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Lendol Calder. Financing the American Dream: A Cultural History of Consumer Credit. Princeton, NJ. Princeton University Press, 2009.

Calder argues that consumer credit does not destroy worker discipline. It creates discipline. Those who argue that the 1920s expansion of consumer indebtedness marked a new era of reckless behavior are wrong – Before 1900, sewing machines and other things that had productive use, were considered “acceptable” productive debt, and “reprehensible” consumptive debt were required to purchase food, clothing, and other consumables. Americans borrowed from friends, family, pawnbrokers, and merchants to finance either of these productive or consumptive debts. Far from being frugal, Victorians did not avoid debt as has been suggested. They were the first people in history to experience the widespread monetization of their society and to deal with money as an abstract concept.

But after World War I, with the passage of a Uniform Small Loan Law (1917), a groundwork was laid for democratic and legitimized borrowing which drove forward the idea of consumptive credit and drove out illegal lenders. New professional agencies began marketing themselves as providers of ‘industrial’ loans to households and in the 1930s personal finance counselors taught clients how to manage their household budgets by practicing thrift. Thus, installment buying had rigged payment schedules that enhanced traditional values of hard work, budgeting, and saving. Successful completion of an installment contract required a steady income stream which is achievable, Calder implies, only with disciplined attachment to the workplace. Warren Susman recognized that the replacement of an older puritan/republican producer culture by a culture of abundance was not complete and the the older values had left their mark. Calder agrees and demonstrates that the 20th century is not the bottomless pit of hedonism that other writers have suggested.

Although installment credit was initially used during the mid-19th century to buy expensive farm equipment (and later expanding to sewing machines, furniture, and pianos) it later spread to low-cost items and became identified with poor, female, and immigrant consumers. The General Motors Acceptance Corporation led the charge, setting up in 1919 installment plans to finance consumer auto purchases which allowed GM to outstrip Ford during the 1920s and sell even more cars in the 1930s.

From rural, to lower class, the automobile changed installment buying to a middle-class phenomenon. By 1927, economist E.R.A. Seligman argued that the opposition between good “productive” vs bad “consumptive” credit was meaningless and sought to erase the moral distinctions between both. Immaterial satisfactions, such as pleasure, could consequently be beneficial rather than wasteful and that borrowing in order to produce a more satisfying life was entirely justifiable, it might even be considered a form of work. The 1930s Depression, when borrowers continued to use cash loans to pay off installment obligations, suggested the continuation of Protestant nineteenth-century notions of hard work and self-reliance. With the passage of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (1933), commercial banks could enter the consumer credit business, ushering in a period of governmental and private investment that Esperdy notes occurred on Main Street.

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