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

By Gary Cross | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER 3
Promises of More, 1930-1960

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 others through consumer goods. After the war, Americans did not simply pick up where they left off before the Depression. They fulfilled the dreams that the years of hardship had nourished. The postwar period was an era of unprecedented prosperity, built on an extraordinary, fortuitous confluence of economic and social opportunities. In the generation after 1945, Americans celebrated that prosperity with exuberant spending on cars, houses, and appliances. This consumerism reflected often confused hopes and fears: desires for both innovation and tradition, participation and privacy. Most of all, it confirmed a form of domestic consumption that today we associate with the 1950s, but that in fact had roots in the longings of the 1930s. Through the ups and downs of the years between 1930 and i960, consumption remained at the center of the American experience.

In many ways, this is ironic. The economic and military crises of this period produced profound political upheaval. The election of Franklin D.

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