Italy: A Consumer Story

By Emanuela Scarpellini

Can we go on consuming as we do today, perhaps even more so? Would it not be better to devise a consumer model that is more thrifty and balanced, maybe on the lines of yesteryear?

One unexpected consequence of the long crisis besetting many Western countries is that we are rethinking certain mechanisms underlying market economies. Some advocate revising the rules governing the finance markets, the role of States in welfare and fostering growth, the channels of international cooperation on economic affairs, and so forth. To others, this is a signal of structural crisis calling for an outright revolution: degrowth, meaning producing less and consuming less. Even where rapidly expanding countries are concerned, like China, India or Brazil, the present is a delicate moment. We may well worry whether our planet will be able to sustain an increase in consumption spreading to millions and millions more inhabitants (who understandably wish to satisfy the same needs as Westerners). The question that hangs over us, in short, is can we go on consuming as we do today, perhaps even more so? Would it not be better to devise a consumer model that is more thrifty and balanced, maybe on the lines of yesteryear?

Will our planet be able to sustain an increase in consumption spreading to millions and millions more inhabitants? One approach to these questions may be to look at consumer patterns from a historical perspective.

It is hard to find an answer (witness the differing “recipes” that have so far been put forward). Perhaps the first approach to the issue should be to question the true significance of consumerism in our lives. How much does it count? What is essential, what superfluous? What impact does it have on the economy, politics, consumers themselves?

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One answer to these questions may be to look at consumer patterns from a historical perspective; to view the issue not just as it stands today, but also as it has developed over a broad time-span. The “long view” changes things: even the major crisis we are currently living through becomes one of many such in the past, while a number of the questions we are asking now seem to call for a more complex answer. It becomes harder, even, to separate good points from bad with any certainty.

As an example of this “long history of consumption” I shall take Italy, a country often associated with quality lifestyles and persisting tradition. But change the focus or the period, and the same will apply to many countries.

What did a typical Italian family consume, say, one hundred years ago or more? First, it was almost certainly a family of farmers whose consumer habits were minimal (a state of paradise, some are determined to argue). In this ‘paradise’ the Italian income was distinctly lower than in the main European countries and in particular less than half that of Britain (the European leader). Sixty per cent of that low income would go on food alone, 14% on household expenses, 9% on clothing and shoes, and whatever was left had to cover all the rest: health, travel, furnishings (there was actually so little left for these needs that many families were chronically in debt). Not that the high food budget meant they had a varied or rich diet. The staple food was wheat, eaten as flour and bread, amounting to 123 kg per year per head. Next came rice, potatoes, pulses and a mere 16 kg of meat, 4 kg of fish, preserved or fresh. Condiments were in short supply; even olive oil was sparingly used for its cost; in northern Italy it would be substituted by lard and low-grade fats. Foodstuffs such as sugar and coffee were virtually unknown in most Italian homes, especially among the peasantry who formed the majority of the nation at the time.

Today’s consumer pattern was born in the ’60s and ’70s. It was to have far-reaching consequences in the development of industries, social values and government policies.

A historian has given us a description of the typical working-day fare: at dawn the labourer setting out would receive a one-kilo ration of black bread (bread was never white from wheat, but mixed with lower-grade flours); this he would begin to eat around 10 o’clock. Come evening, after work, the massaro (boss) would boil a cauldron of lightly salted water; the labourers would line up, wooden bowl in hand containing a few chunks of bread, to receive a ladleful of salt water and a few drops of oil. Soup was water and salt, and deemed an excellent meal.

Needless to say, such a situation caused a serious dietary deficit: above all, there was a lack of vitamins and proteins frequently leading to disease or malformation. And if life was hard for everyone, it was especially so for the women. They came off worst from the share-out, ate less and were given the poorest pieces. The children fared no better and were set to work at a tender age.

A hundred years ago in Italy the difference among classes was pronounced. An upper-middle-class family would have presented a quite different picture, for example: smart clothes, a well-furnished home, rich fare at table, higher education (at least for the boys), entertainment. Unfortunately they were a tiny minority within society, which was largely made up of farm labourers, as mentioned, with the gradual appearance of factory workers as well.

The overall picture is scarcely rosy. This was a country with a high birth and death rate, low consumption and a broadly stable population. The unemployed had nothing for it but to emigrate: to America, northern Europe, or pursuing seasonal work.

Under fascism between the wars (the second of which stretched the population to the limit) the consumers’ lot improved but little and slowly at that – partly because of the two wars themselves, partly owing to the dramatic crisis post-1929. The fascist regime went ahead with power politics, investing in heavy industry and the military sector. What individuals consumed was thought unimportant: if anything it diverted precious resources. Propaganda instilled a message of thrift (“If you overeat, you rob the father-land”, one slogan phrased it) and above all “buy Italian”. The war put an end to all that and spelt years of privation.

For many families today, expenditure on basic goods has crept up as a percentage of family income. The data for 2010 show an Italian family averaging 2,453 euros outlay per month, 19% of it on food and the rest on housing at 28%, followed by transport (14%)

The quality of life surged upward in the ensuing period of economic growth through the 1950s and 1960s. One statistic stands out: the Italians doubled their per capita consumption between 1890 and 1956, a span of 66 years. To double again took a mere 14 years, from 1956 to 1970 – years in which the country changed completely. These were the baby boom years, with incomes growing rapidly year-by-year, the new welfare.

How did food change in this phase? Italians continued to eat wheat, pasta and sauces – the typical dishes – but the “poor” foodstuffs diminished (dried pulses, preserves, rice) in favour of “rich” foods that only the wealthy could once afford: meat, sugar, coffee, sweets and confectionery, pre-packed foods. The same era saw more and more products of the food industry (pasta, tinned and bottled food, wine, oil, cheese) alongside traditional homemade produce.

But the real novelty was that food no longer monopolised the family budget, over half of which could go on other purchases. First to benefit was the house itself, which underwent a facelift: homes became modern, practical, comfortable, transformed by the arrival of mass domestic appliances. These were the “mechanical servants” the housewife could enlist for housework – a typically female province. Advertising at the time fastened onto the gender aspect: refrigerator and washing machine adverts always figured a woman. The first market research confirmed that possessing a “modern” kitchen and home (complete with television, of course) was a woman’s prime ambition: not just for the energy saving but as a status symbol underpinning the new female identity (despite the growing demands of work outside the home).

While certain domestic appliances targeted the woman, other products like cars were initially seen as purely masculine commodities. They were a symbol of freedom, personal achievement, and mobility space-wise and maybe also socially. And let us not forget the young who then began to build a culture all their own, using different consumer goods from their parents: scooters like Lambrettas and Vespas (to evade the family clutches), new music and dance forms, casual attire (jeans, T-shirts, miniskirts) – and industry was quick to cotton on to the new customer age-bracket.

It may be claimed that our present consumer pattern was born here in the Sixties and Seventies. It was to have far-reaching consequences. First to industry, where the new sectors directly feeding consumer demand became leaders in the growing economy, rivalling many big traditional industries. Secondly, consumers saw personal, or at most family, consumption as a form of social statement: fulfilling one’s own needs, getting one’s own back after decades or centuries of privation – luxury goods a field of true democratisation. Thirdly, governments duly understood that ensuring a good lifestyle with high consumption for all or many had become central to obtaining electoral consensus, quite apart from political ideology. Hence policy was geared to boosting consumption of all kinds and building forms of welfare providing basic ‘goods’ for all (education, health, social welfare).

Public intervention adjusting consumer patterns would have to be extremely light-handed, as the consumption culture forms part of a nation’s history and identity, as well as our public identity as modern men and women.

Recent decades have seen the same pattern proceeding briskly in the Eighties as the economy flourished and much more slowly from the Nineties on. This is the period of luxury goods for the individual: fashion, travel, fine food, not to mention technology: hi-fi, PCs, cell phones down to our present tablets. Mobile phones in particular are the consumer symbol of our times, extending to all categories and age-groups, though handled differently: the elderly use them to telephone; adults to phone and surf for work and play; the young to text one another, surf, take photos and videos, post on the social networks, listen to music, and much besides. The mobile or tablet is our window onto today’s world.

The last twenty years, however – in Italy as elsewhere – have seen great changes in the income growth of various social brackets. There has been a pincer-like movement: some categories linked to finance have gone on growing, but worker and middle-class incomes have stagnated and gradually lost purchasing power against inflation. Side by side we thus have soaring consumer patterns (in quantity and level of outlay) as well as other consumption levels falling well below average. For many families today, expenditure on basic goods (food, the house, clothes) has crept up as a percentage of family income. The data for 2010 show an Italian family averaging 2,453 euros outlay per month, 19% of it on food and the rest on a range of items, chief of which is housing, at 28% and rising steeply of late, followed by transport (14%) and then many categories (ISTAT data). What strikes one from a historical perspective is the sharp drop in the food budget and the incredible parallel broadening of consumption categories compared with a century ago: transport, communication, leisure time, culture, household equipments, healthcare, financial services and so many others. In short, there has been an enormous diversification of the goods and services consumed, in quality and quantity, compared with before. To put the clock back is by no means easy.

Our present crisis and the policy of austerity being applied by many governments bear upon this situation. The cuts often imposed on family consumption are felt as especially painful. Many goods we cannot (or will not) forgo today: they form part of our country’s history and identity, our public identity as modern men, women, youngsters and children. Again, many forms of consumption like transport and telecommunications used to be classed as luxuries, but are now needed for normal working and social life. To give them up all at once would mean being cut off, second-class citizens.

That is not to say they can’t be reduced (think what enormous waste a more efficient style of manufacturing and consumption would avoid) or redeployed in the name of sustainability and eco-friendliness, solidarity, a healthier lifestyle. But public intervention adjusting consumer patterns would have to be extremely light-handed in that case, and governments would have to remember a fundamental point: their historical role has tended to be cultural rather than economic.

No-one can tell what consumer trends tomorrow will bring. History teaches that they parallel changes in society, express its culture, economy and technology: they are at once objects and subjects of change. We don’t know if we will consume more or less. We do know we shall be consuming differently.


About the author

Emanuela Scarpellini is Professor of Modern History at the University of Milan. She was a visiting scholar at Stanford University and Cambridge University, and has also been a Visiting Professor at both Stanford and Georgetown universities. She was awarded many grants and fellowships (Rockefeller Archive center grant, Hagley Center grant, Newcomen Article Prize, Fulbright Scholarship and Chair, Nias fellowship).

Scarpellini extensively wrote about consumer culture in Italy and Europe in the twentieth century and its relations with the United States (for instance on the appearance of the first supermarkets).

Her last book is Material Nation: A Consumer’s History of Modern Italy (Oxford University Press 2011).