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PBS’s The Paradise and Mr. Selfridge and the Birth of a Consumer Culture

This past week a new eight-part “Masterpiece Classic” series began on PBS, The Paradise. Like PBS’s earlier eight-part series this year, Mr. Selfridge, it is set in a department store in England. This new series is adapted from the late nineteenth-century French novel of Emile Zola, Bonheur des Dames (The Ladies’ Paradise). I have only seen the first episode (still available here), but a few of the lines from it struck me forcefully: The storeowner, Mr. Moray (Mouret in Zola’s novel), tells a potential financial backer: “There’s a weakness in women which we must exploit to the advantage of business.” He thinks women are fickle and that their weakness for clothes, perfumes, and other goods can gain him great profits. Later on he comments about a rich woman who buys at his store with abandon: “She’s all we hoped for. A woman who sees every temptation and resists none . . . if we can snare this class of woman into indulging herself, we shall be as rich as they are!” Mr. Moray (at least so far) and Mr. Selfridge are modern men, have many good qualities, are even progressive in some ways, and yet what they chiefly represent I do not like.


Zola’s novel, just one of dozens he wrote, appeared first in serial form (as did many nineteenth-century novels and then as a book in 1883, coincidently the year of Karl Marx’s death. The lines from The Paradise quoted above reminded me of something Marx had written about four decades earlier:

Every product is a bait with which to seduce away the other’s very being, his money; every real and possible need is a weakness which will lead the fly to the glue-pot. . . . Every need is an opportunity to approach one’s neighbour under the guise of the utmost amiability and to say to him: Dear friend, I give you what you need, but you know the conditio sine qua non; you know the ink in which you have to sign yourself over to me; in providing for your pleasure, I fleece you.

In preparing for his novel, Zola visited many stores in Paris, and modeled his fictional store mainly on Le Bon Marché, which, according to a book on it by Michael Miller, became the first department store in France. This was in 1869, when the cornerstone for the new building which would house it was laid. In the years prior to the beginning of World War I (1914), it was the world’s largest department store.


In the second half of the nineteenth century, a new Western consumer culture came into being. The great Russian writer Fedor Dostoevsky noted its seeds already on his first trip to Western Europe in 1862. At the Crystal Palacein London, he viewed the wonders of the World Exhibition, which featured all the latest technological wonders collected from all parts of the world. It seemed to symbolize the materialism which he felt had become the new god for Western man. In his Winter Notes on Summer Impressions he wrote:

People come with a single thought, quietly, relentlessly, mutely thronging into this colossal palace; and you feel that something final has taken place here, that something has come to an end. It is like a Biblical picture, something out of Babylon, a prophecy from the apocalypse coming to pass before your eyes. You sense that it would require great and everlasting spiritual denial and fortitude in order not to submit, not to capitulate before the impression, not to bow to what is, and not to deify Baal, that is, not to accept the material world as your ideal.

On a chapter on the French bourgeois he opined, “To accumulate a fortune and possess as much as possible has become the principal moral code and catechism of the Parisian.”

As Miller sees it in his book on Le Bon Marché, the department store that emerged beginning in 1869 “flaunted the culture's identification with appearances and material possessions. . . . The department store was the bourgeoisie's world. It was the world of leisurely women celebrating a new rite of consumption. . . . It was the world of opulent displays that reminded the onlooker of all that bourgeois culture was capable of producing.” But Le Bon Marché was also the “arena for the accommodation of that culture to the coming of a mass, bureaucratized age.”

It was a commitment to assembling thousands of employees in a single work place. It was a commitment to an organizing principle requiring a meticulous division of labor, a super-imposition of several hierarchical levels of command, and a systematization of the entire work process. It was a commitment to a production principle based on quantity and economy of costs and to a consumption principle based on self-indulgence. It was a commitment to making the accoutrements of bourgeois culture available to seemingly unlimited numbers of Frenchmen and Frenchwomen.

In Zola’s novel, and to a lesser extent in the PBS adaption of it, we see the threat that the large Paradise store poses for smaller businesses around it, calling to mind Walmart or Amazon today.

In the decades before World War I Le Bon Marché and its fictional equivalent were joined by other such stores in such places as London, New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago. One of these was Selfridge & Co., opened in London in 1909 by Harry Gordon Selfridge, who had earlier worked for the large Chicago department store Marshall Field & Co.

The PBS series Mr. Selfridge (with Jeremy Piven in the lead role) is very similar to what I have seen so far of The Paradise—a large department store run by a skillful operator who is a pioneer in developing a consumer culture, and all around him colorful historical detail and plenty of romantic developments and class conflicts. Regardless of the entertainment value of the two series, however, their most important historical significance is the consumption revolution symbolized by the department stores.

In Dream Worlds: Mass Consumption in Late Nineteenth-Century France, historian Rosalind Williams begins her book by describing the opening scene of Zola’s novel, which is shortened in The Paradise TV series. In the novel, the young heroine (Denise) who comes to Paris and obtains a job in the department store is mesmerized by all the goods she sees in its display windows. Williams then adds:

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Her initial encounter with a department store dramatizes the way nineteenth-century society as a whole suddenly found itself confronting a style of consumption radically different from any previously known. The quantity of consumer goods available to most people had been drastically limited. . . . Moreover, these goods were obtained mainly through barter and self-production, so that the activity of consumption was closely linked with that of production. Money was rarely used by the average person and credit was haphazard and scarce. Only the better-off spent much time in stores; for most, the activity of shopping was restricted to occasional fairs.

In the past century these ancient and universal patterns have been shattered by the advent of mass consumption. Its characteristics are a radical division between the activities of production and of consumption, the prevalence of standardized merchandise sold in large volume, the ceaseless introduction of new products, widespread reliance on money and credit, and ubiquitous publicity. This fabulous prospect of a vast and permanent fair, which transfixed Denise, has since charmed millions of others as it has reached out from the largest cities to ever smaller ones, and from the richest countries to poorer ones. The merchandise itself is by no means available to all, but the vision of a seemingly unlimited profusion of commodities is available, is, indeed, nearly unavoidable. In the wealthier societies the manifestations of mass consumption—department stores, discount houses, super­markets, chain stores, mail-order houses, and perpetual advertising in newspapers and magazines and on television, radio, and billboards—are so pervasive that we hardly realize how recently and how thoroughly both private and collective life have been transformed into a medium where people habitually interact with merchandise.

The advent of mass consumption represents a pivotal historical moment. Once people enjoy discretionary income and choice of products, once they glimpse the vision of commodities in profusion, they do not easily return to traditional modes of consumption.

During the twentieth century, the United States became the center of the consumer culture. From the 1890s forward, as historian William Leach has written:


American corporate business, in league with key institutions, began the transformation of American society into a society preoccupied with consumption, with comfort and bodily well-being, with luxury, spending, and acquisition, with more goods this year than last, more next year than this. American consumer capitalism produced a culture almost violently hostile to the past and to tradition, a future-oriented culture of desire that confused the good life with goods. It was a culture that first appeared as an alternative culture . . . and then unfolded to become the reigning culture in the United States.

Many Americans, including U. S. presidents, perceived that ever-increasing consumption was necessary for the nation’s prosperity, though few would state the case as bluntly as one marketing consultant of the mid-1950s, who wasquoted as saying: “Our enormously productive economy . . .demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption. . . . We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever increasing rate.”

Today, more than a half-century later, we are all too familiar with things like computers and smartphones being “discarded at an ever increasing rate.” The obsolescence of older products results partly from new technological developments, but also because companies make more money by selling new products. And almost all of us are hooked, one way or another, into shopping for and buying an ever-increasing number of goods and services. Just this month The New York Times announced that “on Tuesday MasterCard plans to announce a partnership with Condé Nast, the publisher of Vogue, Wired, Vanity Fair and other popular magazines, that will allow digital readers to instantly buy items described in an article or showcased in an advertisement by tapping a shopping cart icon on the page.” In many ways, our consumer culture seems stronger, more entwined with our very being, than ever before.

In previous essays I have asked, “Is Consumer Capitalism Outdated?” and “Are You Smarter than Your Smartphone?” (reposted here). In these essays, I have indicated environmental and moral reasons why I think we overvalue the consumption. Two quotes from the first of these essays seem worth repeating.


The first quote is from economist/environmentalist E. F. Schumacher, who once wrote that advertising and marketing encouraged a “frenzy of greed and . . . an orgy of envy,” and that “the cultivation and expansion of needs is the antithesis of wisdom.”

The second is from Stewart Wallis, head of London’sNew Economics Foundationand former International Director of Oxfam, who has stated that he believed “that much of economics, as it is now taught and practiced, is both intellectually and morally bankrupt,” and that our “fundamental problem is . . . overconsumption.” What he thought we needed was

an economy which has, as its main goal, to improve human needs, not wants. This economy needs to create and support sufficient good jobs and good work, and to do so in a way that is much more equitable–both between peoples alive now and between current and future generations. It needs to be an economy that recognises that it is but a subset of the ecosystem and which therefore works within planetary limits. Perhaps above all though, it needs to be an economy constructed with a bio-centric view of the world, not an anthropocentric one. We need to move from being consumers to stewards. Such an economy must also factor in the spiritual, the aesthetic and the symbolic.”

These quotes lead back to what I mentioned in my first paragraph that Mr. Selfridge and Mr. Moray (Mouret) represent something I do not like. That something is too much emphasis on enticing people to buy, or “consume.” My sympathies are much more with the simpler values of Thoreau or founder-of-the-Sierra-Club John Muir. My heart is with lines from a poem of Wordsworth.

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn. . .

walter moss

Walter G. Moss

Thursday, 10 October 2013