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

By Gary Cross | Go to book overview
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To write a book about consumer goods in the twentieth-century United States is to write about a lot. Inevitably, this book has a personal perspective that focuses an otherwise immense topic. It probably reflects more than I might wish of my lifestyle as a male professional with a family living in a small college town far from the coasts. I certainly come to this topic as a historian who has devoted most of his professional life to the study of the first half of that century and whose personal life has straddled the second half. I have long believed that an understanding of the twentieth century must include, but go beyond, the world wars and their impact. In years ahead, we may conclude that one of the most important facts of the century is the astonishing creation of private, yet relatively widely distributed, wealth in the Western world. Past ages have built monuments to empire and the fortuitous blessings of nature, serving mostly tiny elites and surviving today as pyramids, forums, cathedrals, and palaces. The twentieth century in the United States has produced very different things in quantities and varieties never before seen. This has been an age of “auto-mobility,” dispersed family houses with electronic access to the world, and rapid-changing fashion in clothing, entertainment, and much else. This private, widespread, and ephemeral commodity culture has changed nearly everything in everyday life, especially how people relate to nature and to one another. Its transformations have been so frequent and common that we find this world of fleeting things natural. We think that this particular mode of affluence is inevitable. And yet we have hardly begun to understand its impact on human


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


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