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The Birth of a Consumer Society? Dr Chris Pearson.

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1 The Birth of a Consumer Society? Dr Chris Pearson


3 Lecture questions: How and why did a consumer society emerge in France over the course of the nineteenth century? What were the meanings given to consumerism?

4 Lecture outline Emergence of a consumer society Gender and consumerism Reactions to consumerism

5 Society of mass consumption: ‘a radical division between the activities of production and of consumption, the prevalence of standardized merchandise sold in large volume, the ceaseless introduction of new products, widespread reliance on money and credit, and ubiquitous publicity.’ Rosalind Williams, Dream Worlds (1982), 3

6 ‘Once people glimpse the vision of commodities in profusion, they do not easily return to traditional modes of consumption… We who have tasted the fruits of the consumer revolution have lost our innocence.’ Rosalind Williams, Dream Worlds (1982), 3

7 Consumer Society Desire for and consumption of mass- produced goods Consumer choice targeted by marketing and publicity Individual and social identities (partly) based on consumption Cultural as well as economic aspects

8 The roots of French consumer society (1) Last decades of the ancien régime, Parisians became part of a consumer society – bed linen, plates, mirrors Changes in clothing – servants and artisans aping upper classes – aspiration for higher standard of living Daniel Roche, People of Paris (1987)

9 The roots of French consumer society (2) 1840s (final decade of July Monarchy) Economic changes: expansion of railways, new industries, mechanisation of textiles Social changes: increased education Market for cheap publications and clothing David Pinkney, The Decisive Years in France (1986)

10 Balzac on the grocer: ‘He is civilization in a shop, society in a paper bag. His is Enlightenment in action, life itself distributed in bottles, packets and jars.’

11 Symbol of consumer society during the Second Empire : Le Bon marché department store The roots of French consumer society (2)

12 Louvre department store, opened 1855

13 Universal Exposition 1855


15 The economics behind the rise of the mass consumer society Development of mass produced goods and falling labour costs Rising wages and falling food prices A Parisian worker who had 100 francs to spend in 1850 had the equivalent of 165 francs by the early years of the twentieth century

16 Main features of the mass consumer society ‘Democratization of luxury’? No - different model of consumption, complete with advertising, mass entertainment (cinema, cafes etc), parks, and new mass-produced goods Consumption in central Paris, production pushed to the outskirts

17 The Printemps department store, est. 1865


19 ‘From the ceiling were suspended rugs from Smyrna with complicated patterns that stood out from the red background. Then, from the four sides, curtains were hung….and still more rugs, which could serve as wall hangings, strange flowering of peonies and palms, fantasy released in a garden of dreams.’ Zola, Au bonheur des dames, 122-3




23 Department stores and identity Late 19C Paris: population united by shared experience of visual spectacle (Schwartz, Spectacular Realities [1999]) Bon marché reflected and shaped middle class identities – being bourgeois meant having the right clothes, furnishings etc (Miller, The Bon marché [1981])


25 Site of the former Dufayel store in the 18 th arrondissement (now a bank)




29 The aims of advertising: ‘To inform, to create need and desire, and to convince consumers that the advertiser could best meet those needs.’ Leora Auslander, Taste and Power, p.354


31 ‘Advertising absolutely should modify its language and style according to the class of society that it intends to affect. Advertisers must learn to speak differently to the financier than to the secondhand shoe salesmen’ La Publicité moderne (1906)



34 Gender and Consumerism (1) Female department store clerks – image of them as sexually and morally suspect Pierre Giffard (1882): they were a ‘group of women who inevitably became depraved or deprave others.’ Not quite working class, not quite bourgeois

35 Gender and consumerism (2) Bourgeois female shoppers caused anxiety Blurred boundaries between public and private spheres Fearless female shopper vs. dutiful and passive housewife Female shoppers created bourgeois class identity Walton, France at the Crystal Palace (1992)

36 Gender and consumption (3) Ligue sociale d’actetuers (or Social league of consumers) Run by Catholic women aiming to bring Catholic morality to the market place Educate elite shoppers to better the lot of the working classes M.-E. Chessel, ‘Women and the Ethics of Consumption in France’ in F. Trentmann (ed). The Making of the Consumer (2005)

37 Criticizing consumerism Traditionalists lamenting cult of individual and other facets of the modern consumer society Supposed aesthetic decline of France – mass produced goods replaced luxury items Sociologists such as Pierre Maroussem – lamented decline of artisan workshops and exploitative practices of department stores

38 Taming consumerism ‘The love of fashion, when it is regulated by reason… and guided by a sure and delicate taste, becomes a lovely form of art, the most feminine of the arts. And it is also a social good.’ Marcelle Tinayre in Femina (1910)

39 The importance of taste ‘In the vision of market representatives, taste fundamentally transformed consumption from a social hazard into a social good through the subordination of self-interest to higher aesthetic and moral goals. Taste, in short, not only civilized the market by creating civic-minded consumers, but conferred on the market the power to civilize: to further refine French taste.’ Lisa Tiersten, Marianne in the Marketplace (2001), 233

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