Raising Consumers: Children and the American Mass Market in the Early Twentieth Century

Raising Consumers: Children and the American Mass Market in the Early Twentieth Century

Raising Consumers: Children and the American Mass Market in the Early Twentieth Century

Raising Consumers: Children and the American Mass Market in the Early Twentieth Century

Synopsis

In the present electronic torrent of MTV and teen flicks, Nintendo and Air Jordan advertisements, consumer culture is an unmistakably important -- and controversial -- dimension of modern childhood. Historians and social commentators have typically assumed that the child consumer became significant during the postwar television age. But the child consumer was already an important phenomenon in the early twentieth century. The family, traditionally the primary institution of child socialization, began to face an array of new competitors who sought to put their own imprint on children's acculturation to consumer capitalism. Advertisers, children's magazine publishers, public schools, child experts, and children's peer groups alternately collaborated with, and competed against, the family in their quest to define children's identities.

At stake in these conflicts and collaborations was no less than the direction of American consumer society -- would children's consumer training rein in hedonistic excesses or contribute to the spread of hollow, commercial values? Not simply a new player in the economy, the child consumer became a lightning rod for broader concerns about the sanctity of the family and the authority of the market in modern capitalist culture. Lisa Jacobson reveals how changing conceptions of masculinity and femininity shaped the ways Americans understood the virtues and vices of boy and girl consumers -- and why boys in particular emerged as the heroes of the new consumer age. She also analyzes how children's own behavior, peer culture, and emotional investment in goods influenced the dynamics of the new consumer culture.

Raising Consumers is a provocative examination of the social, economic, and cultural forces that produced and ultimately legitimized a distinctive children's consumer culture in the early twentieth century.

Excerpt

In our collective popular memory, the child consumer is a product of the television age and postwar affluence. Yet the notion that television was midwife to the "Youth Market" is as technologically overdetermined as it is chronologically imprecise. More than half a century before television enchanted the baby boom generation, middle-class children had become targets of advertising and prominent figures in corporate dreams of market expansion. Business courted their patronage in the advertising pages of juvenile magazines and enlisted their aid as selling agents within the home. Movie palaces tempted children with thrilling celluloid adventures, dime stores and candy shops drained spending allowances and spare change from their pockets, and department stores enveloped them in a juvenile dreamworld of lavish toy departments and stylish clothing. To the delight of American business, children were becoming full-fledged participants in the burgeoning consumer economy.

If child consumers ignited corporate fantasies of widening profit margins, they also stirred fears that American families were losing control over the socialization of children. From the penny candy days of grade school through the identity-seeking phases of adolescence, children's consumer desires alerted parents, child experts, educators, and reformers to the challenges of raising responsible and respectable consumers. Raising Consumers examines how children were imagined and socialized as consumers during the decades between 1890 and 1940, a period that saw the flowering of modern consumer society and the gradual emergence of a distinctive children's consumer culture. The rich historical literature on consumer culture in this pivotal period, which privileges the historical experiences of adults, has understudied the cultural significance of children's consumption. More than simply reperiodizing the emergence of children's consumerism, this study explores the social, cultural, and economic transformations that made the child consumer such a meaningful cultural invention. As historians of childhood have long . . .

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