- Creating Mexican Consumer Culture in the Age of Porfirio Díaz by Steven B. Bunker
This well-researched study of commercial modernization in Porfirian Mexico (1876–1911) examines a broad-based awakening of consumerism among both elite and popular groups. Steven Bunker argues that Porfirian modernization, when explored through the lens of consumer consumption, was as much a process forged from the bottomup as a top-down imposition by the elite, a characterization that has long held sway among economic historians (p. 2). The book aligns itself with the New Institutional Economics, which relies less on world-systems models and instead considers social and cultural factors, along with economic ones, to explore how local entrepreneurs, business leaders, and domestic markets shaped national financial and commercial structures. By investigating a variety of topics so far underexplored by scholars such as advertising, department stores, and shoplifting, Bunker provides intriguing accounts that detail the development of a cross-class consumer identity that embraced material progress. The book takes aim at a number of long-held ideas about the nature of Porfirian economic progress, including the size of the nation’s consumer class and modernization as a foreign import promoted by a narrow group of elites.
The book begins with an examination of the production and distribution of machine-rolled cigarettes, an industry dominated by French immigrant Ernest Pugibet’s El Buen Tono. Bunker maintains that the cigarette production boom that took place during the Porfiriato as a result of new manufacturing and transportation technologies reveals a wider consumer base in turn-of-the-century Mexico than economic historians have previously argued. Machine-rolled cigarettes represented the quintessential cheap, mass-produced consumer item available even to individuals living financially precarious lives. As such, Bunker shows that cigarette manufacturers, using new advertising technologies, targeted a broad base of consumers with niche marketing that recognized people’s different levels of disposable income. El Buen Tono’s various advertising strategies—perhaps the most spectacular being Electric Man, an elegantly dressed gentleman who walked the city streets with a frock coat that lit up with electric lights announcing Cigarettes Calvé—worked to shape a new urban mass culture while simultaneously promoting individuation, a process indicative, according to Bunker, of modern consumer societies (p. 56). Cigarette marketing worked to form collective identities of consumers who identified with the product they purchased while it [End Page 580] simultaneously offered different brands of cigarettes, with varying prices, based on class and social distinctions.
From there, the book explores the rise of department store retailing, most notably the founding of the Palacio de Hierro in 1891. Department stores, whose ownership was dominated by Barcelonnette immigrants, “functioned as an essential cultural primer, educating its customers on how to look, behave, think, and therefore be modern” (p. 99). In an attempt to challenge the Porfirian Black Legend, Bunker suggests that department stores were not enclaves of the elite that sold only expensive imported items. He cites, for instance, a Mexican Herald reporter who in 1895 noted that one could find wealthy women and poor Indians shopping side by side (p. 133). This “democratization of luxury,” for Bunker, is further supported by the retailing strategies of the Barcelonnettes who promoted smaller profit margins and high-volume turnover. While Bunker convincingly shows that shopping was not solely the domain of women as men were also avid shoppers, he appears to temper his claim about the cross-class patronage of department stores when he states that they “were unabashedly institutions of the gente decente” (p. 132). That said, this might result from Bunker’s claim that the culture of consumption, rather than people’s economic status, defined them as the so-called gente decente, a claim that broadens an already ambiguously used category.
The books final two chapters examine crime and public discourses on new crimes—such as shoplifting—associated with modern retailing. Bunker makes known a growing belief among policymakers and social commentators that the rise in property theft...