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The developing history of consumption is not so much a separate field, as a prism through which many aspects of social and political life may be viewed. The essays in this collection represent a variety of approaches in Europe and America; yet their commonalities suggest recent directions in the scholarship, raising such themes as consumption and democracy, the development of a global economy, the role of the state, the centrality of consumption to Cold War politics, the importance of the Second World War as a historical divide, the language of consumption, the contexts of locality, race, ethnicity, gender, and class, and the environmental consequences of twentieth-century consumer society. Implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, they explore the role of the historian as social, political, and moral critic. The essays discuss products, corporate strategies, government policies, and ideas about consumption. Unlike other studies of twentieth-century consumption, this book provides international comparisons.
The German notion “Stadtluft macht frei” refers, above all, to the rights of citizenship that townspeople in Germany and other European countries enjoyed during the Middle Ages. Once you had resided in a city or town for a year and a day, you were free of any obligation of servitude; in short, the peasant became a burgher. Yet, in a broader sense, this notion also refers to the cultural and economic opportunities that medieval towns offered. It is no wonder that urbanized areas often located near the sea or on important rivers became centers of economic progress. The development of trade and commerce made towns in Europe distinct from rural areas. Eventually, the process of industrialization in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries allowed urban centers in Europe and North America to become regional economic powerhouses. In addition, the development of suburban areas displaced farmland to regions farther away from the center and absorbed the population surplus from the burgeoning cities.
Today, the role of cities in the industrialized world has changed profoundly. In contrast to those in previous periods of history, contemporary European and American cities show signs of decline, with the decay of spaces previously used for industrial and commercial purposes. Cities and towns seem to have lost their edge - to the benefit of their surrounding areas. The suburbs not only benefit from the out-migration of upwardly mobile people but also offer business opportunities to industrial and commercial enterprises that formerly looked for locations within the cities themselves.
For more than twenty years, American historians of the United States have been exploring the twentieth-century history of shopping, advertising, and marketing as the activities of individuals and as arenas for corporate endeavor. They have studied the meanings of consumer goods as material culture; they have investigated the history of consumer protest and other aspects of politicized consumption and consumerist politics; and they have traced the evolution of commodified leisure, a central feature of consumer society. This interest in the history of consumption is relatively new: For most of the twentieth century, most historians in both Europe and the United States have been preoccupied with the more overt agendas of politics and statecraft. Even the Annalesschool, which attended to the details and mechanisms of daily life in the evolution of economies, showed little interest in the emergence of modern consumer society. Some of the scholars affiliated with the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt - especially Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Walter Benjamin, and Siegfried Kracauer - did provide a critical perspective on contemporary consumption and mass leisure in Weimar Germany and interwar Europe. But although that perspective fueled an appreciation of the origins of consumer society, the Frankfurt School never offered any detailed historical account.
Scholarly interest in the history of consumption first emerged during the Cold War, when, as a number of chapters of this book demonstrate, the issue of consumption became a major vehicle in the political and ideological clash of capitalism and communism and consumer goods were described as weapons in the Cold War. With desire for cars, washing machines, and less expensive goods regularly satisfied in the capitalist West but not in the state-socialist East, empty shelves became a sign of the failure of state socialism.