That nations are ‘imagined communities’ has become a commonplace. One seminal approach was to show how nation-states “invented traditions” in the late 19th century. In this ambitious book, Leora Auslander moves us back to the 17th and 18th centuries to ask how the British, American and French revolutions transformed everyday life.
These were cultural as much as political revolutions, intent on turning people into citizens by changing their leisure, clothes, and furniture. Wearing a homespun dress instead of a cotton gown turned colonial subjects into virtuous patriots.
Comparative history always carries risks, and here the summaries of revolutionary events sometimes get in the way. But there are also benefits, especially when Auslander zooms in on national contrasts. Thus, French ambitions centred on the citizen in public, lacking the concern with the home in revolutionary America.
Ultimately this book is more about the symbolism and aesthetics of goods than the practice of everyday life. Clearly, these revolutions encouraged the symbolic use of goods in public rituals. Yet how much did these revolutions really change the way people lived their lives? Compared to, say, the fork, or electricity, these earlier revolutions seem mild.
Politics and material culture should be treated together, not apart, as this book rightly emphasises. If it raises more questions than it can answer, this is no mean achievement.