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The Culture of consumerism

What Barbie Dolls
Have to Say...

The Culture of Consumerism
Christopher Lasch

Start | The Celebration of Waste | Resistance to Creative Waste | Spending for Prosperity
The Affluent Society | References

Spending for Prosperity.

But nothing came of these appeals. Those who set the terms of public discussion argued that spending, not saving, held out the best hope of prosperity. Advertisements and motion pictures continued to admire the rich, dwelling in loving detail on their pearls, yachts, and luxurious mansions. Advertisements designed to exploit the "whole ground of feminine longing and feminine envy," as the Hoover Company explained to its salesmen, encouraged middle- and working-class women to aspire to opulence and ease. "You see her wearing a plain little house dress, but she sees herself someday in velvet and ermine." In the meantime, she used a vacuum cleaner "that the richest woman in the world can't outdo her in." The idea behind its advertising campaign, Hoover pointed out, was to picture the "woman of wealth and the woman of little means," to "contrast their situation" and reveal the "gulf" between them, and then to "bridge that gulf" by showing that both owned a Hoover. A trade journal, Advertising and Selling, held up the Hoover campaign as the epitome of psychological insight. "Ordinary folks are always pleased to know they can have the products good enough for Vanderbilts, Astors, Huttons, Mellons, and Fords" (quoted in Marchand, pp. 292-295).

World War II, in spite of shortages and rationing, did nothing to reduce the social prestige of goods or the appeal of consumption. On the contrary, wartime propaganda explained the war essentially as a defense of the high standard of living Americans were privileged to enjoy. The "American way of life" was now identified so closely with the American standard of living, and freedom with a wide choice of competing consumer goods, that appeals to any larger war aims seemed almost superfluous?unlikely to succeed in any case. The postwar migration to the suburbs, even more clearly than the war effort, indicated how completely the consumerist ideal had eclipsed older conceptions of the American dream. Any lingering sense of a common civic identity was unlikely to flourish in communities populated by rootless, transient individuals and organized around the pursuit of private pleasures. Single?family dwellings and private motorcars, not to mention the absence of civic amenities, made this commitment to privacy unmistakable. Physically removed from the workplace, suburbs were devoted to leisure by definition, and the vast housing tracts that grew up on their fringes, pushing farther and farther into the countryside, announced in every detail of their design that leisure was to be enjoyed in private more often than not, in front of a television set.

In 1946, only six thousand television sets were manufactured in the United States. By 1953, the figure had risen to seven million. The number of sets in use rose from seventeen thousand in 1946 to ninety million in 1971. This seductive new medium promoted consumption not merely in advertising but in programs that typically showed suburban families surrounded by their possessions. Its imagery of abundance, however fantastic and dreamlike, had a firm basis in fact. In the 1950s, the number of Americans owning their dwellings surpassed the number of renters for the first time in the twentieth century. By 1960, a quarter of those dwellings had been built during the previous decade-striking evidence of the postwar housing boom. Only 12 percent of them lacked a bathtub or shower, as compared to 39 percent in 1940. Ninety-eight percent had a refrigerator. Thirteen percent had air conditioning, and by 1968 this figure had risen to 37 percent.

In the 1920s, most industrial workers still enjoyed neither paid holidays nor vacations. By 1963, eight holidays and a two?week vacation were the norm. Leisure spending accounted for 15 percent of the gross national product by 1950. The emergence of a youth market further testified to the shift from a production to a consumption ethic. In 1963 American adolescents spent $22 billion-an amount, as William E. Leuchtenburg points out, that was double the gross national product of Austria (A Troubled Feast, p. 65).

It was no wonder that America was now admired-when it was not hated or feared-less for its democratic institutions or its championship of democratic revolutions abroad, as in the old days, than for its vast and seemingly inexhaustible wealth. A lavish display of American products in a Swiss department store, accompanied by the injunction to "live like an American," left no doubt about the meaning of that slogan. When Vice President Richard M. Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev debated the merits of capitalism and communism at the American National Exhibition in Moscow in 1959, it was entirely fitting that their argument took place in a model kitchen full of labor?saving appliances. What Nixon and Khrushchev said on that occasion was of no importance; the goods spoke for themselves.

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