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La Révolution Matérielle: Une Histoire de la Consommation Review


The industrial revolution of the past two centuries has been defined by massively increased production, but the natural corollary of this is that somebody is also consuming this. This has transformed society, as not only have how people meet their basic needs has altered, but so too has changed what those needs are, the extent that people fulfill them, and the structures of society have dramatically changed: the move from a subsistence economy to a consuming economy has completely overhauled human relations and lifestyles. This is the subject of Jean-Claude Daumas' book La Révolution matérielle : Une histoire de la consommation France XIXe - XXIe siècle (The Material Revolution: A History of Consumption, France 19th to the 20th Centuries), which covers the transformations of consumption patterns in France through the periods of the 1840-1885 centered around the Second Empire, the Belle Epoque of the Third Republic, the Interwar, the post-war economic revolution of the trentes glorieuses, and the present day with its relative economic stagnation.

Something like consumption is an extremely complex issue, since not only is there a staggering variety of objects which we consume - most basically food, clothing, and shelter, but also transport, furnishing, culture, vacations and distractions, information, and education - but also how this varies by region and by social class. Daumas includes both a quantitative and qualitative history of this change, examining the living standard of French people throughout the previous two centuries at various levels, but also discussing how they interacted with it and perceived the changes. It gives a great amount of information that qualitatively enables an understanding of the periods, such as extensive breakdowns of spending patterns and revenue for various social classes, but also talks about the actual appearance and result of this - particularly striking when it comes to describing housing, ranging from the upper class mansions of the Belle Epoque, to the hardscrabble, insalubrious homes of the peasants even as late as the 1950s, to worker housing in Paris, and to modern, but also conversely often isolating, apartments.

An excellent feature is discussing the multiple sides of consumption and changes in the lifestyle of the French, and the ways this was perceived by various people. For example, the development of the great department stores of Paris was perceived as offering a way for women to be profligate, but the book includes direct quotes from women defending their buying practices and stressing how for them, it represented a valorizing, social, and even economical activity. This is particularly present in the chapters on the Interwar and the Trente glorieuses, where the development of a society of mass consumption had a range of negative perceptions, most importantly focused on the idea of the Americanization of France, the death of individuality and diversity, the end of traditions, and the destruction of humanity and thought: it discusses the debates over this and has a range of literary sources which it discusses, such as Scènes de la vie future by Georges Duhamel or Les Choses of Georges Perec, which help to understand how these tremendous changes in French society were perceived and discussed.

It also links the consumption side well to the economic production and changes which underlined it, such as why certain consumer products were more expensive in the French context and discouraged adoption (typically due to outdated or small scale production which kept prices high), and tracks the evolution of sectors such as transport, with the emergence of first the bicycle, and then the car. This is a good example of its usage of sources, such as for example using photographic history (unfortunately the photos which it drew from aren't shown) to see how many bicycles were parked in Parisian gates and public places at the dawn of the 20th century. And it talks about the relationship of consumers to cars, such as the shift from the voiture pour tous (the car for everyone) to the voiture pour chacun (the car for you), and the growing shift to specialized and tailored products in the present age. Also advertising, one of the crucial developments behind the modern consumer economy, is mentioned, and critically analyzed in how people actually related to and interpreted advertisements.

One thing which would have been nice as mentioned above is additional photos, particularly to the changes in fashion, which can be hard to understand in simple written terms. There are photos in the book but they are relatively few, which is a shame since consumption is inherently such a visual oriented phenomenon. There is also very little about foreign influences on France and comparative discussion with other countries, beyond America - which would have been interesting, to discuss foreign influences in France, as well as the legacy of the French colonial empire. Also communication technologies, most notably with the modern internet but also before, are underestimated, with focus principally upon the spread of radio, television, and some watching and listening habits.

More than 500 pages long and extremely rigorous, both reasonably simple to understand in broad strokes and yet also with a fine touch for detail, La Révolution materielle helps to give an excellent understanding of the consumer changes which have gripped France, and the various stages of its path to what we might term modernity. If you read French, it is a great social history of this part of the French experience.

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.

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