Towards the consumer society

The increase in income and credit sales, as well as the First World War, transformed the consumption patterns of the working classes between 1880 and 1920. From destitution to appropriation, it is possible to trace the social life of objects.

At XIXe century and during part of the XXe century, popular consumption is the subject of a moral reading opposing the necessary and the superfluous, as in the investigations of Frdric Le Play. It can be seen either negatively, as a temptation, an alienation, the people being manipulated by advertising (Catholic morality, but also socialist or anarchist), or positively, as a factor of integration into society.

Popular consumptions

Anas Albert's work is part of the renewed interest, over the past decade or two, in the social history of working-class worlds and in the history of consumption, a recent field of research which renews social history, relying on empirical investigation to avoid moral interpretations.

Anas Albert offers a history of consumption based on the social history of the objects consumed, from the origins to their disappearance, in the Parisian working classes during the years 1880-1920, following the overall increase in their income and credit sales.

This study required the consultation of multiple sources, classic, but also more original (credit books of Dufayel stores, catalogs, chromos, etc.), the careful analysis of the stratification of certain neighborhoods in some districts of Paris (Xe, XIVe, XVe And XXe), of the professions of the groups which make up the working classes according to the major phases of the economy, in an emerging consumer society.

Several questions arise, including that of spatial and chronological variations in popular consumption, the integration factor, the credited mode of consumption, mass consumption or class consumption.

Anas Albert's reflection is constructed in seven chapters: consumption in the privacy of housing, limitation of the upper classes, the impact of the war, new modes of consumption (with credit and advertising), pawnbroking and, finally, there social life of objects.

16,000 objects

To analyze the intimacy of housing, a space of withdrawal and classification (furnished, shared housing or others) and to reconstruct consumption practices, the author explored the seals after death, which make it possible to identify the social position and to bring to light the links of credit, possible solidarity and the shift into the market sphere. The connection between private space and public space is revealed, allowing an analysis of the possessions of an individual or a household establishing their social position.

Regarding material culture, the seals after death make it possible to bring together a corpus of 16,000 objects in 106 files. These objects circulate in different ways. In addition to purchases, loans, possessions, they are also stolen, resold, pawned in Mont-de-pit. Their possession is fragile, because it is subject to multiple relationships of domination. It limits the upper classes and varies according to gender, generation and marital status.

Thus, if clothes are the most widespread since the Ancien Régime, furniture, then decorative elements, are widespread throughout the world. XIXe century and, finally, sewing machines and bicycles at the end of the century.

The First World War, causing deprivation and inflation, destabilized this model of popular consumption. To stem discontent, the state and the Parisian municipality are trying to reduce inequalities by organizing consumption circuits and instituting a rent moratorium. Discontent manifests itself through professional mobilizations.

The credit system

Anas Albert also looks at the reconfiguration and development of a consumer credit system for the most modest buyers. This system is managed by a few large companies (subscription sales houses), but also by shops which practice consumer credit, which is profitable but risky. The garnishment of wages (law of January 1895) created a new relationship between debtors, creditors and employers, giving a central role to justices of the peace and judicial staff.

Financial means are thus developed adapted to low-income households, whose consumption demand is stimulated by advertising. The example of Georges Dufayel and his Palais de la nouvelleté, whose name celebrates the incessant renewal of fashion, is particularly illuminating. The grandiose buildings, rising from 5,000 m2 early 1870s 38,000 m2 around 1910, are intended to display products, with opening hours, graphic codes and colors adapted to the customer. The practice of credit is legitimate there. It was a success: in 1910, 600,000 people were welcomed.

The author questions the specificity of the advertising message of major credit stores, given their popular clientele. These are inspired by the methods of Parisian department stores for their bourgeois customers. This new relationship with consumption does not exclude old practices in the circulation of objects from the purchase to complete wear as well as the use of possible pawning at Mont-de-pit, founded in 1777 to meet the needs of small credit at lower rates.

But the development of popular consumption and the sale of installments, which allowed the enjoyment of an object not yet completely owned, caused a crisis in this institution, aggravated by the First World War. This led to a reconversion into a lending bank, Crédit municipal.

Other relationships to property

Anas Albert ends his study by retracing the social life of objects. It focuses on key moments, acquisition and separation or abandonment, through the social mediations surrounding these exchanges. It came up against the scarcity of sources available on this subject, compensated for by consulting police and judicial archives, which led to a focus on the lives of the poorest. They have access to objects via theft, which shows the appeal of free goods, or the second-hand market, which testifies to the loss of exchange value of goods as they circulate. Value appears as the result of a balance of power, generally unfavorable to the working classes, as well as the result of interventions on goods such as maintenance or repair, possible for all.

With the example of Marie Després, a seamstress who died at the age of 28, moved from the upper fraction of the working classes to poverty after the death of her husband, the author concludes that the development of mass consumption is retranslated through the prism of a class culture. The economic and social stabilization of this group remains precarious depending on the ups and downs of life and is of course part of a general context.

Thus, the increase in popular demand is linked to industrialization (furniture, clothing, etc.), the development of consumer credit, advertising and, of course, political and social evolution. Internal distinctions within the working classes are based on profession, gender, age and marital status. However, the new goods acquired are always based on practices of use and wear specific to poverty and awareness of social fragility.

At the end of the period studied, Anas Albert notes that the Parisian working classes are inclined to switch to other relationships with goods, that of renewal, rather than usury, the model of the upper classes, that of enjoyment relegating possession to second place. But isn’t this very variable depending on the type of property concerned?? In fact, despite access to new goods, consumption remains a marker of social identity, including within the working classes. These are experiencing an increase in internal divisions, in space (the most deprived migrating to the suburbs) and in access to certain types of goods (real estate). These questions can be asked again with the establishment of the welfare state.

This scholarly book sheds interesting light on the history of consumption by Parisian workers, and even that of objects at the turn of the century. XXe century. However, it raises questions and expectations: generalization of this type of survey in other urban and rural environments, deepening of the relationship of consumers to the objects consumed (contribution of the history of sensitivities and representations), details on the notion of consumption credit (rate, duration, percentage of unpaid taxes, etc.). Of course, the answers depend on the sources available.