In the West, childhood and child rearing are closely linked to the rise of consumer culture. Increased household wealth often freed children from work and harsh discipline, leaving time for play and increasing adult toleration. Beginning in the eighteenth century, consumer goods redefined relationships between adults and children, especially when parents used playthings and books to indirectly guide children's behavior and expectations. Gifts to children were a key to the privatization and growth of symbolic and fantasy goods that displaced public, often religious, celebrations and rituals. By the sixteenth century in Europe, festival goods (like Christmas crèches) were miniaturized, introduced to domestic displays, and eventually transformed into play sets for children. By the eighteenth century in western Europe, children were treasured for how they expressed wonder and evoked emotional renewal when adults gave them toys and other pleasures. New children's goods (special clothing, furniture, books, and playthings) in nurseries enveloped middle-class childhood in a cocoon of protected learning and imagination.
Modern Consumer Culture
In the nineteenth century, children's consumer culture shifted from training goods (like blocks and moralizing books) to playful and fantasy toys and stories. By the mid-nineteenth century, candy, toys, and books had become part of a new regimen of positive reinforcement for parent-pleasing behavior. A new indulgence reflected parents' attempts to relieve their offspring from their own austere upbringings and to display their new wealth. Fantasy entered into children's consumer culture with the emergence of stories like Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland (1865) and J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan (1904) with no or little didactic purpose, which celebrated children's special imagination. Although parents continued to supply most of children's consumer goods, working-class boys especially were able to purchase sweets and cheap magazines and books as well as attend plays with earnings from running errands, selling newspapers, and other petty jobs. In the 1870s middle-class children found the opportunity to own toys and gadgets offered as premiums for young readers who sold magazine subscriptions.
By the 1920s, adults bought playrooms, sandboxes, and swing sets to give their offspring autonomy and protected play. Pianos were purchased to raise children's cultural skills and Kodak snapshot and movie cameras were sold with the promise of capturing memory of the "delightful" early stage of childhood. Children, as representatives of change and the future, were often given commercial fads. The teddy bear craze of 1906 was perhaps the best early example of a pattern that would be repeated over and over again in the twentieth century–the celebration of the new through a consumer craze.
The emerging children's commercial culture was restricted to the comfortable classes. Working-class or African-American children even in 1900 were frequently finished with childhood by age ten. And many American children, especially in rural areas, had few manufactured toys, books, or other goods. These children used cans for "footballs" and played games like hopscotch, preserving traditional games and songs for generations. Still, the long-term trend was clear: when children were removed from the labor market, they became an essential part of a new market–the market of consumers–as parents spent their money to express the "pricelessness" of their children. By the 1910s, child experts began to advocate the weekly allowance to teach money management, but also to grant the child the right to "little pleasures" of personally selected trinkets, toys, or candy. Ads in children's magazines that invoked boys' longings for air rifles, bicycles, and toy trains insisted that children knew best in choosing the right purchases. While girls' access to ad-driven consumer culture lagged behind boys', they too connected to the emerging consumer culture when they made "paper dolls" from their mothers' fashion magazine ads. Parents also gave daughters dolls that featured store-bought and fashionable clothing sets. This was in contrast to nineteenth-century "sewing dolls" that required the girl to learn how to make her doll's own clothes. In any case, dolls, like many other aspects of children's play culture, were increasingly marketed directly to children rather than sold to parents via adult-oriented magazine ads and catalogs, as in the past.
While the Great Depression and war years slowed this process, the post-1945 baby boom created instant markets for toys and layettes. Newfound affluence allowed parents to make their children the focal point for their spending. Despite moralists' complaints, parents gave to children as much to isolate and teach as to indulge them. This seeming contradiction is explained by the fact that many children's products were designed for indoor home use (such as games, books, records) and thus provided adults with the means to monitor their young and to give them enjoyable alternatives to wandering the streets.
Commercialization of Holidays
Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, children's consumer culture remained closely linked to traditional seasonal rituals, even as they were commercialized. Holidays, once associated with community identity and the reversal of authority roles, gradually became times of celebrating childhood and "gifting" children. In the United States, Christmas, long either ignored for reasons of religious purity or enjoyed in boisterous communal exchanges of food and drink, was identified with childhood and consumer goods by the mid-nineteenth century. The young symbolized the intimacy and innocence of family against the increasingly impersonal society that surrounded it. The child became a visible reminder of the adult's own youth and the hope of the future. In effect, money earned in the market was transformed through the child's presents into a sentiment of family life. Gradually, Santa Claus became the symbol of unrestricted giving to children. The story of his home at the North Pole, where elves, not sweatshop workers, made the toys, disguised the market origins of these gifts.
Other holidays, especially Halloween, long associated with rough communal practices like vandalism and intimidating demands for food and drink, were tamed when they were "given" to children in trick-or-treating in the late 1930s, a late tradition that stimulated the candy industry in the United States. Vacations too became an occasion for spending around and for children. Seasonal gifts of ice cream cones in the 1900s broadened to family vacations by the 1950s. Disneyland (opened in 1955) transformed the plebeian amusement park, which had been mostly patronized by young singles, into a middle-class family rite of passage, a setting for parent–child bonding through spending on rides and souvenirs.
Children's Control of Spending
Spending for children gradually became spending by children. In the nineteenth century, candy and small playthings and cheap novelties were available on the street to older children, and the introduction of manufactured candy bars and soda in the 1890s further increased the range of children's expressive spending. Children's demands, fueled by exposure to ads and store displays, helped shape consumer decisions, and merchandisers had learned by the 1910s that it was relatively easy to sell to the child who was not constrained by experience. Few children were able to purchase toys with their own money. But toy and candy companies recognized that children could influence parents' spending, and from the 1910s ads in children's magazines often brazenly encouraged this. Moreover, merchandisers relied upon children to teach their old-fashioned parents about new household products.
Media played a major role in shaping children's consumer culture, beginning with illustrated stories and comic strips which introduced characters whose images appeared in dolls, games, and toys from the 1890s. This process accelerated with sound movies. In the 1930s, Disney characters from the cartoons were pictured or embodied in thousands of dolls, toys, lamps, watches, and toothbrushes. By 1937, Disney had mastered the art of tie-in marketing by selling Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs merchandise even before the movie appeared. By the early 1930s, radio advertisers in children's programs used premiums of toys and other novelties to increase sales of food and household products. Still, merchandisers were very careful not to offend parents by advertising for toys or sweets directly to children. Repeatedly moralists tried to ban children from the new commercial media. Beginning in 1909, city and state governments prohibited movies deemed dangerous to children and even banned children from exhibition halls. In reaction to violence and sexuality in comic books, moralists attempted to censor or even ban certain types of these books in the early 1950s.
Children increasingly were targeted after World War II when children's marketing specialists like Eugene Gilbert realized their potential spending power. Cereal makers found profit in sugared cereals designed for the childish sweet tooth and package designers learned to make shampoo and other containers in the shape of cartoon characters to attract the child's eye. Most important, television became a pipeline into the child's imagination when advertisers found that children responded to ads by the age of three, thus separating the parent's consumer culture from the child's. With the debut of the Mickey Mouse Club in 1955, cereal and toy ads began to be designed especially for children, leading to a continuous marketing barrage. By the second half of the 1960s, it is estimated that as a group children were annually spending two billion dollars on their own and influencing billions more in parental spending.
Childhood became linked with a vast interconnected industry built on licensed characters that encompassed movies, TV shows, video games, toys, and clothing. Moviemakers often joined forces with toy and fast food companies to offer novelty toys in fast food meals, making the commercial fad a nearly continuous part of childhood. Video games, in the mid-1970s directed toward teens and young adults, were marketed to children in the late 1970s with Atari, and by Nintendo and others by the late 1980s. Media-generated marketing to children created "additive" consumption, where the young were encouraged to accumulate whole "sets" of dolls, toys, books, and videos. This marketing became ever more sophisticated with the Star Wars trilogy (1977–1983). TV cartoon series based on toy and doll lines proliferated in the 1980s.
Children's goods became part of a new era of fast capitalism–the increasingly rapid shift from one product line to another on a virtually global scale. Toys and other children's products functioned less as vehicles connecting generations or linking past and future in the way that parental gifts to children once had done. Parents and other adults complained about an ephemeral consumer culture that took time from developmental activities, isolated children from reality in a fantasy world of fun, and seemed to expose the young prematurely to sex and violence. But increasingly, children's consumer culture was part of a separate fantasy world, which children and the merchandisers alone understood and which was designed to stimulate unending desire for more goods– even as it provided children with a measure of autonomy.
See also: Advertising; Child Stars; Economics and Children in Western Societies: The Consumer Economy; Indoor Games; Media, Childhood and the; Television; Theories of Childhood .
Buckingham, David. 2000. After the Death of Childhood: Growing Up in the Age of Electronic Media. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
Cross, Gary. 1997. Kids' Stuff: Toys and the Changing World of American Childhood. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Gillis, John. 1996. A World of Their Own Making: Myth, Ritual, and the Quest for Family Values. New York: Basic Books.
Jenkins, Henry. 1998. Children's Culture Reader. New York: New York University Press.
Nasaw, David. 1986. Children of the City: At Work and at Play. New York: Oxford University Press.
Seiter, Ellen. 1993. Sold Separately: Children and Parents in Consumer Culture. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Zelizer, Viviana. 1985. Pricing the Priceless Child. New York: Basic Books.
"Consumer Culture." Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 19, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/children/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/consumer-culture
"Consumer Culture." Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society. . Retrieved July 19, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/children/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/consumer-culture
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