Peter York on a thorough delve into the nature of consumerism, and Christopher Silvester on an unlikely entrepreneur who defied convention.
Empire of Things
How We Became a World of Consumers
Every couple of years I’ve considered writing a book called The Joy of Things. It’s a sincere yet spoofy idea. Sincere in that I love things, including some extremely modest, banal or ratty ones, and I have a worrying number of them (worrying for others, not me) at home and in expensive storage. Spoofy in that I’d make it look (cover and illustrations) a bit like Alex Comfort’s wonderful 1970s series The Joy of Sex.
I approached Frank Trentmann’s Empire of Things hoping/fearing that he’d done me out of a job. I needn’t have worried. This handsome, heavy book — 862 pages all up — bound like a Folio Society edition in bright yellow and black (you expect a slip case!), isn’t remotely lascivious about objects. You hear the echoes of people across the centuries and geographies getting it on for café au lait, calico dresses, silver spoons and Oriental rugs, but for Prof Trentmann, who is a prodigious public intellectual, it’s the thought that counts.
This book is about an -ism — consumerism — and how it’s developed over time in relation to a great many other -isms. Communism and Fascism, certainly, but a great deal more, because Prof Trentmann goes so much further back and farther afield than you’re expecting — to 15th-century Italy and Ming dynasty China, rather than just the late 18th- and 19th-century roots of Western mass society you’re expecting: Josiah Wedgwood and his smart ceramics for aspirant bourgeois, or Zola’s The Ladies’ Paradise of 1883, based on the Paris department store Le Bon Marché.
Through the 20th century, the debate about consumerism raged. One vocal side said growing mass acquisition debased people and downgraded ideals in favour of meretricious show-offery. The other said it represented real people’s progress and social mobility — ‘bettering themselves’ in real ways. Were things the opiate of the masses or the outward and visible symbol of their liberation?
From Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) — the origin of the idea of ‘conspicuous consumption’ in the modern world — the debate went through to the liberal moral panic of the 1950s and early 60s; everything from JK Galbraith’s The Affluent Society (1958) to Vance Packard’s popular worry books. Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders (1957) revealed the wicked manipulation involved in advertising, and The Waste Makers (1960) showed the workings of planned obsolescence.
In the 1970s — and this is where I came in — Worried of Hampstead started to be challenged. Not just by the emerging Neo-Con world view that wealth creation was saintly and ‘the Market’ was the answer to any problem you could name, but also by a younger, sharper, more visual intelligentsia, fascinated by new popular culture, by identity politics and post-Modernism. Consumption natives, people who’d done cultural studies, people who collected trainers and graphic novels, people for whom the Joy of Things came naturally.
The change of terms in the debate ran alongside a very uncomfortable economic analysis that both political parties in the UK have had to acknowledge; that private consumption was driving our show. Domestic getting and spending, rather than manufacturing growth, grand infrastructure projects or export drives, was the difference between boom and bust, here at least. This idea of domestic consumption as the motor of the economy is particularly marked in Britain, with its weird post-industrial economy, its domestic property obsession, and its relatively oversized financial sector, but it’s true to a greater or lesser degree across the West (and the Chinese are desperately trying to create a new motor of domestic demand now to pick up the slack from slowing export-led manufacturing growth).
But there’s so much more to consumption if you know practically everything, as Prof Trentmann appears to do. This thorough-going debate about things pulls in every high-table discipline going: history, sociology and social psychology. And, of course, politics, philosophy and economics. And theology too. Because, as Trentmann points out, the Empire of Things isn’t just built on individuals’ loving and lusting and making choices between Versace and Paul Smith — it comes through a great historical push-me-pull-you of social norms and the forces of technological innovation and political breakthroughs.
Trentmann, for instance, completely understands the infrastructure-building, pump-priming role of the modern state in making private passions possible. Government pump-priming investment made Silicon Valley the world’s dominant force in IT, and now we have its lovely new artefacts and apps.
He understands the ways in which people make things — and then things make people. The social psychology of self-esteem in which individuals and whole social groups, newly armed with things that matter like cars and business suits, can move on up, like the first generations of middle-class black Americans. He understands how the Women’s Movement needed domestic appliances. Above all, Trentmann understands the New Puritans’ central arguments about endless growth and consumerism, that it’s destroying the planet. And he knows that substantive change won’t come from a few high-minded people in Stoke Newington recycling and joining car-share clubs and going to farmers’ markets.
That’s because the quantum of things increases all the time. New goods and services enter our lives inexorably and invisibly each year and become obvious essentials — Nespressos and Fitbits, satnavs and iPads. The devices that help you live the new, better, simpler life, the virtue signallers that show you want to save everything going, actually have to be made — usually in China, with some noxious emissions involved — distributed in polluting ways and sold to you. All these contradictions mean we can’t just individually de-clutter our way to heaven. There has to be a tough debate and tough decisions made and ultimately, so he implies, some tough legislation to follow.
After 700-plus pages of wonderfully wide-ranging (though not quite prurient enough for me!), even-handed and elegantly written discussion (Prof. Trentmann is what we intellectuals call German), we begin to sense where he’s coming from. He’s against the modern concentration of wealth into ever fewer hands for good economic reasons and he thinks we should have ‘a more general appreciation of the pleasures from a deeper and more long-lasting connection to fewer things’. He’s right, of course, but I’m going to have terribly cold turkey.
Prince of Darkness
The Untold Story of Jeremiah G. Hamilton, Wall Street’s First Black Millionaire
Jeremiah G. Hamilton led much of his extraordinary life in the full glare of publicity. He was a controversial figure, a compulsive litigant who fed the scurrilous press that thrived in New York during his lifetime. And yet he remains a shadowy figure. There is no photograph of him, not even an engraving. No-one knows what his middle initial stood for, if anything. Perhaps it was a mere affectation.
One thing is for sure. Hamilton did not go out of his way to assist any future biographers. We know he was a mulatto, half-black and half-white, but was he from Richmond, Virginia, of free parentage, the son of a Caucasian barber, or was he from somewhere in the Caribbean, himself a former slave? His children said he was born in Cuba. Other reports cited ‘Porto Rico’. Richmond was his claimed birthplace in an 1843 court appearance, while his assumed West Indian origins were a later creation. ‘His past was malleable, something to be used as he saw fit and, most of all, deployed to his advantage’ writes Shane White, an Australian academic with a gift for crisp prose. Indeed, White confesses that he has changed his mind about which version is the truth over a dozen times.
We first come across Hamilton in 1828 in Haiti, where he had gone – at the instigation of a group of New York merchants, whose identities he never revealed – to ‘shove’ counterfeit coins on the local citizenry. Having made good his escape once the game was up, he was sentenced to death by firing squad in absentia, and wisely never returned.
Back in New York in the 1830s, he ran a fleet of commercial coasting vessels along the Atlantic seaboard and down to the West Indies and was no stranger to sharp practice. Before long, New York’s marine insurance underwriters had banded together to blackball him. This was when his nickname of the Prince of Darkness took root.
Since there were many persons of mixed race in New York, it was a wooly hair type rather than actual skin colour that marked a man out as a ‘nigger’. Hamilton wore a wig of straight black hair, which led some to assume that he was attempting to pass off as a Spaniard, although he was well known to bear the taint of colour.
He borrowed using stocks as security in order to speculate in other stocks, especially railroad stocks. He was a ‘frenetic’ borrower and a laggard when it came to repayments. He profited from the city’s Great Fire of 1835, because a group of Pearl Street merchants who had invested $25,000 with him lost all proof of the deal in the conflagration. The sheer fact that he was the only black broker on Wall Street was provocation enough for some, but he was a doughty adversary. ‘When it came to the law… Jeremiah Hamilton was in a class of his own,’ says White. ‘The lawsuit became his chosen weapon.’ Not only the lawsuit, but also the planted newspaper report intended to discomfit and blacken the name of an opponent. His close ally was Benjamin Day, founding editor of the New York Sun, who took his side on numerous occasions. (Intriguingly, Hamilton is also thought to have prepared one of the earliest newspaper rich lists, an eight-page pamphlet called Wealth and Wealthy Citizens, published under the Sun’s imprint.)
He began amassing properties in the real estate boom of the late 1830s, even investing in the town of Poughkeepsie, up the Hudson River. He lost it all when he was made bankrupt in 1842, a year after the federal government introduced lenient bankruptcy laws, although being made bankrupt was the best thing that could have happened to him as he managed to shed all his debts while slyly hanging on to most of his assets.
In later years he took on Cornelius Vanderbilt in court and although he lost, things may not have been entirely as they seemed. White floats the idea that Hamilton may have been in cahoots with Vanderbilt to the detriment of third parties.
White has performed an admirable task in bringing to light as much as is possible about Hamilton; where he has been unable to find sufficient information he has derived context from social history.
We know that Hamilton married a white girl, Eliza Jane Morris, when he was 30 and she was fifteen, becoming what was then called an ‘amalgamated’ couple. She bore him several children. We know little of how their relationship unfolded against the backdrop of racial prejudice. Her finest hour came during the Draft Riots of 1863 when a rampaging lynch mob invaded the Hamilton residence in search of her husband and she kept them distracted while Hamilton climbed over the back fence and hightailed it to safety.
We know nothing about Hamilton’s interior life save for the list of books that he borrowed over the years from the New York Society Library, in which he gained membership in 1856. His choice of reading embraced philosophers and historians as well as novelists such as Fielding, Thackeray, and Dickens. He even borrowed the 18th-century picaresque novel The Adventures of Gil Blas twice, once in 1857 and again in 1872.
Hamilton was almost 68 when he died in 1875. Beyond death his story was forgotten. Never one to advocate black causes, he did not fit the profile of a black hero. But he ‘took New Yorkers on at their own game and beat them at it’.