- Consuming Behaviours: Identity, Politics and Pleasure in Twentieth-Century Britain ed. by Erika Rappaport, Sandra Trudgen Dawson, and Mark J. Cowley
It is a popular claim that we have too many possessions—that we have reached "peak stuff." Increasingly, we are told that our rate of consumption is detrimental to our health and to the health of the planet. In these circumstances, understanding the history of consumption is becoming more important than ever, and with work such as Frank Trentmann's newly-published Empire of Things, historians are rising to the challenge. Yet, as this well-conceived and wide-ranging collection of essays shows, the history of consumption also has the potential to shed new light on broader historical questions concerning (British) society and to challenge received narratives of gender, class, and national identities.
Set within a period of seventy years, Consuming Behaviours brings together an impressive array of articles, covering diverse subjects ranging from British advertising agencies to female credit customers in postwar Ghana, and from the Post Office to early British television's relationship with America. The collection is specifically entitled "Consuming Behaviours" in order to widen the scope of analysis beyond financial transactions, which is appropriate given the periods of rationing, shortages, material scarcity, and economic crisis covered by the book. The chronological breadth of the collection (c. 1910 to c. 1980) allows the editors to argue quite clearly that, contrary to the assertions of contemporary commentators, consumer society was an intrinsic and organic part of British social life, long before the postwar years of affluence and the associated cultural and economic influences of the United States. The question of the nature of British consumerism is woven through the collection, giving the essays cohesion and emphasizing important continuities.
The first half of the book examines how consuming behaviors have allowed Britons to reinforce or reject social norms. It also highlights how commercial interests, politics, family, religion, school, and other institutions have shaped and [End Page 599] constrained consumer identity. Two pieces focusing specifically on masculine identities provide welcome balance to the volume of current work on consumption and women. Ina Zweiniger-Bargielowska's study of the Men's Dress Reform Party illustrates how some men became concerned with physical health and appearance in the interwar years, while Paul Deslandes uses contemporary advertisements and Mass-Observation surveys to reveal male grooming habits of the 1930s and 1940s. These pieces demonstrate how both straight and gay men sought to contest and to enhance acceptable versions of masculine appearance. In doing so, the essays suggest that the expressive body culture associated with the 1960s has a history predating the advent of postwar affluence.
Youth is a particularly important point in life for self-fashioning and formation, and fledgling consumers rightly demand attention; reconstructing youthful experiences, however, is notoriously difficult. In her essay, Penny Tinkler analyzes the photographic collections of two young women to show how they used photography to express their changing identities and understandings of their place in the world. Meanwhile, Kate Bradely and Brett Bebber use organizational archives to reflect on how institutions sought to influence the behavior of young, predominately working class, male consumers, through study of youth cafés and the institutional responses to football hooliganism, respectively. Through imaginative uses of sources, these pieces offer fresh insight into how youth navigated consumer society.
The twentieth-century British consumer was part of a vast network of international connections, and authors examine the juxtaposition between the local and the global in the second half of the volume. The British Empire and its demise form the overriding context, which reflects the editors' desire to emphasize the home-grown nature of British consumer behavior. Extending scholarship on Empire shopping, Erika Rappaport examines how British middle-class women galvanized a campaign by the British state, publicists, and Indian planters to construct the "imperial consumer" as crucial in maintaining economic and political stability in the early 1930s. Bianca Murillo's focus on the United Africa Company's operations...