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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 September 2004

University of Florida


This article examines the relationship between the consumer and the citizen from the eighteenth century to the present in Europe and the United States. Part I highlights the political narrative underlying the opposition between courtly consumption (absolutism) and the inconspicuous consumption of the middling sorts, and explores early formulations of the relationship between consumption and democracy. Part II looks at the first half of the nineteenth century, defined by the opposition between consumers (coded feminine, and as ‘despised’) and citizens (coded masculine, and as ‘restrained’). Part III goes from the 1860s to the 1930s. American historians have emphasized the positive political agency of consumers in this period, and their contribution to the notion of social citizenship. This article emphasizes the less democratic aspects of consumer politics, and the contributions of anti-liberal movements on the extreme left and right to a stronger tradition of social citizenship in Europe. Part IV takes Lizabeth Cohen's claim that a ‘Consumers' Republic' was forged in the US in the post-war period, and casts the Marshall Plan and the Cold War as the context that gave rise to an international negotiation over the relationship between consumption and democracy that continues to the present.

Historiographical reviews
2004 Cambridge University Press

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The author would like to thank Michael Prinz, Gisela Bock, Lizabeth Cohen, Lawrence Glickman, Marie Chessel, the editors of the Historical Journal, my colleagues at the University of Florida, and my students at Stanford, Yair Mintzer, Hunter Hargraves, Nicholas Sydol, all of whom heard, read, and commented on versions of this review. For financial support for this project I thank the University of Florida and the Humboldt Foundation.