The term “consumption” itself entered circulation with a heavy burden. It originally derived from the Latin word consumere and found its way first into French in the 12th century, and from there into English and later into other European languages. It meant the using up of food, candles, and other resources. (The body, too, could be consumed, in this sense—this is why in English, the “wasting disease,” tuberculosis, was called “consumption.") To complicate matters, there was the similar-sounding Latin word consummare, as in Christ’s last words on the cross: “Consummatum est,” meaning “It is finished." The word came to mean using up, wasting away, and finishing.
Perhaps those meanings informed the way that many pre-modern governments regulated citizens’ consumption. Between the 14th and 18th centuries, most European states (and their American colonies) rolled out an ever longer list of “sumptuary laws” to try and stem the tide of fashion and fineries. The Venetian senate stipulated in 1512 that no more than six forks and six spoons could be given as wedding gifts; gilded chests and mirrors were completely forbidden. Two centuries later, in German states, women were fined or thrown in jail for sporting a cotton neckerchief.
To rulers and moralists, such a punitive, restrictive view of the world of goods made eminent sense. Their societies lived with limited money and resources in an era before sustained growth. Money spent on a novelty item from afar, such as Indian cotton, was money lost to the local treasury and to local producers; those producers, and the land they owned, were heralded as sources of strength and virtue. Consumers, by contrast, were seen as fickle and a drain on wealth.
Adam Smith’s reappraisal of this group in 1776 came in the midst of a transformation that was as much material as it was cultural. Between the 15th and 18th centuries, the world of goods was expanding in dramatic and unprecedented ways, and it was not a phenomenon confined to Europe. Late Ming China enjoyed a golden age of commerce that brought a profusion of porcelain cups, lacquerware, and books. In Renaissance Italy, it was not only the palazzi of the elite but the homes of artisans that were filling up with more and more clothing, furniture, and tableware, even paintings and musical instruments.
It was in Holland and Britain, though, where the momentum became self-sustaining. In China, goods had been prized for their antiquity; in Italy, a lot of them had circulated as gifts or stored wealth. The Dutch and English, by contrast, put a new premium on novelties such as Indian cottons, exotic goods like tea and coffee, and new products like the gadgets that caught Smith’s attention.
In the 1630s, the Dutch polymath Caspar Barlaeus praised trade for teaching people to appreciate new things, and such secular arguments for the introduction of new consumer products—whether through innovation or importation—were reinforced by religious ones. Would God have created a world rich in minerals and exotic plants, if He had not wanted people to discover and exploit them? The divine had furnished man with a “multiplicity of desires” for a reason, wrote Robert Boyle, the scientist famous for his experiments with gases. Instead of leading people astray from the true Christian path, the pursuit of new objects and desires was now justified as acting out God’s will. In the mid-18th century, Smith’s close friend David Hume completed the defense of moderate luxury. Far from being wasteful or ruining a community, it came to be seen as making nations richer, more civilized, and stronger.