Consumerism is the theory that an increase in the consumption of goods is economically desirable. In other words, it is economically “attractive” to encourage the obtaining of goods and services in increasing amounts. The presidency of President Woodrow Wilson gave rise to American consumerism in the 1920s. Consumerism is known to be the shift in American culture from being a producer society in the nineteenth century to a consumer society in the twentieth century.
From the colonial era to the late nineteenth century, America was a predominantly producer society.
Americans produced what they needed for their immediate families and villages. Farmers grew a variety of crops and vegetables and only stored what their families could use. They would take the extra crops and vegetables to the nearest town to sell. Livestock was limited, in which there were just enough to help with the land and for slaughter. The livestock included one or two cows and a few pigs and fowl for the families needs.
At this time, artisans produced furniture, clothing, tools and firearms on a piece-by-piece basis. This meant that mass production was not possible since each good had to be handmade. Most Americans produced only what they could use or sell and only purchase what neighbors had to offer. This producer society worked in the favor of the Americans prior to the American Revolution. The “non-consumption” movement allowed for Americans to make their necessities at home instead of purchasing from British merchants, in order to avoid the tax on goods sold to Americans.
As production boomed, consumerism began to shape the American marketplace, allowing it to spread from cities to suburbs. An influx of technological innovations, white-collar jobs, credit, and new consumer groups allowed this era to be a high point of American productivity and high standard living. The Roaring Twenties is often used as a successful example of the consumer era. This time period included technological advances, innovative ideas, and new inventions in areas such as manufacturing. For example, Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, which made southern cotton profitable, and established the idea of interchangeable parts. Whitney came to the realization that artisans could speed their work and double their output, which led to the creation of a machine that would assist the process of making the product. The artisans could now make more pieces, prices would drop, thus making it available to more consumers, and the items would be more durable. Francis Cabot Lowell created a “company town,” in which young women would work for him during the day and attend classes at night. This encouraged the movement from farm to city as people began to leave their family farms to work at industrial centers.
Additionally, the consumer era prompted American expansion and transportation. Upon victory in the American Revolution, the people realized that it would be difficult to transport their produce over the Appalachians to eastern markets. The extensive route that would have to be taken encouraged the arrival of steamships with engines that could be efficiently built with interchangeable parts. The introduction to steamships not only stimulated market shipping, but also allowed for the creation of canals. Americans built canals from city to city throughout the East and parts of the South, the most famous being the Erie Canal. Another factor that encouraged growth was railroads. Railroads, unlike the canals, were constantly up and running and easier to maintain. The transcontinental railroad, that linked the East with the farWest, and the Homestead Act allowed the United States to use the land it claimed during war. Farmers in the West would ship their produce to the East and use the profits to buy supplies and other food that the railroads brought back from the East.
Furthermore, technology assisted in the growth of expansion and transportation. George Westinghouse invented the steam brake, which provided a safer and easier way to stop trains. Also, refrigerated cars allowed railroads to carry perishable goods across the country without the risk of the goods rotting and making consumers ill. Andrew Carnegie brought over the “Bessemer Process” for making steel, which made railroads more durable due to the stronger material. Industrial workplaces began to create steel, locomotives, clothing, furniture, and electric appliances. Another famous inventor, Thomas Alva Edison, created the electric light bulb which helped industrial employees to work before sunrise and after sunset. Many farmers began to leave their agricultural areas to move to cities and find steady work in industries. The migration of farmers and technological advances allowed for cities and urban areas to grow around these industrial centers. This sparked the establishment of groceries, drugstores, gas, and electric supply. Though there were a lack of farmers, inventors came up with more efficient ways to provide the people with food.
Although the consumer era contributed positive benefits to society and the growth of the nation, there were repercussions of these advances. Farmers began to feel enslaved to the railroads because they were forced to pay the freight rates demanded by the railroads. There was also little competition alleviate the freight rates, giving the farmers no way out. If competition sprouted, the older lines would keep reducing their rates until the competition went out of business. The railroads also had the power to alter schedules to certain areas, therefore forcing farmers to store their grain in storages owned by the railroads. Employees in the industrial workplaces worked long hours in dangerous conditions with low pay. Owners did not see the need to compensate employees who were injured on the job or to provide financial assistance to the families of workers who died in the workplace. Politics also played a role in the corrupt business of industrial centers. Politicians would claim to provide immigrants, who fled their countries due to famine and political unrest, with jobs in exchange for votes. The influx of people coming into the country caused production to rapidly increase, thus leading to the establishment of mass advertising. Newspapers and magazines displayed ads for clothing, furniture, and technology.
Consumerism directly led to the beginning of the Progressive Era, which promoted consumer advocacy and consumer protection. In the 1870s, Midwestern and Western farmers reached out to the government for intervention due to the malicious rate practices of railroads. Americans wanted a laissez-faire government, in which the government would handle foreign relations, wars, coinage of money, and tariffs, but stayed out of the affairs of private relations and businesses. The successful efforts of the farmers resulted in the passing of the Interstate Commerce Act by Congress in 1887. This act would regulated the railroad industry, allowing for rates to be reasonable and just to the public. It is believed that consumerism in the 1900s resulted in antitrust and labor-rights legislation.
President Theodore Roosevelt encouraged the passing of the legislation that would guard the sterility of prepared foods and drugs. Packing companies used formaldehyde and other chemicals to preserve foods that were made available to the public. Upton Sinclair inadvertently shed light on the unkempt conditions within the meatpacking industry. Sinclair’s novel, The Jungle, explored the filth of a meatpacking plant in Chicago in 1906. The publicity of the book, the actions of President Roosevelt, and the American Medical Association, motivated the passing of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. Another factor of the rise of consumerism is Henry Ford’s use of assembly lines in the 1920s. Instead of having just one team work on one car at a time, the assembly utilized several workers who performed specialized tasks, making the process quicker. The use of an assembly line, in Ford’s case, made cars cheaper and people were able to buy the automobiles on credit by making monthly payments. The increase in the production and sale of automobiles led to more paving projects, filling stations, and advertisements in these filling stations.
Following the stock market crash and the Great Depression, unemployment rates averaged more than 30%. Products that were once necessities in the 1920s, had now become luxuries in the 1930s. In the wake of failure, sadness, and fear, entertainment became the biggest consumer good in the 1930s. Hollywood’s “Golden Age” emerged during this time, in which movies were cheap to make and relied more on acting and writing rather than special effects. Other forms of entertainment, such as comic books and radio provided the people with an escape from their harsh realities. Also, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, during his term from 1933-1936, introduced the New Deal. The New Deal would be used to stabilize the economy and provide jobs and relief to those suffering. The 1930s also gave way to the passing of a legislation that gave increased power to the Food and Drug Administration, which protected consumers from unsafe food and drug products.
Following a recession in 1946, consumerism boomed in 1947 as couples began to buy homes and migrated to suburban areas. The settling of families urged the replacement of old automobiles and led to emergence of the baby boomers. During the 1950s, families bought new homes, new television sets, cars, furniture, lawn mowers, etc. The recording industry also boomed during this time as kids purchased millions of records to play on their compact record players. Television was a largely consumed good because it portrayed an American lifestyle that people felt they needed be part of in order to be accepted into the modern society. The tv shows, sitcoms, sponsored ads, and commercials displayed the way the families should act, look like, and the things they should have.
Mass advertisement utilized emotion and basic human needs to their advantage. Advertising reflected the idea that consumerism gave people reason to modernize themselves, their homes, and their lifestyles. Consumerism was used as a path toward personal security and content. It was believed that advertising unfairly targeted human fears to sell goods and provided the people with lies about the legitimacy of health-related products. Research and advocacy groups, however, attempted to educate consumers to make better purchasing decisions, in order to protect themselves from falling victim to mass advertising. The works of authors such as Betty Friedan and the debut of birth control pills in the 1960s inspired women to take a different approach to life. Women realized that their only option was no longer being a housewife and tending to a husband and kids. They were introduced to new appearances and a different role in society that did not have to be centered around motherly chores. Commercials popularized free lifestyles for women with portable hair curlers and blow dryers.
Advertisement also took advantage of the inner minds of males. Men were portrayed as drinkers and smokers who drove muscle cars and displayed a resemblance to James Bond. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy advocated for the Consumer Bill of Rights, in which all consumers would have the right to safety, the right to be informed, the right to choose and be heard. An influential contributor to the consumer era was Ralph Nader. In 1965, Nader investigated the automobile industry and discovered that manufacturers bared little concern for the safety of motorist in the design of their cars. During the 1960s, the “truth-in-packing” bill of 1966 was passed by Congress and cigarette packages had to have a warning about tobacco and cancer.
Along with the new innovations comes a price that society has to pay. The 20th and 21st centuries have shown us that consumerism has led to the rise of materialism. It is said that the American culture has begun to move away from their values of community, spirituality, and integrity. The American people have instead moved towards competition, disconnection from our true selves, and materialism. Businesses have used this distance to their advantage by making wealthy consumers their targets of marketing. The marketing system has effectively broadened the idea of choice by serving the specific and diverse needs of all consumer groups, meaning that everyone had something. An increase in the average American family’s earnings has encouraged consumers to purchase luxurious goods and adding onto the luxuries they already have. Families would now have more than they need such as having two cars instead of just one. The sales of electronics and household appliances such as refrigerators greatly increased during this time as more incomes began to rise and families felt they needed more. Consumer spending for new technologies such as coffee makers, electric carving knives, and hair dryers soared from approximately $7.6 billion in 1960 to $13.9 billion in 1970.
Furthermore, it is important that society recognizes the fact that there are still many people who cannot afford basic necessities. These basic necessities include paying bills, being able to afford doctor or dentist visits, and a lack of food. According to research conducted in 2002, approximately 29 million households in the United States lacked an income that did not meet minimum-budget needs. When consumers divulge in spending, it is very likely for them to end up short in other areas, thus causing them to give up basic necessities. Research completed by Juliet Schor, a Harvard economist, shows that average household savings rate has declined from 8% in 1980 to 4% in 1990 to 0% today. Americans have become increasingly wasteful due to over-consumption. Consumers continuously purchase more than they need and often find themselves in situations where they are pressured to buy expensive products to fit into the modern American lifestyle. Many Americans claim to be working to make ends meet, but analysis of their spendings show that they spend a bulk of their income on brand-name clothing, new cars, and other products that they do not necessarily need.