Collecting in a Consumer Society
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Collecting in a Consumer Society

Russell W. Belk

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📖 eBook - ePub

Collecting in a Consumer Society

Russell W. Belk

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This groundbreaking book examines the relationship between the development of the consumer society and the rise of collecting by individuals and institutions.Rusell Belkconsiders how and why people collect, as individuals, corporations and museums, and the impact this collecting has on us and our culture.

Collecting in a Consumer Society outlines the history of museum collecting from ancient civilizations to the present. It also looks at aspects of consumer culture - advertizing, department stores, mass merchandizing, consumer desires, and how this relates to the activity of collecting.

Collecting in a Consumer Society is the first book to focus on collecting as material consumption. This is a provocative and engaging book, essential reading for anyone involved with the process of collecting.

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The world is so full of a number of things
I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings
(Stevenson 1905)


Written during the rise of the age of consumerism, Stevenson’s couplet contemplates the abundant things of the world with a child’s sense of wonder. The happiness of kings is seen as a happiness that comes from having things. If this happiness was once restricted to kings it was because only they could command any thing they wished. But in a democratic consumer society within a market economy, the consumer is king. Given sufficient resources, any of us can now have our most regal material wishes fulfilled. The belief that such unbridled access to things should lead to unbridled happiness is the central premise of a consumer society.
The development of contemporary consumer societies has had a profound effect on the way we view the world. Stated most simply, we have come to regard an increasing profusion of both natural and human-produced things as objects to be desired, acquired, savored, and possessed. Both individuals and social institutions have enthusiastically, if sometimes guiltily, embraced this world view. Perhaps the most prominent manifestation of such consumerism is in the proliferation of individual and institutional collections. For collecting is consumption writ large. It is a perpetual pursuit of inessential luxury goods. It is a continuing quest for self completion in the marketplace. And it is a sustained faith that happiness lies only an acquisition away. But while collecting may well be the stylized and distilled essence of a consumer orientation toward life, the conceptual relationship between collecting and consuming remains largely unexplored.
This investigation of the interplay of collecting and consuming attempts to understand the interdependence of these phenomena both historically and in contemporary cultures. The primary focus is on collecting as a consumption activity that is shaped by the same cultural processes that affect other types of consumption activities. The dramatic growth of mass production, mass distribution, and mass communication is found to parallel the similarly dramatic growth of mass consumption, mass individual collecting, and massive museum collecting. More importantly, collecting is found to be a key activity that articulates our sometimes conflicting values concerning work and leisure, science and art, male and female, high culture and popular culture, us and the “other,” and production and consumption. These values are socially constructed and accordingly differ over times and cultures. My focus will be mainly on the phenomenon of collecting and on contemporary Western collecting. But before narrowing the focus too much, it is important to situate the development of consumption and collecting more broadly.


Consumer society

We humans have consumed non-necessary luxuries for a very long time. A collection of interesting pebbles found in an 80,000-year-old cave in France may mark the beginning of collecting (Neal 1980). As the climate warmed, these collections became more extensive, and during the Upper Paleolithic era collections of shells, iron pyrite, fossils, quartz, and galena were assembled in Cro-Magnon caves (Pomian 1990). Cave paintings, sculptures, and grave goods found in these caves from about 30,000 BC have suggested to some a “creative explosion” in human evolution, that may mark the first time we invested extra-utilitarian symbolic meanings in objects of human creation (Halverson 1987; Pfeiffer 1982). If so, this was the beginning of a long path toward contemporary consumer societies in which a large portion of the world passionately desires a variety of luxuries ranging from the momentary services of purchased travel, entertainments, and exotic foods to more durable automobiles, televisions, and fashionable clothing.
There were vast accumulations of art, books, and other luxury goods among the rulers and wealthy elite of many early civilizations, including those of China, India, Egypt, Sumeria, Assyria, Persia, and Babylonia (Rigby and Rigby 1944). But the luxury consumption by kings, gods (in temples managed by priests), and the elite is not sufficient for a consumer society to exist. According to one definition (Rassuli and Hollander 1986), a culture of consumption requires four conditions:
1. People (or some very substantial segment of the population) consume at a level substantially above that of crude, survival-level subsistence.
2. People obtain goods and services for consumption through exchange rather than self-production.
3. Consumption is seen as an acceptable and appropriate activity.
4. People, in fact, tend to judge others and perhaps themselves in terms of their consuming lifestyles.
(Rassuli and Hollander 1986, p. 5)
Although the characterization of life in a subsistence hunting and gathering economy as “crude” displays a sometimes unwarranted prejudice (Sahlins 1972) and although there is a lack of recognition of the non-utilitarian hedonic nature of a consumer culture (Campbell 1987; Hirschman and Holbrook 1982), this definition usefully stipulates that the existence of a consumer society depends on more than economic conditions. The last two requirements suggest that consumption values are also intimately involved.
A key value change in the development of a consumer society is the change from envy avoidance to envy provocation. A related shift is the change from being a “limited good” society (in which it is perceived that there is only so much good to go around and one person’s gain is another’s loss) to an “unlimited good” society (in which it is perceived that society is not a zero-sum game and through a multiplier, spillover, or trickle-down effect another’s gains may even contribute to our own gains). In small-scale societies where all are known to all, the limited good perspective is thought to apply (Foster 1965). The threat of provoking envy by having more than others is dissipated in these societies by foregoing unusual consumption, by sharing, hiding, and denying consumption, or by institutionalizing ceremonial gifts (Foster 1972). Widespread belief in the evil eye of envious others, held at bay with various amulets to protect against this malevolence, is another form of envy avoidance (Maloney 1976; Schoeck 1966). For example, among the Muria Gonds of India, even though many have acquired considerable wealth, Gell (1986) found a great reluctance to spend it on possessions beyond the locally accepted standard of a wristwatch, bicycle, and radio. But as a consumer society develops, envy avoidance gives way to competitive display of possessions aimed at envy provocation (Belk 1988b). This fundamental value shift may be facilitated by division of labor, multiplication of social roles, employment outside of the home, the growth of cities, increases in economic wealth, greater social mobility, and the rise of individualism, but it is doubtful that it depends upon any of these factors. Nor is such a shift to envy provocation through conspicuous consumption inevitable. Rather, it is a value that emerges from the confrontation of available consumer goods with the social construction of norms regarding acceptable and desirable consumption patterns. Among the Muria, Gell (1986) found that acceptable consumption includes traditional cloth, jewelry, traditional foods, and household collections of brassware, all of which help to reinforce Muria identity, Hindu caste, and, in the case of jewelry, act as a store of wealth and security for women. Feasts and drinking parties are the other major ways in which extra Muria wealth is spent (both of which are envy-reducing forms of sharing and ceremonial gift-giving). Thus envy-reducing public luxury has not given way to envy-provoking private luxury and a consumer society has not yet developed. Nevertheless, the acceptance of the status symbols of wristwatch, bicycle, and radio suggest cultural changes in this direction.
Besides changing values regarding conspicuous consumption and envy, the other major value change entailed in the development of consumerism is the adoption of what Campbell (1987) terms modern hedonism. Campbell begins with Scitovsky’s (1976) distinction between need-satisfying necessities (which produce comfort) and desire-satisfying luxuries (which produce pleasure). The initial response of the traditional hedonist, Campbell suggests, is to strive to acquire more necessities (e.g., the Roman practice of purging to allow the consumption of more food and drink) and more luxuries (e.g., more exotic foods and wines, a harem, art works). Braudel illustrates such traditional hedonism in describing the courtly dining of pre-fifteenth-century Europe as involving:
fountains of wine, set-pieces, and children disguised as angels descending from the sky on cables. Ostentatious quantity prevailed over quality. At best, this was a luxury of greed. Its striking feature was the riot of meat – a long-lasting feature of the tables of the rich.
(Braudel 1973, p. 127)
The modern hedonist by contrast concentrates more on emotions than sensations. Here the key to pleasure is the imagination and fantasies that create or expand desire. Desire is ironically seen as an enjoyable state of discomfort or pain which eventually gives way to the pleasure of realizing the fantasized object of desire. But both because the object seldom lives up to the fantasy expectations that we have daydreamed and because it is the state of desire itself that provides the opportunity to enjoy heightened emotions, this cycle of desire is likely to be rapidly reinitiated by focusing on yet another object. In this sense, the modern hedonism of consumer culture is self-illusory. That is, it is produced by an illusion that we participate in creating. Consumer culture is also, Campbell insightfully argues, tied to the early-nineteenth-century rise of romanticism in Europe. Romanticism is the enemy of utilitarianism which valorizes the rational evaluation of goods according to their need-satisfying potential rather than according to their emotional potential to inflame desire. Among the legacies of romanticism is romantic love, which Campbell unromantically concludes leads to the same cycles of fantasy–desire–disappointment characteristic of consumerism. The relationship of romantic love to collecting will be developed in the concluding chapter of this book. It is also significant that although Campbell does not address the phenomenon of collecting, it appears to be a vehicle for modern hedonism par excellence. It is a renewable source of pleasure and desire, a target for our fantasies, a focus of cyclical quest and romantic yearning, and is often a conspicuous luxury provoking the envy of competing collectors. Before pursuing these contentions in the historical development of collecting, it is necessary to consider the historical development of consumer culture. The reason for doing so is that the historical development of collecting parallels and derives from the historical development of consumerism.

Historical moments in the development of consumerism

An investigation of consumer culture in ancient civilizations has yet to be written, with the assumption generally being that the expansion of world trade with the European discovery of the New World and the massive changes precipitated by the Industrial Revolution were the major impetuses to the creation of consumer societies. Yet it is clear that the earliest moments of pervasive consumerism were in ancient civilizations and that the early development of consumerism is not restricted to the West. One imperfect but useful index of the change from a rigid aristocratic society to a more democratic mass-consumption society is the sumptuary laws that often emerge during the transition period. These laws attempt to stem the changes taking place in consumption through legislation restricting luxuries, either by outlawing them or limiting them to certain ranks of society. Appadurai (1986) notes that such laws are common both when the status quo is threatened from within by developments such as capitalism, and when it is threatened from without as with a rapid influx of foreign goods. Miller (1987, pp. 135–136) observes that when rigid social hierarchies begin to break down, sumptuary laws are an attempt to keep goods as signs of status rather than allowing them to become directly constitutive of such social status. However, sometimes sumptuary laws have been enacted as reactions against consumption extravagance in general rather than being aimed at parvenus. Regardless of whether they are general or class-specific, the passage of sumptuary legislation may be taken as indicative of a reaction against the rise of consumer culture.
In ancient Athens the laws of Solon of about 594 BC included sumptuary laws aimed at curbing conspicuous consumption. They included outlawing extravagance at funerals and fixing the price of animals sacrificed in public ceremonies (Vincent 1934). Women were singled out as potentially more extravagant and were forbidden from bringing more than three sets of clothing into a marriage and from traveling with more than this much clothing or more than a fixed amount of baggage (Lindeman 1950). The sale of perfume was also prohibited, presumably because it was seen as excessive and unnecessary consumption (Freeman 1976). Early in the fourth century BC, further legislation restricted the number of wedding guests in Athens to no more than thirty in an attempt to curb wedding-celebration extravagance (Oakley and Sinos 1993). These sumptuary laws appear to have crumbled in the Hellenistic age with Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Greek city-states in the late fourth century BC.
The first sumptuary law in Rome was passed in 215 BC and restricted extravagance in dress and jewelry. It was repealed 20 years later due to difficulties in enforcement (Phillips and Staley 1961). As with Solon’s laws in Greece, women were singled out in the areas of dress, transport, and jewelry, with attempted restrictions on food and entertainments applying more broadly. Roman laws that were aimed at curbing conspicuous consumption included the Lex Orchia (187 BC) limiting the number of guests at a feast and the Lex Fannia (161 BC) regulating the cost of entertainments (Hurlock 1929). Unlike Greece, sumptuary laws in Rome were often specific to rank, with rank-specific limitations in such features as the color and fabric of clothing and the use of gold in jewelry. Additional sumptuary laws were passed in Rome through the first century AD. However, even by Cicero’s time in the first century BC, such laws were so seldom obeyed and enforced that they were regarded as “merely funny” (Cowell 1964).
In Europe sumptuary laws proscribed foods and drink that could be publicly consumed and types of carriage, but they primarily concerned clothing and jewelry. In Genoa a law banning the use of rich furs was passed in 1157 and repealed in 1161 (Hughes 1983). Sumptuary laws of both Genoa and Venice peaked in the mid-sixteenth century. They precluded lavish weddings and baptisms as well as extravagant clothing, and they also fined tailors, embroiderers, and designers who created lavish dress for commoners (Braudel 1982, pp. 491–492). In France the earliest sumptuary legislation was by King Louis VIII in 1229 and was addressed to permissible clothing for nobles (Hughes 1983). By the end of the thirteenth century rank- and income-appropriate furnishings were also prescribed. Other French sumptuary laws were aimed at curbing conspicuous consumption. A flurry of six different sumptuary laws passed in France between 1563 and 1577 restricted extravagance through limiting meals to three courses and prohibiting meat and fish at the same meal (Farb and Armelagos 1980, p. 155). This was during the reign of Charles IX who also promulgated the greatest number of rank-specific sumptuary laws of any French monarch (Hurlock 1929). These laws remained in place until the fall of the Bastille, when one of the first acts of the new General Assembly was to abolish all sumptuary laws. In England the earliest sumptuary legislation was a 1337 law forbidding wearing clothes of foreign cloth (Mukerji 1983). Although this law was repealed a year later, it became a model for subsequent laws that reached their peak in England in the sixteenth century. In addition to stipulating what the lower classes might wear, it distinguished different classes of gentlemen, knights, and merchants. Furs, velvets, and clothing colors other than natural fabric or solid blue dye were also restricted to the elite. This was followed by a 1362 law specifying that grooms, yeomen, and craftsmen could not wear “precious stones, cloth of silver, silk, girdles, knives, buttons, rings, brooches, chains, etc. of gold or silver or embroidered silken clothing” (quoted in Mukerji 1983, p. 180). In the Netherlands it was in the mid-seventeenth century that the strongest sumptuary laws were passed, limiting the extravagance, size, and duration of feasts, including funeral and wedding celebrations (Schama 1987, pp. 186–187). This timing followed the shift of the center of the European economy to Amsterdam at the beginning of the seventeenth century (Braudel 1977). The rise in the power of the merchant class is evident in that some of the Dutch laws were aimed at restricting the consumption of the elite rather than curbing encroachments by the emerging middle class.
While most of the Italian and other European sumptuary laws were concerned with proscribing forbidden pleasures in consumption, some were concerned with prescribing required clothing or jewelry to mark stigmatized social or ethnic groups. Such was the case for instance with prostitutes and Jewish women whom a number of fifteenth-century Italian cities required to wear such marks as ear-rings, bells, insignia of yellow or red circles or stripes, headbands of yellow, or veils (Hughes 1986). In the case of Italian Jews, hatred of them arose not only from envy of their wealth and fine dress, but also from resentment of the practice of usury to which Jews were also marginalized (Hughes 1986; Hyde 1983; Shell 1982). While mandated dress requirements were used to identify and further stigmatize Jews and prostitutes, another strategy was to mandate that prostitutes wear certain finery in the hope that it would discourage other women from adopting these same fashions. However, as Freudenberger (1963) observes, this merely reinforced the tendency for marginal members of society to be its fashion leaders, much as hippies, punks, and gays have been in more contemporary societies (McCracken 1988).
The American colonies enacted sumptuary laws regulating clothing during the first half of the seventeenth century. As in the Netherlands, much of this legislation was aimed at curbing luxur...

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APA 6 Citation
Belk, R. (2013). Collecting in a Consumer Society (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2013)
Chicago Citation
Belk, Russell. (2013) 2013. Collecting in a Consumer Society. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis.
Harvard Citation
Belk, R. (2013) Collecting in a Consumer Society. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Belk, Russell. Collecting in a Consumer Society. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2013. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.