I’ve read a lot recently (and over the years) about materialism, consumer culture, conspicuous consumption, and the like. But generally the writers have focused on the social transition that accompanied the industrial revolution, contrasting the way people lived up until 1800 or so with the changes that began after that. In his book The Ends of Life Keith Thomas devotes a chapter to wealth and possessions as a route to fulfillment. What surprised me is that, except among the nobility, possessions as such didn’t really exist until late medieval times.
Before then, most people did not have much—food, eating and cooking utensils, shelter, clothing, tools—and what they had was purely functional, not at all for the sake of decoration or aesthetic pleasure. Moreover, such things were almost completely without value to them; no effort was put into making their surroundings more comfortable or into acquiring things that had qualities beyond usefulness. The shift began after the Black Death, when a much reduced labor force was able to command higher prices for their labor; those newly affluent people quickly learned to desire things whose main purpose was to display wealth and status.
What shocked me, though, was how this new acquisitiveness led to so many radical changes in how people lived, none of which strike me as positive. Once people had stuff, they had to display it to others, hence the quick creation in homes of space for visitors. Beforehand, home was a place for a family to sleep, eat, spend time privately, and extend hospitality to travelers; all socializing took place at public events in public places. And once people had stuff on display, they needed visitors to admire there stuff, which led to an entire system of people visiting people in their homes—which ended up draining the life from public social events. All this aside from the new need to work in order to acquire things for visitors to admire.
(Learning about this shift from public to private socializing helped me understand better my puzzlement over hospitality, which I think the Bible defines as making your resources available to those in need of them, i.e. a traveler in need of a meal and a place to sleep, but which these days is often used as a biblical injunction to host and attend dinner parties.)