on every possible example that supports it. ...more
arkadi cloud
Oct 25, 2016 rated it really liked it
Lengthy, meandering journey of the things we own and their relationship to culture, the way we live, and governments. This took me 4 months to read because it is so dense you really can't read too much everyday. ...more
Andrea Hickman Walker
This will definitely be worth a re-listen at some point. A very interesting analysis of consumption patterns through time in varying societies.
John Newton
Oct 30, 2017 rated it it was amazing
There are not many brick doorstop-size histories that I wish didn't end, but this was one of them. The first half of Trentmann's book is a roughly chronological history of consumer culture from the Renaissance to today. He calls out 17th-century Britain and Holland as the countries that first made the transition to treating objects as more than means of storing wealth, and instead as things to be accumulated and discarded, subject to changing fashions—markers of one's refined tastes and cultural ...more
Very thought-provoking, much too long. More to follow.

Full review below:

This is not my usual sort of book at all. 880 pages of global economic history, nearly 200 of which are taken up by endnotes and bibliography? Gosh. But I put it on my #20BooksofSummer pile for a few reasons: we had sold a lot of it in the shop last summer, there was a damaged copy going, the front cover is utterly beautiful, and I am kind of interested in material culture: how people’s stuff relates to the way they treat th
Well it took me almost 4 months to read this. It is a dense, extremely comprehensive review of the history of, and forces that shape consumption. Every aspect is covered, from the psychological aspects driving the individual's acquisition of goods, to state-sponsored consumption for economic growth. How we access goods, what drives taste, how classes and age groups are identified by their patterns of consumption, the growing drive towards recycling, goods sharing and waste management, as well as ...more
Alexander Van Leadam
Dec 24, 2020 rated it really liked it
In addition to its broad geographic and time scope, which provides an encyclopedic view of its subject, the book should be appreciated for going into considerable depth in order to explain the background of different phenomena (as any good analysis should), which also serves for connecting the phenomena to each other and more.
The picture that emerges is significantly more complex than the easy, normative and moralistic reasoning we encounter around consumption, consumerism and the environment.
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