Sold American

Sold American: Consumption and Citizenship, 1890-1945

CHARLES F. MCGOVERN
Copyright Date: 2006
Pages: 552
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5149/9780807876640_mcgovern
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  • Book Info
    Sold American
    Book Description:

    At the turn of the twentieth century, an emerging consumer culture in the United States promoted constant spending to meet material needs and develop social identity and self-cultivation. InSold American, Charles F. McGovern examines the key players active in shaping this cultural evolution: advertisers and consumer advocates. McGovern argues that even though these two professional groups invented radically different models for proper spending, both groups propagated mass consumption as a specifically American social practice and an important element of nationality and citizenship.Advertisers, McGovern shows, used nationalist ideals, icons, and political language to define consumption as the foundation of the pursuit of happiness. Consumer advocates, on the other hand, viewed the market with a republican-inspired skepticism and fought commercial incursions on consumer independence. The result, says McGovern, was a redefinition of the citizen as consumer. The articulation of an "American Way of Life" in the Depression and World War II ratified consumer abundance as the basis of a distinct American culture and history.

    eISBN: 978-1-4696-0604-0
    Subjects: History, Marketing & Advertising

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. ix-xvi)
  4. INTRODUCTION. INVENTING CONSUMERS: CITIZENSHIP AND CULTURE
    (pp. 1-20)

    We begin with a story. It is spring of 1929, the high tide of an unprecedented prosperity in American life. In a small upstate New York community, the local savings and loan faces closure and liquidation. The board of directors remains skeptical that, despite its solvency, the bank can survive on its current business plan. Its young manager appeals to these executives—all local merchants and businessmen—to keep the bank open to serve its needy clientele: working people, those on fixed incomes, small wage-earners. These depositors and workers, he argues, need an institution to extend them credit, an institution...

  5. PART I. ADVERTISERS
    • CHAPTER 1 ADVERTISERS AND CONSUMERS, 1890–1930
      (pp. 23-61)

      The American advertising business evolved to sell goods. From shadowy origins on the fringes of respectable bourgeois society before the Civil War, advertising became an important element of American culture in the half century after 1880. In those years advertisers defined themselves as a unique, influential profession to serve the industrial capitalism then revolutionizing daily life.⁵ Seemingly ubiquitous, advertising dominated both the structure and content of mass communications, assuming an unmistakable prominence in the built environment. Just as important, advertisers claimed for themselves the critical task of defining identity for Americans. Advertisements encouraged people to purchase a plethora of products...

    • CHAPTER 2 THE NATIONALIZATION OF CONSUMERS: THE POLITICAL LANGUAGE OF AMERICAN ADVERTISING, 1890–1930
      (pp. 62-95)

      A pervasive presence in American culture, advertising recast ideas of citizenship and nationality. As advertising became a national institution after 1890, its practitioners drew on political metaphors and imagery to designate consumers, products, and consumption as important elements of a distinctly American public life. The images that filled magazines and newspapers, roadsides and streetscapes, store windows and even scrapbooks equated goods and spending with becoming and being American. At a time of vast demographic expansion and emerging national culture industries, advertisers showed American life as defined and fortified by consumption. Moreover, they cast advertising in the argot of American political...

    • CHAPTER 3 MAKING CONSUMPTION AMERICAN: ADVERTISERS, CONSUMERS, AND NATIONAL IDENTITY
      (pp. 96-132)

      The business portrayal of spending vested power in consumer-voters who wielded sovereignty in a demand-driven economy. This vision rested on advertising’s openly nationalist vision of consumption. Between 1890 and 1930 national advertising consistently offered images of American life as defined by consumption. Agency copywriters depicted the United States as distinguished by a common culture dominated by getting, spending, and accumulation, its democracy characterized and sustained by consumption and goods.⁴ Copywriters celebrated America as a unique land of manufactured plenty where the ritual of becoming American was purchasing and using consumer goods. Although ideals of individual liberty and independence did not...

  6. PART II. CONSUMERISTS
    • CHAPTER 4 SOCIAL SCIENCE AND THE PRAGMATIC CONSUMER, 1890–1928
      (pp. 135-162)

      The modern consumer movement emerged in the late 1920s. The publication of Stuart Chase’sThe Tragedy of Waste(1925) andYour Money’s Worth(1927), written with F. J. Schlink, sparked a popular response to their exposé of consumers’ difficulties. Shortly thereafter, Chase and Schlink founded Consumers’ Research, a membership organization devoted to fostering dialogue among consumers, dispersing information about products, and increasing public awareness of the interests of citizens as consumers.² Chase and Schlink’s highly publicized work appeared in the wake of sporadic but increasing attention to consumers in the newly professionalizing social sciences. They clearly followed in a tradition...

    • CHAPTER 5 THE SCIENCE OF PURCHASING
      (pp. 163-185)

      Thorstein Veblen, Wesley Mitchell, and Hazel Kyrk offered important insights on the limits consumers faced under corporate capitalism while arguing that spending and acquisition reflected American cultural mores. However, their hopes for a science of consumption would not bear fruit until the late 1920s. The first comprehensive approach to consumers’ problems from a specifically Veblenian standpoint came from Stuart Chase, an accountant turned economist, and by Frederick J. Schlink, a physicist and engineer. Together they wrote the best-sellingYour Money’s Worth(1927), termed by Robert S. Lynd ‘‘theUncle Tom’s Cabinof the abuses of the consumer,’’ and they created...

    • CHAPTER 6 REDEFINING CONSUMPTION AT CONSUMERS’ RESEARCH
      (pp. 186-218)

      From the beginning, Consumers’ Research (CR) was engaged in a struggle to redefine the meanings and practices of consumption with and for its members. Stuart Chase and Fred Schlink drew on familiar traditional ideas of thrift, along with Veblen’s analysis of business, to promote better consuming. Introduced at the height of the 1920s prosperity, their ideas seemed fresh.⁴ For both critics and members, CR was radical.⁵ The organization proposed a vision of consumption that fundamentally challenged the claims of national advertisers to represent, portray, and address consumers.⁶ Its efforts to provide scientific information on goods, along with its determined opposition...

  7. PART III. CITIZENS AND CULTURE
    • CHAPTER 7 CONSUMER PROFESSIONALS IN THE DEPRESSION
      (pp. 221-260)

      The Depression was a crisis of capitalism that permeated American life. Horrified observers witnessed long breadlines in city streets, the collapse of meager social services under the weight of unemployment, poverty, and homelessness, the withering of industrial and agricultural production, and the frightening specter of want amid plenty. A sickening cycle of losses, unemployment, and curtailed production accelerated the economic crisis as it revealed the centrality of consumer spending to the overall economy. As a consequence, the interests and prospects of everyday buyers assumed new urgency in polity and culture. Over the span of the New Deal, federal economic priorities...

    • CHAPTER 8 THE AMERICAN WAY OF LIFE: FOLKLORES OF CAPITALISM, 1935–1939
      (pp. 261-300)

      The Depression debates of consumerists and advertisers largely took place in political and economic precincts: congressional hearings, the business press, political and reform journals, occasional radio programming on public affairs, club and union meetings, lectures. Yet inevitably these debates entered popular culture. The government addressed consumer programs and interests, but broad questions of who would define the parameters of consumption, control the meanings of goods, or gain the allegiance of consumers would not be resolved by federal programs or executive fiat alone. Nor, for that matter, would they be resolved strictly in political action or spending choices. As warring consumer...

    • CHAPTER 9 FIGHTING FOR THE AMERICAN WAY: CONSUMPTION AND AMERICANISM, 1935–1945
      (pp. 301-366)

      The battles over the American Way of Life among business, government, and consumerists were conflicts of ideas and images that spilled over from political arenas to cultural sites and back. Business’s counterattack to the New Deal and the consumer movement escalated such skirmishes to specific confrontations that cast consumption as Americanism. Even as they revealed the porous boundaries of culture and economy, such struggles specifically linked consumers’ interests with American identity. Prospects of war, fears of communist subversion, and disagreements over the terms of buying and selling all imbued consuming with conflicts over the meanings of nation, patriotism, and citizenship....

  8. EPILOGUE. PRICE CHECK
    (pp. 367-376)

    We began with one Christmas story; we end with another. The 1947 film and novelThe Miracle on 34th Streetarrived scarcely a year afterIt’s a Wonderful Life, but in tenor and tone it ushered in a different world. The story cheerfully maps a postwar United States in which consumption eclipses community under the pretense of defining it. An elderly gentleman named Kris Kringle finds work as Santa Claus in Macy’s department store. His boss, Doris Walker, a no-nonsense, cynical divorcée, shuns intimacy of any kind while raising her daughter Susan to avoid childhood make-believe and innocence. Doris has...

  9. NOTES
    (pp. 377-464)
  10. BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 465-522)
  11. INDEX
    (pp. 523-536)