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Fall 2018
Sep 17, 2021
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HIST 338 - Consumption/Society Since 1750
Now, in the twenty-first century, we are so accustomed to living in a consumer society that it is easy to overlook the fact that, like all cultural forms, it has a history.
In Elizabethan English, to consume something meant to destroy it:  fire consumed fuel, decay consumed corpses, disease consumed organs of the body, spending on unnecessary objects consumed wealth.  The medieval church condemned luxurious consumption as a sin. In the era of the Renaissance and Reformation, consumption continued to be seen as a morally dangerous activity that could waste resources and undermine social order.  By the middle of the eighteenth century, however, demand for an ever-expanding range of goods came to be widely seen as a constructive force.  It was the motor of  global economic development, indeed, the very source of the wealth of nations.  As one writer observed at the time, “the luxuries of our ancestors are necessities for us.” The spread of consumer goods beyond a narrow elite was linked to the diffusion of polite manners and refined tastes. Shopping became a popular pastime for the affluent.  Possessions came to be seen as reflecting or even constituting the character of the person who owned them while also serving as powerful markers of class in a profoundly unequal world.  
Such changes created the conditions that inspired businessmen to greatly expand production using techniques of industrial manufacturing, including the division of labor and steam powered machinery.  In turn, this industrial revolution transformed many aspects of nineteenth-century life.  Soon railroads and steamships brought a dazzling array of manufactured goods at all price points to towns, villages, and otherwise remote rural areas.  Architecture and urban spaces were adapted to facilitate an ever denser concentration of industrial and commercial activities given over to the acquisition and display of goods.  The notion of  a mass “consumer society,” in which the acquisition of new and often superfluous goods was seen as a fundamental right, became both ubiquitous and controversial.
This course will explore the emergence of modern patterns of consumption and the ideas that both legitimated and challenged them from the era of Jane Austen to the age of Mad Men.  Although this is officially a course in European history, American material will be incorporated, too, especially towards the end of the semester.  Our sources will include classics of social thought and works of fiction, a wide selection of 
other primary documents, and recent scholarly literature as well as images and objects from the period under study.  

3.000 Credit hours
3.000 Lecture hours
0.000 Lab hours

Levels: Undergraduate
Schedule Types: Seminar

History Department

Course Attributes:
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