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by David Blanke
Rosary College and Concordia University, River Forest, IL
Eric Hoffer, the erstwhile longshoreman turned social critic and radio personality, wrote in 1955 that "'More!' is as effective a revolutionary slogan as was ever invented by doctrinaires of discontent. The American, who cannot learn to want what he has, is a permanent revolutionary" (Hoffer, _The Passionate State of Mind_, 1955). Sandwiched between Marshall McLuhan's _The Mechanical Bride_ (1951) and John Kenneth Galbraith's _The Affluent Society_ (1958), Hoffer's observations indicate how Americans of all ideological stripes increasingly questioned the role of "modern consumer culture" in the U.S. The omnipresent faith invested in consumer goods, both for easing the burdens of everyday life as well as a touchstone by which citizens might measure their relative social progress, succored a post-war economic expansion of record proportions. Continued enrichment through material gain became and remains America's modern manifest destiny. Yet, as Hoffer and many other suspected, all that glittered was not gold. Rampant consumerism had seemingly sheared the individual from their communal roots. If "more" was indeed a "revolutionary slogan," it heralded a revolution that quite possibly undermined many of America's most longest-held assumptions regarding republicanism, equality, and virtue. The historiography of consumer culture during the Gilded and Progressive Eras (GAPE) highlights these controversies and places our modern consumer values in sharper relief.
In large measure, the roots of modern materialism were established and then cultivated during the GAPE. While picayune controversies seeking to identify "firsts" or to relocate the exact "when and where" of this process continue unabated, it is clear that the general availability of mass-produced consumer goods, the maturation of America's credit and transportation infrastructure, and the advent of a professional class of business managers and advertisers all appeared in their modern guise during the GAPE. Recent works on the Revolutionary and Early National Period have unquestionably demonstrated that market and consumer values were indeed taking on a decidedly modern complexion as early as the eighteenth century. Yet these works stress that the conditions that engendered change had not yet matured and it would be decades before anything like a national phenomenon might be observed (Steven Hahn and Jonathan Prude, eds. _The Countryside in the Age of Capitalist Transformation_, 1985; Christopher Clark, _The Roots of Rural Capitalism_, 1990; Carole Shammus, _The Pre-Industrial Consumer in England and America_, 1990; Winifred Barr Rothenberg, _From Market-Place to Market Economy_, 1992; T. H. Breen, "Narrative of a Commercial Life," Wm & Mary Qrtly, July, 1993: 471-501; Cary Carson, Ronald Hoffman, and Peter Albert, eds., _Of Consuming Interests_, 1994; and Thomas Haskill and Richard Teichgraeber, _The Culture of the Market_, 1994).
Modern consumerism is defined by a set of paradoxical yet commonly recognizable characteristics. On the positive side, a modern consumer society is one in which a large variety of consumer goods are made available at a relatively low cost through mass production and an extensive distribution network. Manufacturers attempt to respond to consumer demand which, in turn, facilitates and often glorifies individual expression. But as any consumer knows there are strings attached. The requirement for cost efficient production gives a competitive advantage to larger corporations. These firms often maintain an unfair competitive advantage over the marketplace due to their size. Moreover, they utilize their bountiful resources to inundate the consumer with manipulative advertising that seeks to create a self-serving "exclusivity" through the use of their patented, mass-produced goods. As a result the dream of unfettered self- expression often devolves into a republican nightmare of aspiring, hedonistic excess.
Depending on one's perspective, then, a narrative of modern consumerism can emerge as a story of declension or one of progress. From the standpoint of the nineteenth-century consumer the improvement in quality, reduction in price, and diversity of goods generally improved throughout the GAPE . As Tom Schlereth notes, Americans found that the "goods life" offered legitimate answers to some of their more pressing physical needs (Schlereth, _Victorian America: Transformations of Everyday Life, 1876-1915_, 1991). Many consumers were glad to be rid of the mind-numbing drudgery associated with home production. For example, rural women spent countless hours preparing, dipping, and storing candles that were now routinely available at local retail outlets. Similar examples exist with the production of buttons, cloth, and footwear. With the decrease in cost it was often economically advantageous for a family to purchase goods rather than spend their precious time producing them (Ruth Schwartz Cowan, _More Work For Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology_. 1983; Simon Bronner ed. _Consuming Visions: Accumulation and Display of Goods in America_, 1989; Kenneth Ames, _Death in the Dining Room_, 1992; Sally McMurry, _Transforming Rural Life_, 1995; and Marilyn Irvin Holt, _Linoleum, Better Babies, and the Modern Farm Woman_, 1995).
These "progressive" characteristics and their alleged therapeutic effects often blurred the judgement of many outstanding economists and sociologists during the GAPE. For example, John Bates Clark and Simon Patten both held that economic affluence was ushering in an era where, in the words of Clark, cheap consumer goods provided a life lived "near the line of maximum happiness." (J. B. Clark, "The Society of the Future," _The Independent_ 53, July 18, 1901: 1649-1651). Some, like futurist author Edward Bellamy believed that these benefits lay just around the corner. In _Looking Backward_ and _Equality_ he predicted that in the twenty-first century America finally would realize its fundamental dreams of economic justice and republican virtue. The author's socialist vision was expressed most directly in his prophecies regarding future consumer practices. Aided by the streamlined distribution and wide variety of non-gendered consumer goods, Americans would regain their self-control and again cherish a lifestyle of simplicity and utility (Edward Bellamy, _Looking Backward: 2000-1887_, 1888 and _Equality_, 1897; Carl Guarneri, _The Utopian Alternative: Fourierism in Nineteenth-Century America_, 1992).
While Bellamy's forecast turned sour with our modern perspective, his writings reflect that many Americans had seriously considered the ramifications of unconstrained consumerism. Significantly, in his sequel Bellamy recognized that the changes to industrial capitalism and individual materialism could not transpire without a revolution. Incited by farmers who rejected the high-priced technology needed for their craft, Bellamy saw agrarian unrest of 1873 as the "beginning of the final or revolutionary period of the pseudo-American Republic which resulted in the establishment of the present system." Bellamy's forthcoming socialist order possessed a decidedly communal appreciation for materialism and his censure of the existing order stands in stark contrast to Clark's guarded optimism.
Yet a declensive narrative does overlay the story of material well-being. Like modern-day shrink-wrap, structural and ideological restraints encased the consumer culture, isolating individual producers and consumers alike. As the market economy took hold Americans increasingly lost the ability to identify the source of their economic ills. In the words of William Cronon, the market "concealed the very linkages it was creating.... making it harder and harder to keep track of the true costs and consequences of any particular product" (Cronon, _Nature's Metropolis_, 1991). Cronon's depiction of Midwestern farmers buying pancake mix from Chicago's mail-order firms -- consisting largely of the wheat grown in their own fields -- is an effective illustration of this point.
The leading cause of this transition was the growth of large, bureaucratically coordinated manufacturers and distributors. Identifying the principal social and economic repercussions from this metamorphosis has been at the heart of the GAPE historiography for nearly two generations (Samuel P. Hays, _The Response to Industrialism_, 1961; Robert H. Wiebe, _The Search for Order_, 1967; Carl Degler, _The Age of Economic Revolution_, 1977; Alfred Chandler, Jr., _The Visible Hand_, 1977; Richard M. Abrams, _The Burdens of Progress_, 1978; Nell Irvin Painter, _Standing at Armageddon_, 1989; and Clarence Wunderlin, _Visions of a New Industrial Order_, 1992). Firms grew not solely for the sake of size but in order to control and direct the far flung operations required by large-scale manufacturing and distribution. Glenn Porter and Harold Livesay's account of iron production during the early national period illustrates the subtle transformations which led to this horizontal and vertical integration -- from local smelters, forges & smiths, to commission dealers, urban merchants, technical and management specialists, and rail transport (Porter & Livesay, _Merchants and Manufacturers_, 1971; and Glenn Porter, _The Rise of Big Business_, 1973). While there are qualifications to the seemingly determined growth and coordination of American industry (e.g., David Hounshell, _From American System to Mass Production_, 1984; and John Ingham, _Making Iron and Steel_, 1991), the birth of large-scale manufacturing and distribution provided the _sine qua non_ of a modern consumer society: low cost and abundant consumer goods.
Concurrent and sympathetic to the rise of big business was the expansion of the wholesale and retail distribution network. The problems with local retailing in the antebellum years are legendary. In most rural settings and many small town stores consumers encountered a narrow range of goods of unpredictable quality. Moreover, rural patrons found it hard to communicate their consumer desires up the supply chain. This fragmented market permitted suppliers to maintain a "top-down" control over the consumer economy (an important exception was the rural consumer cooperative, see Steven James Keillor, "Democratic Coordination in the Marketplace: Minnesota's Rural Cooperatives, 1865-1917," Ph.D. diss., University of Minnesota, December 1992; and, excuse me for the plug, David Blanke, "Sowing the American Dream: Consumer Culture in the Rural Middle West, 1865-1900," Ph.D. diss., Loyola University Chicago, May, 1996). While historians differ as to the benefit of this transformation, most agree that local retailers lost their place of respect in the local community when their "customers" became "consumers" of national brands. (Susan Strasser, _Satisfaction Guaranteed_, 1989; and Richard Tedlow, _New and Improved_, 1990). A critical link in transforming the retail market was the displacement of wholesale jobbers and agents by the manufacturer's territorial representative. While both functions coordinated the transfer of goods from manufacturer to retailer the rise of name-brand goods supplied by dedicated wholesalers was, as Richard Tedlow notes, pivotal in the "unification phase" of the market from 1890 to 1920. (for the connection between agents and direct retailing see Olivier Zunz, _Making America Corporate_, 1990; Timothy Spears, _100 Years on the Road: The Travelling Salesman in American Culture_, 1995; Jeffrey Adler, _Yankee Merchants and the Making of the Urban West_, 1991; and David Jaffe, "Peddlers of Progress" JAH, Sept. 1991: 511-535).
By 1920 local retailers and national advertisers had completed the groundwork for the modern consumer culture. These groups had segmented the market by replacing the generic yet dominant brands with a variety of targeted, niche merchandise which claimed to provide consumers more personal (often psychological) utility. Even shopping became experiential and an end to itself -- a self- exploring excursion into fantasy and fulfillment freed from the economic consequences of unbridled consumption (William Leach, _Land of Desire_, 1993; for a slightly different approach, see Susan Porter Benson, _Counter Cultures_, 1986; and Elaine Abelson, _When Ladies Go A-Thieving_, 1989). Of course, retailing owed much of its newfound success to the support provided by innovative mass advertising techniques. In particular, pitch-men proposed "reason-why" advertisements that heightened the emotional investment that the consumer made in choosing a particular product (the historiography of advertising during the GAPE is probable the best developed and most penetrating of all the sub-categories discussed in this essay. See Jackson Lears and Richard Wightman Fox, _The Culture of Consumption_, 1983; Stephen R. Fox, _The Mirror Makers_, 1984; Roland Marchand, _Advertising the American Dream_, 1985; James D. Norris, _Advertising and the Transformation of American Society_, 1990; Jackson Lears, _Fables of Abundance_, 1994; and Jennifer Scanlon, _Inarticulate Longings_, 1995).
Modern materialism did not evolve in a vacuum. There were dozens of other equally significant shifts in popular culture that condoned and reinforced the notion of "consuming happiness." Cinema, amusement parks, fashionable magazines, national and international fairs, and mass-sporting events were only some of the novelties that either explicitly or equivocally supported modern consumerism (John Kasson, _Amusing the Million_, 1978; Gunther Barth, _City People_, 1980; Kathy Peiss, _Cheap Amusements_, 1986; Elliott Gorn, _The Manly-Art_, 1986; Richard Butsch, ed. _For Fun and Profit_, 1990; James Gilbert, _Perfect Cities_, 1991; David Nasaw, _Going Out_, 1993; Helen Damon-Moore, _Magazines for the Millions_, 1994; Robert Rydell and Nancy Givina, eds., _Fair Representations_, 1994; Leigh Eric Schmidt, _Consumer Rights: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays_, 1995). As such, consumerism became an imprecise tool used by groups to foster unionization, fortify or curtail gender boundaries, define acceptable class behavior, or a variety of other equally complex purposes (Karen Halttunen, _Confidence Men and Painted Women_, 1982; Roy Rosensweig, _Eight Hours for What We Will_, 1983; Christine Stansel, _City of Women_, 1986; Lawrence Levine, _Highbrow/Lowbrow_, 1988; Joan Shelby Rubin, _Making of Middlebrow Culture_, 1992; Elaine Abelson and Susan Porter Benson cited above).
For this reason contemporaries and subsequent generations of scholars have been fascinated by the ideological and normative values associated with modern consumer culture during the GAPE. Critics from Thorstein Veblen to Theodore Adorno scoffed at the affected "social mobility" and legitimate economic impediments associated with "conspicuous consumption." While David Potter and Daniel Boorstin argue that mass consumption aided in the development of a modern (and generally advantageous) national character, others such as Daniel Bell, Christopher Lasch, Stuart Ewen, and Warren Susman warn that this "character" is pervaded by economic exclusivity, overt class conflict, and anti-democratic sentiments (see John Hollitz, "The Challenge of Abundance: Reactions to the Development of the Consumer Society, 1890-1920," Ph.D. diss., University of Wisconsin - Madison, 1981; Warren Susman, _Culture as History_, 1984; Daniel Horowitz, _The Morality of Spending_, 1985; Alun Munslow, _Discourse and Culture_, 1992; George Cotkin, _Reluctant Modernism_, 1992; and Gary Cross, _Time and Money: The Making of Consumer Culture_, 1993). While many of these concerns were more fully expressed after 1920 it is clear that the cornerstone had been laid during the GAPE.
Nowhere are these conflicts and anxieties more apparent, or more complex, than in our understanding of Henry Ford, Fordism, and the mass-marketing of the automobile. Initially a product reserved for the elite, Ford's simplified assembly-line process made the motorcar an affordable and then essential component of modern mass consumer culture. Car ownership not only symbolized abundance but also the freedom to pursue many of the popular entertainments mentioned above. Moreover, Fordism affected workers in strange and often contradictory ways. While the manufacturing process was simplified, Henry Ford failed to achieve any comprehensive control over his workforce. Further, Ford Motor Company's ample compensation provided workers access to the new consumer delicacies that undermined class- consciousness (yet, ironically many of these same workers also rejected suburban middle-class values). David Harvey's trenchant analysis of Fordism marks it as the debarkation point for our "post-modern" society, of cardinal importance in understanding consumerism in the twentieth century, and goes a long way toward explaining why this workers' "revolution" has been of such critical importance to neo-Marxists (Kieth Sward, _The Legend of Henry Ford_, 1948; Bennett Berger, _Working-Class Suburbs_, 1971; Stephen Meyer, _The Five Dollar Day_, 1981; David Harvey, _The Conditions of Post-Modernity_, 1989).
If there are deficiencies in the historiography of modern consumerism it lies in our meager understanding of the individual consumer. One wonders if the celebrated debates over managerial control of the distribution network or the ideological hegemony of the upper and middle classes have persisted as long as they have simply due to our lack of knowledge of the consumers themselves. Three distinguished recent books (Lizabeth Cohen, _Making A New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939_, 1990; Andrew Heinze, _Adapting to Abundance: Jewish Immigrants, Mass Consumption, and the Search for American Identity_, 1990; and Dana Frank, _Purchasing Power: Consumer Organizing, Gender, and the Seattle Labor Movement, 1919-1929_, 1994) suggest that such a focus is highly rewarding. In addition, research in other developed nations suggests that a greater focus on comparative analysis would help free us from exceptionalism or unduly repetitive debates (Richard Altick, _The Shows of London_, 1978; Neil McKendrick, John Brewer, and J. H. Plumb, _The Birth of a Consumer Society_, 1979; W. Hamish Fraser, _The Coming of the Mass Market_, 1981; Rosalind Williams, _Dream Worlds_, 1982; M. J. Daunton, _House and Home in the Victorian City_, 1983; Daniel Miller, _Material Culture and Mass Consumption_, 1987; and Richard Thomas; _The Commodity Culture of Victorian England_, 1990). Only by understanding the actions and beliefs of the average consumer -- in comparison with advertising executives, manufacturers, or social elites throughout the developed world -- can we come to an understanding of just how revolutionary modern materialism actually may be.
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