Advertising and the Transformation of American Society, 1865-1920

By James D. Norris | Go to book overview
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Advertisements, Marshall McLuhan argued, are "the richest and most faithful daily reflections that any society ever made of its entire range of activities."1 This book, an historical analysis of advertisements, is based in large measure on the premise that McLuhan enunciated and is the result of examining over the past three decades literally thousands of ads. Although I have looked in a rather systematic fashion at advertisements in newspapers, ranging from large urban papers to small-town weekly papers, because of the questions I am interested in answering I have concentrated my efforts on more popular journals and magazines with national circulations. I have been interested in how we developed truly national markets in this country, in how consumers were convinced to buy and consume items made by distant and unknown producers, in how manufacturers used advertising to persuade people to buy products they had never used or seen before, much less purchased. What appeal did manufacturers use to build markets for products, many of which had previously been produced locally or in the home, among customers used to regional differences in consumption? And what did the advertisements, as mirrors of society, reflect about the values of that society?

In the period between 1865 and 1920, as the nation shifted from a ruralfarming economy to an urban-manufacturing one, a major transformation also occurred in the behavior of American consumers. Nowhere is this transformation better illustrated than in the advertisements that appeared in popular magazines. In 1970, in a report to the American Philosophical Society, I argued that advertising played a major role in breaking down much of the localism that permeated the American antebellum economy. I also suggested that "By the 1920's we were a society of abundance in which consumption and spending became increasingly more important than the old virtues."2 Since that time this theme has been vigorously


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