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An All-Consuming Century

An All-Consuming Century: Why Commercialism Won in Modern America

Copyright Date: 2000
Pages: 352
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  • Book Info
    An All-Consuming Century
    Book Description:

    The unqualified victory of consumerism in America was not a foregone conclusion. The United States has traditionally been the home of the most aggressive and often thoughtful criticism of consumption, including Puritanism, Prohibition, the simplicity movement, the '60s hippies, and the consumer rights movement. But at the dawn of the twenty-first century, not only has American consumerism triumphed, there isn't even an "ism" left to challenge it. An All-Consuming Century is a rich history of how market goods came to dominate American life over that remarkable hundred years between 1900 and 2000 and why for the first time in history there are no practical limits to consumerism.

    By 1930 a distinct consumer society had emerged in the United States in which the taste, speed, control, and comfort of goods offered new meanings of freedom, thus laying the groundwork for a full-scale ideology of consumer's democracy after World War II. From the introduction of Henry Ford's Model T ("so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one") and the innovations in selling that arrived with the department store (window displays, self service, the installment plan) to the development of new arenas for spending (amusement parks, penny arcades, baseball parks, and dance halls), Americans embraced the new culture of commercialism -- with reservations. However, Gary Cross shows that even the Depression, the counterculture of the 1960s, and the inflation of the 1970s made Americans more materialistic, opening new channels of desire and offering opportunities for more innovative and aggressive marketing. The conservative upsurge of the 1980s and '90s indulged in its own brand of self-aggrandizement by promoting unrestricted markets. The consumerism of today, thriving and largely unchecked, no longer brings families and communities together; instead, it increasingly divides and isolates Americans.

    Consumer culture has provided affluent societies with peaceful alternatives to tribalism and class war, Cross writes, and it has fueled extraordinary economic growth. The challenge for the future is to find ways to revive the still valid portion of the culture of constraint and control the overpowering success of the all-consuming twentieth century.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-50253-5
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vii-xii)
  4. CHAPTER 1 The Irony of the Century
    (pp. 1-16)

    The beginning of a new century is a good time to reflect on the preceding hundred years. We need such spans to help us make sense of our past and to force us to think about our future. The twentieth century was an especially ironic time. Despite clashes of ideologies, two devastating world wars, and a forty-five-year cold war that ultimately made the United States the leading global power, the century did not culminate in the victory of American political ideas. Rather, the real winner of the century was consumerism. Visions of a political community of stable, shared values and...

  5. CHAPTER 2 Setting the Course, 1900–1930
    (pp. 17-66)

    No century began with as much promise for change as the twentieth. The automobile and airplane, motion pictures and radio, the electric light and appliances, bottled soft drinks and canned soups, all so prosaic and common at the end of the century, were the new wonders of 1900. While these were hardly all American inventions, the United States was poised to take advantage of them on a massive scale. This young nation had just completed a century of unprecedented progress, conquering and unifying an “empty” continent of extraordinary fertility (compare with Australia). This was hardly a painless process: native cultures...

  6. CHAPTER 3 Promises of More, 1930–1960
    (pp. 67-110)

    Nothing speaks more to the power of consumerism than its hold on the American psyche during the Depression and World War II. Despite joblessness and wartime austerity, ordinary Americans held tight to old consuming habits and dreams. They clung to their “luxuries” or longed for their return. Even though economic collapse in the 1930s and diversion of commodities to the war effort in the 1940s dramatically reduced personal spending, American business continued to seek new ways and new things to sell consumers. In spite of challenges to the social order, most Americans continued to define themselves and their relationships with...

  7. CHAPTER 4 Coping with Abundance
    (pp. 111-144)

    Up to this point, we have seen how Americans have defined themselves and their place in society through goods. Their spending ways have said as much about their desires as their purchases, as much about the meanings of the things they bought as their physical consumption. Still, Americans have not always been pleased with a culture built around such longings. At this midpoint in our journey through the all-consuming century, we need to pause to ask: How in the first half of the century did Americans challenge and restrain this culture of consumption?

    Americans have a long history of tension...

  8. CHAPTER 5 A New Consumerism, 1960–1980
    (pp. 145-192)

    The 1960s and 1970s were decades of upheaval, challenging the apparent consensus of the 1950s on many fronts. In particular, Americans questioned the costs of unrestrained consumption: deceptive advertising and merchandising as well as growing pollution and waste. Some raised doubts about the contained and seemingly conformist model of consumption that prevailed in the postwar generation. Critics mocked the superficiality of the “populuxe” culture of the suburbs and its intolerance of individual freedom. Today conservatives like to think that these views were held by a small minority of pampered baby boomer youths and marginal intellectuals, but they were rooted in...

  9. CHAPTER 6 Markets Triumphant, 1980–2000
    (pp. 193-232)

    Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 marked the beginning of a new conservative era in the United States. In 2000, the end of this era was not yet in sight. In some ways, the Reagan Right attempted to restrain boundless consumption. Like their Prohibitionist forbears, this new generation of conservatives saw the danger of addictive desire in kicks-seeking drug users and sex-obsessed youths; the 1960s had unleashed a self-destructive indulgence, symbolized by the murderous cult of Charles Manson and the anarchic Altamont rock festival. The liberation of the libido from work and family responsibility, as preached by countercultural radicals, seemed to...

  10. CHAPTER 7 An Ambiguous Legacy
    (pp. 233-252)

    At the end of the twentieth century, never had Americans taken critiques of consumer culture less seriously, though that culture may never have needed criticism more. Since the 1960s, consumerism has proved to be resilient, rather easily surviving the challenges of the environmental and economic Left. It has prevailed worldwide over other meaning systems for human life—despite the large swaths of the human population still unable to participate. In the late twentieth century, consumerism continued to ease conflicts between generations, the sexes, and classes just as it had early in the century. Fashion products let children break from adults...

  11. NOTES
    (pp. 253-306)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 307-320)