Sold American: Consumption and Citizenship, 1890-1945

Sold American: Consumption and Citizenship, 1890-1945

Sold American: Consumption and Citizenship, 1890-1945

Sold American: Consumption and Citizenship, 1890-1945


At the turn of the twentieth century, an emerging consumer culture in the United States promoted constant spending to meet material needs and develop social identity and self-cultivation. In Sold American, Charles F. McGovern examines the key players active in shaping this cultural evolution: advertisers and consumer advocates. McGovern argues that even though these two professional groups invented radically different models for proper spending, both groups propagated mass consumption as a specifically American social practice and an important element of nationality and citizenship.

Advertisers, McGovern shows, used nationalist ideals, icons, and political language to define consumption as the foundation of the pursuit of happiness. Consumer advocates, on the other hand, viewed the market with a republican-inspired skepticism and fought commercial incursions on consumer independence. The result, says McGovern, was a redefinition of the citizen as consumer. The articulation of an "American Way of Life" in the Depression and World War II ratified consumer abundance as the basis of a distinct American culture and history.


The American citizen’s first importance to his
country is no longer that of citizen but that of
consumer. Consumption is a new necessity.

We are all Alices in a Wonderland of conflicting
claims, bright promises, fancy packages, soaring
words, and almost impenetrable ignorance.

We begin with a story. It is spring of 1929, the high tide of an unprecedented prosperity in American life. In a small upstate New York community, the local savings and loan faces closure and liquidation. The board of directors remains skeptical that, despite its solvency, the bank can survive on its current business plan. Its young manager appeals to these executives—all local merchants and businessmen—to keep the bank open to serve its needy clientele: working people, those on fixed incomes, small wage-earners. These depositors and workers, he argues, need an institution to extend them credit, an institution that takes into account character as well as material assets, one that offers them a welcome home for their dreams along with their few dollars. Many board members remain opposed, arguing that small institutions especially cannot afford such customers. After all, without collateral, such borrowers are bad risks for the bank and the town as a whole. Easy access to credit, even for a home, will only make them “a discontented rabble instead of a thrifty working class.” The young banker reminds them that his is the only institution that serves these members of the community. Then he counters with an impassioned second argument:

You’re all businessmen here. Doesn’t it [credit and property] make them
better customers, better citizens? You said… that they had to wait and save
their money… wait? Wait for what? Until their children grow up and leave
them or until they get so old and broken down that…? Just remember
this… this rabble you’re talking about—they do most of the working and
paying and living and dying in this community. Is it too much to ask to have
them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath?

Where his moral argument fails, the appeal to civics and economic selfinterest wins out. Acknowledging that being a consumer made one a better . . .

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