Poley on Lemire, 'Global Trade and the Transformation of Consumer Cultures: The Material World Remade, c.1500-1820'

Beverly Lemire
Jared Poley

Beverly Lemire. Global Trade and the Transformation of Consumer Cultures: The Material World Remade, c.1500-1820. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. 352 pp. $89.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-521-19256-9

Reviewed by Jared Poley (Georgia State University) Published on H-War (November, 2020) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=54068

Beverly Lemire’s Global Trade and the Transformation of Consumer Cultures: The Material World Remade, c. 1500-1820 takes as its subject a range of “global processes shaping material life … which takes account of imperial administrative and commercial apparatus as these shaped, or attempted to shape, the material options and priorities of discrete world peoples” (p. 4). The processes of early modern globalization, fostered by trade, helped to create a form of “material cosmopolitanism” (p. 7) that knitted together widely separated groups of people. Lemire, an historian of fashion and material culture at the University of Alberta, suggests that the transformative effects of early modern globalization were not only widely felt but had lasting impact.

The material history of globalization and cosmopolitanism allows Lemire to trace the effects of global networks of traders that proliferated at the end of the fifteenth and the beginning of the sixteenth century. Isolating cosmopolitanism, industriousness, and luxury as key themes animating the structures of early modern trade, Lemire is able to deploy global history frameworks to understand a variety of materials and practices that took on new importance.

The argument unfolds over the course of five chapters. She begins with an analysis of the consumer revolution in the cloth trades, explaining that furs and textiles were the key commodities of the new trade system. Using material objects as evidence, Lemire writes that textiles and furs demonstrated change across status and indicated the multidirectionality of trade in the early modern world. She also dives into the history of fashion as a way of exploring these dramatic changes, convincingly showing how cloth commodities moved through networks of traders. Focusing her attention not just on elites, but also on women, slaves, soldiers, and sailors, Lemire addresses the embeddedness of world cloth commodities at a wide range of locations on the social register. “Global trade,” she explains, “altered patterns of dress profoundly and irrevocably,” and not just for elites (p. 135) She also addresses what she calls “extralegal” exchanges--smuggling, evasion, scavenging, informal economic acquisition--and demonstrates how old practices were transformed through the new economic exchanges developing after 1500.

One fascinating element of this discussion centers on the pepper trade and the practice of “sweeping” loose pepper (and other associated debris) from the holds of ships and selling the remnants at the end of a voyage. Her argument also focuses on other key commodities with a global reach, such as tobacco. Following a diffusionist model, Lemire traces tobacco trade from North America to West Africa and Asia. Perhaps more significant, however, is Lemire’s discussion of “needle work.” Looking at decorative arts as a way to understand global transformations, Lemire again is able to focus on the historical contributions of peoples not typically central to the story. She writes that the “movement of cargoes, the movement of people, and the needlework of countless hands gave voice to usually voiceless populations” (p. 250) In this way, the material life of the early modern period was as much marker of historical change as it was an agent of those same transformations.

Lemire focuses our attention on the “agency of things” in the process of historical change. Objects in her study not only reflect, but also induce, transformation. In this sense, Lemire contributes to the material turn, applying its insights to global history and the dramatic transformations adhering to the early modern world. This thesis is a compelling one, and Lemire’s savvy readings of a range of source material allow us to see the effects of change on a variety of constituencies. Her detailed analysis of how vernacular styles were “translated” from context to context is an especially compelling way to describe the historical effects of early modern cosmopolitanism. These changes, she explains, were the cumulation of millions of small acts of “stitching the global.” Lemire’s analysis is important, in part because of the way she is able to integrate the actions of everyday people into the historical narrative. It also shifts emphasis away from the European luxury debates of the eighteenth century, thus refocusing attention on the dramatic reshaping of global trade and cultural patterns after 1500. Readers from many fields, from history and literature to cultural criticism and art history, will find in Beverly Lemire’s book a fresh interpretation of the dramatic changes dominating the early modern world.


Citation: Jared Poley. Review of Lemire, Beverly, Global Trade and the Transformation of Consumer Cultures: The Material World Remade, c.1500-1820. H-War, H-Net Reviews. November, 2020. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54068

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