A look through the ages at our shopping obsession
A few years ago, I wrote a book called The Urge to Splurge: A Social History of Shopping. Almost anyone who hears about the book immediately says, “So, you must be a mad shopper, eh?”
Illustration by Teresa Manchester
It’s an interesting assumption. I thought I was writing a history book that just happened to be about shopping; just about everyone else saw it as a shopping book that just happened to be about history.
Ironically, in fact, I’m not much of a shopper. First of all, I’m cheap. The thought of paying more than $50 for a set of sheets makes me hyperventilate. Second, I have the fashion sense of a curmudgeonly octogenarian. When I take something off the rack in a trendy boutique, my first thought is often, “Is that a Halloween costume?”
What does fascinate me about shopping is observing how things are bought and sold. And the really intriguing thing is that almost everything we bemoan about the modern shopping experience has very old roots.
Today, we think the Victorians had the kind of homespun, family-oriented Christmases we all dream of as we race through Best Buy on Christmas Eve in search of Canada’s last Wii console. But newspapers from the 19th century are stuffed with editorials decrying the greed overtaking the festive season.
Our own publications often run hand-wringing articles about aimless kids hanging out in malls. But we’re far from the first people to worry that the younger generation was wasting its youth getting and spending. In 1604, England’s King James I was so afraid that Cambridge students would “experience loss of time or corruption of manners” shopping and baiting bears at the nearby Sturbridge Fair that he forced the university to outlaw all such distractions within a five-mile radius of the school.
And then there’s Sunday shopping. Surely things were different in the pious Middle Ages? Not really. Sunday markets in churchyards were so popular that English monarchs fruitlessly tried to ban them at least twice, in 1285 and 1448. By the middle of the 16th century, merchants and shoppers were brazenly walking their horses through the nave of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.
What about the shopping mall? Of all retail things, that must be a thoroughly modern menace. Well, yes and no. Admittedly, the climate-controlled malls we know today can trace their roots to 1956, when the Southdale Shopping Center opened in suburban Minneapolis. But when it comes to the idea of a separate shopping precinct that can be closed and locked at night, the earliest known example dates back to ancient Mesopotamia. And the first enclosed shopping arcade opened in London the year after Jane Austen died.
Truly, the most noticeable things that have changed about shopping in the last hundred years or so are the range of goods available, the intensity of the sales pitch, the technology and the prices.
Speaking of prices—does anyone know where I can get a good deal on sheets?