Consumer Culture

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This MIT Press Reader article provides an overview of the modern consumer culture and writes, “Over the course of the 20th century, capitalism preserved its momentum by molding the ordinary person into a consumer with an unquenchable thirst for more stuff“.

According to the article, the trend of promoting the consumption of unnecessary items for the financial gain of the businesses beyond the necessities of life, such as food, shelter, and clothing, began in the early 1920s.

Frugality and thrift were more appropriate to situations where survival rations were not guaranteed. Attempts to promote new fashions, harness the “propulsive power of envy,” and boost sales multiplied in Britain in the late 18th century.

In the United States, existing shops were rapidly extended through the 1890s, mail-order shopping surged, and the new century saw massive multistory department stores covering millions of acres of selling space. Retailing was already passing decisively from small shopkeepers to corporate giants who had access to investment bankers and drew on assembly-line production of commodities, powered by fossil fuels; the traditional objective of making products for their self-evident usefulness was displaced by the goal of profit and the need for a machinery of enticement.

– MIT Press Reader

The article quoting from Frederick Allen wrote, “Business had learned as never before the importance of the ultimate consumer. Unless he could be persuaded to buy and buy lavishly, the whole stream of six-cylinder cars, super heterodynes, cigarettes, rouge compacts and electric ice boxes would be dammed up at its outlets.”

The cardinal features of this culture were acquisition and consumption as the means of achieving happiness; the cult of the new; the democratization of desire; and money value as the predominant measure of all value in society.

– Historian William Leach in Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture.

The in-depth article is a great read to learn more about the birth of American capitalism and consumer culture, which help drive the country’s economic engine.