CONSUMERISM describes the shift in American culture from a producer-oriented society in the nineteenth century to a "consumerist" society in the twentieth century. Changes in domestic demographics and advances in industrialization, manufacturing, transportation, and communication all contributed to the change. Consumerism also contributed greatly to the liberal thrust of the Progressive Era and spawned a long-running trend of consumer advocacy and consumer protection legislation.
Early History of American Consumerism
From the colonial era until the late nineteenth century, the United States was a producer-oriented nation. Simply, most Americans produced what they needed, generating only what their immediate families or villages could use. Farmers—sometimes inaccurately called "subsistence farmers"—grew a variety of crops and vegetables on small acreages, stored what their families could use, and peddled whatever surplus there might be in the nearest town. The raising of livestock usually centered on one or two family dairy cows and some swine and fowl for slaughter. Few large commercial herds existed.
In villages and towns, artisans produced durable goods—such as furniture, clothing, tools, and firearms—but on a piece-by-piece basis. No mass production existed, and while artisans strove for uniformity, every chair, musket, or watch had to be handmade.
Of course, exceptions existed. In New England, American shipbuilders, exploiting an abundance of timber, made ships and boats that, through the British mercantile system, ultimately serviced much of Europe and the New World. In the South, where open fields were plentiful and lent themselves to plantations, agrarians created world markets for tobacco, rice, sugar, indigo, and later, cotton. None other than George Washington created a seaboard market for fish that his slaves and workers seined out of the Potomac River. But in the main, most Americans produced only what they could use or sell close by, and bought only what their neighbors had to offer. The market was one of scarcity.
The producer-oriented dynamic gave Americans an advantage as they sparred with England over issues of taxation and representation prior to the American Revolution. As Parliament levied tax after tax on goods that British merchants sold to American buyers, the Yankees protested with a "nonconsumption" movement, choosing not to buy taxed goods but instead to make them at home. American women, who had to fill the gaps nonconsumption left by spinning thread and making extra candles or garments, proved to be the backbone of the movement.
In the early days of the republic, however, some American leaders urged a broadening of the American economy. Alexander Hamilton, President Washington's secretary of the Treasury, and most members of the New England–based Federalist Party believed that for the United States to become fiscally sound it needed to sell products to the rest of the world. Hamilton's "Report on Manufactures" (1791) advocated larger, consumer-oriented businesses that could carve niches in world markets. External trade, of course, was Hamilton's impetus, but the mechanisms that Americans would create to achieve larger world markets would also change domestic buying.
Hamilton's stance caused the rise of the first American party system. Believing that agrarian, producer-oriented independence was essential for a strong republic and democracy, Thomas Jefferson and his followers in the Democratic-Republican Party opposed Hamilton's bid to strengthen business. Ultimately, Americans would balance both ideas for more than a century.
Improvements in Manufacturing
One of the key elements in the development of a consumerist nation would be uniformity and speed in manufacturing. By 1798, thanks to the brainchild of Eli Whitney, that element was taking hold. Whitney, best known for creating the cotton gin (which made southern cotton profitable and renewed southern dependence on slavery), also developed the idea of interchangeable parts. Whitney realized that artisans could speed their work and double, perhaps triple, their output if they did not have to hand-craft every part of whatever they built. For instance, why hand make every lock mechanism for a musket? Instead, create a machine that could uniformly stamp or mold each lock, trigger, pan, and so on. The benefits would be manifold: artisans or manufacturers could more rapidly turn out individual pieces; prices for the pieces would drop, making them more accessible to consumers; and the items would become more durable. Instead of requiring a whole new item if a component part broke, the owner could simply get a cheap replacement part.
Manufacturing soon adopted the idea of interchangeable parts. One of the first to do so was textile mills and clothing makers. With sewing machines now cheaper to operate, the entrepreneur Francis Cabot Lowell saw an opportunity. He collected hundreds of sewing machines into a manufactory at Waltham, Massachusetts, between 1812 and 1814, and then he sought seamstresses to operate them. Lowell encouraged young women to leave their family farms and live in dormitories he built at Waltham. They would work during the day, and they could attend Lowell-sponsored education classes by night. At Waltham, Lowell created a "company town," and he encouraged one of the first farm-to-city migrations in the nation's history. Other manufacturers followed suit, and a cycle began: Americans gradually began leaving family farms to work at industrial, née urban, centers, quickly making cheaper goods that other Americans could afford.
Transport and Territorial Expansion
Another factor also stimulated growth: American expansion and transportation. Even before the American Revolution, Americans were taking territory west of the Appalachian Mountains. With American victory in the Revolution, the nation had control of the land south of the Great Lakes and west to the Mississippi River. Settlers quickly spread into those regions. Open acreages were conducive to commercial agriculture, but the agrarians discovered that it was difficult to get their produce back over the Appalachians to eastern markets. The quickest route was to float goods down the Ohio River, onto the Mississippi River, and out the Gulf of Mexico, around Spanish Florida, and up the Atlantic coast to New York. Such a trip was cumbersome and fraught with the potential for financial loss.
The arrival of steamships (whose engines could be efficiently built with interchangeable parts) revolutionized market shipping. Now boat captains could go upriver instead of only downriver. And if rivers did not exist from one place to a convenient market, Americans simply created a waterway with the advent of the "Canal Era."
Americans hesitated little to mold the land to their needs. They built canals from city to city throughout the East and in some portions of the South. The most famous was the Erie Canal. Completed in 1825, it connected the Great Lakes with the Hudson River in New York, and the Atlantic Ocean. Thus, the American West was connected with the sea.
Steam-powered locomotives and railroads, however, soon supplanted the canals. Canals were prone to stagnation in summer months. Also, towing animals often fell in them and drowned; and sediment deposits forced frequent dredging. Railroads had none of those problems—one could simply lay down some tracks and run a locomotive over them. By the 1840s, most areas of the Northeast and North were becoming linked to the west by rails. In short, manufacturing and transportation were coming together to make products cheaper and more accessible to Americans.
Railroads continued to boom for the next two decades, and in 1862, during the Civil War, the United States Congress passed the Pacific Railroad Act that authorized a transcontinental railroad to link the East with the far West. That same year, Congress passed the Homestead Act, which promised settlers free land in the West for simply occupying and improving the land. Both measures did much to help the United States utilize the land it had claimed by treaty and war in the early nineteenth century.
They also did much to speed consumerism. Railroads made more money carrying freight than they did carrying passengers. With the first transcontinental railroad completed in 1869 and others soon to follow, railroad managers realized that for the western lines to remain profitable they had to find a way to carry goods to the settlers in the West and their produce or manufactured items back to the East. That certainly would not work if the settlers remained in a producer-oriented, subsistence cycle.
Gradually railroad agents and grain brokers convinced western farmers that the open expanses of the West were ideal for commercial farming. That is, the farmers could concentrate vast acreages in one or two crops, ship the produce to the East, and use their profits to buy supplies and other food that the railroads shipped in from the East.
Railroads did the same for livestock. In 1866, Texans and other southerners looking for opportunities after the Civil War began rounding up wild longhorn cattle in south Texas and driving them to northern markets. Instead of driving them all the way to Chicago, however, the first drivers took herds to a railhead at Sedalia, Missouri. Later they drove cattle to more westerly railheads at Kansas towns like Abilene, Caldwell, and Dodge City. The expanding rail network then took the cattle to stock-yards, most notably in Chicago but later, as railroads spread across the South, in Fort Worth as well.
Technology and Consumerism
A postwar boom in technology sped the transportation of goods. With a device called a steam brake, George Westinghouse invented a safer, easier way to stop trains; also, advances in telegraphy made it easier for railroad headquarters to coordinate schedules. After inventor Alexander Graham Bell perfected a telephone in 1879, railroads could do the same thing by voice. Refrigerated cars enabled railroads to carry perishable goods safely across the country. Railroads themselves became more durable. American industrialist Andrew Carnegie imported from Great Britain the "Bessemer Process" for making steel. Stronger than iron, steel was perfect for rails and the running gear on locomotives and cars. It made Carnegie millions of dollars, and it provided another step in the dominance of rail transportation.
The same technological boom affected other areas of the economy. Industrial workplaces boomed. Plants made steel, locomotives, rail cars, trolleys, wagons, textiles, clothing, furniture, and new electrified appliances such as the first American refrigerators and washing machines. Inventor Thomas Alva Edison's electric light bulb made it possible for industrial employees to work before sunrise and after sunset, the traditional agrarian limits of work. Industrial areas became centralized, largely in the Northeast and North, and created urban centers as they grew. After financial panics—the early-day equivalent of depressions—in 1837, 1857, and 1873, more and more farmers and farm families gave up on the vagaries of weather, drought, and crops to move to cities and take steady, if grueling, work in industry. As those new industrial workers gave up traditional reliance on the land, they became dependent on the growing commercial and transportation system. Cities and urban areas grew around industrial centers; grocery and general stores, drugstores, doctors' offices, and municipal water, gas, and electrical supply grew to support the industrial workers and their families.
At the same time, industry created more efficient ways for the decreasing number of American farmers to feed more and more people. Implements such as Cyrus McCormick's reaper, an early combine, quickly facilitated crop harvests. Augers sped planting; steel plows made short work of cultivation.
A New Society
Most historians point to 1880 as the start of the American consumerist movement, not because of any one event, but because by that year the essential elements of a consumerist society were in place. Industrial centers supported agricultural regions; agricultural regions fed industrial centers. People in both consumed what the other produced. Service industries sprang up around both. And in the middle, rapid communication and transportation linked the two.
The social transformation was not easy, and it bore heavily on those at the bottom arc of the cycle—the workers, both industrial and agricultural. On the farms, growers soon felt enslaved by the railroads. They were bound to pay whatever freight rate the railroads demanded, and there was little competition to mitigate those rates. If upstart railroads started competing against older lines, the more established company would start a rate war, slashing its rates until the new company went out of business. Then the older company would raise prices even higher simply because it could. Railroads might also alter schedules to remote areas, forcing farmers to store their grain—at exorbitant prices—in railroad-owned storage silos. It did not take long for growers to realize that grain brokers, who sold their grain in eastern markets, were making more off the crops than the farmers were.
In the industrial workplace, employees faced long hours—often twelve or more per day—in sweaty, dangerous conditions. Pay was low, and employees had little recourse against employers, who protected their own pocketbooks rather than their workers. Industry owners felt no obligation to recompense employers injured on the job or the families of workers killed in workplace accidents.
Urban centers that grew around the industrial centers also attracted foreign immigrants, many fleeing famine and political unrest in Europe. Political "boss machines"—usually corrupt systems for maintaining order in the chaotic urban areas—found ways to fit immigrants into the complex cities, usually by giving them jobs in exchange for votes on election day. Nevertheless, cities became crowded, polluted, infested, and malignant. Yet the cities thrived, as the rest of the nation, now consumerist, devoured their products.
As production soared, businessmen had to continually create markets. They did so with mass advertising. Newspapers and magazines began carrying ads for everything from corsets to constipation remedies. As homes gradually became electrified, industrialists advertised electrical products such as irons, washing machines (essentially the same old wash tub with electric rollers fitted to it), and home-permanent devices for women, something that, when in use, made the user look like an electrified Medusa.
Coca-Cola, based in Atlanta, Georgia, and Dr. Pepper, from Waco, Texas, entered the American vernacular through advertising. So did patent medicines like Lydia E. Pinkham's elixir for all women's problems. Buyers would later rebel when they discovered that most patent medicines contained 20 percent or more of opiates and alcohol.
Consumer Protection Movements
As consumers began to feel more trapped by the new consumerist system, they appealed to the government for help. Thus, consumerism led directly to the Progressive Era, much of which was aimed at consumer advocacy and protection. In fact, the three main epochs of American liberalism—the 1900s, 1930s, and 1960s—all contain significant consumer protection movements.
Midwestern and Western farmers were the first to push for significant consumer protection from the mighty railroads. Banding together in the late 1870s as the Patrons of Husbandry—more popularly known as the Grangers—they sought government intervention into the malevolent rate practices of the railroads. That farmers would ever seek such intervention from the government was in itself a watershed, for Americans had traditionally wanted a laissez-faire government, one that handled foreign relations, wars, the coinage of money, and tariffs but kept its nose out of the affairs of private individuals and businesses.
The efforts of the Grangers coalesced into the Populist Party in the 1880s and bore fruit in 1887 when Populists convinced Congress to pass the Interstate Commerce Act. The act created the Interstate Commerce Commission, designed to watch over the practices of the railroads. It was the first such interventionist act in American history.
By the elections of 1896, the mainstream Democratic Party had co-opted the Populist platform, and populism itself melded into a new era known as progressivism. Like populism, progressivism sought consumer protections, but also protections for the industrial, urban working classes that fueled consumerism. Progressivism would ultimately see a variety of acts strengthen the Interstate Commerce Act: eight-hour workdays established, fire safety mandated in workplaces, child labor abolished, and monopolies attacked.
One of the biggest breaks for consumers came in the administration of President Theodore Roosevelt (1901–1909) when Congress passed legislation to guard the purity of prepared foods and drugs. Consumer advocates had known for some time that packing companies used additives such as formaldehyde and other chemicals to preserve food, and Congress considered bills in 1892 and 1902 to protect buyers from harmful ingredients. Republicans, many of whom had interests in or connections to meatpacking, defeated the measures.
By 1906, however, the political climate was changing. Muckrakers—journalists who used often sensational investigative reporting to expose graft, corruption, and wrongdoing in a variety of business arenas—began targeting food preparation. One of them, Upton Sinclair, a socialist who was attempting to expose the plight of immigrants in American cities, inadvertently added fuel to the consumer advocacy groups when he published The Jungle in 1906.
Some of the characters in The Jungle worked in a Chicago meatpacking plant. In his narrative, Sinclair detailed how rats, rat poison, rat feces, and even human body parts often got mixed in with processed meats and marketed to the public. Sickened, the public, advocacy groups, and Roosevelt himself pressured Congress to once again take up a pure food act. In fact, the Senate had passed a new bill just as Sinclair's book appeared. The public clamor and the weight of the American Medical Association prompted the House to also pass the Pure Food and Drug Act, 1906.
The act mandated a system of government inspections on meat processed at packing plants. In an age when Americans still had a large measure of faith in the government, a federal stamp on a side of beef meant it had passed inspection.
As the name implies, the act also sought to safeguard the purity of drug preparations. With no mandated ingredient labeling, "pharmaceutical" companies—often purveyors of quack patent remedies—were free to market preparations for both adults and children containing large quantities of alcohol and opiates. Government inspections after passage of the act largely curtailed such practices.
After a brief detour to supply Allied and American armies in World War I, American industry and agriculture once again sped consumerism in the 1920s. New products—and their concomitant advertising—deluged American buyers. Henry Ford had long since revolutionized automobile manufacturing (all manufacturing, really) with his assembly-line process. Essentially, instead of one team of workers building a car from the ground up, car parts on an assembly line passed by workers who performed one or two specialized tasks. The streamlined process made cars cheaper, but Ford went one better. He made it possible for people to buy cars "on time," or on credit, by making affordable monthly payments.
Ready access to automobiles created a new type of consumerist culture—the car culture. Americans took to the roads, prompting state and local governments to begin paving projects. Motor courts, the forerunners of motels, sprang up to accommodate travelers. Motor courts featured individual bungalows clustered around an office and offered well-appointed bedrooms, bathrooms, and kitchenettes. Automobiles, of course, needed refueling, and oil companies placed filling stations at strategic points along major roadways. Filling station advertising and billboards championed the highest octane in their gasoline; the cleanest restrooms—a must for urgent travelers; and the quickest service. Oil companies also issued some of the first credit cards to speed motorists on their way.
Roadsides offered new advertising space to merchants. They hawked everything from soft drinks to headache powders on large billboards erected to catch motorists' attention. The most popular of the advertisements, Burma-Shave signs, peddled shave cream with serialized rhyming signs, all ending with the distinctive Burma-Shave logo.
Advertisements and American Consumers
Advertising perhaps preyed on emotion and basic human need as a way to create markets. As the car culture took hold and enabled suburbia to spread, many young housewives and mothers found themselves increasingly isolated from traditional family connections. Advertising stepped up to fill the void, with ad copy that offered thinly veiled familial wisdom: whole grain cereals were the key to health in children; clean bathrooms were the key to social acceptance; mouthwashes and toothpastes the key to sexual appeal. Such advertising barraged women from newspapers, magazines like Good Housekeeping and Ladies' Home Journal, and the newer medium of radio.
Economic historian Don Slater has said that the 1920s marked an ideological milestone in the progression of consumerism. Mass advertising of new products heralded them as the key to modernity, and consumers embraced the idea. Advertising implied that "consumerism itself [was] the shining path to modernity: [it] incited [the] public to modernize themselves, modernize their homes, their means of transport." Indeed, Slater sees in the consumerism of the 1920s a "double face," one which shows mainstream middle America embracing consumerism as a path toward security and contentment and a radical youth/flapper culture embracing it as a license for pleasure. For whatever sector, sociologists would argue that 1920s consumerism pointed both groups away from the carnage of World War I.
Late in the decade, however, some consumer advocates voiced concern that advertising was unfairly targeting human fears in order to sell goods, and manifestly lying by saying that new, health-related products had undergone scientific testing and carried the approval of the medical community. In 1927, authors Stuart Chase and F. J. Schlink published Your Money's Worth: A Study in the Waste of the Consumer's Dollar. The authors charged that producers were fleecing consumers and, as in the case of some cosmetics containing harmful chemicals, endangering their health.
Consumers' clubs and research groups began to spring up, and state university extension home economists began to champion the rights of consumers. They also attempted to educate consumers on how to make better purchasing decisions.
The Great Depression and Consumerism
The stock market crash of October 1929 and the advent of the Great Depression shifted the American economy from one of plenty to one of scarcity once again. Across the nation, unemployment averaged more than 30 percent. In some urban areas, where industry fed consumerism, it reached nearly 50 percent.
All but the most financially insulated of Americans once again had to save what little money they had. Those lucky enough to remain in a job often found themselves "underemployed," meaning that their wages were significantly less than before the depression began. However, depression-era Americans were subtly different than their pre-consumerist forefathers. While the latter had never dreamed of a consumerist culture (and may well have seen it as wretchedly excessive had they done so), the former had tasted it and wanted to remain consumers as best they could. What had been necessity in the 1920s became luxury in the 1930s, but Americans still consumed.
One of the biggest consumer goods in the 1930s was entertainment. It makes sense: faced with financial crisis or unrelenting poverty at home, Americans sought escape when they could. A few extra cents now and then bought a ticket into a theater where people could watch newsreels, cartoons, a serial, teasers, and a feature. Indeed, the 1930s were Hollywood's "Golden Age." Movies were cheap to make and relied on writing and acting rather than special effects. Studios could crank out "B" movies in less than a week; "A" movies took a little longer. Such actors as Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne, Bette Davis, and Katharine Hepburn became stars in the 1930s, and moviegoers saw in their situations a way out of their own troubles. Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy and the Marx Brothers made classic comedies that poked fun at authorities—symbolic of the same authorities who had steered the country into depression.
If they could not make it to the theater, Americans consumed entertainment in other forms. Pulp novels, long a reading staple, continued to thrive, as did comic books. The 1930s saw the origin of two classic American super-heroes—Superman and Batman—who fought crime and injustice, again metaphors for the trouble in which the United States found itself. And, for cheaper fare, Americans could simply turn on a radio. Radio offered music, concerts ranging from local bluegrass and religious groups to the Metropolitan Opera; dramas in the form of serials and "soap operas," so named because soap manufacturers sponsored them; and comedy with George Burns and Gracie Allen, Bob Hope, and Jack Benny weekly bringing riotous laughter into homes.
In government, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ushered in the New Deal, a program of deficit spending designed to get Americans back on their feet. In 1938, after five years of wrangling, Congress passed new legislation that increased the oversight power of the Food and Drug Administration to protect consumers, and also strengthened the hand of the Federal Trade Commission, which watched over advertising practices.
World War II Brings Change
The depression gave way to World War II, and while defense spending brought the nation out of the depression and erased unemployment, the war years saw Americans still living in an economy of scarcity. The government rationed perishable goods and food staples, gasoline, and durable goods such as tires and shoes to Americans; the American industrial and agricultural machines had to supply American and Allied soldiers first if they were to defeat global tyranny. In the automobile industry, the 1942 model year was the last for a while; automakers retooled to make army jeeps, tanks, helmets, and a host of other military items.
With millions of men in the armed services, women went to work as they had never done before. In manufacturing plants they built bombers and tanks and aircraft carriers; in business they assumed traditionally male clerk and secretarial roles; at home they managed family finances. With men getting government pay and women at work, some families found themselves, for the first time ever, with two paychecks. They were poised, at war's end, to resume consumerism with a vengeance.
After a brief recession in 1946 as the nation reconverted to a peacetime economy, consumerism boomed in 1947. Holding tidy nest eggs, couples began buying homes, often in expanding suburbs. They replaced worn-out automobiles. They began having the children who would become the baby boomers, the most consumer-oriented generation the world had yet seen.
The 1950s ushered in an era of consumerism that has rolled on virtually unopposed to the present. Americans purchased homes, cars (sometimes two), television sets, new home furnishings, modern refrigerators, clothes for work and their new found leisure time, barbeque grills, lawn mowers—the list is endless. They continued to consume entertainment as movies continued to boom. Movies also touched off ancillary consumer purchases. When Disney Studios produced a largely fictitious but popular series about Davy Crockett starring Fess Parker, seemingly every boy in America had to have a Disney-marketed coon-skin cap like Parker wore in the films.
The recording industry boomed as kids bought up millions of 45-rpm records to play on compact record players in their bedrooms. The crooning styles of Bing Crosby in the 1930s and Frank Sinatra in the 1940s had now given way to the rock 'n' roll beat of Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Bill Haley and the Comets.
But television was beginning to revolutionize entertainment as well. Comedies such as I Love Lucy and Love That Bob and westerns like Gunsmoke and Maverick ran weekly. All carried corporate sponsors, and series stars frequently hawked merchandise in both televised commercials and coordinated print ads.
Situation comedies—the first sitcoms—like Leave It to Beaver, Father Knows Best, and Ozzie and Harriet promoted an idealistic, family-centered American lifestyle. Through set design, product placement, and costuming, they also subtly suggested how American homes should look and how people should dress. Consumerism continued to roll as Americans sought to achieve the televised ideal.
Sociologists consider 1950s consumerism as an attempt to achieve contentment and security in a complicated world. The United States had won World War II, defeating the most nefarious enemies the modern world had yet seen—totalitarian Germany and Japan—yet in the 1950s it faced new, ominous threats: an aggressive Soviet Union and nuclear weapons. The United States was a reluctant superpower. Pledged to halt the spread of communism, the country, so recently victorious, looked impotent as China became communist in 1949; as communist aggressors touched off the Korean War in 1950; and as Red-baiter Senator Joseph McCarthy imagined communists at high levels of American government. Faced with such uncertainties and perceived threats, a new washing machine, a roomy sedan, and a clean toilet spelled homogeneity, continuity, and security for many Americans.
A Liberated Consumerism
The 1960s brought a liberated consumerism. Sexually free with the advent of birth control pills in 1960, and encouraged by such books as Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique (1963) to drop the June Cleaver wardrobe and attitudes of the 1950s, women sought new and different avenues for their lives. They also became fresh targets for advertisers. Commercials encouraged free lifestyles with portable hair curlers and blow dryers. Women were shown that they need not be tied to motherly chores like cooking with the appearance of such baby boom staples as toaster pastries and instant puddings; they need not dress like their mothers and grandmothers, either, as bell-bottom pants, hip-huggers, and flower-print shirts set a breezy, liberated style for the era. Marketing reminded women that to be any less was to be "square"; yet the double face of marketing continued to chide women for having a less-than-spotless kitchen floor or mirrors that did not sparkle.
Advertising also continued to prey on the male psyche as well. Men needed to drink, smoke, and dress like James Bond. Family sedans were passé: instead, muscle cars like the Pontiac GTO and Oldsmobile 442 were the way to go. Better yet, get into sporty pony cars like the Ford Mustang, Chevrolet Camaro, and Pontiac Firebird. If you could afford it, the Chevrolet Corvette was the ultimate expression of male virility on the road, as Martin Milner and George Maharis had proved in the popular television drama Route 66.
Consumer protection took an upswing in 1962 when President John F. Kennedy introduced his Consumer Bill of Rights. Kennedy said that all consumers have a right to safety, the right to be informed about products, the right to choose, and the right to be heard. His platform set the stage for new investigative hearings into the safety of products ranging from over-the-counter medicines to cosmetics.
Undoubtedly the most influential consumer advocate of the age was Ralph Nader. In 1965 he published Unsafe at Any Speed, an investigation of the automobile industry, charging that car manufacturers gave little concern to motorist safety in the design of their cars. Nader's attack ultimately led to more convenient seat belts in all cars and side turn indicator lights beginning with the 1968 model year. His crusade also spelled the end of the rear-engine Chevrolet Corvair. Deemed patently unsafe, the Corvair's last model year was 1969.
Consumer advocacy brought a "truth-in-packaging" bill from Congress in 1966. In the 1960s, Congress also mandated that cigarette packages carry the now-famous surgeon general's warning about tobacco and cancer. And, in 1970, Congress forced an end to televised cigarette commercials.
Technology Impacts Consumerism
Technology has increasingly impacted consumerism. Compact computers designed to help astronauts fly to the moon in the 1960s became the basis for the first handheld calculators of the 1970s. Both are the forerunners of today's personal computers and Macs. The obsolescence curve of computer equipment ensures a continually fresh curve of computer consumers.
The appearance of videocassette recording technology in the late 1970s gave American television viewers more latitude in their viewing habits. No longer were they slaves to television schedules; they could record one program while watching another. Videocassette recorders also gave rise to the entirely new video rental industry, in the 1980s. As the new millennium began, digitally recorded movie discs—DVDs—were pushing videocassettes aside.
In music, the rapid public acceptance of compact discs—CDs—in 1986 made vinyl records obsolete. Suddenly a new market opened up, as millions of baby-boom rock 'n' rollers strove to replace their vinyl record collections with new digital ones.
And, since the early 1980s, computers increasingly have assisted the systems in automobiles, from engine function to climate control. Not only have computers improved engine performance and fuel efficiency, they have also done away with the "shade-tree mechanic." No longer can a car buff effectively tune his car on a weekend afternoon; consumers need trained computer techs to do the job.
The shift from a producer-oriented culture to consumerism in the nineteenth century was gradual. With the marked exception of the depression and World War II, consumerism in the twentieth century became a way of life for Americans.
Aaker, David A., and George S. Day, eds. Consumerism: Search for the Consumer Interest. New York: The Free Press, 1974.
Fox, Richard Wightman, and T. J. Jackson Lears, eds. The Culture of Consumption: Critical Essays in American History, 1880–1980. New York: Pantheon Books, 1983.
Lee, Martyn J., ed. The Consumer Society Reader. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 2000.
Van Doren, Charles, ed. Webster's American Biographies. Springfield, Mass.: Merriam-Webster, 1984.
See alsoAdvertising .
"Consumerism." Dictionary of American History. 2003. Encyclopedia.com. (May 28, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3401801007.html
"Consumerism." Dictionary of American History. 2003. Retrieved May 28, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3401801007.html
Consumerism, the central economic and social policy of contemporary capitalism, is a doctrine of growing the economy through constantly increasing the consumption of commodities and services. The term consumerism is also used to describe movements to protect the rights and interests of consumers.
Consumerism and Mass Production
While the consumption of commodities has always been an aspect of human society, consumerism was not possible until after the first and second industrial revolutions (1760–1840 and late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, respectively). The industrial revolutions, led by Great Britain and the United States, gradually caused the replacement of the artisan system, in which goods were produced locally by skilled workers on a small scale. Technological innovations, like the spinning jenny (1764), allowed fewer and less-skilled workers the ability to produce more goods, while the creation of national transportation networks, such as railroads, allowed for their wide dissemination. The factory system, in which labor was organized by specific tasks, rose into prominence, leading to the growth of cities, rising immigration, and the depletion of natural resources.
As the labor process was divided into separate tasks, laborers became estranged from the products of their labor, destroying the pride in craftsmanship they had experienced in the artisan system. Karl Marx (1818–1883), political economist and theorist of capitalism, described this disconnection as "alienation." Alienation allowed commodities to be seen not as the products of labor, which was hidden from consumers, but as fetishes, things imbued with an almost animate power in the world. A commodity's usefulness, or, in Marx's terms, use-value, became increasingly subordinated to its exchange value, or its social worth (generally its price or monetary value). As commodities lost any connection with objective value, they became fetishized. Advertising has aided and exploited commodity fetishism by suggesting that commodities have magical properties—that is, that buying a product will increase the consumer's social status or attractiveness. As the commodity has become the central aspect of social life, areas that were once outside of the economic sphere, such as the family or religion, are recreated as commodities for sale in the market.
While the industrial revolutions allowed for mass production, it was not until Henry Ford (1863–1947) introduced his assembly-line system for automobile production that goods could be produced in huge quantities cheaply enough to be widely accessible. Using Frederick Taylor's scientific-management principles, Ford assigned workers small, repetitive tasks that by 1913 allowed a car to be produced every ninety-three minutes. While the nature of this work was potentially unfulfilling for workers, Ford paid them well—his legendary five-dollar-per-day minimum wage—as a means of ensuring that he would have a mass of people able to afford the Ford Model T. The success of Ford's venture so changed the American economy and capitalism in general that the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937) coined the term Fordism to describe it. Fordism is defined by an economy dominated by centralized mass production, state welfare, unionized workers, and consumption of standardized commodities, of which the Model T is the ideal example. This car was designed to appeal to all consumers regardless of class, race, gender, and so on. Under Fordism, yearly or seasonal product changes are minimal or nonexistent.
While advertising had existed previously—from town criers to handbills—advertising as a rationalized, scientific profession began only in the 1850s. In the mid-nineteenth century a variety of products, such as patent medicines, had come to be widely consumed in the national marketplace. Advertising became important as a means of creating desire for new, standardized products and especially of proving to consumers that these products were superior to homemade or local ones. In their search for status as professionals and experts, advertisers sought to distance their practice from the carnivalesque methods of peddlers, snake-oil salesmen, and other hucksters by relying on factual information soberly offered. Yet the carnival tradition never entirely disappeared, and even in this era, pictorial advertisements using magical and sensual imagery continued to appear in mass periodicals, though they were managed by the new national advertising agencies and therefore became increasingly standardized.
By the 1880s and 1890s the modern advertising system was in place. Instead of simply serving as middlemen between businesses and media outlets, advertisers sold their services as designers of campaigns, promoters of products, and experts on the media. Branding, in which products came to be known by a specific brand name, became increasingly important in differentiating essentially similar products from each other in the market. As these brand-name products were distributed across formerly insurmountable barriers of geography by steamships and trains, people in diverse regions could consume the same products, inculcating a sense of nationalism. In this way, the Fordist era promoted a nation founded on the "democracy of goods" in which everyone used the same consumer products, collapsing consumerism with national identity. Yet this "imagined community" was highly stratified by race, gender, ethnicity, and class. While the Fordist era of mass production shifted the United States, as well as other nations, from a country of artisan production, regional cultures, and individualized commodities to one of national brands, this nationalism came at the expense of many members of the nation itself, particularly people of color, the working class, and women. Blacks, for example, were portrayed in advertisements of this era almost exclusively as happy servants or as icons of slavery, such as Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben. Working-class people were also rarely seen in advertisements, which presented a relentlessly middle-or upper-class world.
Consumerism and Post-Fordism
The term post-Fordist has been used to describe the shift from an economy based on mass production and mass consumption of identical goods to one distinguished by "flexible specialization." Production is specialized through the use of technology. The post-Fordist labor force is multiskilled and global, which has eroded the class consciousness of Fordist labor movements. Importantly, consumption has become specialized as well. No longer is there one product designed for the mass of consumers. Instead, products are target marketed to particular niches, using demographics, psychographics, and other marketing techniques. At this point, style becomes the major method of differentiating products. Advertisers encourage consumer desire to become more volatile and individualized. Products are not marketed by extolling their utilitarian value but by proving to the consumer how he or she can use them to display a particular identity to the world. The development of a post-Fordist economy is difficult to pinpoint, though scholars suggest that the 1970s in the industrial West was a turning point. Even within one economy, such as the United States, the development of post-Fordism did not occur unilaterally through all industries. While current Western economies can be described as post-Fordist, Third World economies are not necessarily so, though First World post-Fordism relies on the exploitation of labor, resources, and markets within the Third World.
Scholars agree, however, that one of the most significant aspects of the post-Fordist economy is the reliance on market segmentation as opposed to mass consumption. Market segmentation emphasizes particular aspects of a product or creates a particular product to appeal to specific market segments, which are differentiated by income, gender, race, ethnicity, age, geography, and so on. This marketing paradigm developed out of the baby boom of the post–World War II era and the social and identity movements of the 1960s that became the predominant paradigm by the 1970s and 1980s.
The social and identity movements of the 1960s suggested that people understood their identities as differentiated by a number of characteristics. In response, advertisers and marketers explored the potential for "breaking up America" and the world into an ever-increasing number of segments of people who had "lifestyles" that were defined by the particular commodities they consumed. The development of cable television is an ideal example. Beginning in the late 1970s, cable networks were designed to appeal to particular types of viewers, whether women (Lifetime), African-Americans (Black Entertainment Television [BET]), and youth (Music Television [MTV]), through the content of their programs as well as the flow of shows and commercials. As important as "signaling" or attracting the desired type of viewers, however, was ensuring that unwanted types of viewers were not watching.
Soap was first sold under a brand name in Great Britain in 1884, placing it indelibly within the history of British imperialism and Victorian notions of gender and race. Soap advertisements portrayed soap as a fetish, imbued with the power to cleanse and bring civilization. As Reverend Henry Ward Beecher (1813–1887) argued in an 1885 testimonial for Pears soap, "If Cleanliness is next to Godliness, then surely soap is a means of grace." Soap advertisements consistently used magical imagery to hide the intense labor performed by working-class maids employed in middle-class homes. Middle-class women were never shown as laborers, creating a gendered ideology where middle-class women were "angels of the household" whose major role was that of consumer.
Soap advertisements also offered a racial ideology, described as "commodity racism" by Anne McClintock. A Pears soap advertisement of 1899 argued that "The first step toward lightening the white man's burden is through teaching the virtues of cleanliness. pears' soap is a potent fact in brightening the dark corners of the earth as civilization advances." The scientific racism that posited evolutionary notions of biology and history came to be projected onto commodities, which would do the work of empire. Soap became the symbolic carrier of whiteness, imperialism, and Victorian gender roles.
Race and ethnicity are becoming increasingly critical market segments. In 1994, according to Brandweek, at least half of all Fortune 500 companies were using ethnic or racial marketing techniques. Latinos, for example, are one of the fastest-growing ethnic minorities in the United States, and corporations are searching for ways to appeal to this segment, which is divided into a variety of subsegments (Mexican-American, Puerto Rican–American, Cuban-American).
An important corollary of these developments is that as style becomes central in product differentiation, it is necessary for styles to change rapidly. What has been described as the essentially postmodern practice of pastiche is an outgrowth of these marketing and economic changes, in which capital recycles old styles in a desperate attempt to create products that seem "new and improved." As the commodity becomes even more divorced from use-or exchange-value, it becomes a sign, able to be given a variety of possible and mutable meanings depending on the particular market segment. Price fluctuates not according to actual production costs but according to how much a particular consumer will pay. Cultural intermediaries, or those members of the professional-managerial class that work in cultural industries such as advertising or public relations, serve as cultural guides for the middle class, helping these consumers navigate the array of potential commodities available for consumption and offering their lifestyles as models of how to live successfully in this new world of constant consumption.
The Politics of Consumerism
As consumerism has become the fundamental doctrine of contemporary capitalism, individuals have been encouraged to consider themselves primarily as consumers rather than as citizens, workers, or members of religious denominations. While in many ways this ideological shift has been spurred by capital as a means of ensuring a continual increase in consumer spending as a means of growing the economy, numerous individuals and organizations have used this consumer identity as a way to encourage government control over business and to protest social, racial, political, and economic injustice. For example, during the Great Depression of the 1930s women's organizations such as the General Federation of Women's Clubs and the League of Women Shoppers led consumer protests for food legislation and against rising meat prices. Dr. Kathryn McHale, the general director of the American Association of University Women, summarized the consumer movement's philosophy in 1935 when she said "there is no interest which is more fundamental than that of consumers. All residents of our nation are consumers in large or limited way. No matter what our other interests, we have in common one function—that of consumption" (Cohen, p. 34).
Even the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s utilized consumer identity to justify its claim for equal rights. The first and most-remembered protests were the Montgomery bus boycott, when African Americans refused to consume public transportation as a protest against their inferior treatment in the transit system, and the lunch-counter sit-ins, when protesters refused to move from whites-only dining areas. These tactics showed the government and the American public the correlation between citizenship and the right to consume—in the consumerist world of post–World War II America, being banned from consumption demonstrated second-class status.
Psychographics is a method of market segmentation based on personality, lifestyle, and geodemographics. These techniques promise to offer marketers the ability to define their target buyers by their beliefs, values, and self-perception. This allows for micromarketing, or marketing tailored to the level of very small segments, such as neighborhoods. For example, a department store that serves a neighborhood of young unmarried people may not carry children's products, while the same department store in a different but nearby neighborhood, with a different geodemographic profile, might do so. Psychographics also allows marketers to appeal to consumers based on their perceived self-perceptions. Does this consumer generally make decisions based on status? Beliefs? The online service "You Are Where You Live" offered by the marketing analysis company Claritas in the early 2000s is an example of the use of psychographics and geodemographics.
While consumer movements have been successful to a degree in protecting certain rights, they can be faulted for accepting the overwhelming ideology of consumerism and, more widely, capitalism. Instead, other individuals and organizations have sought to protest the ideology of consumerism through a variety of methods and means. While consumerism relies on the creation of desire, anticonsumerist movements focus on "need." Religious sects such as the Amish and the Shakers adapted the Christian idea of voluntary poverty, for example, to create a more godly existence based on need, while the counterculture of the 1960s used voluntary poverty to justify its renunciation of material goods and capitalism. However, even voluntary poverty or its secular corollary, "voluntary simplicity," created by Duane Elgin in the 1980s, have been adapted by the mass media and business. In the 1970s the Stanford Research Institute, a nonprofit corporation that offers corporate clients advice on emerging trends, estimated that almost 75 million Americans had "simple" sympathies that business should utilize (Kleiner, 1996). Still, many people advocate voluntary simplicity as necessary to limit the negative environmental impact of a consumer-driven economy, which produces huge amounts of waste and uses resources at an ever-quickening pace.
Another central critique of consumerism is related to globalization. Multinational corporations are cited for destroying local and indigenous resources and cultures in order to make way for their products. The term McDonaldization has been coined to describe the phenomenon of local cultures being stamped out by multinational corporations spreading a homogenous Western (usually American) culture. However, scholars dispute the effects of McDonaldization. While many see local cultures being destroyed by the forces of globalizing popular culture, others assert that local cultures incorporate and adapt these forces, creating a syncretized culture. Still, either side must acknowledge the uneven power relationships that exist between a cultural behemoth like the United States and Third World markets.
See also Capitalism ; Globalization ; Marxism .
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Consumerism may be defined as a belief system that promotes high and rising levels of the personal consumption of material goods and services among a large segment of the population, ascribing to consumption a central role in promoting individual happiness. It is also associated with the view that the main goal of the economy should be to meet the (freely chosen) consumption decisions of people in the most efficient way.
It can be argued that economic development necessarily leads to consumerism. According to this view, the inherent competitiveness of people—which makes them try to stay ahead of, or at least to keep up with, the consumption of others—induces people to consume far beyond what is necessary for them, and to give consumption more importance in their lives when economic advancement makes this possible. This does not follow, however, since people need not increase their consumption significantly or attach much importance to consumption if they react to economic growth by increasing their leisure time (rather than to producing and consuming more) or to devoting more resources to nonrival consumption goods (like museums and public parks), or if they compete in spheres other than consumption. This appears to be confirmed by the fact that despite the wide reach of consumerism in the contemporary world, there are significant variations in its intensity (between, say, the United States and Europe). Indeed, explanations of the emergence and growth of consumerism in the past have been sought in the weakening of traditional religious values and in the efforts of rising commercial and industrial interests to increase their profits by increasing the demand for their products. The spread of consumerism around the world, including to less-developed countries, can be explained in terms of globalization made possible in large part by technological changes that allow the easier spread of information (thereby strengthening what has been called the international demonstration effect) and by free market economic policies (such as free trade and fewer labor market regulations, which seek to allow consumers to obtain goods at lower prices).
Consumerism has been criticized by many, including religious leaders, moral philosophers, socialists, and environmentalists, for: diverting people’s attention from arguably more noble goals, such as spiritual development; saving less and thereby slowing down economic growth that can benefit society; making people self-centered and willing to do less for others in society who are less fortunate than themselves; exacerbating inequality by inducing the poor to reduce saving and human capital formation, become more indebted, and accept an inequitable socioeconomic order; and harming the natural environment. However, it has also had its defenders. The critics have been dismissed as elitist in not recognizing the democratic appeal of the spread of consumerism and its ability to give pleasure, even of an artistic and spiritual kind, and of failing to show why some goods are necessities and others are luxuries. Consumerism has been applauded for providing people with incentives for hard work to improve their lives, for keeping profits up by causing a growth in the aggregate demand for goods and services, and for being the driving force for economic growth and for all the benefits it brings about.
While much of this debate has focused on the appropriate meaning of “the good life” and on the effects of consumerism on society, a recent literature, making use of self-reported happiness surveys, addresses directly whether higher levels of income and consumption actually make people happier by their own reckoning. This literature suggests that although the rich report higher levels of happiness than the poor in a given society, across countries increases in material well-being do not make people significantly happier beyond a certain threshold level of real income, and that in economically advanced countries increases in income and consumption do not significantly increase happiness. The finding that the growth of luxury consumption has not led to increases in happiness has been explained in a number of ways. Since people get habituated to higher levels of living and consumption norms, and because more goods and services are required to satisfy the same needs as average income increases (for instance people need better clothing to be socially acceptable), higher actual levels of consumption need not make them happier. To the extent that people consume more to obtain higher status by consuming more than others they expend more effort and experience more stress without improving their position because others do the same. The quest for more consumption leaves people less time to enjoy what they consume, less time for friends and family, and causes them to lose social connectedness, having an adverse effect on their happiness.
SEE ALSO Conspicuous Consumption; Consumer; Consumer Protection; Consumption; Hidden Persuaders; Relative Income Hypothesis; Subliminal Suggestion; Want Creation
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Amitava Krishna Dutt
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con·sum·er·ism / kənˈsoōməˌrizəm/ • n. 1. the protection or promotion of the interests of consumers. 2. often derog. the preoccupation of society with the acquisition of consumer goods. DERIVATIVES: con·sum·er·ist adj. & n. con·sum·er·is·tic / kənˌsoōməˈristik/ adj.
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