What is a consumer? We reveal where the notion came from

We’re referred to as ‘consumers’ all the time. The word is often used interchangeably with ‘citizen’, ‘shopper’, ‘household’ or ‘Briton’.

But what on earth is a consumer, where did the term come from and has it always meant the same thing? 

On this episode of the Big Money Questions, professor of history at Birkbeck College, University of London, Frank Trentmann, has the answers.

He says: ‘We are so familiar with this word that we speak of students as consumers of higher education, even users of police services are sometimes referred to as consumers.


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‘But it’s important to realise how recent and how contested a history lies behind this term.’

Frank explains how the notion of a consumer developed in the nineteenth century, with consumer defence associations, consumer leagues – and a heated debate involving people’s water supplies.

He reveals at what point in history the notion of parting with one’s favourite objects became painful – it’s more recent than you think.

We weren’t always so accepting of buying, enjoying objects, collecting, buying things seen as extravagant.

But at some point finding joy in things changed from being seen as profligate to making us richer, more civilised people. In this episode we talk about when and how this happened. 

We also untangle questions such as – Are we particularly big shoppers these days, stockpiling debt so we can buy things we don’t actually need – or has this trend been around for centuries?

And finally, what are the trends for consumers going forward?

As someone who has charted the history of consumers over the past 600 years, Frank is in a good position to say.

Among other things, he dismisses the notion of ‘peak stuff’ – the idea that we are moving away from buying things to spending money on experiences – as complete nonsense. 

Frank Trentmann has written a history of consumers: ‘The Empire of Things: How We Became a World of Consumers, from the 15th century to the 21st’.  


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