Consumption: The History and Identity of Italy


by Emanuela Scarpellini

The press has various ways of describing the current crisis afflicting many countries, including Italy. The first is usually to call it a finance crisis and blame the banks and financial intermediaries; there is talk of problems in the real economy, industry producing less and exports dwindling, thus causing unemployment; or of structural problems, the need to create new infrastructure suited to the times (high-speed railways, or internet for example) as well as updating what already exists. But the phrase that is most resorted to is a “crisis of consumption”. Consumer patterns would appear to be the most accurate way of measuring a country’s wellbeing or malaise: the people’s degree of contentment, the efficiency of the industrial and distributive structure.

Only a decade or so ago no one would have taken such a line, for sure. The economic factors underpinning everything were industry, finance and even more basic, agriculture. Commerce and consumption played a secondary role. Sociologists and anthropologists did of course insist that consumer patterns were central in defining our personal identity, underscoring our professional role and expressing our degree of social status. But from a historical angle the idea that “consumption” is an independent category or an essential factor for any complete view of the situation is very recent.

Such thoughts were in my mind some years back when I decided to write a history of Italy’s development from a consumer standpoint. A history that related the typical Italians’ daily life (how they dressed and what they bought), covering the period from unification in 1861 up to the present day, to show unseen sides and episodes from the “bottom up” in an attempt to assess the features of Italian culture (the importance of food, attention to aesthetics, etc.) within a transnational framework.

The historian tends to take the long-term view and likes to go right back in time to understand how the present situation has developed: in this case, returning to Italy of the late nineteenth to the early twentieth century when the role of consumption was quite marginal, at least as we understand it today. Rather, consumption was confined to the triad of basic needs, the so-called “obligatory” needs of food, housing and clothing. For most of the Italian population consuming meant satisfying those three factors and for many that was already hard enough. Looking at the statistics of Italy around 1900, on average sixty per cent of an Italian family’s budget would be absorbed by food, another fifteen per cent by the home (including heating and overheads) and about eight per cent by clothes, shoes and sundry accessories. That left a mere seventeen per cent for all other items: travel, entertainment, culture, health and so on.

In practice, nearly all income went on obligatory purchases, with food taking the lion’s share. That is not to say it was a rich or varied diet. On the contrary, it was based above all on bread and corn-based products, with very little meat (and anyway of the poorest kind), small amounts of fish, vegetables or fresh fruit (expensive and quick to go bad), little oil, butter or cheese (too costly) and lots of dry storable pulses. There was unpretentious table wine to drink, sometimes watered down, a far cry from the much vaunted “Mediterranean diet” which is supposed to have distinguished the Italian table of yore. Very few social classes could afford a rich diet: a few aristocrats, now on the wane and a limited circle of financial and industrial bourgeoisie. Most Italians were engaged in agriculture – or industry in the most advanced centres – and consumed little enough, and were poor at that.

It was not until the postwar Fifties and Sixties that we saw a transformation. Thanks to a sharp rise in the per capita income, for the first time in the history of the country the percentage of obligatory purchases went down and the food budget dropped and stayed below fifty per cent. The array of foodstuffs changed. The poor foods diminished, their place taken by a diet that only the elite could once afford: first and foremost, the luxuries of beef, sugar, coffee, and also oil, milk and cheese. All this on the crest of a new industrial output geared to brand-names and publicity penetrating the first television programmes.

It was not only feeding habits that changed. New consumer goods made their appearance, linked to major technology. One thinks of mass motorization, initially dominated by the scooter, meaning the Vespa or Lambretta, and then small cars like the Fiat 600 or 500. Besides motorization, which symbolised both geographical and social mobility, Italian houses began to go in for the first household appliances: the refrigerator, washing machine and television. Technology found its way into ordinary life, indoors and out of doors, profoundly affecting the patterns of daily life and even, on closer inspection, the traditional roles within the family: one thinks of the classic housewife turning into her modern counterpart, running a technological home with the efficiency of a domestic manager. Or the youth, possessing considerable purchasing power for the first time and hence becoming targets of specific consumption, like scooters, clothing, accessories (jeans, tee shirts, miniskirts in due course, and so on), rock music and fizzy drinks such as Coca Cola.

After the brake was applied to the spread of mass consumption by the crisis in the Seventies – though even then the new middle-class consumer patterns had spread to the lower middle and working classes – there was another turning point in the second half of the Eighties. A marked rise in industrial returns and per capita income enabled Italy to “hitch onto” the main European countries. Consumer patterns underwent new expansion thanks to fashion, made in Italy, of new brands, travel, and cultural goods. In this new light consumption became more and more important as a way of expressing one’s individuality and seeking self-fulfilment. In this phase too, new forms of consumption came in, linked to transformations in technology: there was a proliferation of computers and later on in the Nineties of mobile phones. Once again, consumer patterns reflected society’s economic, social and cultural changes.

From the Nineties on, however, a gap began to develop in the average Italians’ economic situation. Swaths of lower and gradually also middle-classes began to lose the purchasing power that other sectors still retained. Consumerism went on growing for the next twenty years down to our times, but with different patterns according to the type of population. And that is the situation on which the present crisis set in.

From this perspective many are wondering how consumerism will develop in future. Will it continue to expand, or have we reached a turning-point when alternative forms of consumption may appear? The answer is far from simple. We have seen that consumerism has become inextricably linked to daily lifestyles: could we pursue our business without means of transport? Could we have a social life without the mobile phone? Could we turn up at work without the right attire? The list could go on.

It is clear, however, that greater attention is being paid to the ultimate consequences of consumerism. This regards justice and social equity, but also the effect on environment of wild and ‘reckless’ consumption. Paradoxically, it is this crisis that makes us weigh the long-term prospects of consumerism and possible strategies for changing it. Here, opposing schools of thought meet head-on. There are some who think that consumer patterns will need to go through drastic rescaling and outright contraction. Others believe we can correct our trajectory taking our cue from more virtuous consumer behaviour and wiser policies, beginning with manufacturing.

Whatever the answer we may give to these questions, one thing is certain: for Italy like any other country, consumption has provided a faithful mirror of her history and culture.

About the Author:

Emanuela Scarpellini,  Ph.D. in History of European Society, is Full professor of Modern history at the University of Milan. She was Kratter Professor at Stanford University and Fulbright Visiting Professor at Georgetown University. She is the director of the Research Centre MIC – Moda Immagine Consumi (Fashion, Image, and Consumer culture) at the University of Milan.

Among her publications are: Italiamerica (co-edited with J.T. Schnapp, Il Saggiatore 2008); “Shopping American-Style: The Arrival of the Supermarket in Postwar Italy”, Enterprise & Society, vol.5 no.4, December 2004. She is also the author of Material Nation: A Consumer’s History of Modern Italy.