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

General Programming

  • European Institute
  • Department of History
  • Dual MA/MSc in International and World History
  • Free and open to the public
  • First come, first seated

Frank Trentmann is a professor of history in the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology at Birkbeck College, University of London. He is a specialist in the history of consumption.

What we consume has become a central—perhaps the central—feature of modern life.

Our economies live or die by spending, and we increasingly define ourselves by our possessions. This ever-richer lifestyle has had a profound impact on our planet. How have we come to live with so much stuff, and how has this changed the course of history?

In Empire of Things, Frank Trentmann unfolds the extraordinary story of our modern material world, from Renaissance Italy and late Ming China to today’s global economy. While consumption is often portrayed as a recent American export, this monumental and richly detailed account shows that it is, in fact, a truly international phenomenon with a much longer and more diverse history. Trentmann traces the influence of trade and empire on tastes, as formerly exotic goods like coffee, tobacco, Indian cotton, and Chinese porcelain conquered the world, and explores the growing demand for home furnishings, fashionable clothes, and convenience that transformed private and public life. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries brought department stores, credit cards, and advertising, but also the rise of the ethical shopper, new generational identities, and, eventually, the resurgence of the Asian consumer.

With an eye to the present and future, Trentmann provides a long view on the global challenges of our relentless pursuit of more—from waste and debt to stress and inequality. A masterpiece of research and storytelling many years in the making, Empire of Things recounts the epic history of the goods that have seduced, enriched, and unsettled our lives over the past six hundred years.

  • Author/Presenter Frank Trentmann Professor of History Department of History, Classics and Archaeology
  • Introduction Sam Wetherell Lecturer in Discipline in British History Columbia University