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Joseph Kaminski

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November 21, 2019

Conspicuous Consumption and Continental Change

How did the production and consumption of consumer goods transform gender roles, race relations, and ideas about class, and how did Americans allow consumerism to affect social change?

Production and consumption levels within the United States rose to all-time highs throughout the 20th century. Consumerism, on all fronts, became a massive part of day-to-day life. Advertisements and corporate connections became more focused on production value, and the country became focused on the value of “rights” in ways that had never been accomplished prior to the birth of important social movements. As more groups of individuals came together in favor of more political and social rights, economic ‘benefits’ and changes began to come out. Social conflict around the concept of segregation pushed for a “dramatic rise” in black voter registration and the eventual path to progression in which political coalitions found modern improvements in economic growth.[1] This paper is on the conspicuous consumption and how, in face of these social changes, implemented itself into and influenced much of the 20th century.

Conspicuous consumption, the consumption of luxuries on a scale that would have been impossible in past American societies to enhance one’s social standing, became increasingly prevalent as the differences between the wealthy and middle classes rose. Consumerism, manifested in this simple transaction between consumer and producer, is driven by advertisement trends and the acquisition of wealth. Perhaps the most obvious and damaging consequence of conspicuous consumption would be the acceleration of durability and the creation of trends. What was seen before economically as “don’t break/change what doesn’t need fixing” is suddenly replaced with a consensus that newer is better, and in return a constant state of consumerism is put in place of the more traditionalist approach witnessed in the previous century.

conspicuous consumption

Economic and social change came from the mass consumption of culture, as witnessed throughout the urbanized case study of Chicago. Although simply summarized as the ‘Jazz Age’ in Fitzgerald’s sense of the decade, the Roaring Twenties conveyed both positive and negative effects on the American economy and the methods of social interaction through a bolstered economy, a rise in wage labor, and the introduction of an ‘Americanized’ culture. Gender roles and the topic of differences between the sexes are heavy-handed in this period of time, and several of the modernized portrayals of femininity come directly from advertisements and consumerism during the 1920’s. Women’s lives were targeted by department stores and growing chain stores, as they were the so-called ‘shopping demographic’ for clothing, home appliances, and children’s toys. Perhaps the most durable and long-standing portrayals of the decade would be the flapper – a young woman with shorter hair and a sense of fashion. Although the majority of women at the time wouldn’t have fit into such a cookie-cutter representation of the sex, women in general were still targeted by the consumerism that was taking the victorious nation by storm.

The Sears’ catalogue becomes an important and persistent force for women during this time, as well. As women were more accustomed to shopping, catalogues offered a quick and easy way to dive into consumerism without much of a hassle at all. The electrical appliances flooding the market helped the modern woman, and thus the encouragement of sales led to more and more families saving up to bring them into their own homes. Chain stores implemented the same strategies; and as shown in Table 7 Chain stores in Chicago in Cohen’s “Making a New Deal”, the percentage of chain stores slowly began to eat away at the total units of stores over the period 1923-1929.[2] [3] Rest stops where women could take a breather in between shopping trips in cities were already a part of women’s daily lives, as they had easy access to such catalogues and, in turn, directly referenced them to the conspicuous consumerism that was storming the nation.

Just as women received new aged mechanics and easy access points to ‘change’ as presented by conspicuous consumerism, just about every social group of Americans witnessed great economic and social progression throughout the early 20th century. The period between 1919 and 1939 was heavily affected by social and economic change; and the growing consumer economy of capitalism capitalized on the immense ethnic differences among immigrants, as well as their social standing in terms of wealth. In urbanized areas such as Chicago, we witness the ‘blending of lines’ between cultural differences as mass culture was initiated through radios, movie theatres, and other mechanics that were heavily advertised and pushed for as nifty devices by consumerism and rising capitalism.[4]

Commercial radio, beginning around the same time as many of these other so-called revolutionary changes in American society, broadcasted the results of elections and helped ‘radicalized’ households that were able to afford them. Overtime, as mass production and conspicuous consumerism brought forth abilities for just about every middle-class family to bring the radio into their social circles, the ‘business’ of radio supported and influenced further consumer culture in ways advertising had not been able to prior.[5] Alongside radio, print media (from newspapers to books) led to social critique and topics that had not been address to or by the American public. One example of this would be interracial relationships, which further drew social change into the equation of what it meant to be an American; and once again, this ‘change’ in the medium of entertainment was brought forth by conspicuous consumerism and the ‘flaunting’ of wealth in the early-to-mid-20th century.

Essentially, the changes brought on by this new-aged, consumerist, mass-culture society would be an interesting cycle of influencing change on a massive front. When it comes to gender and sex, women received rights that had been fought for well over 100 years and found their lifestyle changing on a level that hadn’t been possible under any previous American society through catalogues filled with appliances and services that were, for the most part, affordable under a prosperous society. When it comes to race relations, the lines that once drew through neighborhoods seemed to fade as the entertainment world targeted social conflicts and situations that had once only been talked about behind closed doors.

Political legislation done in by socioeconomic platforms, closer to the 1940s, led to a public ‘trust’ between blacks and the Democratic party, which would eventually pave the way to the civil rights movement only twenty years later.[6] Such civil rights, as identified by Gavin Wright in The Economic Consequences of Voting Rights, revolutionized the social standing between whites and blacks on a political level that was impossible beforehand.[7] When it comes to social rights, workers found themselves pushing for social change as different groups of people who had no connections with each other besides that work began interacting due to an increase in mass culture.

As time went on, the United States found a slump in production through overseas outsourcing and the increase of investment-based corporate opportunities. Production values in the United States began to slump during and after the ‘pivotal decade’ of the 1970s and continued on until America slammed into the Great Inequality. Americans stopped, for the most part, producing…but the consumption of products was here to stay. It seemed almost impossible to reverse the ‘want to need’ system of purchasing and trading that Americans had fallen into after the success witnessed in World War I. Big government was going to stay, especially after the introduction of the New Deal some thirty years prior; and the United States found a level of reliability between the average citizen and the government itself. [8] Long-term investments were once again challenged by short-term gains, and the concept of investing on investments/finance rather than in the actual production of products launched the country into the stratosphere in terms of how classes related to one another.

It is perhaps this assimilation of conspicuous consumption that led to the dissolution of modern times; and as the economic systems that had been established earlier in the century (such as Bretton Woods) toppled to new necessities, consequences including gaps between the wealthy and middle classes skyrocketed.[9] Overall, however, consumerism led to new ideals and new ways of thinking that radically transformed gender roles, race relations, and class warfare as witnessed through primary and secondary historical, sociological, and economic resources. Many changes – from suffrage to civil and working rights – came into the picture through interactions between normal everyday people; and without the changes done in by consumerism, the world would have remained a more segregated and isolated one in terms of understanding each other.

Everyone – white, black, man, woman, native, immigrant – is human, and every human played a crucial role in combating the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ ways of life through a universal consumer system. That being said: consumerism had its negative consequences. The racial patterns of discrimination continue to this day, and advertising campaigns specifically target demographics to present their products to (oftentimes in stereotypical, less-than-subtle ways). Just as Americans in the 1930s witnessed the end of the Roaring Twenties as the Great Depression came in, we’ve now seen the end of the Great Compression as the Great Inequality has dominated our communities. Wealth, brought on by consumerism and production, has changed society – through social, economic, political, and racial trends – more than anything our modern world has been able to see; and corporations such as Coca-Cola have shown us how this can have both positive and negative impacts on our world.

[1] Gavin Wright, “The Economic Consequences of Voting Rights" in Sharing the Prize: The Economics of the Civil Rights Revolution in the American South, 198.

[2] Cohen, Lizabeth. Making a New Deal: industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. 108.

[3] Ernest Hugh Shideler “The Chain Store: A Study of the Ecological Organization of a Modern City” (Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Chicago, 1927), Chapter 4, pp. 18-20; U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Fifteenth Census, 1930: Retail Distribution (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1933), p. 633; U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Sixteenth Census, 1940: Retail Trade (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1943), pp. 218-19.

[4] Ibid 143-155.

[5] Ibid 131-135.

[6] Ibid, 363.

[7] Gavin Wright, “The Economic Consequences of Voting Rights" in Sharing the Prize: The Economics of the Civil Rights Revolution in the American South, 184-185.

[8] Judith Stein, “Capitalism on the Run” in The Pivotal Decade: How the United States Traded Factories for Finance in the Seventies, 102.

[9] Weaver, An Economic History of the United States, 197-199.


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