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The Birth of a Modern
Consumer Society?
Dr Chris Pearson
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
Lecture outline
• Emergence of a consumer
• Gender and consumerism
• Reactions to consumerism
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
‘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
Consumer Society
• Desire for and consumption of massproduced goods
• Consumer choice targeted by marketing
and publicity
• Individual and social identities (partly)
based on consumption
• Cultural as well as economic aspects
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)
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
Balzac on the
‘He is civilization in
a shop, society in a
paper bag. His is
Enlightenment in
action, life itself
distributed in
bottles, packets and
The roots of French consumer society (3)
Symbol of
during the
Empire : Le
Bon marché
Louvre department store, opened 1855
Universal Exposition 1855
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
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 based in central Paris,
production pushed to the outskirts
The Printemps department store, est. 1865
‘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
Zola, Au bonheur des dames, 122-3
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])
Site of the former
Dufayel store in
the 18th
(now a bank)
The aims of advertising:
‘To inform, to create need and desire,
and to convince consumers that the
advertiser could best meet those
Leora Auslander, Taste and Power, p.354
‘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)
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
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
• Walton, France at the Crystal Palace (1992)
Gender and consumption (3)
• Ligue sociale d’achetuers (or Social league of
• 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)
Criticizing consumerism
• Traditionalists lamented cult of individual
and other facets of the modern consumer
• 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
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
Marcelle Tinayre in Femina (1910)
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),