Historical Echoes: American Consumerism, Then and Now, with Product Timeline
A paper by Delia Cabe, “Buying into the Future,” which appeared in the fall 2001 Radcliffe Quarterly, tells in an arresting way the story of how Americans became such big spenders. The article displays, at the bottom of each page, a timeline of first appearances of products in the American marketplace. Many iconic products originated much earlier than we might guess: Crayola Crayons (1903), Slinky (1945), Frisbee (1948), and so on.
Among the forces that shaped consumerism as “the American way,” the author cites advertising, mass media, the automobile, “keeping up with the Joneses,” the introduction of the installment plan, deregulation, the self-improvement movement, the desire to emulate celebrities, the belief in the patriotic nature of spending, the pursuit of coolness, easy credit, and even guilt.
The Library of Congress has an entire collection devoted to a segment of the history of this topic called “Prosperity and Thrift: The Coolidge Era and the Consumer Economy, 1921-1929,” which comprises a vast array of print and media. One interesting report from 1933, “Recent Social Trends in the United States,” contains a chapter on “The People as Consumers.” It concludes:
… certain dominant trends emerge: the increase in national income and in the purchasing power of a large section of the population; an increase in the availability of consumer credit; a sharp increment both in volume and variety of consumer’s goods available … and also acute choices between expenditures for familiar activities and for the new kinds of activities made possible by invention and technology; rising standards and adequacy and comfort in living … changes in availability of goods related to developments in transportation, communication and merchandising, and also substantial differences in the pressure to consume many types of commodities owing to regional differences; a multiplication in the influences playing upon the consumer and shaping his habits, with an apparently growing sense of conflict in our urbanized, secularized culture; and a resulting seemingly greater susceptibility to change as indicated by swifter fashion changes and the reported rise in consumer fickleness.
A 1962 film on American thrift (part 1 and part 2) celebrated the thrift and savings of the American woman (a bit different from the popular perception today) and America’s superior consumerism, made possible by its thrift, without a hint of negative connotation.
Two articles that bring the question of American consumerism into the present day are a 2001 lecture by Dr. Juliet B. Schor, labor economist and professor of sociology at Boston College, titled “Why Do We Consume So Much?” in which she argues that the economic assumption that consumerism is good needs to be reexamined, and that there are structural features in the operation of the economic system that have led us down a path of excessive consumerism. And in a 2011 New York Times op-ed, “Why We Spend, Why They Save,” Sheldon Garon argues that rather than democratizing saving, the American system has democratized credit by making it available to all.
The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York or the Federal Reserve System. Any errors or omissions are the responsibility of the author.