Academic journal article Women and Language

Selling Social Status: Woman and Automobile Advertisements from 1910-1920

Academic journal article Women and Language

Selling Social Status: Woman and Automobile Advertisements from 1910-1920

Article excerpt

Abstract: This essay analyzes representations of woman that surrounded the advent of the automobile. Automobile advertisements in the Ladies Home Journal from 1910 to 1920 invited women to seek social status via the purchase of an automobile while often simultaneously containing women's political and economic liberation. By focusing on issues of appearance, representing woman's driving as non-serious and appropriate only in service to others', and linking the purchase of an automobile to "good mothering," the texts invited women to spend their time in pursuing social status rather than political or economic status. Grounded in Condit's (1993) positionalist perspective, the essay argues that such invitations were made more salient by the cultural contexts in which the advertisements were run.


The ten years between 1910 and 1920 were teeming with cultural developments that profoundly affected the lives of women. (1) From the onset of a burgeoning consumer culture to the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment granting woman suffrage, the lives of women, and by extension, the roles they were expected to play in society, were in flux. (2) During these years, women were entering the workforce in larger numbers, affecting their abilities to consume, provide, survive, or be independent. Two specific, interrelated changes, the advent of the affordable automobile and the rise in readership of popular magazines, were of significant importance to women's lives during this time. Since more people were able to purchase an automobile, women could claim more public space, and information, including popular women's magazines, could be disseminated quickly and nationwide. (3) Likewise, the popularity and accessibility of national magazines in general and popular women's magazines specifically, offered business leaders the opportunity to provide a number of representations of Woman that reached millions of women each week, including representations of Woman in advertisements for automobiles.

It was also during this time period that a more consumption-oriented society was emerging, giving popular presses a financial incentive to represent Woman as the family's primary consumer. (4) Whereas previous generations had worked in order simply to survive, workers from the early 1900s forward labored for necessities and to supplement their lives with luxury items. In order to promote the consumption of luxury items, advertisers began using sales strategies based in psychology (Zuckerman, 1998). For readers nationwide, this meant that advertisements now shifted their focus from discussing the merits of the products to constructing promises for, and listing the (sometimes completely unrealistic) expectations of, those who consumed those products. Advertisers now more clearly and consistently represented woman in a manner that promoted a domestic ideology that "defined editors as experts, advertisers as prophets, and, most importantly, women as consumers" (Scanlon, 1995, p. 3).

These major changes took place during the final push for a woman's suffrage amendment and World War I. As women emerged as probable voters and proved themselves during World War I as capable of work typically reserved for men (both at home and overseas), advertisers represented them as consumers in the private sphere, reinforcing stereotypes of a woman's primary role as a mother, her more emotional and less rational state, and her preference for the aesthetic rather than intellectual. Automobile advertisements, riding the crest of the consumption wave, played an important role in the attempt to shift the principal definition of Woman to primary consumer.

This article analyzes the representations of Woman from 1910-1920 in automobile advertisements from the Ladies' Home Journal. A number of these advertisements represent Woman in particular ways in order to construct specific arguments related to the roles of women in society and about the "nature" of women in general, which stood as evidence in support of appeals related to consumption. …

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