How the world embraced consumerism (2023)


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How the world embraced consumerism (1)

Von Kerryn HiggsJanuary 21, 2021

During the twentieth century, capitalism transformed ordinary people into consumers. Kerryn Higgs explores the historical roots of the world's insatiable need for more.


The idea of ​​man as a consumer took shape before World War I, but became commonplace in America in the 1920s. Consumption is often seen as our most important role in today's world.

Of course, people have always "consumed" the necessities of life - food, shelter, clothing - and have always had to work to get them or have others work for them, but there was little economic justification for increased mass consumption before the 20th century. century.

On the contrary, frugality and thrift were more suited to situations where survival rations were not guaranteed. Attempts to promote new fashions, exploit the "envy-driven force" and boost sales increased in Britain in the late 18th century. This is where the "slow unleashing of the greedy instinct" began, write historians Neil McKendrick, John Brewer, and JH Plumb in their influential book on the commercialization of 18th-century England, when the pursuit of opulence first extended beyond the very wealthy.

But even though the poorer people might have acquired very few useful household items—perhaps a frying pan or an iron pot—the lavish clothing, furniture, and pottery of the time were still reserved for a very small segment of the population.

How the world embraced consumerism (2)

Initially, consumer goods served to cover basic needs rather than luxury items (Source: Getty Images)

In Britain in the late 1800s, a wide variety of foods became accessible to the average person who previously would have lived on bread and potatoes – a consumption beyond subsistence. However, this improvement in food diversity did not lead to long-life products becoming accessible to the masses. The thriving shops and department stores of the period served only a limited segment of Europe's urban middle class, but the display of enticing products in shops open to the everyday public eye was greatly expanded - and display was a key element in promoting fashion and jealousy. .

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While the post-World War II period is often cited as the beginning of the mass outbreak of consumerism in the industrialized world, historian William Leach places its roots in the turn of the century United States.

In the United States, existing retail stores expanded rapidly in the 1890s, mail order sales increased, and in the new century, massive multi-story department stores sprang up spanning millions of acres of retail space. The retail industry was already transforming significantly from small retailers to large corporations with access to investment bankers and the assembly line production of fossil fuels. The traditional goal of making products for their obvious utility has been replaced by the goal of profit and the need for a lure machine.

"The main features of this culture were acquisition and consumption as means to happiness, the cult of the new, the democratization of desire, and monetary value as the predominant measure of all worth in society," writes Leach in his book Land 1993. of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Emergence of a New American Culture.” Significantly, individual desire was democratized rather than wealth or political and economic power.

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The glove section of an early department store that changed the way people shopped (Source: Getty Images)

Shortly after the end of World War I, most people in the industrialized world were freed from the dangers of famine and early famine. American output in 1920 was more than twelve times what it was in 1860, while the population had only tripled during the same period, indicating how much additional wealth was theoretically available. The labor disputes of the 19th century, without jeopardizing the burgeoning productivity, had gradually eroded the seven-day, fourteen-hour, and sixteen-hour workweeks that prevailed in England at the start of the industrial revolution. In the US in particular, economic growth has made it possible for the vast majority of the entire population to have basic security.

It would be feasible to reduce working hours and free up employees for pleasurable leisure activities… but the business community was not in favor of such a path

Under these circumstances, a social choice had to be made. A stable economy capable of meeting the basic needs of all, as philosopher and political economist John Stuart Mill envisioned it as a stationary state, seemed within reach and, in Mill's words, likely an improvement on "trampling, crushing and suppression of power'. hot on each other's heels... the unpleasant symptoms of one of the phases of industrial progress.' It would be possible to further reduce working hours and free up employees for spiritual and enjoyable leisure activities with families and communities, as well as for creative activities or exemption from education. activities. But the economy did not support such a trend, and it was not until the Great Depression that working hours were reduced in response to overwhelming unemployment.

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In 1930, Kellogg introduced a six-hour shift to accommodate unemployed workers. It didn't take long (Source: Wikipedia)

In 1930, American grain manufacturer Kellogg introduced a six-hour shift to accommodate unemployed workers, and other forms of division of labor became widespread. While the shorter workweek was attractive to Kellogg's employees, after returning to longer hours during World War II, the company was hesitant to reintroduce the six-hour shift in 1945. In both 1945 and 1946, workers voted three to one in favor, indicating that they found life in their communities even more attractive than consumer goods at the time. This was especially true for women. However, Kellogg gradually overcame resistance from his workers and reduced short shifts until 1985, when the last of them was abolished.

Even if a shorter workday became an acceptable strategy during the Great Depression, such a development was uncomfortable for most captains of industry and the economists who theorized their theories of success because of the profit and growth orientation of the economic system. If profits and growth lagged behind, the system needed a new boost. The brief depression of 1921–1922 caused American business leaders and economists to fear that the immense productive forces created over the past century had grown enough to meet the basic needs of the entire population and had likely created a lasting crisis of overproduction. The prospects for further economic expansion were judged to be bleak.

If consumers could not be persuaded to buy lavishly, the entire flow of six-cylinder cars, superheterodynes, cigarettes, Rouge compact cars and electric coolers would come to a standstill

Historian Benjamin Hunnicutt, in his examination of the mainstream press of the 1920s and the publications of corporations, trade associations, and government polls, found ample evidence that such fears were widespread in business circles in the 1920s. Victor Cutter, president of the United Fruit Company, illustrated this concern when he wrote in 1927 that the greatest economic problem of the time was the lack of "consumer power" relative to the enormous productive power.

Despite the panic and pessimism, a consumer solution emerged at the same time. As the popular historian of the time, Frederick Allen, wrote, “Business had learned as never before the importance of the end consumer. Unless he could be persuaded to buy, and plenty of them, the entire stream of six-cylinder cars, superheterodynes, cigarettes, rouge compacts, and electric coolers would remain at their outlets.

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Factory workers glazed a steady supply of biscuits in 1926 (Source: Getty Images)

Edward Bernays, one of the pioneers of public relations, put it this way in his 1928 classic Propaganda: “Mass production is profitable only if its rhythm can be maintained.” He argued that corporations “do not care that they can afford to wait for the public to ask about their product; they have to keep in constant contact through advertising and propaganda to secure the continued demand, which alone makes their precious factory profitable.”

Edward Cowdrick, an economist who advised companies on management and labor relations policies, called it "the new consumer economics gospel," in which workers (people for whom sustainable ownership had rarely been an option) embraced the new "skills" could learn. trained in consumption".

This idea was also put forward by the new "consumption economists" like Hazel Kyrk and Theresa McMahon, and was eagerly embraced by many business leaders. New needs would be created and advertising would come into play to "complement and speed up" the process. People would be encouraged to leave thrift and agriculture behind and to prioritize goods over leisure. Kyrk advocated ever greater aspirations: "A high standard of living must be dynamic, a progressive standard," with envy of those just above one in the social order driving consumption and economic growth.

President Herbert Hoover's Committee on Recent Economic Changes in 1929 hailed the demonstration "of the large-scale extensibility of human wants and needs," touting an "almost insatiable hunger for goods and services," and seeing "a boundless field before us…" new desires , the new desires give way endlessly as soon as they are satisfied." In this paradigm, people are encouraged to climb an escalator of desires (perhaps a stairway to heaven) and gradually ascend to what was once the luxury of the wealthy. .

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People were encouraged to climb the escalator of desire and gradually ascend to the luxuries of the rich (Source: Getty Images)

Charles Kettering, general manager of General Motors Research Laboratories, equated such constant change with progress. In a 1929 article titled "Keep the Consumer Dissatisfied," he explained, "In an industrial situation there is no place to sit and rest. It is a matter of change, of constant change — and always will be. Well, because the world only goes in one direction: the road of progress.'

The prospect of ever-expanding consumer demands, known as "progress," promised a new way forward for modern manufacturing, a means to support economic growth. Progress was about endlessly replacing old needs with new and old products with new ones. The idea of ​​meeting everyone's needs through an appropriate level of production did not materialize.

The non-settler European colonies were not considered viable locations for these new markets, as centuries of exploitation and impoverishment meant that few people there could afford to pay. In the 1920s, the target group to be fed was in the industrialized world. There, especially in the United States, consumption continued to grow throughout the 1920s, but was curbed by the Great Depression of 1929.

Electrification was critical to the consumption of the new generation of durable goods, and the proportion of connected American households nearly doubled between 1921 and 1929, from 35% to 68%. This was followed by a rapid proliferation of radios, vacuum cleaners and refrigerators. The number of motor vehicle registrations rose from eight million in 1920 to over 28 million in 1929. The introduction of installment payment agreements enabled the expansion of this purchase further and further up the economic ladder.

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Electricity opened up a whole new wave of consumer goods possibilities (Source: Getty Images)

This first wave of consumption was short-lived. It was debt-based and took place in an economy characterized by speculation and risky lending. In the 1920s, consumer credit in the US soared to $7 billion as banks recklessly extended all kinds of loans. While gross debt was significantly lower than U.S. debt at the end of 2008, debt was very high in the 1920s, exceeding 200% of GDP at the time. In both eras, borrowed money was used to purchase unprecedented amounts of material goods with timely payment and (today) credit cards. The gold mine of the 1920s suddenly and catastrophically collapsed. A similar split began in 2008; its effects are still unknown. In the case of the Great Depression of the 1930s, a wartime economy followed, so it took almost two decades for mass consumption to play a part in economic life again – or in the way the economy was conceived.

The effect of media

After the end of World War II, consumer culture in the developed world experienced a resurgence, fueled in part by the hardships of the Great Depression and wartime rationing, and fueled with renewed fervor by corporate advertisers using credit facilities and the new medium of television. Stuart Ewen, in his History of Public Relations, saw the birth of commercial radio in 1921 as an important tool in the great wave of debt-financed consumption of the 1920s—"a private utility that pumps information and entertainment into people's homes." . ".

"Because radio required no appreciable degree of literacy on the part of the public, it gave interested companies ... unprecedented access to the inner sanctuaries of public opinion," Ewen writes. The advent of television has greatly increased the potential impact of advertisers' messages, making much better use of images and symbols than print media and radio. The conditions for a democratization of luxury on a previously unimaginable scale were in place.

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Ads uploaded directly to people's homes on TV and radio (Source: Getty Images)

Although the television sets that brought advertising into people's homes after World War II were new and much more powerful persuasive tools than radio, the theory and methods were the same, perfected in the 1920s by public relations experts like Bernays.

Vance Packard draws on both Bernays and the consumer economists of the 1920s in describing the role of the 1950s advertising executives. "They want to add some spice to their posts by raising our awareness of the status," he wrote. "Many of the products they try to sell have historically been limited to a 'quality market.' The products were upper-class luxury goods. The game is to make them into necessities of all classes… By striving." product – for example floor covering on installment – ​​the consumer gets the feeling that it adds social value.”

While status is sold, countless material objects are consumed.

In a little-known 1958 essay discussing the implications for the preservation of the remarkably lavish post-World War II American consumption excesses, John Kenneth Galbraith suggested the possibility that this "gigantic and growing appetite" might need to be curtailed. "What about the appetite itself?" he asks. “This is certainly the ultimate cause of the problem. If it continues on its geometric course, will it not one day have to be restrained? But in the literature on the resource problem, this is the forbidden question.”

We need things that are increasingly consumed, burned, replaced and thrown away - retail analyst Victor Lebow

Galbraith cites the president's Materials Policy Commission, which holds the premise that economic growth is inviolable. “First, we share the belief of the American people in the growth principle,” the report says, arguing in particular for “increasingly luxurious standards of consumption.” To Galbraith, who had just published The Affluent Society, the waste he observed seemed reckless, but he was pessimistic about the cuts. He identified the beginnings of a "massive conservative reaction to the idea of ​​comprehensive social governance and control of economic activity," a backlash against the state's assumption of responsibility for social leadership. At the same time, he was aware of the role of advertising. “Goods are plentiful. Demand for it must be met at great cost,” he wrote. “Those who create desires are among our most talented and highest paid citizens. Creating desires – advertising – is a $10 billion industry.”

Or, as retail analyst Victor Lebow noted in 1955, "Our hugely productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we turn the purchase and use of goods into rituals in which we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction." We need things that are consumed, burned, replaced and thrown away at an ever-increasing rate.

Just as enormous efforts were made to convince people to buy things they didn't really need, manufacturers also started deliberately designing inferior items, which became known as "planned obsolescence". In his second major critique of consumer culture, "The Waste Makers," Packard identified both functional obsolescence, where the product wears out quickly, and psychological obsolescence, where products are "designed to become obsolete in the consumer's mind." fail even before the components they are made of.”

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Contemporary consumerism has roots that go back at least a century (Source: Getty Images)

The commercialization of reality and the creation of demand have serious consequences for the construction of modern man, in which, to quote the philosopher Herbert Marcuse, "men recognize themselves in their goods".

This is reflected in the current settings. For example, Australian comedian Wendy Harmer expressed her irritation at the claim that consumption simply stems from greed or ignorance in her ABC TV series Stuff: "I'm very proud to have made a documentary about consumption that does nothing." of factory chimneys, landfills and overflowing shopping carts. Instead, it features many happy human faces and all their wonderful things! It is more than anything a study in a love affair.”

Relying on the logic of never-ending growth from the start, the capitalist system considered the abundance it had created in its home countries, especially the United States, a threat to its survival. It wouldn't be enough if people were satisfied because they felt they had enough. Throughout the twentieth century, however, capitalism maintained its momentum, shaping the common man into a consumer with an insatiable appetite for his "wonderful things."

*This is an edited version of an articleoriginally publishedin the MIT Press Reader and is republished with permission.

Kerryn Higgs is an Australian writer and historian. She is the author of Collision Course: Endless Growth on a Finite Planet, from which this article is adapted.


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