Liberty Street Economics

« | Main | »

February 24, 2012

Historical Echoes: American Consumerism, Then and Now, with Product Timeline

Amy Farber, New York Fed Research Library

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.


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Americans were big consumers by world standards even in the early 19th century. Every farmer had to have a mechanical clock, even if he and his family rose with the sun. One difference between Americans and Europeans back then was the low price of land in the US. European aristocrats could charge rent, so they collected the surplus. In Europe, the aristocrats were the big consumers. Everyone else squeaked by. American farmers owned their own land and could even get land for marginal cost, so they collected the surplus. In America, the land subsidized middle class had the big consumers, and the rich could get even richer on that.

The comments to this entry are closed.

About the Blog

Liberty Street Economics features insight and analysis from New York Fed economists working at the intersection of research and policy. Launched in 2011, the blog takes its name from the Bank’s headquarters at 33 Liberty Street in Manhattan’s Financial District.

The editors are Michael Fleming, Andrew Haughwout, Thomas Klitgaard, and Asani Sarkar, all economists in the Bank’s Research Group.

Liberty Street Economics does not publish new posts during the blackout periods surrounding Federal Open Market Committee meetings.

The views expressed are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the position of the New York Fed or the Federal Reserve System.

Economic Research Tracker

Image of NYFED Economic Research Tracker Icon Liberty Street Economics is available on the iPhone® and iPad® and can be customized by economic research topic or economist.

Economic Inequality

image of inequality icons for the Economic Inequality: A Research Series

This ongoing Liberty Street Economics series analyzes disparities in economic and policy outcomes by race, gender, age, region, income, and other factors.

Most Read this Year

Comment Guidelines


We encourage your comments and queries on our posts and will publish them (below the post) subject to the following guidelines:

Please be brief: Comments are limited to 1,500 characters.

Please be aware: Comments submitted shortly before or during the FOMC blackout may not be published until after the blackout.

Please be relevant: Comments are moderated and will not appear until they have been reviewed to ensure that they are substantive and clearly related to the topic of the post.

Please be respectful: We reserve the right not to post any comment, and will not post comments that are abusive, harassing, obscene, or commercial in nature. No notice will be given regarding whether a submission will or will
not be posted.‎

Comments with links: Please do not include any links in your comment, even if you feel the links will contribute to the discussion. Comments with links will not be posted.

Send Us Feedback

Disclosure Policy

The LSE editors ask authors submitting a post to the blog to confirm that they have no conflicts of interest as defined by the American Economic Association in its Disclosure Policy. If an author has sources of financial support or other interests that could be perceived as influencing the research presented in the post, we disclose that fact in a statement prepared by the author and appended to the author information at the end of the post. If the author has no such interests to disclose, no statement is provided. Note, however, that we do indicate in all cases if a data vendor or other party has a right to review a post.