History 88 The Social History of Consumption, Spring 2008

Here’s the current draft of a course I’ve been teaching here pretty much since I arrived. Spruced up here and there, but this syllabus tends to be one of the most architecturally stable of my courses. One thing I always look forward to with this class is the research paper at the end of the semester: each student has to pick a single commodity and write a historical study of it.

This class also has a hidden subtext: in some ways, it’s actually the class I teach with the strongest focus on methodology in the discipline of history: the readings run the gamut from rigorously quantitative economic history to off-the-wall cultural commentary.


History 88 The Social History of Consumption
Spring 2008
Professor Burke
Swarthmore College

Monday January 21st
Introduction and overview

Transitions to Consumption

Wed. January 23th
Lisa Jardine, Worldly Goods, pp. 3-132

Monday January 28th
Lisa Jardine, Wordly Goods, pp. 229-330, pp. 377-436

Wednesday January 30
Jean-Christophe Agnew, “Coming Up For Air: Consumer Culture in Historical Perspective” and
Joyce Appleby, “Consumption in Early Modern Social Thought”
In Brewer and Porter, eds., Consumption and the World of Goods

Monday February 4th
Jan de Vries, “Purchasing Power and the World of Goods” and
Lorna Wetherill, “The Meaning of Consumer Behavior”
In Brewer and Porter, eds., Consumption and the World of Goods

Wednesday February 6th
*T.H. Breen, “The Meaning of Things” and
*Simon Schama, “Perishable Commodities”
In Brewer and Porter eds., Consumption and the World of Goods

The Making of a Consumer Society

Monday February 11th
*Stephen Nissenbaum, The Battle For Christmas, Chapter Four
First paper due

Wednesday February 13th
William Leach, Land of Desire, all

Monday February 18th
*Susan Strasser, Satisfaction Guaranteed, selection

Wed February 20th
*Elaine Abelson, When Ladies Go A-Thieving, Chapter 5 and 6

Monday February 25th
*Andrew Heinze, Adapting to Abundance, Chapter 2

Wednesday February 27th
*Rachel Bowlby, Carried Away: The Invention of Modern Shopping, Chapter 4, 5 and 7

Monday March 3rd
*Lendol Calder, Financing the American Dream: A Cultural History of Consumer Credit, Chapter 1 and Chapter 5

Begin consumer diaries

Wednesday March 5th
Lizabeth Cohen, Consumers’ Republic, all


Globalization and the World of Goods

Monday March 17th
Pietra Rivoli, The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy
End consumer diaries

Wednesday March 19th
Rivoli, Travels of a T-Shirt

Monday March 24th
*Timothy Burke, Lifebuoy Men, Chapter 6
*Jean-Marc Philibert and Christine Jourdain, “Perishable Goods: Modes of Consumption in the Pacific Islands”, in Howes, ed., Cross-Cultural Consumption
*Mary Beth Mills, Thai Women in the Global Labor Force, Chapter 7

Wednesday March 26th
*Mara Domosh, American Commodities in an Age of Empire, Chapter 5
*Roland Kelts, Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the United States, Chapter 4

Commodity History

Monday March 31st
*Jane Schneider, “Rumpelstiltskin’s Bargain”, in Jane Schneider, ed., Cloth and Human Experience
*Misty Bastian, “Female Alhajis and Entrepreneurial Fashions”, in Hendrickson, ed., Clothing and Difference
*C.A. Bayly, “The Origins of Swadeshi (home industry): Cloth and Indian Society, 1700-1930”, in Appadurai, ed., The Social Life of Things

Wednesday April 2nd
*Kathy Peiss, Hope in a Jar, Chapter 5 and 6
Consumer diaries paper due

Monday April 7th
Sidney Mintz, Sweetness and Power, Chapter 3

Wednesday April 9th
*Stewart Lee Allen, The Devil’s Cup: Coffee, the Driving Force of History, selection
*Brad Weiss, Sacred Trees, Bitter Harvest, Chapter 3
Topics for commodity history paper due

Monday April 15th
Sasha Issenberg, The Sushi Economy

Wednesday April 17th
Yona McDonough, The Barbie Chronicles
*Erica Rand, Barbie’s Queer Accessories, selection


Monday April 21st
*Michael Schudson, Advertising, The Uneasy Persuasion, selection
*Walter Friedman, Birth of a Salesman: The Transformation of Selling in America, selection
*Seth Godin, All Marketers Are Liars, selection
“Mad Men”

Wednesday April 23rd
Taschen advertising collections
*Warren Dotz, Meet Mr. Product: The Art of the Advertiser
*Miles Beller, Hey Skinny! Great Advertisements From the Golden Age of Comic Books

Monday April 28th
Things and Meaning

*Joshua Glenn, Taking Things Seriously, selection
John Freyer, All My Life For Sale, selection

Wednesday April 30th
The Debate Over Consumerism

*James Twitchell, Lead Us Into Temptation, selection
*Juliet Schor, The Overspent American, selection

Final commodity history research paper due May 9th.

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11 Responses to History 88 The Social History of Consumption, Spring 2008

  1. Laura says:

    I want to take this course. 🙁

  2. Sdorn says:

    Great list of readings. I hadn’t known of Peiss’s Hope in a Jar — thanks! Have you come across Lisa Jacobson’s Raising Consumers (2004), or the parts of Carl Nightingale’s On the Edge (1994) that discusses the 1980s/90s marketing strategies of athletic shoe manufacturers?

  3. Sisyphus says:

    Interesting course — but there’s no books on soap! 😉

    DId you follow that discussion on The Valve about … uh, I think it’s Robbins’ article on “commodity histories”? There was a big debate it might be interesting to look into.

    And I haven’t read it yet, but I’m interested in _Deluxe: How Luxury Lost its Luster_, which might be interesting to add. Or I might add one of the wal-mart books that’s coming out, considering it’s the single largest employer in the US right now.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    I was toying with appending the Wal-Mart scholarship that’s coming out to the discussion of Cohen’s book–but in a funny kind of way, I tend to think the real story with Wal-Mart is on the other end (labor and supply) than with consumption.

    (I snuck one chapter of my book in, so soap is there, a bit.)

    Sherman, Jacobson is on my “to do” list, but I hadn’t had time to read it this semester so I didn’t put it on for this round. Nightingale is a nice suggestion that I might choose to do instead for the first advertising discussion. I always feel bad about advertising/marketing in this course–the literature is interesting and compelling, but I end up squeezing it out to showcase commodity history and the three major narrative “arcs” I cover in the first half.

  5. Daniel Rosenblatt says:

    I want to take that course too–though I am surprised to see no Grant McCracken and even more surprised to see no Jackson Lears or Danny Miller, since those are probably the places I would start were I to try to teach a course on consumption. Which is not meant as criticism, but simply a thought along the lines of “I wonder what sort of perspective is driving this course” and “amazing that there is so much else out there besides the stuff I am familiar with.”

  6. Timothy Burke says:

    I’m still debating where to put some of Grant’s writings, but I intend to use his work.

    I’ve used Jackson’s work, usually Fables of Abundance, in most iterations of this class, but for whatever reason, the discussion just goes nowhere. I think maybe it’s because the students experience Fables as a reprise of Land of Desire.

    I’ve also used Miller every other time I’ve taught the course, but something of the same problem. The major Trinidad book is very difficult for students for some reason. What I might do is assign Miller’s Material World blog in the Things and Meaning class.

  7. Daniel Rosenblatt says:

    What I’ve usually used of Jackson’s work is “From Salvation to Self Realization: Advertising and the Therapeutic Roots of Consumer Culture article from the (Fox & Lears) _Culture of Consumption_ book–it does a nice job of showing not only how consumer goods came to satisfy certain needs, but the way a whole new set of needs emerged with changes in the nature of urban middle class life & work.

  8. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah. That’s a good piece, and actually a good anthology too. But it’s a view that I get covered pretty thoroughly through the Leach, Abelson, Heinze, Strasser, Nussbaum sequence–it’s one of those cases where I pretty much have to decide between one of those and Lears. Since each of those also covers some particular angle (shopping, spectacle, public space & consumption, shoplifting, immigrant experience, Christmas and childhood), Lears ends up just outside the syllabus. He tends to be one of the authors I most commend to many of the students if their commodity history papers deal with relevant time periods/theoretical frameworks.

  9. Daniel Rosenblatt says:

    That’s an interesting sequence. I’ve in fact just added the Leach and the Strasser to my current Amazon shopping cart (we shall have to wait and see if they make the final cut–I’m not teaching this sort of thing this year or probably next, otherwise there would be no question–at this moment they would fall into the category of books I buy because I want to remember that they exist, which is itself an interesting form of consumption). When I DO teach this stuff it’s within the context of a course on the idea of “success” in American culture, so the Lears works really well because it sets the stage for looking at all sort of anti-modernist resistance to the pursuit of success, and I really want to make sure students get the idea that the resistance is just as culturally/historically structured as the societal ideal

    On another matter entirely, I’m curious as to whether you’ve used the Brad Weiss before and how it has gone over. I’m not familiar with that book, but was thinking of using his “Making and Unmaking of the Haya Lived World” in an “intro for majors” that our department has. The issue is whether students find it readable. I ended up using _Nuer Dilemmas_ this time, but decided the Weiss might have been at about the same level of difficulty . (I also though about _Lifebuoy Men…_in this slot , which is essentially for an ethnography that (1) Isn’t about the Pacific, with some preference for Africa, and (2) addresses issues of historical change, colonial context, and possibly commodification. The main drawback is that in this context genre matters: I want a book that takes the world into account while still making a claim to be an ethnography of a particular local non-western place.)

  10. Lucky me – I actually *did* get to take this course many years ago. I still love picking up the books nowadays, especially “Cigarettes are Sublime” (now off the syllabus – how could you??). Tim, thanks for keeping up this hugely intelligent blog – I am a big fan.

  11. jglenn says:

    Thanks for including “Taking Things Seriously” — it’s quite an honor to be included on this syllabus. I hope my friend Luc Sante’s book on cigarettes wasn’t bumped to make room for “Things,” though. Tell me if you’d like me to visit your class on the day you discuss the book — I applied early admission to Swarthmore (in 1986) and was rejected, so this would be a triumph of sorts for me.

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