Mass Marketing

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Between 1870 and 1920 many of the economic institutions and business practices central to a mass-market society began to restructure American society. These included national advertising, newspaper advertising, advertising agencies, market research, brand names, trademarks, department stores, sales and bargains, mail-order catalogs, chain stores, franchises, and the commercializing of culture.


A key factor in the development of a mass-market society was the production of masses of goods that could be sold cheaply. By the second half of the nineteenth century large companies had amassed enough wealth (capital) to buy new technologically advanced machines for large-scale manufacturing, and new technology made possible the speedy, continuous factory production of goods. The period's emphasis on mechanization, systematization, and efficiency is apparent in Daniel Edward Ryan's Human Proportions in Growth (1880), which spurred the standardization of clothing sizes for men and boys, and in Frederick W. Taylor's The Principles of Scientific Management (1911), which advised managers how to regulate the time and motion of workers to increase their productivity. Mass production also involved the manufacturing of a greater variety of products. Once homemade, items such as soup, breakfast cereal, and baby food became prepackaged convenience foods. A range of new products also appeared, from Levi Strauss's denim pants and King Gillette's disposable safety razor to cameras, chewing gum, barbed wire, bicycles, telephones, electric lighting, household appliances, and the automobile.

The mass market was also fueled by a rapidly growing population and shifting demographics that supplied masses of consumers and factory workers. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the population of the United States nearly doubled between 1870 and 1890, reaching 62.1 million by 1890. The large influx of immigrants contributed cheap labor, and many Americans left farms for the cities, furthering the transformation of Americans from producers of the goods they used into consumers who bought food, clothing, and household items.

Mass-market growth especially depended on the availability and promotion of mass-produced goods. The vast national railroad system, along with inventions such as the refrigerator train car and electrical power, spurred mass-market growth, reaching out to rural communities and creating a national market with national selling now dominating local and regional selling. Partly in response to industrial capitalism's problems of overproduction and competition, the big manufacturing corporations created national distribution networks to control the distribution and selling of their goods. Many firms became vertically integrated companies, encompassing all the stages of production and distribution of their products. For example, Sherwin-Williams Paint Company owned its own smelters and plants for making oil, chemicals, colors, and cans as well as its own retail stores.


In the 1850s Nathaniel Hawthorne had deplored the women writers who were making a living by the sale of their popular novels. After the Civil War, the professionalization of literature and American writers' negotiations with the marketplace intensified. The novelist, critic, and editor of the Atlantic Monthly William Dean Howells (1837–1920), in his essay "The Man of Letters as a Man of Business" (1902), pondered literature's relationship to the powerful commercializing forces reorganizing American society. Writers contemplated the questions, Is literature a commodity like soap? Or is literature art that transcends the sordid forces of the marketplace? Similarly, literary critics today probe the relationship between late-nineteenth-century literature and the marketplace. Whereas Marxist critics such as Richard Wightman Fox and T. J. Jackson Lears assert that the literature of this period mainly critiques (stands in opposition to) the emerging mass-market society, the New Historicist critic Walter Benn Michaels argues that these realist and naturalist texts exemplify (remain thoroughly embedded in and enact the principles of ) the market. Nevertheless, most literary criticism of late-nineteenth-century texts agrees that this literature was profoundly shaped by the inescapable pervasiveness of the marketplace in American life. Obliquely and overtly, these novels examine ethics, social relationships, human identity, and the idea of the self in a mass-market, consumer-capitalist society.

Many texts of the period question the way mass-market growth brought convenience and comfort to many Americans while undermining American ideals of democracy and equality through deepening class divisions. For example, some texts explored how the class of capitalists and corporate leaders amassed more wealth through their control over production (e.g., coal mines, cotton factories, railroads) and economically reorganized society, creating a class of wage-earning workers and employing and enlisting a middle class of managers and professionals. The early realist text Life in the Iron Mills (1861) by Rebecca Harding Davis portrays the exploitive long hours, miserable conditions, low wages, and soul-deadening mechanical work of industrial laborers. A number of novels of the post–Civil War period continue this probing of the working class's contribution to mass production. Set in the manufacturing towns of New England, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps's novel The Silent Partner (1871), William Dean Howells's Annie Kilburn (1889), and Mary Wilkins Freeman's A Portion of Labor (1901) depict working-class women and women's work, the problems of capitalism, and issues of class and social responsibility. Other novels portray women workers in the garment, shoe, and hat sweatshops in New York City and Chicago, among them Stephen Crane's Maggie, A Girl of the Streets (1893), Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie (1900), Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth (1905), and Abraham Cahan's The Rise of David Levinsky (1917). Like Abraham Cahan, Upton Sinclair focuses on immigrant laborers in his novel The Jungle (1906). This text's effort to expose the deadly living and working conditions of the immigrants in Chicago's stockyards and meatpacking factories was co-opted by the consumer movement's campaign for protective legislation and led to the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.

Some writers of the period astutely analyze the way that gender and the elite class were embroiled in production and consumption. In Women and Economics (1898), Charlotte Perkins Gilman protests women's economic dependence on men and marriage, emphasizes the importance of "free productive expression" (p. 117), and advocates freeing women from their roles as nonproductive consumers. In his book The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), the sociologist Thorstein Veblen criticizes the leisure class for its detachment from all useful employment and for women's role as public consumers of their husbands' wealth. Originating the phrase "conspicuous consumption," Veblen describes a social hierarchy in which patterns of consumption signal social status, with the lower classes seeking to emulate the showy, extravagant consumption of the elite class. More subtly than these theoretical texts, some of Henry James's novels, featuring main characters who are the products of American entrepreneurial success, represent dramas of perception, identity, sexuality, social class, and newly made American money (The American, 1877; Daisy Miller, 1879; The Ambassadors, 1903). For the genteel but financially insecure Lily Bart, Edith Wharton's main character in The House of Mirth, marriage itself is a market, and women's beauty, reputation, and sexuality are risky stocks, subject to rapid depreciation.

Still other texts explore questions of human agency in a world of increasing mechanization, glamorous and proliferating materialism, and rapid urbanization. William Dean Howells's novels The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885) and A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890) probe the relationship between moneymaking and self-making as well as the ethical and moral problems of conducting business in a society dominated by competition and stock market speculation. Frank Norris's novels The Octopus (1901) and The Pit (1903) portray uncontrollable market forces and corporations (the all-powerful railroads and the Chicago commodity market) destroying individuals, marriages, and small farms. Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie depicts the relationship between image, status, and personality in cities selling everything from labor to fashion to amusement. His novel The Financier (1912) focuses on the speculative making and selling of money itself.

In this passage from his first novel, Sister Carrie (1900), Theodore Dreiser (1871–1945) captures the psychological impact of department stores on women consumers in turn-of-the-century America. Using words such as "mood," "lured by desire," "woman's heart warm with desire," "rich reverie," "greatest attraction," "delighted," and "satisfied," he makes readers identify with his character's emotional state as she feels the seductive power of the fine goods for sale in the department store. He also suggests the concrete reality and almost magical, transformative power of things in contrast to the fluidity of the self in a world dominated by materialism and market forces.

There is nothing in this world more delightful than that middle state in which we mentally balance at times, possessed of the means, lured by desire, and yet deterred by conscience or want of decision. When Carrie began wandering around the store amid the fine displays she was in this mood. Her original experience in this same place had given her a high opinion of its merits. Now she paused at each individual bit of finery, where before she had hurried on. Her woman's heart was warm with desire for them. How would she look in this, how charming that would make her! She came upon the corset counter and paused in rich reverie as she noted the dainty concoctions of colour and lace there displayed. If she would only make up her mind, she could have one of those now. She lingered in the jewelry department. She saw the earrings, the bracelets, the pins, the chains. What would she not have given if she could have had them all! She would look fine too, if only she had some of these things.

The jackets were the greatest attraction. When she entered the store, she already had her heart fixed upon the peculiar little tan jacket with large mother-of-pearl buttons which was all the rage that fall. Still she delighted to convince herself that there was nothing she would like better. She went about among the glass cases and racks where these things were displayed, and satisfied herself that the one she thought of was the proper one. All the time she wavered in mind, now persuading herself that she could buy it right away if she chose, now recalling to herself the actual condition.

Dreiser, Sister Carrie, pp. 54–55.

Growing out of a society that considered the captains of industry its popular heroes, texts like Horatio Alger Jr.'s Ragged Dick; or, Street Life in New York (1867) and the Baptist minister Russell H. Conwell's famous lecture "Acre of Diamonds" (1890) celebrate the opportunity and responsibility to make the male self through making money. Other texts register their authors' deep concern over the corrupt materialism and economic and social inequities of industrial capitalism. In The Gilded Age (1873), Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner satirize democracy's compromising entanglement with buying, promoting, and getting rich. In Looking Backward (1888), Edward Bellamy's utopian social reform novel, he proposes an equalizing of consumer comforts. He imagines political socialism as a means to solve industrial capitalism's problems of poverty, unemployment, strikes, overproduction, and child labor. Still other writers of this period portray mass production's devitalizing of rural areas. Edith Wharton's Summer (1917) and Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio (1919) examine identity, gender, and sexuality in communities marginalized by migration to the cities.


Although colonial American newspapers had been packed with advertisements, advertising achieved its real power and prominence after 1870. Was advertising a universally useful, inevitable outgrowth of mass-production expansion? Or was it a conspiratorial, manipulative scheme of the big companies and corporate leaders to brainwash the masses into a life of consumption? The most reasonable interpretations of advertising deny that advertising was a monolithic force yet identify the corporate elite as the chief beneficiaries of advertising and acknowledge that advertising functioned as a primary instrument in the transformation from industrial to consumer capitalism.

Between 1870 and 1900, in order to create and shape new markets for the proliferation of new products, advertising had to achieve multiple goals: (1) overcoming Americans' basic distrust of ads, a skepticism nurtured by years of fraudulent cure-alls and tonics; (2) finding personal appeals to dispel Americans' resistance to distant, unfamiliar, and disembodied sellers; and (3) increasing Americans' willingness to spend money by portraying shopping as pleasurable.

Trademarks and brand names created new relationships between mass-marketed products and consumers. Institutionalizing trademarks and brand names enabled companies to stabilize competition by creating market niches and dividing up the market. Most important, through trademarks and brand names, big, nebulous companies became embodied, solidified their identities and lodged them in consumers' minds, enhanced their reputations, and cultivated ongoing connections with their consumers. Trademarks and brand names promised to deliver familiar quality, the same Ivory Soap or Budweiser Beer with every purchase. The historian Daniel J. Boorstin claims that trademarks and brand names helped to unify the nation in thousands of "consumption communities" (p. 90) composed of people loosely connected by their loyalty to specific products. The hundredfold increase in trademarks registered with the U.S. patent office between 1880 and 1906 (roughly from 120 to over 10,000) testifies to the success of these strategies.

As advertising itself became a big business and a profession between the 1870s and 1900, advertising departments and the modern advertising agency emerged. Mid-nineteenth-century agents had mainly bought columns and pages in newspapers from the publishers and sold that space to companies. Eventually advertising agents began investigating who was buying particular products and which newspapers and magazines reached which consumers (early market research with attention to consumers' incomes and class). They planned campaigns and themes for ads, determined formats and designs, and wrote advertising copy. Two of the major full-service agencies of this period were J. Walter Thompson and N. W. Ayer.

One dominant trend in the advertising of this period was the increase in size and the display quality of ads. Around mid-century, the column and page space devoted to advertising was governed by a number of constraints: the cost of paper, which forced the use of tiny type (usually 5 1/2 point, called the agate rule) for ads, and the technical difficulty of spreading an item over several columns. Also, publishers believed that advertisers should appeal to customers through the content of their ads, not through competitive displays (what Boorstin calls "typographical democracy" [p. 139]). Efforts to break through these constraints pushed type itself toward visual display. The layout of type was used to form shapes and larger letters. Historians identify the year 1879 as the moment when newspapers and magazines began showing full-page ads.

In addition to the literal enlargement of ads, the number of ads in public spaces increased. Newspapers and magazines discovered that advertising could finance their production costs, thus lowering the magazines' prices for readers, and these publications began devoting increasing numbers of pages to ads. For example, by 1900 new mass circulation magazines such as McClure's Magazine and Munsey's as well as Century Magazine, Harper's, Atlantic Monthly, and Cosmopolitan featured around one hundred pages of ads. Historians of advertising point out that these mass-circulation magazines brought the marketplace right into the home, breaking down the barrier between public and private spheres. The 1870s to the 1890s also saw the increasing presence of trade cards, posters, billboards, and ads on barns, on sides of vehicles, and inside streetcars.

Ads, which began appearing everywhere, gained appeal and persuasiveness, partly by becoming increasingly visual. Advertising began to create a pictorial rhetoric with images conjuring up associations with products. For instance, to convey the gentleness of their new Ivory Soap, Proctor and Gamble commissioned artists to draw framable-quality pictures of babies and children. Other companies discovered the power of special, memorable symbols or icons such as Goodyear's winged foot and Morton Salt's girl with the umbrella. By the 1890s, engravings were replaced by half-tone reproductions of photographs.

Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, advertising and consumer capitalism became installed in American consciousness and daily living through innovative appeals and new consumer-friendly merchandizing. In his book Great American Brands: The Success Formulas That Made Them Famous (1981), David Powers Cleary traces some of these successes and marketing firsts. Coca-Cola, registered as a trademark in 1893, succeeded in becoming a symbol of the pleasurable American life and the most recognized product in the world, in part through its classic bottle packaging and its various souvenir gifts: signs, fans, calendars, clocks, and serving trays. Anheuser-Busch cultivated a friendly relationship with consumers by inviting the public to visit its brewery. Advertisers also employed many methods: using jingles and repetition, arousing curiosity, and giving reasons to buy the product.

Advertising sought to mold behavior—to make Americans buy into the idea that the good life was, in the social historian Thomas J. Schlereth's words, the "goods life" (p. 141)—and to cultivate the belief that products would meet their psychological needs. The scholar and critic Ellen Gruby Garvey notes that by the beginning of the twentieth century advertising had fully adopted its paradoxical message: informing consumers how to cultivate their individuality and be uniquely themselves by purchasing mass-produced products used by masses of customers. T. J. Jackson Lears argues that early-twentieth-century advertising capitalized on people's sense of insulation from vital experience and loss of autonomy created by the mass market, the powerful presence of large, bureaucratic corporations, and disorienting urbanization. Playing to these psychological needs, advertising offered a "therapeutic promise of a richer, fuller life," of self-realization, "of fulfillment through consumption" (p. 18).

Besides seeking to shape a consumer consciousness, advertising adeptly engaged in constructing women consumers and white middle-class culture. Schlereth notes that by 1915, women accounted for 90 percent of all consumer spending. For example, realizing the importance of women consumers, the Bissell Carpet Sweeper Company opted to describe the beauty of the sweeper rather than explain its mechanics. Campbell's Soup pioneered trolley car advertising in 1899, believing that women especially would notice these ads. Ads also reinforced class identity by using race. Richard Ohmann and other advertising critics have pointed out how ads employed stereotypical figures of happy African American servants and children (Aunt Jemima of pancake fame and the black children in Knox's Gelatin ads) to uphold the white middle class by drawing on old social values, thus reinforcing the period's racist blindness to the real social presence of African Americans.


The new institution of the department store became another way to glamorize consumption and take advantage of the opportunities created by mass productivity. Department stores, a new institution around mid-century in Paris and London as well as America, played key roles in changing people's habits from shopping locally within a few miles of their homes to going to large centers of consumption in cities, in making exposure to a huge assortment of goods available to all classes of people, and in legitimizing women's appearance in the public sphere. The quintessential novel of women's consumption and the new phenomenon of department stores is the French naturalist Émile Zola's Au Bonheur des dames (The Ladies' Paradise, 1883). Similarly, in Sister Carrie (1900), Theodore Dreiser portrays his main character's seduction by the material splendor of Chicago's department stores. Admiring and desiring the beautiful, fashionable corsets, earrings, and jackets on display, Carrie Meeber, who has recently moved from a small town to find work in Chicago, dreams of transforming herself through acquiring these things.

Besides the availability of mass-produced, ready-made clothes and the growth of cities, certain architectural and technological developments contributed to the burgeoning of department stores. The size, space, and splendor of these stores depended on the engineering and architectural ability to construct huge open spaces, where many different departments could display a rich array of goods, and on the manufacturing of large panes of glass for display windows to show off merchandise and attract buyers. Elevators enabled customers and merchandise to move from floor to floor within these large buildings, and electric streetcars (in the 1890s) brought consumers into the downtown districts of cities. Finally, newspaper advertising lured people to come to see and buy the marvelous goods. Although the name "department store" did not gain common currency until the 1890s, between the 1860s and 1900 department stores appeared in major cities throughout the country. In New York, R. H. Macy's opened in 1858, Lord & Taylor built its big marble store in 1860, and A. T. Stewart built his Cast Iron Palace in 1862. John Wanamaker's Grand Depot opened in Philadelphia in 1877, and Marshall Field opened in Chicago in 1882.

Department stores attracted consumers of all classes through many new retailing practices familiar to us today: buying in volume directly from manufacturers; conveniently selling in one store a huge array of items from household wares and home furnishings to all kinds of clothing; offering low, fixed prices (instead of the earlier practice of bargaining); offering money-back guarantees, credit, and installment buying (some stores demanded cash only); and having bargain basements and special sales.

Department stores transformed consumption by publicizing, popularizing, democratizing, sanctioning, and glorifying it. With their imposing structures, built around the same time as the large metropolitan museums, department stores were thought of as "Palaces of Consumption," and their magnificence endowed shopping with public value and helped make it socially acceptable (Boorstin, p. 101). Window shopping—available to all classes of people—became a favorite urban activity. The late-nineteenth-century department stores also glamorized shopping by offering extra services that particularly appealed to women, such as restrooms with maids, restaurants and tea rooms, libraries, nurseries, writing rooms with desks and paper, and organ music, post offices, and ticket agencies. Richard Ohmann notes that Macy's called itself a "shopping resort" (p. 68). Furthermore, department stores became important forces in setting women's fashions, offering seasonal clothing and staging social events like fashion shows and holiday pageants and parades. In addition, department stores created new jobs. Women salespersons were found to be more successful at dealing with the numerous women customers. The experience of department store sales representatives is portrayed in Edna Ferber's novel Emma McChesney and Co. (1915). Other new jobs in department stores were hired floorwalkers (supervisors of salespeople and customer interactions), merchandising managers, buyers, and advertising managers.


Mass manufacturing also made possible the development of mail-order businesses. This retail institution, with its catalog pages of enticing products, brought the convenience, affordability, and abundance of mass goods to rural inhabitants and functioned as another nationalizing force. In the 1870s many Americans in the mideastern and midwestern states still lived on widely separated homesteads some distance even from towns. These farmers bartered their farm products for the household, clothing, and farming goods that they could not make and bought on long-term credit from the few available country stores. Because these goods came from wholesalers through jobbers through retailers, each of whom needed to make a profit, rural customers paid marked-up prices for the minimal selection of goods available to them. These problems and the needs of rural Americans became apparent to a young traveling dry goods salesman, Montgomery Ward, in the 1860s. Ward also envisioned the market potential of selling directly, and therefore more cheaply, to rural customers through a mail-order business whose stock would be bought from city manufacturers in large quantities. Rural customers would pay in cash upon delivery. In 1872 Ward started his first mail-order business by renting a shipping room in Chicago and sending a one-page list of 103 items out to the Grangers, members of the National Grange of the Patrons of Husbandry, a widespread farmers' organization.

Montgomery Ward's mail-order business and, soon after, Richard W. Sears's similar company grew rapidly. Catalog pages and items multiplied with each new volume, with woodcuts of the products, four-color illustrations, and eventually half-tone photographs of live models added to what would become a bound volume of well over five hundred pages with an index. Sears started his mail-order sales of watches in 1886 in Minneapolis and established Sears, Roebuck and Company in 1893 (with A. C. Roebuck). Most historians suggest that Sears was driven more by ingenuity and creative opportunism than Ward. Nevertheless, both of the two giant mail-order businesses catered to the needs of rural consumers, and by the mid-1890s the immensely profitable sales of both companies (in the millions) continued to increase steadily, necessitating movement to larger warehouses. Other mail-order companies also saw the market potential and began selling by mail. This mail-order retailing was aided substantially by the establishment of rural free delivery in 1896, enabling mail to be delivered directly to farmers, not to the nearest towns, and by parcel post in 1913. Both these communication services also augmented the unifying and nationalizing effects of mail-order sales, in part by enhancing the quality of roads.

Ward's and Sears's mail-order companies sold just about everything: clothing, underwear, coats, shoes, and hats; musical instruments; cutlery and jewelry; saddles and harnesses; sewing machines; farm machines (such as pumps and threshers); barbed wire; windmills and steel for the towers; and eventually telephones, electric fans, and doorbells. These mail-order companies also promoted the products of new technology and scientific advance such as electrical appliances and aluminum kitchenware. By the turn of the century Ward and Sears were even selling ready-to-assemble houses, although Sears quickly dominated this market. Between 1908 and 1940 Sears's Modern Home Department—through its special catalog Book of Modern Homes and Building Plans—sold homes in 240 designs, ranging from two-room cottages to eight- to ten-room bungalows to mansions.

The success of mail-order retailing provoked the conflict between national businesses—which could offer consumers a much bigger selection of items at much lower prices—and local businesses, exemplifying the national market's takeover of local and regional selling. Local merchants tried to fight mail-order competition by encouraging customers to bring in and burn their catalogs; in response, mail-order businesses began to send their catalogs in unmarked packages.

Ward and Sears fully grasped the multiple goals of their catalogs: displaying and promoting the merchandise; explaining how the business saved customers money (no salesmen, no costly displays, direct dealing with manufacturing); educating customers about procedures for buying items in the catalog; and most of all, winning the consumers' confidence in unseen and unknown city sellers and their merchandise. Mail-order retailers also needed to reconcile customers to standardized sizing of clothing. To implement all these social changes, Ward and Sears employed frank, direct, honest, instructive language that avoided regionalisms and that standardized words. Both Ward and Sears emphasized customer satisfaction and offered money-back guarantees and paid expenses for returned items. So powerful and important did the mail-order catalogs become in increasing the standard of living for rural Americans, especially, and in homogenizing and shaping consumer desires that they came to be known as "The Wish Book" and "The Farmer's Bible" (Schroeder, p. 74) and, as Boorstin notes, were often used in schools "to teach, writing, arithmetic, and geography" (p. 129). By the early 1900s Ward and Sears were distributing millions of catalogs each year. Edna Ferber's novel Fanny Herself (1917) captures some of the cultural and social importance of mail-order businesses.


Other new retail institutions of national marketing were the chain store and the franchise, which became popular with customers of a lower income level than most department store customers. Often appearing in smaller towns than department stores, chain stores, like the mail-order companies, operated by buying products in large quantity and selling them cheaply. Franchises gave certain stores monopolies on particular products and prices. One of the first chain stores, the Great American Tea Company, was started in New York in 1859 by George Gilman and George Hartford and sold coffee, condensed milk, spices, tea, and baking powder. By 1869 it became the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company (later known as A&P), and by 1880 it had around one hundred stores and eventually manufactured its own products. Another big chain, F. W. Woolworth, a variety store, also had its beginning in the 1870s. Woolworth's based its marketing on the premise that customers would buy many items (for example, buttonhooks or tin pans) that they did not immediately need if the items were priced low enough, at five and ten cents. Thomas Schlereth notes that by 1911 Woolworth's had over three hundred nickel and dime stores worldwide. Other successful chain stores launched between 1870 and 1920 included Grand Union, Jewel Tea, and Piggly Wiggly. Like the mail-order companies with which they competed, chain stores met with opposition from local merchants, who protested that chain stores ruined the sense of community and neighborhood.


Historians, among them Stephen Nissenbaum, have asserted that Christmas was constructed as a holiday in the early nineteenth century by the middle and upper classes in New York. In his book The Battle for Christmas, Nissenbaum writes that the middle and upper classes, under the leadership of a group of elite intellectuals including Washington Irving, sought to "domesticate" Christmas, to quell some of the remaining class disorder, drinking, revelry, and violence that the Puritans had objected to, and to make it a family celebration, with parents giving gifts to their children. These historians cite some of the literary texts produced by this group as instrumental in this social and cultural project of reshaping the Christmas holiday. Washington Irving's History of New York (1809) and The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819–1820) mention Christmas carolers as well as St. Nicholas. Clement Moore's "A Visit from St. Nicholas," first published in 1823 in the Troy, New York, Sentinel and later illustrated and reprinted regularly as "Twas the Night before Christmas," features the early American folklore version of St. Nicholas. James Fenimore Cooper's novel The Pioneers (1823) also includes St. Nicholas. Starting in 1863, the artist and cartoonist Thomas Nast (1840–1902) gave Santa Claus a popular physical form and fleshed out his popular identity in his Christmas illustrations and cartoons for Harper's Weekly. Through the 1880s Nast's cartoons visually transformed St. Nicholas, or Santa Claus, as he came to be known in America, from a holy bishop to the small "jolly old elf" of Moore's story poem to the plump, bushy-bearded magical rewarder of children. The ongoing cultural investment in this popular conception of Santa Claus can be seen in the well-known editorial in the New York Sun written by Francis P. Church and first published on 21 September 1897. In this piece, "Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus!" Church affirms a cultural tradition and assures a little girl that Santa is, and always will be, real. Another writer who popularized Christmas while he addressed the conflict between commercial values and humanitarian Christian values during the Victorian period was Charles Dickens with his numerous Christmas novellas, including his most famous, The Chimes (1840) and A Christmas Carol (1843).

In the latter half of the nineteenth century this rich and somewhat confused mixture of Christmas folklore, religious symbols and rituals, and cultural practices became valuable to department stores, advertisers, and mail-order businesses in their efforts to make Christmas commercially profitable. Santa Claus became a particularly useful cultural symbol. Santa Claus could be used to sell goods, indeed to legitimize buying. Nissenbaum suggests that Santa Claus minimized middle-class guilt over buying and indulgence. Some of the commercial practices that developed during this period are very familiar today. The department stores discovered the commercial potential of using Christmas themes in elaborately decorated and lighted window displays. They employed parades like Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade to launch the Christmas buying season, began using in-store Santa Clauses (by 1914 New York City had a Santa Claus Association to prepare men for this role), and stayed open late during the several weeks before Christmas. Besides Santa Claus, the Christmas tree, with its German and northern European origins, became a commercially useful Christmas symbol. Woolworth's, particularly, popularized the Christmas tree by promoting Christmas tree decorations in the 1880s, and soon there was a thriving business in both real and synthetic Christmas trees. The commercial opportunism surrounding Christmas is best epitomized by F. W. Woolworth's advice to his store managers in 1891 when he called Christmas "our harvest time" and told them to "make it pay" (Erb, p. 27).


Between the Civil War and World War I, the mass marketplace reconfigured American life. In his book American Realism, the literary critic Eric Sundquist argues that American writers tried "to master a bewildering society that seemed always, in turn, to be mastering them" (p. 7). In the decades that followed, American writers continued wrestling with authenticity, fragmentation, powerlessness, and power in the full-blown consumer culture of America's mass-market society.

see alsoBanking and Finance; Sister Carrie; The Theory of the Leisure Class; Wealth; Women and Economics


Primary Works

Dreiser, Theodore. Sister Carrie. 1900. New York: Bantam Classic, 1972.

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. Women and Economics. 1898. Edited by Carl N. Degler. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1966.

Veblen, Thorstein. The Theory of the Leisure Class. 1899. New York: Penguin, 1967.

Secondary Works

Boorstin, Daniel J. The Americans: The Democratic Experience. New York: Random House, 1973.

Borus, Daniel H. Writing Realism: Howells, James, and Norris in the Mass Market. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989.

Cleary, David Powers. Great American Brands: The Success Formulas That Made Them Famous. New York: Fairchild, 1981.

Cohn, David L. The Good Old Days: A History of American Morals and Manners As Seen through the Sears, Roebuck Catalogs 1905 to the Present. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1940.

Emmet, Boris, and John E. Jeuck. Catalogues and Counters: A History of Sears, Roebuck and Company. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1950.

Erb, Lyle C. "The Marketing of Christmas: A History." Public Relations Quarterly (fall 1985): 24–28.

Ewen, Stuart. Captains of Consciousness: Advertising and the Social Roots of the Consumer Culture. New York: Basic, 1976.

Garvey, Ellen Gruber. The Adman in the Parlor: Magazines and the Gendering of Consumer Culture, 1880s to 1910s. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Glickman, Lawrence B., ed. Consumer Society in American History: A Reader. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1999.

Horsley, Richard, and James Tracy. Christmas Unwrapped: Consumerism, Christ, and Culture. Harrisburg, Pa.: Trinity Press International, 2001.

Latham, Frank B. 1872–1972: A Century of Serving Consumers. The Story of Montgomery Ward. Chicago: Montgomery Ward & Co., 1972.

Lears, T. J. Jackson. "From Salvation to Self-Realization: Advertising and the Therapeutic Roots of the Consumer Culture, 1880–1930." In The Culture of Consumption: Critical Essays in American History 1880–1980, edited by Richard Wightman Fox and T. J. Jackson Lears, pp. 3–38. New York: Pantheon, 1983.

Michaels, Walter Benn. The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.

Nissenbaum, Stephen. The Battle for Christmas: A Cultural History of America's Most Cherished Holiday. New York: Vintage, 1996.

Ohmann, Richard. Selling Culture: Magazines, Markets, and Class at the Turn of the Century. New York: Verso, 1996.

Schlereth, Thomas J. Victorian America: Transformations in Everyday Life, 1876–1915. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.

Schroeder, Fred E. H. "Semi-Annual Installment on the American Dream: The Wish Book as Popular Icon." In Icons of Popular Culture, edited by Marshall Fishwick and Ray B. Browne, pp. 73-86. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1970.

Stevenson, Katherine Cole, and H. Ward Jandl. Houses by Mail: A Guide to Houses from Sears, Roebuck and Company. Washington, D.C.: Preservation Press, 1986.

Sundquist, Eric. J., ed. American Realism: New Essays. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982.

Trachtenberg, Alan. The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age. New York: Hill and Wang, 1982.

Weil, Gordon Lee. Sears, Roebuck, U.S.A.: The Great American Catalog Store and How It Grew. Briarcliff Manor, N.Y.: Stein and Day, 1977.

June Johnson Bube