- Consumers' Imperium: The Global Production of American Domesticity, 1865-1920
Kristin L. Hoganson's impressive book, Consumer's Imperium: The Global Production of American Domesticity, deepens our understanding of how globalized consumerism and Americans' consumerist practices historically formed America's international roles. Most importantly, Hoganson uses everyday practices of everyday consuming women to demonstrate how the self-definition of the United States as a global, imperialist power arose not just from federal efforts but from what American citizens wanted to buy, what they understood as "sophisticated," and what they believed would substantiate their individual and familial status.
iddle-class to wealthy white women from 1865 to 1920 were engaged in several activities, which Hoganson skillfully positions as global in outlook and purpose. The list seems banal, even risible: [End Page 413]
women decorated their homes in "Oriental" styles; they wore clothing influenced by styles from other cultures; they bought and used cookbooks with "international" recipes; they joined women's travel clubs in which women did not actually travel but did read about such activities; and they supported philanthropic groups such as the YWCA that promoted immigrant crafts and entertainments. Decorating, selecting fashions, cooking, reading about other countries, and perhaps buying an immigrant woman's handicraft: this is not where the United States' self-identification as a global leader came from, is it? But Hoganson convincingly argues that indeed, these activities of women are in fact integral to the domestic definition of the United States as global.
Globalization of American culture, according to Hoganson, began well before the twentieth century, and, she argues, women—consuming women—were central to the process. Take, for example, a specific oddity of American late nineteenth-century interior decoration, the "Cosey Corner." Women's magazines and household guidebooks often included detailed instructions for creating an Orientalist "cosey corner." Upholstered, cushioned, swathed in "exotic" fabrics, cosey corners ornamented many a mundane ballon-frame home in Indiana, Illinois, and Colorado. Hoganson builds an entire chapter around analyzing just what was happening when middle-class and wealthy women invested time, imagination, and money into creating their cosey corners. Tied to the popularity of the import market, cosey corners exhibited its owner's supposed aesthetic and cultural sophistication and her desire for handmade products rather than ready-made. And, as Hoganson points out throughout her book, these kinds of global consumerist practices were also demonstrations of imperialist power. For example, cosey corners demonstrated a sense of European sophistication—that is, aesthetic choices defined by definitions of what was pleasing. Cosey corners were colonial in style, not Eastern in tradition.
Hoganson's analysis of how global consumerist practices defined boundaries while being culturally promoted as expanding or even eliminating boundaries, is well done. Fashions influenced by other cultural traditions (such as kimonos offered in the 1910s by Montgomery Wards and Sears (with prices starting at 78 cents) to the growing popularity of French styles in the early 1900s), were not indicative of American women's identification with women from other cultures but demonstrated American women's identification of self with selected elements of other cultures. In this case, fashion was about exclusion, not inclusion. An enlarging imperial power meant that the styles and materials of the world's dress were available to the consuming American woman. [End Page 414]
Hoganson employs a cornucopia of detail to build her argument. She convinces in part because the examples demonstrate the author's immersion in this world of global goods. The double-edged quality of global consumer goods—the pluralistic, liberalizing affectiveness of attaining goods from other cultures, and the exclusionary demonstration of imperialist power evident in the American consumer's ability to appropriate and exploit the products of other cultural traditions—is consistently and intelligently handled throughout the analysis. A more consistent use of women's own writings, in the forms of letters, diaries, and family photographs, would have strengthened the author's goal of presenting everyday activities of everyday women, but this is a...