Consumer's Imperium: The Global Production of American Domesticity 1865-1920 by Kristin L. Hoganson is a brilliant book, which manages an impressive analysis and multifacted investigation of the relations between consumerism, economic globalization, imperialism, American diversity, and the class structures of American life in the transformative years of the American experience of 1865 to 1920 - particularly at the turn of the center. its impressive linking of these elements together both enables a better understanding of assimilation and the development of modern notions concerning diversity and "ethnic" capitalism, the allure of the foreign, and the values attached to national origin and cosmopolitanism by an American middle class audience. This American middle class may have transformed the world, but they did so while simultaneously partaking in an - artifical, but still real - international cosmopolitan world, which left them transformed as well.
In the introduction, Hoganson argues that in addition to the famous Americanization of the world and concerns about it, the United States was not separate from international currents and that conversely even as it expanded its global cultural presence, it imported foreign products and exhibited a real fascination for foreign cultures. This was particularly marked by middle class white women, who integrated together the foreign and the domestic, and were the vanguard of a globalization of the United States - one where they were privileged for sure, with a great elevation of class, but one marked by international interests and affairs.
Chapter 1 discusses various home decors in the United States during the period, with the rise of "cozy corner" with national themes, such as Japanese, British, Italian, etc. corners modeled in various foreign styles, as well as the importation and furnishing of homes in exotic themes. This was opposed by Americanist designs, which included some profoundly odd ideas, such as using corn for interior decorating!
Chapter 2 moves onto the world of fashion, marriage, and aristocracy, as fashion took ideas and designs from across the world in an extremely cosmopolitan, internationalist, community of upper and middle class women. The world of fashion was closely linked with a desire for promotion into the world of the aristocracy, both with actual marriages with European aristocracy, as well as the fantasy of reaching out for it. This period saw a division of clothing into the fashionable and the modern, and the quaint, outdated, and folk, but this very exclusivity and the rejection of the poor, ethnic, and working-class helped establish the higher status of those belonging to the higher classes.
Food takes pride of place in chapter 3, examining the infusion of international food into American culinary life. Cookbooks introduced foreign recipes from a host of different countries, principally European (and above all else France, acknowledged as the home of fine food), new ingredients, and merchants and stores plied customers with exotic new products. The exotic came to one's doorsteps with World Fairs with their international cafes and restaurants, ethnic restaurants opened up across the US, and it gave an allure to food and smoothed over the loss of local products removed by industrialization of the food supply. Simultaneously, the growth of an internationalized food chain, as in other categories, paid vanishingly little attention to the plight of workers and farmers who grew and produced food for consumers. Women were at the forefront food writing, combining exploration with expectations of women's role: they also alternatively played up the nationalism card, celebrating American food and its quality, and often downplaying foreign cuisine, and delighted in international dishes and international geography and entertainment. That these reinforced hierarchical lines of power, often creating inauthentic recipes and without an outreach to the actual people who cooked them, was not a bug - it was a feature.
Chapter 4 moves onto geographic societies and travel clubs. The late 19th century saw the proliferation of travel around the world and travel writers, and even for those who did not stir from their homes, clubs enabled them to keep up with it through armchair travel. These groups laid the groundwork for global consciousness among white, middle class, American women. They collected travel material, documents, commercial travel information, photos, slides, and a host of other products in massive amounts, connecting themselves to an international culture of traveling. Technological developments like stereoscopes for presenting slides were all the rage, focusing on visual wonders, joined later by motion pictures. As with other expressions of international interest, there was both a democratic aspect of making travel accessible to the masses, but also, perhaps even more importantly, a connection and aspiration to the aristocratic and upper class ideal of voyage, enabling an expression of superior cosmopolitanism and learning. So too, there was the perspective of women overstepping their place, so these seemingly tame clubs had a role in female empowerment. Even with their presentations at home, travel clubs helped develop the ideal of mass tourism and a tourism mentality, to facilitate trips overseas and providing a perspective of what to see: travel and tourism became presentable, respectable, and available to the masses of comfortable, domestic, women.
International diversity was not only present abroad, for there were a host of immigrants in the United States itself, the subject of chapter 5. In an era marked by calls for Americanization of immigrants, this cultural assimilation had multiple strains, ranging from a denigration of difference at home to a messianistic desire to remake the world abroad. But it also had an element of pluralism, including a belief of immigrants (principally European although sometimes other groups were involved) bringing cultural benefits to the US, with a positive depiction of concerts by foreign immigrants in their own language, dances, plays, handicrafts, and mixed ethnic celebrations. These served to propel both respect for differences and also to shape what was defined as acceptable cultural practices for newcomers, and to encourage native-born Americans to learn more about the newcomers around them. The entrance into WW1, which brought Americanization to a fevered pitch, also led to a corollary of the importance of pluralism and democracy at home, with a recognition of difference and acceptance of other languages and cultures. These efforts were also linked to the international travel movement, by enabling an experience of foreignness and diversity at home, and embraced order and respect instead of the breakdown of families under the atomization of modern industrial society. In a certain respect, the focus on immigrant gifts was grounded in a project which resisted Americanization, modernity, and deplored the loss of traditional society that it caused.
In the conclusion, Hoganson restates her ideas of the United States both receiving and taking part in international culture, as well as remaking it: American middle class white women constructed a new dynamic of consumption that simultaneously led to an increased degree of pluralism, as well as a continued neglect of the poor and marginalized who produced the cultural and material products that they consumed.
Consumer's Imperium is well-written and incorporates a stunning number of examples, clearly drawn from a very lengthy and researched biography. Hoganson has a great number of photos and pictures to accompany her work and to help illustrate it, and she draws upon a wide range of sources ranging from actual products that were adopted by consumers, to events, to plays, books, and magazines to give a sense of discussion during the era, bringing it to light. Even if she hadn't provided it with an analysis of the effects of this women's consumerism and the ideologies and structures which undergirded it, the book would be a interesting narrative. But thankfully she did and it makes Consumer's Imerium into a excellent history book.
This presentation is fascinating in the middle class view of the world which was emerging, as a self-confident American society was being molded by capitalist consumer culture and class concerns, which subordinated questions of purely political, even economic, interest, to a self-satiated perspective which viewed the world as its oyster, whose diverse cultures and societies were conceived principally in their potential for titillation and material fruits. Instead of being animated by questions of foreign trade, political concerns, and international learning being bound up in the creation of diplomats, writers, and thinkers, the Americans who learned about foreign countries did so in a relatively non-political, cultural way, one which was tightly bound up in material acquisition, experiencing other cultures' products, art, food, and using them as inspiration for things ranging from fashion to interior decoration. The roots of the present with trends like "world music," the praising of diversity, cultural equality and multi-culturalism, are clear - and an ironic product of an age which is castigated today for its racism and inequality.
American interest in international geography also demonstrated a convinced ability to fit the world into books, magazines, travel guides, and the most exciting of all - the proliferation of travel photos. before the rise of jet travel, increases in middle class incomes, and affordable and mass market international tourism accommodation, housing, and services, there nevertheless existed a desire to travel and experience the world. Perhaps aping the upper class on the part of the middle class, for the upper class really could, and always had (for at least several centuries prior to the 20th century, thus witness the grand tours of Europe), traveled the world for culture, learning, and establishing ties to an international cosmopolitan society. By contrast, if the middle class could not in person join the international worlds of travel, fashion, and art, they could nevertheless reach cosmopolitan circles of aristocratic society from afar, partaking of it through the experience of travel groups and circles. The cult of middle class travel was born, long before middle class traveling itself became possible, and one which fit the world to its carefully edited, universalistic, technology-dependent, middle-class perspective. here is the American will to transform the world - not to make it entirely homogenous, but to homogenize it just enough in its own depictions of it to make it comprehensible and easily accessible, in a pursuit of internal objectives.
At the same time, in a society which was already remarkably diverse, which attracted immigrants from across Europe, stretching beyond the traditional immigration lands of Western/Central Europe to the South and East, and from East Asia in Japan and most pressingly China, this international interest in world societies, culture, and products did not necessarily imply an acceptance or even a reaching out to the people it studied. Chop suey (an excellent example of the bastardization of a foreign food and the production of an American equivalent then perceived as an authentic representation, in this case of Chinese food) may have been welcome in America, as the American leisurely classes experimented and toyed around with foreign products, but not Chinese people: the same applies to Japanese tea ceremonies and origami, married to a rejection of Japanese people. Hoganson's elegant book manages to show how this was possible, and how Americans were able to both embrace foreign economic goods without embracing their people.
This was not complete, and shows the further intricacy and nuance present in the book, for at the same time that unsuitably foreign people like the Japanese and Chinese were rejected, there was also a real assimilation, and an acceptance of cultural pluralism and a reaching-out-to new immigrants from Europe. Danses, outfits, costumes, were welcomed from the peasants flooding into the United States from Eastern and Southern Europe, and their traditional cultural practices and the authority of their communities upheld, perhaps in a way to deal with the problem of social atomization and the danger of industrial and anarchist revolt. The nationalist themes present in the era can read strangely today - such as a parade with members of descendents from the Germanic, Slavic, and Latin peoples of Europe laying down their gifts to Columbia, celebrating the fusion of the three great European races into a new nation - but they are brilliant examples of the American ideology of the melting pot.
Overall, Consumer's Imperium is a great work for examining the development of American female-driven consumption, travel, capitalist consumer imperialism, and different discourses on American diversity. It helps to connect the spending patterns and the interests of this privileged group of women with the development of an integrated world economy where they had a privileged status à part from the rest, free to engage with the world from a position of power which let them indulge in pleasures and consumer goods. Many of the trends of this informal American capitalist domination are ones which continue to exist to the present, and Consumer's Imperium is both a brilliant portrait on both the particular class and gender ideologies of the turn of the century, and a thought-provoking look at how they were born.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Ryan C Thomas