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

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

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

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

Synopsis

The unqualified victory of consumerism in America was not a foregone conclusion. The United States has traditionally been the home of the most aggressive and often thoughtful criticism of consumption, including Puritanism, Prohibition, the simplicity movement, the '60s hippies, and the consumer rights movement. But at the dawn of the twenty-first century, not only has American consumerism triumphed, there isn't even an "ism" left to challenge it. An All-Consuming Century is a rich history of how market goods came to dominate American life over that remarkable hundred years between 1900 and 2000 and why for the first time in history there are no practical limits to consumerism.

By 1930 a distinct consumer society had emerged in the United States in which the taste, speed, control, and comfort of goods offered new meanings of freedom, thus laying the groundwork for a full-scale ideology of consumer's democracy after World War II. From the introduction of Henry Ford's Model T ("so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one") and the innovations in selling that arrived with the department store (window displays, self service, the installment plan) to the development of new arenas for spending (amusement parks, penny arcades, baseball parks, and dance halls), Americans embraced the new culture of commercialism -- with reservations. However, Gary Cross shows that even the Depression, the counterculture of the 1960s, and the inflation of the 1970s made Americans more materialistic, opening new channels of desire and offering opportunities for more innovative and aggressive marketing. The conservative upsurge of the 1980s and '90s indulged in its own brand of self-aggrandizement by promoting unrestricted markets. The consumerism of today, thriving and largely unchecked, no longer brings families and communities together; instead, it increasingly divides and isolates Americans.

Consumer culture has provided affluent societies with peaceful alternatives to tribalism and class war, Cross writes, and it has fueled extraordinary economic growth. The challenge for the future is to find ways to revive the still valid portion of the culture of constraint and control the overpowering success of the all-consuming twentieth century.

Excerpt

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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