The Culture of Consumerism
| The Celebration of Waste
| Resistance to Creative Waste
| Spending for Prosperity
The Affluent Society
During the early stages of industrialization, the provision of basic necessities absorbed most of the nation's productive capacity. Railroads, iron and steel, foundries and machine shops, lumber, textiles, and meat packing ranked among the leading industries in 1900.
By the middle of the twentieth century, however, the shift from heavy industry to consumer goods-automobiles, household appliances, radios and television sets, ready-made clothing, prepared foodwas unmistakable. At the height of the postwar boom, consumer debt (excluding real estate loans) increased from $27.4 billion to $41.7 billion (52 percent) in the four years from 1952 to 1956 alone. Half of the families in the middle-income range carried installment payments.
Their ancestors had been taught that "he that goes a borrowing goes a sorrowing," in the saying of Benjamin Franklin's Poor Richard. In the "affluent society," as John Kenneth Galbraith called it in 1958, this homespun philosophy seemed as archaic as homespun clothing. The morality of thrift, it seemed, was hopelessly misplaced in an economy based on immediate gratification. "Buy now, pay later" sounded like a more appropriate axiom. Who could object to a little everyday extravagance when it helped to sustain unprecedented prosperity, an outpouring of goods? In supermarkets, shoppers chose from "thousands of items on the high-piled shelves," according to an excited report in Life magazine, "until their carts became cornucopias filled with an abundance that no other country in the world has ever known."