views updated May 21 2018


Gary Cross

Consumerism commonly refers to the unlimited and general desire for purchased goods and services that define self and social position in advanced market societies. Consumerism can also refer to a movement in the defense of the economic and personal needs of buyers of goods and services against dishonest, manipulative, or overly powerful manufacturing, retailing, and financial interests. This second meaning of the word emerged early in the twentieth century and was often associated with the cooperative movement that attempted in Europe to challenge the economic power of conservative retail chains and banks. This essay will concern itself with the first definition.


Europeans have tended to identify consumerism with the Americanization of European economies and culture (for example, the penetration of American soft drink and fast food companies since World War II). This perspective, however, tends to overlook the roots of consumerist attitudes in the longer history of European capitalism and culture. Some modern cultural critics influenced by Theodor Adorno and other members of the Frankfurt School of Social Research understand consumerism as a product of twentieth-century mass production capitalism. According to this theory, manufacturers and retailers with a surfeit of goods in inventory due to new mass production techniques created consumer demand for their wares by manipulating the masses through advertising and display. Insecurities, originating in feelings of cultural inferiority or the traumas of increasingly intense and meaningless work, made the working and lower middle classes especially susceptible to these merchandising appeals.

Increasingly, this view is challenged by historical analysis of earlier expressions of consumerism. While a tiny minority of the rich and powerful have pursued comforts and pleasures and hoarded luxury goods for millennia, the advent of consumerism required sustained and eventually widespread economic growth that occurred only in modern history. The aristocracy in Renaissance Italy and France congregated in the bustling life of urban centers such as Florence, Milan, Lyon, and Paris, where they abandoned warrior values. Following, for example, the dictates of Baldassare Castiglione's Book of the Courtier (1528), some cultivated reputation through the purchase and use of luxuries in the fine arts, dress, and household furnishings. Castiglione's model for "polite society" fit an age when the military prowess of the nobility was growing irrelevant with the development of modern military monarchies and the new gunpowder weapons of cannon and musket. Castiglione's Courtier taught aristocrats and aspiring bourgeois how dress and appearance could define and display individuality within socially acceptable norms. Moreover, close and frequent interaction in court and urban life led to imitation or emulation in the display of wealth and status.

Fashion in clothing and domestic furnishings played a key role. Whereas garment styles were relatively static in the Middle Ages and often marked the social function of the wearer, Renaissance fashion changed more quickly and gave vent to individual expression. Fashion stimulated the clothing industries in Italy and the Low Countries in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and later encouraged the fur trade in North America. While comfort, even in the dwellings of the aristocracy, was minimal and even discouraged by the ascetic tradition in the medieval Catholic Church, Renaissance upper-class home furnishings included such innovations as upholstered chairs, wallpaper, and carpets. Stimulating this new taste for innovative goods was the widening contact of Europeans with the luxuries and products of Asia and the Americas through exploration and trade. European collection of this exotica in "wonder cabinets" and reading about it in "wonder books" helped to create a taste for novelty.

In late-seventeenth-century Netherlands, wealth created by overseas trade, agricultural innovation, and a culture that favored self-restraint and investment led to an "embarrassment of riches" in the words of Simon Schama. Dutch burghers cultivated not only the arts (a form of elite consumerism) but also refined and fashionable domestic furnishings that displayed their social position and wealth. Another preindustrial center for nascent consumerism was in eighteenth-century London. The English capital was noted for its extraordinary size and wealth as a major center for trade and crafts. A "consumer revolution" in fashionable clothing and home furnishings preceded and paralleled the better-known industrial revolution in England. Indeed, demand for status goods stimulated industrialization at least as much as increased output encouraged new consumption.

A nascent consumerism resulted from the trickling down of a wide range of consumer goods and services from the aristocracy to the middle class. Some even touched the upper ranks of working people. Fashion and social emulation moved out of court society and into coffeehouses and pleasure gardens. There, money rather than birth gave the individual an opportunity to participate. Mass distribution of tea and fashionable crockery (through Wedgwood and others) redefined family life, and the cultivation of fashion in women's clothing created an identification of the feminine with the fashionable. Modern ideas about the desirability of the new and the attraction to the "star" performer, which many associate with modern mass marketing, were established in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century commercial cities. Actors, lion tamers, and even healers became well known because they worked in a socially open market like London where information flowed freely. In this context, honor and fame could be obtained by the lowborn, earned by turning themselves into a commodity. The English pleasure gardens located in the London suburbs offered an aspiring middle class access (for a fee) to an experience similar to the private aristocratic gardens. In addition, aristocratic traditions of traveling to inland spas and seaside resorts trickled down to the middle, and eventually working, classes, beginning in the late eighteenth century. These watering places, like the pleasure gardens, offered those with the price of admission a packaged experience and an opportunity to interact with others, discover innovative fashions and products, and emulate trendsetters. Cost and rules of dress and decorum segregated the wealthy from plebeians, but many of the basic features of upper-class seaside resorts filtered down to the less respectable sea spots, like Blackpool, by 1860. A pattern was repeated: aristocratic pleasures and social practices formed a core of a broader consumer culture characterized by personal display and social emulation.

The British cultural historian Colin Campbell has argued that the social origins of consumerism in social imitation and emulation have been overstressed. He finds instead that new romantic attitudes emerged in the late eighteenth century that encouraged an imaginative anticipation of the pleasures and enhancements that new goods would bring the individual. When a new coat or hat, for example, did not produce the expected personal happiness, this disappointment did not temper desire, but only created the need for still more and different goods. For Campbell, a central factor in the development of consumerism is the transition from the desire for more necessities (food and drink, especially) and physical sensation (as in the gluttonous or avaricious sinner of medieval Europe) to the longing for emotional fulfillment in the symbolic meanings of goods.

Probably most important to the explanation of consumerism was simply increased wealth and its distribution. Constraint made sense in a time when the unlimited desire of the rich and powerful led to the exploitation of the many and the horrors of war and conquest. But even a partial and temporary liberation from the fears of food shortages and uncertain housing quickly removed this limit on desire, as can be seen in the often-noted attraction of the poor for luxury—be it in ostentatious clothing or in the form of the new consumer pleasures like tea or chocolate that the London poor adopted instead of more nutritious food or healthful lodgings.

The history of sumptuary laws is particularly revealing. Political and religious authorities found many of the nascent forms of consumerism a threat to social stability and traditional values. Indeed, sumptuary laws restricting luxurious spending peaked during upsurges in fashion in the sixteenth century, when, for example, Venetians and Genoans were prohibited from having extravagant weddings or ordering lavish clothing. The French were allowed only three courses at meals. These laws were intended to rein in desire and display among the rich. Other sumptuary laws were designed to dictate what each social class or occupational group could wear (for example, finding tailors who made lavish dresses for commoners or restricting the use of fur and velvet to the elite). Such laws were supposed to impede another purpose of consumerism—the use of goods to define the social position of their owners (in this case illegitimately, as when the commoner tried to "look" like the aristocracy). Inevitably, consumers circumvented these laws through such tactics as wearing outlawed fabrics in linings or embroidering plain cloth to make it look elegant. The decline of sumptuary laws in the eighteenth century coincided with the softening of religious scruples against luxury, a rejection of privilege (as in the abolition of these laws during the French Revolution), and more positive views of the impact of luxury and consumption upon economic growth.


The nascent consumerism that emerged in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the richest and socially most open corners of Europe produced a wide variety of responses. Bernard de Mandeville's notorious Fable of the Bees (1714) argued that pursuit of luxury was essential to the creation of wealth. Far from condemning materialist desire, Mandeville maintained that individuals should be encouraged to want things so as to create demand and thus expand the work of craftspeople and merchants. This frank embrace of the selfish pursuit of material goods was certainly consistent with an emerging doctrine of unimpeded markets and was, in more subdued terms, embraced by Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, published in 1776. The linkage between the demand for luxury and the expansion of markets, on the one hand, and the growth of capitalist production, on the other, was identified as the foundation of modern capitalism by the twentieth-century German historian Werner Sombart.

Yet Mandeville's ideas contradicted long-held concerns that stimulating desire undermined social stability, economic prudence, and traditional ascetic religious values. Eighteenth-century political economists Arthur Young and Restif de la Bretonne assumed that increased wealth reduced the motivation to work. In particular, when employers paid more than subsistence wages, working people would toil less. In their view, the desire for leisure was greater than the longing for more goods. Moreover, the stoic distinction between natural needs and unnatural wants remained powerful, especially because luxurious consumption seemed to undermine community and rational use of free time. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was only the best known of eighteenth-century thinkers fearful of releasing materialist desire. Misery and inequality, he claimed, came not from deprivation but from the need for things. His ideal republic was an alternative to the endless expansion of the market, offering a timeless community of self-sufficiency and self-imposed simplicity.

By the mid-nineteenth century, after the first wave of industrialization was well underway, a longer view of the problem of expanding needs and economic development was developed. John Stuart Mill anticipated a "stationary state," when economic growth and striving would culminate in a new leisure society. Then a learned class of educators could counteract the egoistic commercial spirit, and time could be devoted to noneconomic pursuits and social solidarity. Karl Marx, like Mill, rejected the utopian primitivism of Rousseau and dreamed of a society of abundance created by industrialization. The revolutionary movement that would end capitalism would also eliminate the profit-driven creation of false needs. It would guarantee instead a rational allocation of material goods for life and the social conditions for self-development. Marx shared with Mill's liberalism a dream of a society of limited and realizable material needs.


The rise of consumerism was not a steady upward climb. Especially in the troubling years of the 1840s, food supplies failed to keep up with population increases, and wages lagged behind productivity in new industries, thus slowing the expansion of consumer demand. Especially during frequent economic crises, the standard of living of the European wage-earning and farming masses declined. However, from the 1860s, consumer desire became more a practical than a theoretical issue as rural incomes rose. Decreasing cost and increased variety of goods introduced a broader population to the attractions of spending. New venues of consumption emerged in shopping districts and department stores in major cities. These retail spaces created crowds and a new intensity of consumer emulation. Shops made goods more accessible by placing them on open shelves and displays (abandoning the need for an appointment to enter a shop or the requirement to seek a clerk's assistance to see and touch goods that formerly were kept out of sight). Department stores, like Bon Marché in Paris (opened in 1852), used visual appeals in display windows and especially luxurious presentations and store furnishings to create longings for new and exciting goods that approximated sexual desire, especially for women.

Like the department store, the great exhibitions also legitimized novelty and desire. London's Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851 pulled together the world's luxuries and technological innovations in a magnificent, often theatrical display that drew millions in a kind of consumerist pilgrimage. The 1851 fair was followed by many others in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in Paris, Barcelona, and Brussels (as well as New York, Chicago, and San Francisco). New consumer products and brand names were introduced at these fairs, teaching the crowd to associate progress and the future with consumer goods like bicycles, cars, and domestic appliances.

As important were emerging entertainment centers in the form of music and dance halls. From the 1850s, music halls in the major cities of Europe sold drinks to large crowds while entertaining them with well-advertised singing and dancing acts. London music halls accommodated fifteen hundred customers, and chains of music halls signed popular troupes of can-can dancers, comedians, and singers to tour. In the 1870s the modern spectator sport emerged with the enclosed stadium and turnstile (1871) for paying customers. Although only 2,000 watched the English football (or soccer) Cup Finals in 1872, by 1885 the crowd reached 10,000; it increased to nearly 101,000 by 1901 and at least 200,000 at the Wembley Cup Final in 1923. Cheap excursion trains made seaside resorts accessible to wage earners by the 1860s, especially in England. More affluent holiday makers withdrew to exclusive resorts like Eastbourne or found refuge from "day trippers" in hotels distinctly separated from the crowd; still more wealthy English went to the pricier seaside towns on the French and Italian Riviera to join the continental elite.

Even if affluence replicated in consumption the class structure of Europe, it still created a dynamic mass entertainment audience. By the 1890s mechanized amusement parks and films captured the coins of the common crowds. Such parks appeared almost simultaneously in Copenhagen, Vienna, and Blackpool. Vastly easing the flow of the plebeian crowd was the introduction of the cheap electric streetcar in the 1890s. The tram freed working-class consumers from exclusive reliance on the neighborhood pub or ethnic fraternal society for leisure and opened their lives to the anonymous pleasures of mass entertainments.

In this context, the endless expansion of mass consumption had become problematic. Did growing affluence mean an endlessly widening desire? What would be the consequences of pleasure "trickling down" to the masses? Neoclassical economic (marginalist) theory was highly ambivalent about the idea of unlimited consumer desire. Developed in the 1870s by William Stanley Jevons of Britain and Léon Walras of France, marginalism shifted the focus of economics from production to consumption. It defined economic value as subjective utility with no necessary ceilings on the quantity of goods that could be desired by anyone. Still, utility shifted from basic biological needs to higher, less immediate ones when primary needs were satisfied. Jevons and others also retained the old idea that higher wages led to new desires not only for goods but also for freedom from work. Even John Maynard Keynes, the economist who taught the twentieth century to stimulate consumer demand in order to create economic growth, also reasserted Mill's vision when he predicted that affluence would bring the satisfaction of absolute needs and thus allow the full flowering of noneconomic interests and passions in leisure.

If late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century educated elites resisted the consumerist notion of limitless material desire, they also were reluctant to accept consumer goods as defining social relationships and personal aspirations. Conservatives were especially concerned about the impact of mass markets on high culture and social stability. Fears of the unrestrained mob had intensified after the French Revolution. Gustave Le Bon's The Crowd (1895) perpetuated these anxieties by insisting that the masses were suggestible and thus susceptible to the manipulation of would-be dictators. While Le Bon anticipated fascism, he also expressed a common fear that mass consumption would unleash undisciplined and frustrating desire. The French sociologist Émile Durkheim believed that ordinary people were incapable of sorting through choices and controlling their longings when tempted by the growing array of goods so tantalizingly showcased in stores. Moral confusion was the inevitable result. For Durkheim, the only solution was to impose constraint on the masses by organizing the consuming crowd into occupational groups and religious communities. The Spanish intellectual José Ortega y Gasset's Revolt of the Masses (1930) argued that new shopping and amusement sections of cities amassed crowds of uneducated but no longer impoverished people. Uprooted from their traditional folk cultures and the control of village clergy and gentry, and yet unprepared to embrace the high culture of the urban elite, these crowds were supposedly lured by the promise of immediate pleasure onto the street. The crowd's economic power swamped cultivated values and institutions, leading to a general decline of the arts and learning. Ortega y Gasset and others, like the English critic F. R. Leavis in his Mass Civilisation and Minority Culture (1930), saw consumer culture as ephemeral, rooted neither in the permanence and conservatism of folk culture nor in the timeless value of high culture.

Early twentieth-century Marxists often shared these conservative understandings of consumerism. The leftist concept of "false consciousness" was similar to the notion of false needs. The Left saw false consciousness as originating in the traumas of industrial work rather than in the cultural inferiority of the masses. But both Left and Right agreed that the wage earner could not resist the passive if sometimes exciting entertainments mass produced by the "culture industry" in movie houses, dance halls, and amusement parks. With theories developed by the Frankfurt school and other Marxist cultural critics from the 1920s, the Left saw the mass consumer market as undermining the potential of individuals and society. It destroyed class consciousness by luring workers into the pursuit of personal comforts and pleasures and by tying them emotionally to bourgeois and nationalist values. One example is the English embrace of chauvinistic themes promoted in popular newspapers and music halls between 1900 and 1914. To the Left, the essential passivity of consumer culture also seemed to eliminate the will of workers to organize and fight for socialism. The direct authority and discipline of the rural lord or industrial employer was no longer necessary in a consumer culture to keep workers subdued. Bourgeois control was maintained indirectly over consciousness through the appeals of consumption. Finally, according to this view, the need to work for the capitalist in order to gain a "false" freedom in consumption disciplined the wage earner to accept the status quo and alienating work.

A few early commentators on mass consumption offered more positive assessments of the emerging age of affluence, even if they continued to recognize a distinction between natural needs and unnatural wants. The French economist Charles Gide (1847– 1932) argued that abundance would bring cultural refinement. But he also stressed the need for consumer education and cooperative control over distribution. In sharp contrast to Durkheim, the French sociologist Jean Gabriel Tarde (1843–1904) believed that when working people purchased fashionable clothes or home furnishings, they were expanding their cultural horizons. Tarde agreed with the American economist Thorstein Veblen (1857–1929) that mass consumption originated in common envy and the desire to buy into the lifestyle of trendsetting elites. But this was more than simple emulation, for it gave the masses a feeling of personal freedom. More important still, this spending resulted in the gradual reduction of the social distance between elites and the common people. Eventually, the rich would even imitate the taste and culture of the masses, leading to a society of shared values. In the long run, the exchange of fashions between social classes and regions would decrease social tensions. The localized and rare pleasures of the traditional village festival would be replaced by the widespread and frequent enjoyment of the night on the town or the Sunday excursion. The new dynamic world of mass consumption might be chaotic, but over time Tarde expected that it would lead to a new, higher civilization.

The German sociologist Georg Simmel (1858–1918) acknowledged that money and the things that it could buy increased personal freedom because consumption freed the individual from constant dependence on employers and an often oppressive folk culture. Keeping up with shifting styles of adornment, display, and entertainment did more than fill empty lives with fleeting pleasures. Such spending met the social as well as ego needs of the individual. Fashion, Simmel argued, combined individuality and conformity, maximizing one's membership in a group while distinguishing oneself from others. Still, Simmel saw a price for this freedom in that consumer society created impersonal social relationships and encouraged egotistical and calculating attitudes toward others, reducing them to what they owned. The only way that one could preserve individuality was to participate in fashion. In this system, the individual could never catch up and never find a stable identity. The quest for individuality was always frustrating in the fashionable crowd. The only solution for Simmel was to cultivate personal friendship and to develop individualistic taste.

For many Europeans in the interwar years, consumerism was identical with American culture and its threat to European values and economic life. America was the barbarian future of democratic and mechanical conformity and rootless superficiality, a worry reinforced by American dominance of phonograph music and film. Particularly influential was Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932), an attack on American mass culture with its passive amusements. Even Henry Ford's promise of inexpensive cars seemed to many Europeans to threaten native craft traditions and standards of quality.


In the interwar years, many Europeans believed that mass production would eventually liberate humanity from the scarcity of "necessities," leading not to the endless expansion of symbolic or luxury consumption but rather to the reduction of work time. One seeming sign of this trend was the introduction of the eight-hour day in 1919. For many this prospect was worrisome. Conservatives feared that the assembly line undermined work incentives by diminishing the necessity of long hours to meet basic needs. Moreover, cheap mass-produced goods and pleasures seemed to threaten the value of hard work. This thinking created a seemingly insurmountable dilemma: how to stimulate and profit from mass consumption while also maintaining and fostering work discipline.

At the same time, conservatives feared that increased affluence eroded cultural standards by providing the masses the free time and money that gave them access to cultural goods. This thinking suggested that cultural standards had to be protected from mass consumption through elite domination of the mass media (as in the founding of the British Broadcasting Corporation in 1927) or through adopting educational standards that imposed a canon of literary, musical, and artistic classics on students. Conservatives were concerned about the impact of consumerism on the young, especially insofar as the influence of parents seemed to have declined and, with it, family solidarities and respect for authority. One common solution to the threat of the temptations of public amusements was industry and church sponsorship of youth camps, sports clubs, and playground centers. Throughout Europe, these organized youth activities provided pleasurable alternatives to commercial leisure in a controlled setting that also encouraged loyalty to the company or religious body. A striking example of this paternalism was the Duke of York's Camp, which brought together equal numbers of public (elite) school and industrial boys in shared games and bonfires in the interwar years. Italian and German fascists also found that noncommercial leisure was an excellent vehicle for fostering political loyalty. The dopolavaro and Kraft durch Freude organized tours and youth summer camps, using methods that were scarcely distinguishable from those employed by company and church organizations to instill a "politics of consent."

Much of the Left shared a similar disapproval of consumerism in the interwar years. And thus labor and leftist political groups tried to organize their own noncommercial leisure to foster loyalty to union and party. Since the 1880s in Britain, organized workers' leisure had been built around cooperative societies, trade unions, socialist Sunday schools, and leftist hiking and bicycle clubs. In the 1920s European socialist sports leagues won support from sympathetic local governments and competed openly with conservative nationalist and church sports organizations. Workers' Olympic Games were played in Frankfurt (1925) and Vienna (1931). Communists and their trade unions often used sports and cultural groups to create loyalty to union and party beyond the workplace. Especially important were efforts to link the whole family and not just the union member to the cause. In the 1920s and 1930s British adult educationists encouraged pleasurable hobbies rather than didactic lessons in high culture as an alternative to the crowd pleasures of drinking, gambling, dance halls, and amusement parks. Nonprofit groups like the Holiday Fellowship and Workers' Travel Association built guesthouses and organized vacation tours. The French Popular Front of 1936 continued the effort of the Left to organize loyalty through noncommercial leisure. Communist youth festivals and sports and leisure clubs were common. Large unions even had camps in an attempt to channel members away from consumer culture. French teachers' and other unions organized youth hostels and inexpensive vacation packages for members. The Popular Front official Léo Lagrange encouraged these noncommercial leisure and vacation programs both to foster political solidarity and to provide uplifting and healthy uses of free time by countering the allures of consumerism.


In the interwar years, both the Right and Left shared two assumptions—that mass production meant a shift from work to leisure values and that leisure time absorbed by consumer goods and services was a threat to social and political goals. The belief that affluence meant an expansion of leisure time (and for conservatives an undermining of the work ethic) assumed that consumer needs were satiable and that people preferred time to more goods. This essential assumption was wrong. Expanding opportunities to consume proved to be a more effective way of disciplining labor than long hours of toil. The key was the realization that psychological needs were not finite, as were most physiological needs. Higher wages could not only stimulate mass consumption but also create an open-ended desire for new goods and thus motivate wage earners to seek work rather than leisure. While the economist Lujo Brentano introduced this idea into his analysis in 1894, only in the 1920s did even a small group of industrial employers embrace this doctrine. This seemingly counterintuitive idea that expanding desire disciplined workforces has often been identified with Fordism, named after Henry Ford, the American automaker who introduced a high wage in 1914 to create a market for his cars and a disciplined consumer workforce.

The labor movement generally reinforced this idea of limitless consumption when unions tried to link productivity to wage increases. For example, the French socialist and head of the International Labor Organization Albert Thomas argued in the 1920s that workers should accept more of the intense and mechanized work of scientific management for higher wages. Labor embraced the "Fordist" ideal of mass production as a solution to the traditional dual economy divided between luxury and subsistence and as an opening to a consumer's democracy. This attitude reflects a shift from an emotional and social focus on the workplace to an embrace of the social and personal meanings of consumption off the job. It was simultaneously a recognition that conditions of mechanized industry made irrelevant the older ideals of workers' control over the job and a vision of the possibilities raised by a mass consumption economy for individual freedom to make consumer choices. Although this trade-off was rarely embraced by European industry between the world wars, it did become the implicit basis for economic growth in the postwar era.

The Great Depression experience of joblessness also encouraged this trend. Especially because unemployment was uneven across regions and occupations, sociologists and observers like George Orwell found that those without sufficient work often felt left out and humiliated. The jobless dreamed of the respect and freedom that came from the ability to consume. Even in hard times, European workers tended to hold on to luxuries. While labor leaders favored shortening the workday as a job-sharing measure in the depression, free time became relatively less important than higher income and freedom to consume for those with "time on their hands." Even when the system did not deliver the goods during the depression and World War II, the response was not massive resentment or revolution but quiet personal humiliation at being excluded from the consumers' feast and a longing to rejoin it when the opportunity came again after 1945.

Also during the depression of the 1930s, economists and politically active business leaders in France and England, especially, began to recognize that an expanding consumer economy was a politically feasible alternative to what they saw as the "stagnation" of reduced work weeks (as in the proposal for the forty-hour week). Eventually, the tapping of new and unlimited needs (through Keynesianism especially) not only would overcome the threat to the work ethic but guaranteed growth. Growth through mass consumption also meant more jobs (in new sectors like services rather than mining and basic industry), rather than a sharing of work through the reduction of work time. This new thinking had a profound impact on public policy that continues to the present.

A consumerist consensus emerged after 1945. It was built upon mass production and balanced with high wages, but it was also buttressed by governmental management of demand and business manipulation of needs through advertising. Neither work sharing nor expanded noncommercial leisure (based on a theory of limited consumer desire) had any serious role in the postwar recovery. The obvious explanation is that pressing demand for reconstruction and fulfilling pent-up material needs had long been deferred by the depression and war and that this precluded any choice but expanded production and consumption. A political consensus quickly emerged around expectations of "full employment" and unlimited consumption. The nearly universal commitment to higher levels of personal consumption was broadly shared by the left-wing British welfare statists and French economic planners, as well as more conservative Italian and German Christian Democrats. The American model of mass consumption was an alternative to the social rigidity of European culture, which still showed sharp distinctions between the lifestyles of the working and middle classes. Pro-American politicians favored "growth" rather than "protest" over the shares of the economic pie. The identification of liberty with consumer choice and democracy with mass access to goods became the ideal if not always the reality.

Despite critiques of consumerism as a threat to social stability and cultural values, consumption became the principal means of defining self and social relationships for many Europeans in the second half of the twentieth century. Although thinkers, social organizers, and even at times politicians struggled against it, none produced effective alternatives.

Consumer-culture critics like Simmel or Durkheim set up an illusory contrast between the acquiescent and impulsive consumption of the street crowd, on the one hand, and the sober and uplifting cultivation of self and family in the home, on the other. The twentieth century has shown that crowd pleasures were not nearly so self-destructive as once presumed. Critics of modern consumer desire failed to recognize how commodities met psychological and social needs in a transient and increasingly impersonal social world. Goods and purchased experiences provided ways of marking time throughout the year. This became a major role of developments such as the commercialization of Christmas and the packaged vacation that became an important part of European consumer culture after World War II. Consumer products helped identify stages in personal life and communicate status, aspirations, and complaints to others. The distinctive clothing, music, and social pleasures of youth that emerged after the war illustrate this kind of personal expression. Consumption was much more about reading and being read through the goods that one drove, wore, and ate than about unleashing dangerous desires. Rather than creating a frustrated, aggressive crowd that sought unattainable fulfillment in unrestrained longing, mass consumption fostered a relatively passive population quite easily satisfied with the latest fashions, novelties, and "new and improved" gadgets. Anthropologists like Mary Douglas have shown how mass consumption allowed the fulfillment of contradictory longings, the wearing of many roles, and endless experimenting—even if experiences were manufactured to meet consumer expectations and business profitability. Far from developing obsessions and addictions or slipping into the confusion of overchoice as predicted by Durkheim, modern Europeans generally have responded quickly and often happily to the latest display window. What is striking about consumer society is how well adjusted to affluence modern Europeans have become.

Moreover, home and individual "integrity" were not nearly so free of consumerist allures as expected by critics of consumerism. Instead, much of the social meaning of goods was organized around domesticity and the sexual division of labor. A middle-class ideal of male providing and female domestic spending had emerged in the nineteenth century and became in varying degrees an ideal of working families early in the twentieth century. For many, the depression solidified the gender order by revealing its stress points: the wife's domain of domestic spending and the husband's role of provider were undermined during the crisis. The slump showed that neither women nor men wished to abandon these roles, which after the war were reconfirmed (at least for another generation) in the male ideal of breadwinner and the female status as domestic consumer. By the 1960s this sexual division of labor was being replaced by a two-income household, but this too was an adaptation to the economic demands of rising standards of domestic consumption.

Moreover, reinforcing the trend toward domestic and private consumption was the coming of the radio (and later television) and the access of the working classes to cars. Although these goods were slower to penetrate European households than in the United States, in the 1960s and 1970s much of that gap was overcome. For example, in the 1960s television sets in British households increased from 66 percent to 90 percent, and a BBC study in 1974 found that half of leisure time was spent watching the screen. Even more dramatic was the coming of cars: ownership in France rose from 10 percent of households in 1950 to 75 percent by 1980.

A further sign of privatized consumerism was the rise in the share of family income devoted to housing costs. While planners in 1945 hoped for a more open community based on new public housing, Britons largely rejected the tower blocks. Instead, they longed for the suburban comforts of the semidetached houses that provided such opportunities for self-expressive and private consumption. While the French and other continental Europeans had long favored urban apartment living and had been indifferent to Anglo-American lawn and garden culture, during the 1970s new housing was increasingly suburban and detached, and home ownership rose also. Modern consumerism was less a social or cultural challenge to social stability than an affirmation of domestic and intrafamily values.

Consumer society has become a substitute for civil society. The disappointing results of nonprofit religious, political, or simply voluntary leisure organizations are one illustration of this claim. Consumerism met real needs of personal identity and individual distinction from the group in a society where primary groups had largely disappeared. The utopian idea of a culture of free time beyond the market could not satisfy those needs nearly as effectively as could the consumer culture. Ironically, social groups organized around ideas or even leisure activities may be less flexible and more threatening to members than consumer markets. Because noncommercial holiday clubs that appeared early in the twentieth century were dominated by their members, they often unintentionally excluded others, became fractionalized, and were slow to adapt to change. It has been much easier for commercial impresarios like the Butlin Holiday Camps of the 1930s or the Club Meds from the 1950s, which stand outside the markets they organize, to get people to join in. There was less personal risk in disclosing oneself as a "member" of a society of Porsche owners than to risk humiliation by joining a group that demanded personal interaction. It was relatively easy to buy one's way into a community of shoppers, and there were so many from which to choose.

The collapse of European communism in 1989 is a good example of the success of consumerism. For all of its claims of producing full employment and meeting everyone's basic needs for health, education, food, and other necessities, the Marxist system in the 1970s and 1980s was unable either to increase productivity or to meet the widening horizons of desire. The lack of consumer incentives for hard work created a society in permanent slow motion, which consequently could never meet the demand for consumer goods. In the West, the simultaneous discipline and freedom built into the consumer economy was able to do both.

However, consumerism did not eliminate frustration as Jean Gabriel Tarde and other optimists predicted. Through emulative spending, the poor and marginal population might have become more like the rich. But then the elite moved on to new "inventions," creating a new social distance from the masses. When the people had cars, the rich needed second homes. Frustration was inevitable and unrelenting even when the majority enjoyed material security and participated in the consumer culture directed by the rich. They could never catch up, and the closer they seemed to get to the prize, the more humiliating was their inability to grasp it. Resentment hardly declined because of greater material security. The significance of goods that define status (cars, education, vacations, and houses) increased as basic needs were met and with them the increased frustrations of status seeking.


Diversity in the history, society, and economic development of European countries produced somewhat different degrees and varieties of consumerism in the second half of the twentieth century. Relative to the more mobile and market-oriented United States, European bonds to community and family have countered consumerist predilections. In countries like Spain, relatively slower rates of economic development limited discretionary spending, at least until the 1990s. Political traditions restricting markets (like prohibiting Sunday shopping) have impeded the spread of consumption as a leisure time activity. Attempts in the 1990s to extend shopping hours in Germany and England, for example, were rebuffed by social conservatives as well as labor unions. Allocations of economic surpluses to public culture (for example, municipal orchestras) and other nonmarket leisure and recreational purposes have also countered the growth of consumerism. Moreover, cultural and historical differences have channeled consumer desire in western Europe in somewhat different directions than in the United States. One prominent example is the greater emphasis on vacation spending, due to four or more weeks of holiday time in most European countries as compared with the common two-week or less vacation of Americans. This difference has its roots in the paid holiday that came to many European countries in the 1920s and especially the 1930s. Another example is the still greater tendency of Europeans to spend discretionary income on public leisure like social dining and drinking.

Since the 1960s European opponents of consumerism have rallied around movements for environmental protection, noncommercial leisure, reduction of work time, and consumer education. According to the political scientist Ronald Inglehart, in the 1960s a "postmaterialist" cohort began to emerge in Europe. The gradual disappearance of those age groups which had been shaped by the economic insecurity of the depression signaled a "cultural shift" toward the post-scarcity values. In the 1960s and 1970s New Left advocates of postmaterialist values expected a political shift from questions of distribution, growth, and security and toward quality of life and consumer rights issues. These groups attacked the compromise of the traditional Left (Labor, Communist, and Social Democratic parties) for its support of the unrestrained growth of a consumer culture.

In particular, the environmental, or green, movement opposed the impact that unrestrained consumption had upon land use (for roads, for example) and pollution of the ecosphere. In the 1970s new leftists associated with the labor movement argued that the linkage between economic growth and jobs was no longer valid. Technological and business change would no longer create sufficient jobs for full employment (as had previous economic upheavals). The computer was eliminating both white collar and blue collar jobs even as it increased productivity, and the older pattern of technological advance, shifting jobs from one sector (like industry) into another (like service), no longer applied. An expanding mass consumption economy would not produce sufficient jobs. For this group, the solution was reduced work time rather than simply increased output and demand for goods. As important, these advocates of reduced work time saw expanded time away from market work as an alternative to the spread of consumerist values.

Still others supported noncommercial uses of leisure time, perpetuating activities dating from before the commercialization of free time and actually expanding alternatives to consumerism. Surveys found that up to 39 percent of Britons participated in a sport in 1977, and in 1980 there were roughly thirty-six thousand football clubs and fifty thousand other sporting clubs. Numbers of sports clubs rose 3.6 times in France in the 1960s and 1970s. During the same period, cultural clubs increased even more dramatically from 600 to 4,116. An active cultural education policy, encouraged first by André Malraux's famous tenure as cultural minister from 1959 to 1969, bore fruit in rising attendance at artistic and educational events. French promoters of popular arts and recreation may have sought to perpetuate loyalty to church or political party, but all stressed wide participation and many eventually lost their political or religious character. Government facilities and educators have contributed to the growth of amateurism in music and the other arts. Sociologists found in the mid-1980s that middle-class people especially still readily joined groups around a wide variety of enthusiasms (caving, morris dancing, lace making, and lapidary, for example). Such organizations stressed their distinction from others but also their solidarity within, and often did so with a militant opposition to commercialization as if in protest of the profit motive of sellers and the passivity of buyers.

Despite these protests against consumerism, there does not appear to be any systematic alternative to its value of limitless material innovation and social and self-definition in and through goods. While many Europeans question the long-term viability of the consumerist ethic for the environment and the seemingly corrosive effect of consumerism on social relations and political commitments, few have seriously questioned the benefits of growth or have found ways of effectively articulating a form of postmaterialism.

See alsoAmerica, Americanization, and Anti-Americanism (volume 1);Capitalism and Commercialization; Communications, the Media and Propaganda; Shops and Stores (volume 2);Sports; Consumer Leisure; Vacations; Travel and Tourism; the sectionEveryday Life (all in this volume); and other articles in this section.


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Adshead, Samuel Adrian M. Material Culture in Europe and China, 1400–1800:The Rise of Consumerism. New York, 1997.

Auslander, Leora. Taste and Power: Furnishing Modern France. Berkeley, Calif., 1996.

Bailey, Peter. Leisure and Class in Victorian England: Rational Recreation and theContest for Control, 1830–1885. London, 1978.

Brantlinger, Patrick. Bread and Circuses. Theories of Mass Culture as Social Decay. Ithaca, N.Y., 1983.

Brentano, Lujo. Hours and Wages in Relation to Production. Translated by Mrs. William Arnold. London, 1894.

Brewer, John, and Roy Porter, eds. Consumption and the World of Goods. London, 1993.

Campbell, Colin. The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism. Oxford, 1989.

Cross, Gary. Time and Money: The Making of Consumer Culture. New York and London, 1993.

De Grazia, Victoria. Culture of Consent: Mass Organization of Leisure in Fascist Italy. Cambridge, U.K., 1981.

Douglas, Mary, and Baron Isherwood. The World of Goods. New York, 1979.

Dumazedier, Joffre. Révolution culturelle du temps libre: 1968–1988. Paris, 1968.

Furlough, Ellen. Consumer Cooperation in France: The Politics of Consumption,1834–1930. Ithaca, N.Y., 1991.

Gorz, André. Critique of Economic Reason. London, 1989.

Hirsch, Fred. The Social Limits to Growth. Cambridge, Mass., 1976 Hoggett, Paul, and Jeff Bishop. Organizing around Enthusiasms: Patterns of MutualAid in Leisure. London, 1986.

Inglehart, Ronald. Culture Shift in Advanced Industrial Society. Princeton, N.J., 1990.

Kenseth, Joy, ed. The Age of the Marvelous. Hanover, N.H., 1991.

Kuisel, Richard F. Seducing the French: The Dilemma of Americanization. Berkeley, Calif., 1993.

Le Bon, Gustave. The Crowd. 1896. Reprint, New Brunswick, N.J., 1995.

LeMahieu, D. I. Culture for Democracy: Mass Communications and the CultivatedMind in Britain between the Wars. New York and Oxford, 1988.

Mckendrick, Neil, John Brewer, and J. H. Plumb. The Birth of Consumer Society:The Commercialization of Eighteenth-Century England. Bloomington, Ind., 1982.

Miller, Michael B. The Bon Marché: Bourgeois Culture and the Department Store,1869–1920. Princeton, N.J., 1981.

Mukerji, Chandra. From Graven Images: Patterns of Modern Materialism. New York, 1983.

Richards, Thomas. The Commodity Culture of Victorian England. Stanford, Calif., 1990.

Schama, Simon. The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age. New York, 1987.

Walton, Whitney. France at the Crystal Palace. Berkeley, Calif., 1992.

Williams, Rosalind. Dream Worlds: Mass Consumption in Late-Nineteenth-CenturyFrance. Berkeley, Calif., 1982.


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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.

R. StevenJones

See alsoAdvertising .


views updated May 17 2018


eighteenth-century consumption
industrialization and new forms of commerce
bourgeois consumption/middle-class consumerism
popular consumption
mass consumerism
a consumerist economics/social science

"Since our Wealth has increas'd, and our Navigation has been extended, we have ransack'd all the Parts of the Globe to bring together its whole Stock of Materials for Riot, Luxury, and to provoke Excess." So wrote a Scottish doctor, George Cheyne (1761–1743), in 1733, explaining what he considered to be the "nervous disorders" of his time. Such worries about excess consumption drew from deep wells: Christian teaching about the sins of greed, unrestrained appetite, and envy; humanist views that private wealth under-mined public virtue; and an economic paradigm in which to consume meant to waste. The same concerns infused this characteristic rhetoric, from an aristocratic proponent of sumptuary laws who demanded the "immediate suppression of bare-fac'd Luxury, the spreading Contagion of which is the greatest Corrupter of Publick Manners and the greatest Extinguisher of Public Spirit."

The economic and cultural changes that brought very different views of consumption to the fore were among the most far-reaching of modern European history. The birth of consumerism, the deliberate promoting of consumer demand, and the response to it, involved not only more goods and new practices in everyday life but also overhauling assumptions about the economy and redefining "needs" and therefore entitlements—all processes with political as well as social and cultural implications.

Pinpointing a single "consumer revolution" has proved impossible. Such a "revolution" has been qualified and backdated so often that most historians shy away from the term. How, then, does the nineteenth century fit into the long history of consumption? Revolutionary changes in productivity, the legal, political, and social fracturing of a society of orders, and Europe's expanding global and imperial networks did more than produce more goods, less expensively, from ever larger territories for more people. Dismantling systems that had traditionally regulated manufacture and commerce ushered in entirely new forms of distribution and retailing. The enterprise of selling (or retailing), indeed, became an ever more specialized, separate, and valued economic activity—the domain of stores, shopping districts of cities, lavish display, magazines, advertising, and, eventually, social science. This process is the heart of consumerism, and it first took shape in the nineteenth century, aimed at and practiced by a new middle class.

If the spectacular expansion of bourgeois consumerism was one side of the coin, the other was creakingly slow and uneven change in popular consumption. To be sure, agricultural productivity rose in the late eighteenth through the nineteenth century. Networks of food distribution became much more efficient. Grain riots, previously the preeminent form of popular politics, faded away throughout most of Europe by 1850. But nineteenth-century consumption was embedded in a deeply hierarchical society. Only toward the 1880s did Europe, primarily France and England, begin to see the more democratized consumption, cutting across class boundaries, that is associated with mass consumption.

eighteenth-century consumption

Some historians insist that the eighteenth-century British Empire saw a "consumer revolution." Much ink has been spilled in dissent. What has been established is a long, slow rise in consumer demand, driven by factors including falling prices for many basic goods for purchase (especially food); intensified labor (particularly of women and children); the production and importation of a vast array of new goods, and, in the middle classes, new codes of genteel behavior, new standards of cleanliness, and, perhaps, an early Romantic cultivation of aesthetic sensitivities. Middle-class families spent more on everything from furniture to china and pottery, mirrors and pictures, linens, carriages, and books.

Further down the social scale, people contented themselves with buying smaller items: soap, candles, and, less expensive printed fabrics. The poor made do with very little. A poor family in eighteenth-century England, for instance, would have owned, perhaps, one chair, battered pottery that had been passed down for two generations, and some spoons to eat with, but few knives, no forks, and no table linens.

Still, historians have charted rising consumption of tea, coffee, chocolate, sugar, and tobacco among a remarkably broad sector of society. They estimate that 25 percent of the population used one of these products once a day, to the distress of doctors (who denounced the traffic in stimulants and drugs) and to the delight of café and tavern proprietors. Such a genuinely broad pattern of consumption was inextricable from the new patterns of eighteenth-century sociability, including the rising readership of books and newspapers.

The First Industrial Revolution (from the mid-eighteenth through the early nineteenth centuries) brought innovations through the entire circuit of production, distribution, and consumption. The china manufacturer Josiah Wedgwood (1730–1795) did not owe his spectacular success to production-side innovations—experiments with factory labor and the techniques of glaze and design—alone. Wedgwood's business benefited from improved roads and canals; from the quickening trade in tea, coffee, and chocolate; and from population growth and rising incomes. On the consumerist side, Wedgwood lavished attention on design, fashion, and his product line, transferring the cachet of his tea services to snuffboxes and knife handles. He priced different lines of pottery and china strategically, aiming at different markets. He was extremely attentive to publicity, orchestrating newspaper articles that showcased his wares and famous customers. Matthew Boulton (1728–1809), the famous improver of the steam engine, was no less an innovator in promoting consumption in the "button trade," which included buttons, buckles, watch chains, candlesticks, and other ornaments.

Wedgwood, Boulton, and others pursued both modern commercial techniques and traditional state and courtly patronage. In this as in other respects, their careers reflected a period of transition. To become the queen's potter was a mark of Wedgwood's success; Boulton needed and sought connections to the king's architect, clockmaker, and so on. Court sponsorship played an even more central role in the circuit of production, distribution, and consumption across the channel. Sumptuary laws, which had attempted to limit consumption of luxury goods by status (for instance, granting only some people the right to buy and wear gold, silver, or silk), had fallen away by the end of the eighteenth century. But the states of continental Europe regulated the production of and commerce in almost all goods, from grain to clothing and furniture.

industrialization and new forms of commerce

In the early nineteenth century the processes already under way grew stronger. Productive capacities multiplied; transportation quickened; cities, with fashionable arcades and sprawling open-air markets alike, grew. The century also saw the dismantling of traditional regulation of commerce and production, first in France and in different stages across the Continent. Clothing, for instance, was already more freely bought and sold than other consumer goods, and in prerevolutionary France (as in eighteenth-century England), the clothing trade expanded as elites bought more, more expensive, and different kinds of clothes in what the historian Daniel Roche calls a new "culture of appearances." The French Revolution, however, abolished the laws that had carefully distinguished between those granted the privilege to sell fabrics and those allowed to make clothing. This new legal regime, combined with a revolution in textile and clothing production, ushered in fundamental changes in how commerce and retail could operate. The 1820s and 1830s brought stores selling what they produced: rudimentary ready-made in the form of shawls, cloaks, and children's clothing. Later, in women's clothing, couture houses began to sell fabric, clothing, and design—and to call the combination fashion.

With a second generation of stores in the 1850s and 1860s, a new urban consumerism came into its own. Already in the 1780s, shops with large glass windows on streets brightened at night by new gas street lanterns had dazzled wealthy visitors to London. But in the mid-nineteenth century the combination of economic development; political stability; rapid urban growth; massive investments in urban infrastructure in Paris, Vienna, London, and elsewhere; and the confidence of a new social elite made London's West End into a swank shopping district and ensured the success of the grands magasins in Paris: the Bon Marché (1852), Printemps (1865), and the Samaritaine (1869).

The grands magasins pioneered not only new modes of retailing but also new forms of sociability and leisure. They are a case study in how simple consumption could be transformed into consumerism, or the systematic cultivation of consumer demand—and of how the provisioning of needs became shopping, a fashionable, sought-after ritual. The new stores displayed fabrics, gloves, umbrellas, fans, and shoes in plate-glass cases rather than tucking them behind counters and in arrangements aimed to seduce with their sumptuousness and impress with their abundance and modernity. They offered calendars of special events such as fashion shows and concerts, hair salons, reading rooms, and displays organized around themes to draw customers in and to entertain them while in the store. In Émile Zola's (1840–1902) Au Bonheur des Dames (1883), the century's classic evocation of the cultural magnetism of department stores (based on the history of the Bon Marché and the Grands Magasins du Louvre), the fictional owner fills the central hall and stairway with umbrellas to create the image of "large Venetian lanterns, illuminated for some colossal festival." "Free entry" encouraged potential customers to browse and enjoy the experiences. Fixed, posted prices freed customers from negotiations with salespeople. Consumption did not require an inter-action with a producer, or even a merchant; it was an activity enjoyed with other shoppers.

The department stores illustrate a larger structural trend: the emergence of retail and consumption as increasingly autonomous and specialized economic activities. The new stores came to anchor distinctive shopping districts, removed from the smells and sounds of production in artisanal neighborhoods; cities were segregated by economic function as well as class. Although most nineteenth-century stores continued to make the goods they sold, and had custom shops for dresses, suits, or furnishings, the department stores, by definition, did not specialize. Their broad range of prices and goods underscored that the stores' expertise lay in choosing what to sell, how to make goods desirable, and how to make customers happy, rather than focusing on processes of production.

bourgeois consumption/middle-class consumerism

The clientele for these stores was decidedly middle class and female. Zola's portrait of women made delirious in department stores was a caricature, though one based on preconceptions common in his time. Since at least the eighteenth century, production (and technology) had been seen as male, and consumption, associated with hedonism, waste, and temptation, female. Still, retailers' appeals to women, women's responsibility for many purchases, and the centrality of goods to middle-class female identity were among the distinguishing features of nineteenth-century consumerism. Much of that consumerism focused on assiduously cultivating the home. Studies of budgets show that even in hard times, middle-class families tried to maintain spending on either housing or servants, both of which were benchmarks of middle-class status and dignity. Over the course of the century middle-class homes grew larger, with more rooms for specific functions: studies, sewing rooms, salons. Wealth was displayed in more plentiful and specialized furniture, upholstered in fine fabrics, or worked with exotic woods from the reaches of Europe's expanding empires, and by thick curtains, works of art on the walls, gilded chandeliers and clocks, jewelry and silver, pianos, and so on.

Some historians argue that specific middle-class tastes had a direct economic impact, giving small industries and high-quality artisans a remarkable resilience. There is no doubt of the power of possessions to shape identity and self-presentation, spelled out in countless etiquette manuals and furniture catalogs. Portraits and furnishings could provide links to a family's past; an elaborately decorated sewing machine could pay tribute to womanly virtue. Educated, tasteful consumption, preserving (or, if possible, raising) the family's status, balancing the household's books: these were tasks that fell to middle-class women across Europe. For middle-class men, too, identity and status were constructed with careful purchases: different suits and hats for business, family events, or weekends in the country; ostentatious watches; and other emblems of distinction.

popular consumption

What of patterns of consumption among the common people? This topic used to be framed as the history of the "standard of living" during industrialization, about which historians disagreed, often fiercely. They found it hard to measure wages and prices, however, and general conclusions remained elusive. More recent historical research has focused on more qualitative aspects of popular consumption. Peasant and working-class households were not self-sufficient, or isolated from consumption and the market, but they followed distinct, class-specific patterns of consumption, and those patterns were shaped by the cultural meanings attached to different goods.

For working people, food was the primary expense and priority. Bread took less of a house-hold's food budget, which meant increased spending on more varied foods. An 1872 French study of one hundred working-class families, for instance, found that thirty-nine ate meat daily, forty-four frequently, and seventeen rarely, significantly higher than a century earlier. As industrialization spread across Europe, drinking coffee, wine, rum, and other alcoholic beverages—already on the rise since the eighteenth century—continued to become more popular. Food and drink provided the core of social life. They were also barometers of hard times. Even at the end of the nineteenth century, European workers had to spend more to feed their families than did their counterparts in the United States. A European family with three or more children rarely ate meat at dinner and bought only inexpensive dark bread.

Clothing came second in popular budgets. The falling price of fabric in the 1860s enabled working people to wear lighter, warmer, and more comfortable clothing. But working people spent little on everyday garb. In a stratified culture, where one's dress on the street instantly flagged one's status and class, Sunday clothes were more important, for they provided an accessible form of social mobility, escape, and celebration.

Decent housing was expensive and in short supply everywhere in Europe; it was virtually beyond the common people's reach. Even in good times, working people had to settle for crowded, dark, and barely ventilated places. This, indeed, was one of the most significant lines that divided classes. Even when lower-middle-class families earned only a little more than their working-class counterparts, they spent their money very differently, often putting off marriage and children until they could afford to spend more on rent and properly bourgeois furnishings.

In the last few decades of the nineteenth century, however, the rise of consumerism was beginning to reach the common people, largely through the expansion of credit. As far as historians can determine, peasants were more likely than workers to save, largely because they hoped to acquire more land. But working-class life ran on regular infusions of short-term credit from bakers, grocers, and wine merchants in their neighborhoods, which drove up the price of food. Workers regularly resorted to pawnshops, getting loans at 5 or 6 percent interest against mattresses, linens, jewelry, and the occasional piece of family silver. From the 1860s onward, large-scale commerce began to adapt to the popular habit of buying on credit. In the 1880s the grands magasins Dufayel opened its doors in Barbès, a working-class neighborhood in Paris. Dufayel deliberately echoed the presentations of elite department stores, and it offered necessities and furnishings, from furniture and clocks to coal stoves, all on credit. By 1907 almost half of the working-class families of Paris had "subscribed," via door-to-door salesmen, to Dufayel's credit payment plans, and other merchants, attuned to the possibilities of a larger buying public, adopted credit plans as well.

mass consumerism

The last quarter of the century ushered in the Second Industrial Revolution, and, as one contemporary remarked, credit and advertising were as much a part of that revolution as electricity and oil. Forms of advertising multiplied in the last decades of the century, from handbills distributed on street corners to lavishly illustrated mail-order catalogs to posters. On this front, Paris was again a pioneer; tourists flocking to the world's fairs of 1889 and 1900 and innovations in graphic arts helped to turn the city into one of the largest advertising markets in the world. The same enterprises that extended credit, already experts in the new commercial world of the late nineteenth century, also turned their hand to publicity. Dufayel, for instance, proclaimed advertising to be "the soul of commerce" and sold advertising space in the city's kiosks, urinals, trams, railroad stations, at the centennial celebration of the French Revolution and world's fairs, and in new dance halls like the Folies Bergères and the Moulin Rouge.

Advertising quickly transformed the visual landscapes of late-nineteenth-century Moscow, St. Petersburg, Vienna, Berlin, and London. The combination of advertising's demand for experimental hard-hitting imagery and the marvelous spectrum of colors made possible by lithography attracted some of the preeminent artists and artistic schools of the period: Jules Cherét (1836–1932), Henri Toulouse-Lautrec (1864–1901), the Jugendstil artists in central Europe, the Munich Secession of 1893, and Russian futurist painters. While only the largest companies could afford advertising on this scale, changes in consumption made the prewar period in important respects the apogee of European commercial culture and a forcing ground of modernism.

Advertising illustrates the structural trend underscored earlier: the increasing investment in commerce and distribution as separate and value-enhancing economic activities. During the eighteenth century, advertising had been an afterthought; producers simply listed themselves in guides to business and even pioneers like Wedgwood sought to establish their reputation by word of mouth and court patronage. One hundred years later, advertising had its own enterprises, personnel, and trade journals that cast a critical eye on graphic artists' techniques and advertisers' strategies. As one of those journals declared, advertising had outgrown simple "empiricism," "it has become a true science, whose precise laws need to be discovered."

The late nineteenth century quickened the pace of consumerism across Europe. By the 1890s department stores could be found in many of Germany's provincial cities. Germany's most successful retailers included the Tietz family and Adolf Jandorf (1870–1932), who opened his most elegant and elaborate store, the Kaufhaus des Westens in Berlin, in 1907, marking the beginning of the Kurfürstendamm as Berlin's retail and entertainment center, in the same mold as London's West End. Selfridge's debuted in London in 1909, the child of Harry Gordon Selfridge (c. 1864–1947) from Marshall Field's in Chicago, whose elaborate merchandising was widely acclaimed. Selfridge's advertising proclaimed that the store changed shopping from "merely part of the day's work" to "pleasure, a time of profit, recreation and enjoyment." Moreover, recreation proper—or entertainment—also opened up as a new field for consumerism. Novel kinds of journalism fed sensationalized news to a wider reading public. World's fairs, music halls, spectator sports, circuses, dioramas and panoramas, and, by the late 1890s, movies were all pieces of a new entertainment industry that beckoned to new consumer-spectators. Within a decade of their start in 1894, the Pathé brothers (Charles [1863–1957] and Emile [1860–1937]) reached an international market for their short films at nickelodeons and had begun to open movie halls. There were ten such halls in Paris in 1907 and more than 150 in 1914. Still largely segregated by class, gender, and age, commercialized leisure was nonetheless robustly adaptable. Russian intellectuals might deplore the absence of middle-class political institutions, but modern middle-class commercial entertainment and consumerism thrived.

a consumerist economics/social science

It was at the end of the nineteenth century, too, that consumption itself began to command more sharply focused attention from economists and social scientists and to occupy a different place in the discursive structure of economics. Since the rise of political economy in the eighteenth century, consumption, if no longer necessarily conceived as an evil, had remained a distinctly minor issue. Bernard Mandeville's (1670–1733) Fable of the Bees (1714) satirized orthodoxies of economic restraint and the association of luxury with desire, or appetite, disorder, and disobedience. Mandeville and others argued that the "vice" of consuming luxuries actually promoted the nation's wealth. Adam Smith (1723–1790) saw consumption as one of the self-improving impulses of humanity that promoted economic development and enhanced the public good, contrary to the teachings of classical republicanism and in defiance of views such as those cited at the beginning of this article. Smith declared consumption to be "the sole end and purpose of all production." But there the subject stayed, a distinctly minor concern, while economists trained their gaze on production, wages, and value. Nineteenth-century critics of political economy worked in the same paradigms; Karl Marx's (1818–1883) brilliant passages on commodity fetishism depicted consumption as a realm of reification, mystification, and non-value.

These views began to change in the 1870s. One set of revisions came with the theory of marginal utility, whose proponents disagreed with classical political economy's (and socialism's) emphasis on labor as the source of value. All goods, they argued, had more or less (marginal) value depending on factors like the quantity of goods on the market and consumer preferences. Not production but pricing and the marginal utility of goods (established by rational, market-calculating individuals) were the keys to understanding value and to explaining the allocation of economic resources. Other intellectuals, many of them critics of the marginalists' abstract approach, zeroed in on social psychology and on the "cultural situations" in which consumption was embedded. The American Thorstein Veblen's (1857–1929) Theory of the Leisure Class appeared in 1899; in Europe, Gabriel Tarde (1843–1904) wrote on emulation, the German statistician Ernst Engel (1821–1896) and the French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs (1877–1945) studied social patterns of consumption, Engel in search of laws that governed consumer expenditures and Halbwachs demonstrating that the weight of class and culture shaped people's expectations and "levels of living," disproving Engel's laws.

Europe in 1914 was still far removed from a society or culture of mass consumerism. Consumption remained deeply stratified by class until well after World War I. This was not a culture in which it made sense to speak of a "standard of living"; that term suggests norms, entitlements, and government commitments to maintaining or even democratizing consumption that only came later. The development of consumerism in late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Europe paled by comparison with its growth in the United States, where a large domestic market, larger and more efficient networks of distribution, rising incomes (or the higher wages–mass consumption vision associated with Henry Ford), and less stratification converged to make the "American standard of living" the yardstick for the twentieth century. European intellectuals at the turn of the century worried about developments across the Atlantic, on the American horizon, about the "economic convulsions" of the present, and socialists fretted that mass consumerism and culture would sow political apathy. Right-wing thinkers warned the "more intimate mingling of the classes" would undermine social hierarchies and traditional values, and they mobilized nationalist and anti-Semitic rhetoric against "Jewish" retailers or "cosmopolitan" department stores. Contemporary concerns notwithstanding, on the eve of World War I consumer markets were small and local. Across Europe 90 percent of sales went through small shopkeepers. Europe remained a world of bourgeois consumerism, in which popular purchasing power was weak, class distinctions were plainly demarcated, and middle-class individuals' conceptions of taste were firmly yoked to their cultural influence and political power.

See alsoCities and Towns; Industrial Revolution, First; Industrial Revolution, Second; Paris; Sewing Machine; Trade and Economic Growth.


Auslander, Leora. Taste and Power: Furnishing Modern France. Berkeley, Calif., 1996.

Brewer, John, and Roy Porter, eds. Consumption and the World of Goods. London and New York, 1993.

Coffin, Judith G. "A 'Standard' of Living? European Perspectives on Class and Consumption in the Early Twentieth Century." International Labor and Working-Class History 55 (spring 1999): 6–26.

De Grazia, Victoria. Irresistible Empire: America's Advance through Twentieth-Century Europe. Cambridge, Mass., 2005.

De Grazia, Victoria, ed., with Ellen Furlough. The Sex of Things: Gender and Consumption in Historical Perspective. Berkeley, Calif., 1996.

McKendrick, Neil, John Brewer, and J. H. Plumb. The Birth of a Consumer Society: The Commercialization of Eighteenth-Century England. Bloomington, Ind., 1982.

McReynolds, Louise. Russia at Play: Leisure Activities at the End of the Tsarist Era. Ithaca, N.Y., 2003.

Perrot, Michelle. Les ouvriers en grève: France, 1871–1890. Paris, 1974.

Rappaport, Erika Diane. Shopping for Pleasure: Women in the Making of London's West End. Princeton, N.J., 2000.

Strasser, Susan, Charles McGovern, and Matthias Judt, eds. Getting and Spending: European and American Consumer Societies in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1998.

Walton, Whitney. France at the Crystal Palace: Bourgeois Taste and Artisan Manufacture in the Nineteenth Century. Berkeley, Calif., 1992.

Williams, Rosalind H. Dream Worlds: Mass Consumption in Late Nineteenth-Century France. Berkeley, Calif., 1982.

Judy Coffin


views updated May 17 2018


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 (17601840 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 (18181883), 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 propertiesthat 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 (18631947) 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 wellhis legendary five-dollar-per-day minimum wageas 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 (18911937) 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 previouslyfrom town criers to handbillsadvertising 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 postWorld 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 (18131887) 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 RicanAmerican, 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 functionthat 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 consumein the consumerist world of postWorld 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 .


Baudrillard, Jean. The Consumer Society: Myths and Structures. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 1998.

Campbell, Colin. The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism. New York: Blackwell, 1987.

Cohen, Lizabeth. A Consumers' Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America. New York: Knopf, 2003.

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

. All Consuming Images: The Politics of Style in Contemporary Culture. New York: Basic Books, 1988.

Ewen, Stuart, and Elizabeth Ewen. Channels of Desire: Mass Images and the Shaping of American Consciousness. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992.

Frank, Thomas. The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counter-culture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Kleiner, Art. The Age of Heretics: Heroes, Outlaws, and the Forerunners of Corporate Change. New York: Currency/Doubleday, 1996.

Lears, T. J. Jackson. Fables of Abundance: A Cultural History of Advertising in America. New York: Basic Books, 1994.

Lury, Celia. Consumer Culture. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1996.

Marchand, Roland. Advertising the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity, 19201940. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. New York: Vintage Books, 1977.

McClintock, Anne. Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Conquest. New York: Routledge, 1995.

Ritzer, George. The McDonaldization of Society: An Investigation into the Changing Character of Contemporary Social Life. Newbury Park, Calif.: Pine Forge Press, 1993.

Turow, Joseph. Breaking up America: Advertisers and the New Media World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Williams, Raymond. "Advertising: The Magic System." In his Problems in Materialism and Culture: Selected Essays. London: Verso, 1980.

Witt, Doris. Black Hunger: Food and the Politics of U.S. Identity. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Mary Rizzo


views updated Jun 08 2018


Consumerism is central to any study of the twentieth century. In its simplest form, it characterizes the process of purchasing goods such as food, clothing, shelter, electricity, gas, water, or anything else, and then consuming or using those goods. The meaning of consumerism, however, goes well beyond that definition, and has undergone a striking shift from the way it was first used in the 1930s to describe a new consumer movement founded in opposition to the increased prevalence of advertising. It is with much irony that by the end of the twentieth century, consumerism came to mean a cultural ethos marked by a dependence on commerce and incessant shopping and buying. This shift in meaning reflects the shift in how commercial values transformed American culture over the century.

In the early decades of the twentieth century, social life became increasingly commercialized. According to the famous Middletown studies, automobiles conferred mobility on millions, and amusement parks, movie theaters, and department stores had become serious competitors to leisure pursuits that traditionally had been provided by church, home, and family centered activities. By 1924, commercial values had significantly changed home and leisure life as compared to 1890; even school curriculums were being altered in order to accommodate an increasingly commercialized world.

As a response to these changes, a consumer movement emerged, and in the 1920s was focused on sanitary food production and workers' conditions. But by the 1930s, the rapid commercialization taking place shifted the consumer movement's attention to advertising. This reform movement was predicated on the idea that the modern consumer often has insufficient information to choose effectively among competing products, and that in this new era of increased commercialization, advertisements should provide potential consumers with more information about the various products. They also objected to advertising which was misleading, such as the image-based advertising which often played on people's fears and insecurities (such as suggesting that bad breath or old-fashioned furnishings prevented professional and social success).

Accordingly, the consumer movement sought policies and laws which regulated methods and standards of manufacturers, sellers, and advertisers. Although the preexisting 1906 Food and Drug Act had made the misbranding of food and drugs illegal, the law only applied to labeling and not to general advertising. With the support of a New York senator and assistant Secretary of Agriculture Rexford G. Tugwell, a bill was introduced in the U.S. Senate in 1933 which would prohibit "false advertising" of any food, drug, or cosmetic, defining any advertisement false if it created a misleading impression by "ambiguity or inference." Ultimately, a significantly less strict form of the bill was passed, called the Wheeler-Lea Amendment, which is still the primary law governing advertising today.

In the 1930s, the consumer movement—which was first to use the term consumerism—sought assurances about the quality of goods sold to the public. For most people, shopping in the early part of the century was still a novelty, and certainly wasn't central to daily life. This was due, in part, to the (relatively) modest amount of goods available, and to the nature of the shopping environment, which was typically an unembellished storefront. Often, the shopkeeper was an acquaintance of the buyer, and frequently the act of buying was dependent upon an active exchange of bargaining. This changed, however, with the expansion of fixed-priced and display-laden department stores which flourished after World War II (though they had been in existence since just after the Civil War).

The end of World War II marked a significant point in the development of consumer culture in its second meaning, which strongly contrasts with the perspective of the consumer movement. At the end of World War II, the return of soldiers, a burgeoning economy, and a boom in marriage rates and child-birth created a new and unique set of circumstances for the American economy. Unprecedented prosperity in the 1950s led people to leave the cities and move to the suburbs; the increased manufacturing capabilities meant a rapid rise in the quantity and variety of available goods; and the rise and popularity of television and television advertising profoundly altered the significance of consumerism in daily life.

The heretofore unprecedented growth in inventions and gadgets inspired an article which appeared in The New Yorker on May 15, 1948 claiming "Every day, there arrive new household devices, cunningly contrived to do things you don't particularly want done." The author described Snap-a-cross curtains, the Mouli grater, and the Tater-Baker as examples of the inventive mood of the era. Prepared cake mixes were introduced in 1949; Minute Rice in 1950; and Pampers disposable diapers in 1956. The variety of goods was staggering: Panty Hose debuted in 1959, along with Barbie (the most successful doll in history); and in 1960, beverages began to be stored in aluminum cans. Due to their increased prevalence and an increase in advertising, these items went from novelties to an everyday part of American life. By the end of the century, many of these items were no longer viewed as luxuries but as necessities.

During this time, the government responded by encouraging behavior which favored economic growth. For example, the American government supported ads which addressed everything from hygiene to the "proper" American meal and, ultimately, the media campaign was a crucial element in the development of consumerism, or what had become a consumer culture. In Mad Scientist, media critic Mark Crispin Miller argues that American corporate advertising was the most successful propaganda campaign of the twentieth century.

Because most of the consumption was geared towards the household, many television advertisements were geared towards the housewife, the primary consumer in American households. In addition to advertisements, other factors specifically attracted women to shopping, such as the development of commodities which (supposedly) reduced household chores, an activity for which women were primarily responsible. Ironically (but quite intentionally), "new" products often created chores which were previously unknown, such as replacing vacuum bag filters or using baking soda to "keep the refrigerator smelling fresh." In 1963, Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique which derided suburbia as "a bedroom and kitchen sexual ghetto," a critique partially based on what many experienced as the cultural entrapment of women into the role of homemaker, an identity that was endlessly repeated in advertising images.

The mass migration to the suburbs also resulted in the construction of new places to shop. The absence of traditional downtown areas along with the popularity of automobiles gave rise to the suburban shopping mall, where typically, one or two large department stores anchor a variety of other stores, all under one roof. The by-now prevalent television advertising was another significant factor contributing to the spread of shopping malls, by further creating demand for material goods. Unlike older downtown centers, the new mall was a physical environment devoted solely to the act of shopping.

The abundance of goods and ease with which to buy them led to a change in the American attitude towards shopping. Visits to shopping locations became more frequent, and were no longer viewed as entirely a chore. Although it remained "work" for some, shopping also became a form of entertainment and a leisure-time activity.

Like the world's fairs before them, suburban shopping malls displayed the wonders of modern manufacturing and reflected a transition from store as merchant to store as showroom. In what was now a crowded marketplace, imagery became increasingly critical as a way of facilitating acts of consumption. According to Margaret Crawford in her essay "The World in a Shopping Mall": "The spread of malls around the world has accustomed large numbers of people to behavior patterns that inextricably link shopping with diversion and pleasure." Although this phenomenon originated outside the United States and predated the twentieth century, American developers—with their "bigger is better" attitude—perfected shopping as a recreational event.

As a result, malls eventually became a central fixture of American social life, especially in the 1980s. Increasingly bigger malls were built to accommodate the rapid proliferation of chain stores and in order to provide the "consummate" shopping experience (and, conveniently, to eliminate the need to leave the mall), additional attractions and services were added. By the 1980s, food courts, movie theaters, and entertainment venues enticed shoppers. These centers became such popular gathering places that they functioned as a substitute for other community centers such as parks or the YMCA. Teenagers embraced malls as a place to "hang-out" and in response, many shops catered specifically to them, which aided advertising in cultivating consumer habits at an early age. Some chain stores, such as Barnes and Noble, offer lectures and book readings for the public. Some shopping malls offered other community activities, such as permitting their walkways to be used by walkers or joggers before business hours. The largest mall in the United States was the gigantic Mall of America, located in Bloomington, Minnesota, which covered 4.2 million square feet (390,000 square meters) or 78 acres. (The largest mall in North America is actually a million square feet larger—the West Edmonton Mall, located in Canada).

Increasingly, many elements of American social life were intermixed with commercial activity, creating what has become known as a consumer culture. Its growth was engineered in part by "Madison Avenue," the New York City street where many advertising agencies are headquartered. As advertising critics note, early advertising at beginning of the century was information based, and described the value and appeal of the product through text. Advertisers quickly learned, however, that images were infinitely more powerful than words, and they soon altered their methods to fit. The image-based approach works by linking the product with a desirable image, often through directly juxtaposing an image with the product (women and cars, clean floors and beautiful homes, slim physiques and brand-names). Although such efforts to promote "image identity" were already sophisticated in the 1920s and 1930s, the proliferation of television significantly elevated its influence.

The marriage of image advertising and television allowed advertising to achieve some of its greatest influences. First, ads of the 1950s and early 1960s were successful in cultivating the ideal of the American housewife as shopper. Advertisements depicted well-scrubbed, shiny nuclear families who were usually pictured adjacent to a "new" appliance in an industrialized home. Second, advertising promoted the idea of obsolescence, which means that styles eventually fall out of fashion, requiring anyone who wishes to be stylish to discard the old version and make additional purchases. Planned obsolescence was essential to the success of the automotive and fashion industries, two of the heaviest advertisers.

A third accomplishment of image-based advertising was creating the belief, both unconscious and conscious, that non-tangible values, such as popularity and attractiveness, could be acquired by consumption. This produced an environment in which commodification and materialism was normalized, meaning that people view their natural role in the environment as related to the act of consumption. Accordingly, consumerism or "excess materialism," (another definition of the term) proliferated.

Advertising, and therefore television, was essential to the growth of consumerism, and paved the way for the rampant commercialism of the 1980s and 1990s. Concurrently, there was a tremendous increase in the number of American shopping malls: to around 28,500 by the mid-1980s. The explosion of such commercialism was most evident in the sheer variety of goods created for purely entertainment purposes, such as Cabbage Patch Kids, VCR tapes, Rubik's cubes, and pet rocks. So much "stuff" was available from so many different stores that new stores were even introduced which sold products to contain all of the stuff. By the mid-1980s, several 24-hour shopping channels were available on cable television and, according to some sources, more than three-fourths of the population visited a mall at least once a month, evidence of the extent to which shopping was part of daily life.

It is important to note that with the development of consumer culture, consumerism in its earlier sense was still being practiced. Ralph Nader (1934—) is credited with much of the movement's momentum in the late 1960s. In 1965, Nader, a Harvard lawyer, published a book about auto-safety called Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-in Dangers of the American Automobile. This and the revelation that General Motors Corporation had been spying on him and otherwise harassing him led to passage of the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act in 1966. Nader went on to author other books on consumer issues, and established several nonprofit research agencies, including Public Citizen, Inc. and the Center for Study of Responsive Law. Other organizations also arose to protect consumer interests such as the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the Better Business Bureau (BBB). The Consumers Union, which was founded in 1936, continues to be the most well-known consumer organization because of its monthly magazine Consumer Reports, which evaluates competing products and services.

Aside from the efforts of such consumerist groups, the forces of consumer culture were unstoppable. By the late 1980s and 1990s, the proliferation of commercial space reached every imaginable venue, from the exponential creation of shopping malls and "outlet stores"; to the availability of shopping in every location (QVC; Internet; mid-flight shopping); to the use of practically all public space for advertising, (including airborne banners, subway walls, labels adhered to fruit, and restroom doors). This omnipresent visual environment reinforced what was by now an indoctrinated part of American life: consumerism.

The ubiquitousness of consumer culture was so prevalent that a number of artists throughout the century made it their subject matter. Andy Warhol, along with Roy Lichtenstein and others, won worldwide celebrity with endlessly repeated portraits of commodities (Coke bottles, Campbell's soup cans) and of celebrities, which seemed to be wrapped and packaged along with all of the other products. Holidays were created based on buying gifts (Secretary's Day, Halloween), and malls and stores which are sometimes viewed as community space replaced other venues which used to be popular public spaces (bowling alleys, YMCAs, community centers, town halls).

Consumerism became so critical to Americans that millions of people went significantly into debt to acquire goods. Credit, which permits the purchase of goods and services with little or no cash, was essential for average people to be able to buy more and more. Credit cards functioned like cash and, in 1990, the credit card debt of Americans reached a staggering $243 billion. By 1997, that number more than doubled, reaching $560 billion, according to the Bureau of the Census. This dramatic increase in credit card spending was undertaken, in part, because of the seemingly constant need to acquire newer or better goods. Oprah Winfrey even held segments on her talk show about how people were dealing with debt, and how to cut up your credit cards.

The relentless consumption over the century has had the inevitable result of producing tons—actually millions of tons—of consumer waste. According to a report produced by Franklin Associates, Ltd. for the Environmental Protection Agency, approximately 88 million tons of municipal solid waste was generated in 1960. By 1995, the figure had almost tripled, to approximately 208 million tons. This means each person generated an average of 4.3 pounds of solid waste per day. For example, Americans throw away 570 diapers per second—or 49 million diapers a year. This astonishing level of waste production has had the effect of rendering the United States a world leader in the generation of waste and pollutants. In 1998, it was projected that annual generation of municipal solid waste will increase to 222 million tons by the year 2000 and 253 million tons in 2010. A full one-third of all garbage discarded by Americans is packaging—an awesome amount of mostly non-decomposable material for the planet to reckon with.

Further, as a variety of social critics such as Sut Jhally have pointed out, consumerism is popular because advertisements sell more than products: they sell human hopes and dreams, such as the need for love, the desire to be attractive, etc. It is inevitable that the hopes and dreams can never be reached through the acquisition of a product, which, in turn, has lead to a profound sense of disillusionment and alienation, a problem noted by public thinkers throughout the century, from John Kenneth Galbraith to Noam Chomsky.

Sports Utility Vehicles promise security through domination, Oil of Olay promises beauty in aging, and DeBeers promises eternal love with diamonds. Since these empty solutions run counter to the inevitability of the human condition, no product can ever meet its promise. But in the meantime, people keep on consuming….

—Julie Scelfo

Further Reading:

Barber, Benjamin. Jihad vs. McWorld: How Globalism and Tribalism are Reshaping the World. New York, Ballantine Books, 1995.

Bentley, Amy. Eating for Victory: Food Rationing and the Politics of Domesticity. Chicago, University of Illinois Press, 1998.

Brobeck, Stephen, editor. Encyclopedia of the Consumer Movement. Santa Barbara, California, ABC-CLIO, 1997.

Cox, Reavis. Consumers' Credit and Wealth: A Study in Consumer Credit. Washington, National Foundation for Consumer Credit, 1965.

Crawford, Margaret. "The World in a Shopping Mall." In Variations on a Theme Park: The New American City and the End of Public Space, edited by Michael Sorkin. New York, Noonday Press, 1992.

Ewen, Stuart. All Consuming Images: The Politics of Style in Contemporary Culture. New York, Basic Books, 1988.

Fox, Richard Wightman, and T. J. Jackson Lears, editors. The Culture of Consumption: Critical Essays in American History, 1880-1990. New York, Pantheon, 1983.

Hebdige, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. London, Methuen, 1979.

Jhally, Sut. Codes of Advertising. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1987.

Kallen, Horace. The Decline and Rise of the Consumer. New York, D.Appleton-Century Company, 1936.

Leach, William. The Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture. New York, Pantheon, 1993.

Lears, Jackson. Fables of Abundance: A Cultural History of Advertising in America. New York, Basic Books, 1994.

Lynd, Robert, and Helen Lynd. Middletown. New York, Harcourt Brace, 1929.

Marchand, Roland. Advertising the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity 1920-1940. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1985.

Miller, Mark Crispin. Mad Scientist. Forthcoming.

Miller, Michael. The Bon Marché: Bourgeois Culture and the Department Store, 1869-1920. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1981.

Veblen, Thorstein. The Theory of the Leisure Class. New York, Macmillan, 1899.


views updated Jun 08 2018


Consumerism is a way of life combining high levels of material affluence with an emphasis on symbolic and emotional meanings associated with shopping and possessions. The United States continues to lead the way, but the phenomenon increasingly is of global scope. Consumerism can be interpreted positively as a means of stimulating the economy while facilitating people's liberties to shape their identities and subcultures. In contrast, critics perceive consumerism as a manipulated and environmentally destructive habit leading to too many units of stuff being designed, produced, advertised, sold, and discarded (Rosenblatt 1999, World Watch Institute 2004). All may agree that "The one unambiguous result of modern capitalism, of the industrial revolution, and of marketing ... is: In the way we live now, you are not what you make. You are what you consume" (Twitchell 2002, p. 1).

Infrastructure of Consumption

Consumerism involves not just the conventional shopaholic, but a complicated set of organizations, relationships, and ethically problematic practices involving science and technology. Product designers, manufacturing engineers, solid state physicists, and those trained in just about every other scientific and technical specialty have participated directly or indirectly in the development and spread of consumer society. Chemists created synthetic pesticides, PCBs, and PVC plastics, enabling businesses to produce and consumers to purchase products that inadvertently scattered billions of pounds of toxic compounds across the landscape. Civil engineers paved and built, making possible an automobile-centered way of life, that enhanced mobility while creating urban sprawl. Agricultural scientists helped construct the modern diet, combining unprecedented variety and nutrition with an obesity epidemic. Computer engineers' amazing achievements also were crucial in spreading pornography via the Internet, even though it was not the engineers themselves who produced or downloaded it.

Technologists are joined by government in fostering consumerism. The basic science integrated into leading-edge technologies such as carbon nanotubes derives partly from taxpayer-funded research and other government subsidies. Transport, electricity, communications, agriculture, and other infrastructure of consumer society all benefit from advantageous tax treatment or outright subsidy, a favorable legal environment, and government stimulation of the economy by means of monetary and fiscal policy. Military research and development (R&D) also has been indispensable; for example billions of aluminum beverage cans annually derive from aluminum smelting procedures developed for aircraft construction during the World War II.

Drawing in part on ideas developed via government-sponsored R&D, business executives search for market niches while hiring experts to deploy technological innovation as a competitive strategy. Franchises and fast food restaurants, big box stores and malls, cruise ships, theme parks, sports and musical performance arenas, resorts, and casinos all depend on technologically enabled data processing, communication, and transport of customers, merchandise, food, and drink from all over the globe. These and other forms of consumerism are reshaping everyday life worldwide by a process that some sociologists refer to as McDonaldization. The quest for efficiency, calculability, predictability, and "control through nonhuman technology" achieves amazing results, but cumulatively may constitute "the irrationality of rationality" (Ritzer 2004, p. 15–16).

Public Receptivity

As indispensable as technologists, business executives, and government officials have been in development of consumerism, they could not have done it without a receptive audience. If there is a dividing line between purchasing and consumerism, it perhaps occurs when purchasing becomes more about shopping and its psychosocial benefits than about actual use of the purchased items. Friends may prescribe a shopping trip for someone who is depressed; bargains and sales are avidly sought, even though the total expended is certain to be higher when one goes shopping than when one does not; and somewhere in many shoppers' minds is an expectation of approving looks or words that may be evoked by a new garment or tool. The symbolic, emotional, and interpersonal elements of consumerism are difficult to overstate.

That is not to deny that consumers exercise choice; of course they do, in part because the variety of possible purchases is so great that choice is inescapable. Nevertheless just as families come voluntarily to Disney World and then are channeled into preformed experiences, so more generally is consumer behavior in some respects channeled for the convenience and profitability of business. To attract customers, merchandisers play on consumers' envy, shame, and pride, expending 1 trillion dollars annually worldwide on advertising, attractive packaging, and other selling techniques. A small army of psychologists and statisticians conduct market research to learn how to stimulate sales, "constantly gaining more precision in pinpointing the demographic and lifestyle trends of consumer segments, employing new tools such as Internet cookies to monitor the click-streams of e-shoppers" (Cohen 2003, p. 402). The finance industry brilliantly stimulates the borrowing necessary to keep spending high.

Criticisms and Rejoinders

The disposable income required to purchase a growing array of goods and services is of course far more available to the affluent, who are located mainly in North America, Japan, and Europe. At the other end of the spectrum are approximately 1 billion persons who live in absolute poverty, about as many humans as the total number alive prior to the Industrial Revolution. To families without toilets or clean drinking water, television broadcasts the lifestyles of the rich and thereby stimulates consumer aspirations and helps spread consumer society across the globe. Within affluent cultures, intangible ethical consequences of consumerism appear to include deterioration of face-to-face community, increased rates of psychological depression without commensurate improvements in happiness (Lane 2000), and reduced interaction among family members as children turn increasingly to the televisions and computers in their bedrooms. Parents' long working hours sometimes come at the expense of sleep, leisure, family, and friends—a syndrome far more common in some countries (such as the United States) than in others (Schor 1998).

Consumerism is environmentally problematic in obvious ways, but also more subtly, as when distant consumers' appetites for shrimp, teak, and coffee disrupt fragile tropical ecosystems (Tucker 2002). Whether consumerism potentially can be made compatible with environmental sustainability is debatable. The formula for calculating ecological damage is roughly the total number of humans, multiplied by the amount consumed per person, multiplied by the resources utilized and toxicity released per unit of consumption. If the human population declines soon enough, and if technologists figure out how to dramatically reduce resource usage and pollution per unit produced and consumed, increasing material affluence per person might be compatible with greatly reduced environmental damage. Advocates of natural capitalism propose radically reconceptualized ways of providing housing, transport, and consumer products (Hawken et al. 1998, McDonough and Braungart 2002); and a few nanotechnologists believe that molecular manufacturing eventually may eliminate hazardous wastes and other side effects of production. As of the early twenty-first century, however, reductions in pollution per unit in most industries have been offset by population growth and by increased consumption per person.

Not everyone agrees with the above diagnosis. Among counterarguments, they point out that contemporary economies are organized to require an unpleasant choice: allow recession and unemployment, or stimulate the economy through ever-higher levels of consumer spending. In poorer nations, increased investment and purchasing theoretically might be devoted to basic needs including water supply systems, safe sanitation, housing, and nutrition. In the already affluent nations, however, economic growth tends to mean more elaborate barbeque grills, second homes, cosmetic surgery, and other luxuries. These are lesser evils, or not evils at all, to those who emphasize the benefits of full employment, interesting jobs, and liberty to purchase a lifestyle more of one's own choosing than previously possible for most of humanity, together with the value of technological innovation as a means of making life more diverse and more interesting (McCracken 1988).

The Challenge of Change

Few knowledgeable observers presently consider consumer trends compatible with environmental sustainability, but those concerned about unlimited consumerism face a difficult task in addressing the issue. It is easy to make products and production processes a bit greener by, for instance, creating biodegradable carpeting. But limiting the total volume of production and consumption is far more difficult, requiring people to forego some of what they have learned to want. Such a change in consumer mentality presumably would require slowing the drumbeat of messages encouraging consumption, and perhaps even a ban on advertising as well as tight restrictions on consumer credit. Such changes surely depend on ardent environmentalists and other slow-growth advocates winning more elections, which cannot happen without a different attitude among citizens. In other words, consumerism is constructed as a circle, a vicious circle in the eyes of critics.

Changed thinking among scientists, engineers, and other technically trained persons also might be necessary to intervene in the consumerist trajectory. In effect, technoscientists now gain governmental research funding by helping create weaponry, communications, transport, and other innovations helpful in military affairs and in economic activities valued by governing elites. A similar expectation leads industry to help fund scientific research, employ technoscientific consultants, and hire college graduates in chemistry, biotechnology, computer science, and other technical fields. All this makes good sense, in a way; but the partially unintended, collective consequences include the problematic aspects of consumerism.

Breaking out of the consumerist cycle would involve billions of persons over generations in evolving a commendable, interesting, high-technology, lower-consumption way of life. This, arguably, is the master challenge for human civilization—an activity so far-reaching and visionary that no one can fully imagine what would be involved. However a first step probably would require that more people begin to think of consumerism as an ethical, technological, economic, and political issue to be addressed.


SEE ALSO Advertising, Marketing, and Public Relations;Affluence;Cosmetics;Material Culture;Materialism;Popular Culture;Population;Waste.


Cohen, Lizabeth. (2003). A Consumer's Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America. New York: Basic Books. A historical study of the shift in the U.S. toward consumer-citizens who focus not on politics as a quest for the common good but on having government facilitate personal consumption.

Hawken, Paul, Amory Lovins; and L. Hunter Lovins. (1998). Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution. Boston: Little, Brown. Proposes changes in housing, transport, and many other aspects of production and consumption to make compatible the goals of business profitability, technological innovation, fairness, diversity, and environmental sustainability.

Lane, Robert E. (2000). The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. Summarizes and interprets psychological research calling into question the hope that consumerism can lead to a permanent state of enhanced life satisfaction.

McCracken, Grant D. (1988). Culture and Consumption: New Approaches to the Symbolic Character of Consumer Goods and Activities. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Materialism as a quest for intangible goods such as identity and belonging.

McDonough, William, and Michael Braungart. (2002). Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. New York: North Point Press. A visionary yet down-to-earth analysis of how a highly technological lifestyle could be elegantly designed to be environmentally benign.

Ritzer, George. (2004). The McDonaldization of Society, revised new century edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press. Sociological interpretation of the mechanisms that major organizations use to serve growing numbers of people in standardized ways, while displacing local businesses and helping change the culture of everyday life.

Rosenblatt, Roger, ed. (1999). Consuming Desires: Consumption, Culture, and the Pursuit of Happiness. Washington, DC: Island Press. A collection of essays by critics of consumer society.

Schor, Juliet B. (1998). The Overspent American: Upscaling, Downshifting, and the New Consumer. New York: Basic Books. A nonconventional economist's interpretation of the quest for status via consumption.

Tucker, Richard. (2002). "Environmentally Damaging Consumption: The Impact of American Markets on Tropical Ecosystems in the Twentieth Century." In Confronting Consumption, ed. Thomas Princen, Michael Maniates, and Ken Conca. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Twitchell, James B. (2002). Living It Up: Our Love Affair with Luxury. New York: Columbia University Press. An even-handed attempt to find out what luxury means to consumers, based in part on ethnographic research in Beverly Hills and other shopping havens.

World Watch Institute. (2004). State of the World 2004: The Consumer Society. New York: W. W. Norton. Describes global environmental effects of consumption, and presents a plan for moving toward what the authors consider a more just and more sustainable civilization.


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In the 1920s, America became a modern consumer society. The number of automobiles, radios, refrigerators, and other new appliances exploded as factories introduced mass production techniques and advertisers developed new ways of selling these goods. But reformers feared that modern consumers found themselves powerless in the face of manipulative advertising, mass technology, and a maldistribution of income. Consumers could no longer judge the quality of packaged, technically complex items simply by taste, touch, or smell, nor could they bargain over prices. Those concerns gave rise to a consumer movement in the 1920s. The movement began with the publication of Stuart Chase and F. J. Schlink's Your Money's Worth(1927), a best-selling book that exposed false advertising and adulteration of nationally advertised brand-name goods. In response to this book's success, Chase and Schlink established Consumers' Research, the country's first product-testing agency. Although the organization had only several thousand members, the idea that consumers needed help in reforming modern capitalism gained widespread acceptance during the Great Depression.

The Depression led to the creation of new governmental agencies dedicated to protecting consumers. Facing economic devastation and dire need, consumers wanted more for their money. Though the economy experienced massive deflation, not all prices declined as fast as wages, especially as large corporations sought to maintain prices and cut production as an attempt to stabilize profits. In addition, many manufacturers resorted to cheapening the quality of products as a way to cut costs. But the biggest problem that consumers faced during the Great Depression was lack of income. Indeed, many New Dealers believed that underconsumption resulting from a lack of mass purchasing power caused the Depression. Though capital spending fell far more than consumption, the idea of underconsumption as the country's main economic problem had widespread popular appeal.

When President Franklin Roosevelt introduced the New Deal, he adopted a purchasing power rationale and promised an expansion of governmental authority to end underconsumption and increase purchasing power: "The aim of this whole effort is to restore our rich domestic market by raising its vast consuming capacity." But the National Industrial Recovery Act and the Agricultural Adjustment Act were necessarily inflationary. The National Recovery Administration (NRA) suspended antitrust provisions to allow businesses to stabilize production and prices. As a result, the NRA codes worsened the problem of what New Dealer Gardiner Means called "administered prices." Section 7a of the National Industrial Recovery Act was intended to increase wages, but industry noncompliance rendered collective bargaining ineffective. The efforts of the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) to increase the purchasing power of farmers by raising commodity prices was also inflationary. The initiatives of both the NRA and the AAA led to higher prices without substantially increasing national income, and higher prices threatened to undermine public support for the New Deal. As a result, Congress created new bodies to look out for the interests of consumers and to contain consumer protest.

The creation of the NRA's Consumer Advisory Board signaled the incorporation of a progressive attitude into the New Deal and the official recognition of the importance of consumers to economic recovery. The board's first chairman was Mary Rumsey. Born in New York in 1881 to E. H. Harriman, a railroad financier, Rumsey grew up in elite circles, but she maintained a lifelong interest in social welfare. During World War I, Rumsey helped organize community councils under the Council of National Defense. Those councils played an important role in monitoring wartime prices and served as the basis of cooperatives after the war. During the 1920s, Rumsey developed close ties to the female reform community, and she received her appointment to the Consumer Advisory Board at the behest of her close friend and roommate Frances Perkins. Rumsey, who also had the ear of Eleanor Roosevelt, appointed to the board representatives from women's groups that were sympathetic to consumer issues, including the American Home Economics Association, the General Federation of Women's Clubs, the National Consumers' League, the Women's Trade Union League, the League of Women Voters, and the American Association of University Women. Rumsey also appointed social scientists, such as Gardiner Means, Robert Lynd, and Paul Douglas.

In the AAA, Secretary Henry Wallace created the Consumers' Counsel to protect consumer interests, and he appointed Frederic Howe as its first head. Howe was a leading municipal reformer who had long advocated the need for public markets. World War I was a formative experience for Howe, as it had been for Rumsey. While serving as commissioner of immigration at Ellis Island in New York Harbor, Howe wrote The High Cost of Living (1917), in which he argued that food monopolies paid farmers too little for their products and charged urban consumers too much. As head of the Consumers' Counsel, Howe argued that processors raised prices more than was necessary to make up the value of the processing tax, and thus gouged the American public. Howe's theories about monopolistic pricing in the food industry, as well as in other important industrial sectors, received support from Gardiner Means, who served as Wallace's economic adviser. In addition, liberals within the AAA, such as Modercai Ezekiel, Louis Bean, and Jerome Frank, along with Undersecretary of Agriculture Rexford Tugwell, supported the Consumers' Counsel's attack on high prices, low wages, and degraded quality, which they believed to be impediments to economic recovery.

Although the NRA Consumer Advisory Board and the AAA Consumers' Counsel were established to diffuse consumer protests, they legitimized and fueled growing activism. At the policy level, they had little impact, but at a popular level, they gave administrative endorsement to the idea of high prices as profiteering and low wages as economically unsound. In the fall of 1933, the formation of the Emergency Conference of Consumer Organizations, which represented fifty consumer groups, signaled a growing unrest, as did the hundreds of thousands of letters that citizens sent to Washington with details of economic difficulty. Especially telling were the thousands of bread wrappers that consumers sent to demonstrate what they believed to be, and what Secretary Wallace had told them were, unjustified prices. In response to increasing agitation, Eleanor Roosevelt invited the Emergency Conference of Consumer Organizations to the White House for a high profile meeting on consumer problems. One of the most vocal representatives, Leon Henderson, condemned the Consumer Advisory Board as ineffective. As the director of the remedial loan division for the Russell Sage Foundation, Henderson saw first-hand how economic necessity drove low-income wage earners into the grips of loan sharks. After the White House meeting, NRA administrator Hugh Johnson hired Henderson as an advisor on consumer problems. He was soon promoted to the post of chief of the NRA research and planning division, a position he used to continue his attack on high prices and low wages.

New Deal consumer advocates pushed for three programs. First, they sought to organize county consumer councils to create a consumer movement. In response, the NRA created the Bureau of Consumer Economic Education under the direction of economist Paul Douglas and underconsumption theorist William Trufant Foster. The bureau established councils in two hundred counties; each council included home economists and county agents, as well as housewives, wage earners, and farmers of modest means. These councils, along with women's clubs, churches, labor unions, and other organized groups, received new government publications on consumer issues. The Consumers' Counsel, for example, sent out tens of thousands of copies of Consumers Guide, which listed average prices for basic goods like meat, milk, and bread, and urged consumers not to pay more. Second, in addition to grassroots organizing, consumer advocates pushed for an end to price fixing in NRA codes. Finally, consumer advocates called for a government system of quality standards to provide consumers with essential product information. The Consumer Advisory Board hired well-known sociologist Robert Lynd and consumer advocate Caroline Ware to investigate the possibility of government-imposed grade labeling on the theory that even if consumers were not well organized, they could benefit from knowing more about the goods they purchased. Demands for better standards culminated in the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938 that required better product labeling and extended the Food and Drug Administration's regulation to the cosmetic industry.

New Deal rhetoric aroused consumers who felt entitled to fair prices and good quality, especially during a time of serious economic need. In the spring of 1935, when record-breaking droughts caused a shortage of cattle, consumers protested rising meat prices. In cities across the country, housewives formed High Cost of Living Committees to demand price cuts on meat, milk, and bread. Regardless of the real causes for price increases, these angry consumers blamed food monopolies and demanded justice in the marketplace. Some of this movement's leaders came from the country's most politically radical groups, including the Communist Party, but many of the movement's followers were ordinary housewives having a hard time making ends meet. The League of Women Shoppers, for example, was a Popular Front organization that gained a middle-class following during the meat crisis by mobilizing housewives against price increases. In Detroit, Mary Zuk, another radical activist, led housewives on a meat boycott while also helping to form the United Auto Workers.

By the late 1930s, business was forced to acknowledge the presence of a growing consumer movement as testified by the popularity of Consumers' Research and the spread of consumer boycotts. Business Week argued that the business community should support the demands of consumer groups for a Department of the Consumer as a way to keep track of this burgeoning threat. The mobilization for World War II bolstered the consumer movement. Both New Deal consumer advocates and grassroots organizations staffed the newly created Office of Price Administration (OPA), which was set up to curb wartime inflation. Its first administrator was Leon Henderson, who implemented a national system of price controls, rationing for fair distribution, and government grade labeling. To enforce compliance, the OPA set up "little OPAs" in every community. These boards were the heirs of the NRA county councils. Though not the Department of the Consumer that advocates had desired, the OPA pushed for many of the programs that had been at the heart of the consumer movement during the Depression.



Angevine, Erma, ed. Consumer Activists: They Made a Difference, a History of Consumer Action Related by Leaders in the Consumer Movement. 1982.

Campbell, Persia. Consumer Representation in the New Deal. 1940.

Glickman, Lawrence. "The Strike in the Temple of Consumption: Consumer Activism and Twentieth-Century American Political Culture." Journal of American History 88 (2001): 99–128.

Jacobs, Meg. "'Democracy's Third Estate': New Deal Politics and the Construction of a 'Consuming Public.'" International Labor and Working-Class History 55 (1999): 27–51.

Orleck, Annelise. "'We Are that Mythical Thing Called the Public': Militant Housewives during the Great Depression." Feminist Studies 19 (1993): 147–172.

Sorenson, Helen. The Consumer Movement: What It Is and What It Means. 1941.

Meg Jacobs


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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 peoplewhich makes them try to stay ahead of, or at least to keep up with, the consumption of othersinduces 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 peoples 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


Crocker, David C., and Toby Linden, eds. 1998. Ethics of Consumption: The Good Life, Justice and Global Stewardship. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Frank, Robert. 1999. Luxury Fever: Why Money Fails to Satisfy in an Era of Excess. New York: Free Press.

Scitovsky, Tibor. [1976] 1992. The Joyless Economy: An Inquiry into Human Satisfaction and Consumer Dissatisfaction. New York: Oxford University Press.

Stearns, Peter N. 2001. Consumerism in World History: The Global Transformation of Desire. London: Routledge.

Twitchell, James B. 2002. Living It Up: Americas Love Affair with Luxury. New York: Columbia University Press.

Veblen, Thorstein. [1899] 1998. The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions. Amherst, NY: Prometheus.

Amitava Krishna Dutt


views updated May 29 2018

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.


views updated Jun 11 2018

consumerism Belief that consumers should influence the policies and practices regulating the standards and methods of manufacturers, advertisers and sellers. Interest in consumerism first arose in the United States in the 1960s, with Ralph Nader responsible for raising the issue in the public consciousness.