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Technology and Culture 42.2 (2001) 343-345

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Book Review

A History of Everyday Things: The Birth of Consumption in France, 1600-1800

A History of Everyday Things: The Birth of Consumption in France, 1600-1800. By Daniel Roche, trans. Brian Pearce. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Pp. ix+320. £40/£14.95.

The topic and methodology of Daniel Roche's latest text inevitably recall Fernand Braudel's multivolume Structures of Everyday Life (1981-84), both being the work of historians who associate their discipline with the social sciences rather than the liberal arts. More than Braudel's Structures, however, A History of Everyday Things recalls (or recapitulates) Roche's own previous work. The People of Paris (1987), The Culture of Clothing (1994), and France in the Enlightenment (1998) each explore several of the subjects dealt with here, always with greater clarity and often in greater depth.

The lack of clarity stems in part from an excessively literal translation. But in fairness to the translator, Roche appears to be devolving away from the straightforward prose of his early work to an increasingly nuanced expression (witness the multiple clauses of the ten-line sentence/paragraph on page 7). The phrasing becomes particularly convoluted when Roche treats concepts, as throughout part 1 (a reason to read it last, or again). The text is also marred by typographical errors, some of which alter meaning ("inferiority" for "interiority", "in authenticity" for "inauthenticity"), or make it difficult to grasp ("Town life . . . brought . . . a different scale of effects produced by space and the possibility of using it in" [pp. 252-53]).

Part 1 provides the intellectual construct, sketching the disappearance [End Page 343] of the moral economy, the primacy of the town in the development of the consumer economy, the cost of living in early modern France, and the rise of luxury and of luxury goods. The treatment is not completely satisfactory. It is clear (although not necessarily from this text) that a consumer economy cannot develop until a critical mass within the population possesses discretionary income. (Roche does note factors contributing to a rise in urban income: for example, the number of annual workdays increased when the church cut the number of religious holidays in an effort to reduce occasions for drunkenness.) Similarly, such an economy requires that objects be desired (or, in the case of "everyday" objects, be differently desired) by a broad spectrum of the population. This is a hard case to make for seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France, which had few market-making entrepreneurs (such as England's Josiah Wedgwood); but Roche posits a proselytizing, urban servant class inspired by the purchases of their masters and carrying the message to their rural cousins (such an outreach program ignores the notorious tightfistedness of the French peasant).

Roche organizes the six chapters of part 2 around the classic elements of survival: food, shelter, and clothing. Some of the essays are superior to others. The one on housing tells us that the architecture and layout of dwellings, and the materials used in their construction, varied with income level and geographic area--hardly a revelation. Those on lighting and heating, and on water and its uses, are better realized and of greater relevance to readers of Technology and Culture. Those on furnishings, clothing, and food offer the perspective of the anthropological lens, Roche stressing that changes in material culture initiated changes in social habits and vice versa: "objects gradually transformed the consumers' world, their way of living along with the symbolic meaning of usages" (p. 53). Coffee, tea, and chocolate, for example, all required specialized tableware and behaviors; the separate seating that replaced the communal bench brought new programs of furniture placement and sociability; the production system evolved from one in which objects were made primarily by and for individuals to one in which objects were usually made by anonymous workers for anonymous buyers. (The diminishing importance of the group and the rising importance of the individual is reiterated throughout part 2.)

The subtitle of this work implies that Roche will...


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