From the Archive: Consumed

We’re revisiting our author’s posts from the Books Combined archives. This is Joanna Cohen’s piece on the reading that brought her to love the history of shopping. Originally posted in 2018.

Like most, I was a kid when I read Little House on the Prairie. The paragraphs I read again and again began where Laura Ingalls Wilder left the shelter of the Wisconsin woods and set foot in her first store. No matter that it was a small all-purpose dry goods store, it was a moment of awe, mystery, even fear. In the colour, the textures, the smell and tastes of that little trading post by Lake Pepin, Wilder encountered a universe of things and places that stretched far beyond the boundaries of her own contained world. Even then it struck me that shopping can shatter the edges of our own known realities. It pulls people together through objects made, bought, and sold across space and time.

All though my childhood, I cherished those passages of books where the author described “the things.” Bonnets or bed pans, top hats or tea pots, food stores or feather beds, I loved the lists of items purchased and owned that made up the material realities of people’s lives. Objects were the physical markers of a lost world, of daily routines and habits of survival, the totems of comfort and the dynamics of desire. When I first read Christine Stansell’s City of Women the paragraphs that I read again and again were the inventories of second-hand goods that women had put up for pawn, items to be reused, recycled, reclaimed. But, in the dim recesses of the pawnshops, shopping took on a new guise. At the margins of the marketplace, I saw the men and women who could not gain entry to the world of goods, whose noses seemed to be pressed up against the glass windows of growing abundance. I read their histories in works like Ellen Hartigan-O Connor’s The Ties that Buy,or in Ted Ownby’s American Dreams in Mississippi. Here was a quiet but desperate battlefield, far from the familiar narratives of power. In the untold, everyday struggle to find funds or earn credit, to make-do and get-by were powerful insights into the grand sweep of economic history.

Then, for a time I got distracted by other histories. I didn’t think about the power of shopping again until I reached graduate school. By the 2000s the topic of consumption had a growing and respectable scholarship across several disciplines. But it was still a revelation to me to read T.H. Breen’s The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence. Here was consumption in an entirely different light: shopping as power and consumption as a weapon. Now, instead of goods simply transforming the mental and material world of one person, the decision to withhold consumption became the tool to create a community, a connection that could transform national identities and create new political realities.

I basked in the seductive idea of a powerful and empowering form of consumption for only a short while. Before long I was devouring books that illuminated instead the limits and dangers of engaging with the world of goods. Items bought and sold became the raw materials of identity, shaping the boundaries of gender, race, class and nation. Kathy Peiss’ Hope in a Jar made lipstick and rouge part of a vocabulary of contested femininity, Grace Hale’s Making Whiteness proved that pancake mix could keep African Americans in their place. Even Breen’s Patriots wrestled with their weapon of choice. How many, I wondered, had struggled to uphold their end of the bargain to boycott and suffered as a result? If before I had been interested in who was excluded from shopping, now I was fascinated by how shopping itself constituted the processes of exclusion.

In our world, so defined by the sharp contrasts of poverty and excess, I return to shopping again and again. In this daily act, I see grand narratives of struggle: a persistent battle between the desiring self and self-denial; a war fought over status, identity, and belonging. There is the fight to survive, to be sure: but also a competition to create the ideal configuration of people and resource: who should own what, when and why? As Roland Marchand argued in Advertising the American Dream, much of what we experience about modern shopping in the western world, is the stuff of fantasy. Through one simple purchase we can connect ourselves with a vision of society. That vision may be fiction, but it has an ability to inspire and indeed to cause despair. What other daily act has such power? Perhaps that is why the history of consumption continues to consume me.

Joanna Cohen teaches American history at Queen Mary University of London. She is the author of Luxurious Citizens: The Politics of Consumption in Nineteenth-Century Americapublished by the University of Pennsylvania Press (2017)