Lawrence B. Glickman. Consumer Society in American History: A Reader. Cornell University Press: Ithica, NY. 1999.
The argument proposed by Lawrence B. Glickman in this edited collection is best articulated by discussing the arguments in the case studies that comprise most of the book. The easiest to follow is Liz Cohen’s “Encountering Mass Culture at the Grassroots: The Experience of Chicago Workers in the 1920s.” She intervenes in arguments from the 1920s, such as the J. Walter Thompson Advertising Agency and True Story Magazine, who “ due to standardized merchandise, automobiles, motion pictures, and most recently the radio, the so-called 'lines of demarcation” between social classes and between the city, the small town, and the farm, had become less clear in the 1920s.” These myths continue today, Liz Cohen, notes, and contemporary historians have assumed that mass culture succeeded in integrating American workers into a mainstream, middle-class culture. When workers bought a victrola, went to the picture show, or switched on the radio, in some crucial way, the usual argument goes, they ceased living in an ethnic or working class world.
Cohen, however, echoes the arguments provided by Jackson Lears in his chapter “A Matter of Taste: Corporate Cultural Hegemony in a Mass-Consumption Society” in Lary May’s Recasting America (1989). While Lears argues that a counterculture existed beneath an allegedly and perceived prosperous “homogeneous” 1950s society, Cohen focuses on the 1920s to echo that “in reality, industrial workers did not enjoy nearly the prosperity that advertisers and sales promoters assumed they did. All Americans did not benefit equally from the mushrooming of national wealth taking place during the 1920s” (148).
She notes that the phonograph did not draw working-class and immigrant families away from their indigenous cultural world and into the world of Paul Whitman, for instance. But rather, many working-class and immigrant families would pull out their victrola and playa range of Italian records, for instance. Likewise, chain stairs did not drive workers away from smaller, local stores. Rather, neighborhood stores gave credit to consumers that chains would not give. Cohen concedes that workers attended theaters to watch motion pictures. However, due to the limited technology at the time which only produced silent films, audiences imbued the action on screen with their own language. Even radio, the allegedly homogenizing medium that permeated American homes did not strip Americans of their cultural and working-class backgrounds. Instead, Early radio had grassroots orientation, with less than four percent of programming nay commercial companies and 28 percent instead owned by educational institutions and churches (157).
Cohen contrasts this immigrant working-class history with Black working-class history. Black consumers, unlike their ethnic counterparts, did not reject chain stores and standard brands.Rather, insurmountable economic barriers kept Negro entrepreneurs (other than undertakers, barbers, and beauticians, from which there was little White competition) from competing viably. Rather ironically, she argues, when blacks patronized chain stores, they were asserting their independence from local white society, not enslavement to cultural norms” (161).
At the end of her article, Cohen proposes that “extension of this study into the 1930s and beyond might reveal that, ironically, mass culture did more to create an integrated working-class culture than a classless American one.” In “Familiar Sounds of Change: Music and the Growth of Mass Culture,” George Sanchez picks up Cohen’s call. In an almost verbatim repetition of Cohen’s argument, Sanchez argues that Mexicans in Los Angeles created a thriving cultural scene throughout the 1920s and 1930s. A vibrant environment for Mexican music, specifically corridos, thrived thanks to DJs such as Pedro J. González, who broadcast out of KELW Burbank every learning between 4am and 6am. Spanish-language newspapers maintained strong ethnic ties to Mexico, as well. They quickly condemned actors and actresses in Hollywood who actors and actresses who distanced themselves from their national origins, while praising others, like Dolores del Río, who showed interest in preserving their Mexican identity (173). Thanks to the thriving cultural life, even corporate radio sponsors in the mid-1920s were quick to understand the profitability of ethnic programs. Large advertisers such as Folgers Coffee used airtime to push their product in the Spanish-speaking Market. Forty years later, Robert E. Weems Jr. writes in “The Revolution Will Be Marketed: American Corporations and Black Consumers During the 1960s,” large advertisers began to target black customers. Advertisers in the 1960s writing in Sales Management, for instance, believed that targeting Black customers would de-emphasize race consciousness and difference. However as Cohen and Sanchez foreshadow, advertisers instead created a “soul market” to adapt to African-American consumers’ political and cultural orientations (322).
Andrew Heinze, in "From Scarcity to Abundance: The Immigrant as Consumer,” provides the only argument that runs counter to the histories histories of cultural resilience in the face of mass culture. He shows how Jewish immigrants, like Blacks in Cohen’s history, responded quickly to the condition of mass consumption and recognized that as consumers, they could begin toward the goal of fitting into American society” (190). He traces their eagerness to a feudal lifestyle in Russia which provided Jews with only the most minimal of opportunities. When Jews arrived to the United States, they viewed America as a land of abundance (in contrast to their homeland) and tended to view their new material existence as an integral part of the New Jerusalem. Although Jews maintained close-knit communities, Hainze contrasts them with other immigrants, arguing that “unlike the majority of immigrants, who had been raised within the confines of village life, Jews had an almost proverbial versatility stemming from a history of migration within and beyond national borders” (198). The cultural flexibility and cosmopolitan outlook of Jewish newcomers made it easier to understand and adopt American habits of consumption, and consequently, between 1908 and 1914, only 7 percent of Jews repatriated compared to 31 percent of immigrants in general. Reading English was time consuming and difficult to adopt, for instance. But habits of consumption constituted the most easily accessible element of the new society. New clothes, foods, and furnishings were as tangible as syntax (199).
While Cohen, Sanchez, and Weems argued that mass consumerism did not strip ethnic groups of their cultural identity, Mark A. Swiencicki, in “Consuming Brotherhood: Men’s Culture, Style, and Recreation as Consumer Culture, 1880-1930," argues that histories of consumer culture have underestimated its impact on men. Since women have historically done most of the shopping, they are seen as ‘consumers’ of articles they never use themselves. And because consumer items are usually conceptualized as those articles acquired in retail, most scholars overlook the extensive consumer activity that pre-Depression men engaged in outside the home (208).
He attributes this error, in part, to Roland Marchand’s methodology in Advertising the American Dream. Marchand draws 28 percent of his sample of advertisement from women’s magazines, 55 percent from general interest or literary magazines read by both sexes, 8 percent from the business periodical Fortune, and the remaining 9 percent from advertising journals. However, he excludes the numerous sports and recreation magazines which were targetied to consuming males such as Outing, Forest and Stream, and Field and Stream (229).
To asses consumerism’s influence on men, Swienciki looks at U.S. Bureau Census records from 1890 in order to show that the value of men’s clothes purchased was nearly 2.5 times larger than that of women’s clothing and 71 percent of all ready-made clothing was consumed by males. Additionally, late Victorian men probably consumed about twice the value of personal/recreational commodities as women. Middle class men consumed sports and athletics goods such as equipment, sports clothing, sneakers, tickets, and fee clubs. They also patronized fraternities such as the Naomi Bachelor Club of Stockton and St. Botolph’s Club in Boston which served healthy doses of “wine, liquors, and cigars” (219). Working class men attended fraternal lodges, cellar clubs, saloons, and burlesque dances which all provided consumer goods similar to their upper-class lodges. And both working and upper-class men attended male-only red light district entertainment.
Glickman’s edited collection contains two other large intellectual arguments. One of them, articulated by Wendell Berry in “The Pleasures of Eating;” John Elkington, Julia Hailes, and Joel Makower in “The Green Consumer;” and Alan During in “An Environmentalist’s Perspective on Consumer Society” concern themselves with consumer culture's impact on the environment. Berry, quite succinctly, argues that "industrial eater is, in fact, one who does not know that eating is an agricultural act, who no longer knows or imagines the connections between eating and the land, and who is therefore necessarily passive and uncritical.” (368) Not only might a modern consumer destroy the environment, but Berry essentially echoes Lears’ in Fables of Abundance, which argues “American abundance deflected human gaze upward, away from direct contact with bodily existence toward the “machine” which would replace the nurturant earth as the cornucopia" (38).
The second intellectual thread is provided by James Fallows in “What is an Economy For?” and Steven Waldman in “The Tyranny of Choice.” Waldman quips that American consumers have “too much choice” (an argument echoed by Malcolm Gladwell ten years later). James Fallows, it seems, provides a case study for limiting choice and elevating these problems that Waldman and Gladwell see. In a comparison between American and Asian economies, Fallows notes that the purpose of economic life in the American-style model is to raise the consumer’s standard of living (57). American models think that if people have more choice, more leisure, more wealth, more opportunity to pursue happiness, society as a whole will be a success” (58).
But since they focus on on the consumer and not the producer, American economies stress nationalism less than Asian economies, which believe "inconvenience to a consumer is less damaging in the long run than weakness of a nation’s productive base.” In the late 1990s, East Asia produced the fastest-growing modern economies, and Fallows notes “like it or not, we live in a world that Asian success stories have shaped. We need to figure out how to compete in it” (77).
I do not bring up Fallows and Waldman simply because they are in the edited collection, but because their arguments, I think, resonate with the concerns of Lears, Ewen, and Leach, who all end their books with worries about “global capitalism” and, the best I can discern, free trade (NAFTA), which tends to hurt American labor but help the American consumer. Their contemporary moment was their intervention, and it seems as if Fallows and Waldman are simply continuing the arguments provided in the last pages of Lears, Ewen, and Leach’s books.
A final way to understand this book is to look at the larger thematic overviews and provided by Colin Campbell and Michael Schudson which help elucidate some of the case studies I have yet to mention. In “Consuming Goods and the Good of Consuming,” Campbell disagrees with Thorstein Veblen’s critiques of consumerism and instead argues “the usual antipathy toward the motives of consumption is, if not entirely without justification, extremely one sided.” Michael Schudson, in “ “Delectable Materialism: Second Thoughts on Consumer Culture,” agrees with Campbell and counters five critiques of consumerism.The Puritan critique believes that people should invest less meaning in worldly possessions than in spiritual pursuits. But British critic Raymond Williams writes that advertising is the very proof that people in modern capitalist societies are not materialist – because the job of the ad is to convey added value to the product itself. If we were sensibly materialist, in that part of our living in which we use things, we should find most advertising to be of an insane irrelevance. Beer would be enough for us, without the additional promise that in drinking it we show ourselves to be manly, young in heart, or neighborly” (345). The Quaker Critique critiques objectionable features of the products themselves, which usually demonstrate wastefulness or extravagance. But what is the appropriate standard of convenience, usefulness, and on what grounds? The Republican Critique argues that consumerism corrupts influence on public life. But R.D.G. Kelley, in an article like “We Are Not What We Seem”: Rethinking Black Working Class Opposition in the Jim Crow South” and Cheryl Greenberg who penned “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” in this book, would refute such Republican critiques such as Stuart Ewen's, and instead argue that consumerism is the building block of of political struggle (350). In a book I read this summer, Tinkering: Consumers Reinvent the Early Automobile, Kathleen Franz argued that consumers are not passive consumers and I think this what H.F. Moorhouse was trying to argue in “The ‘Work’ Ethic and ‘Leisure’ Activity: The Hot Rod in Post-War America,” another article in this collection.