Academic journal article Journal of Social History

Children's Envy and the Emergence of the Modern Consumer Ethic, 1890-1930

Academic journal article Journal of Social History

Children's Envy and the Emergence of the Modern Consumer Ethic, 1890-1930

Article excerpt

In his 1892 book, The Moral Instruction of Childhood, educator and ethicist Felix Adler recounted a familiar story. "Abel ... led ... the most delightfully easy life. ... He was a little selfish too.... [I]n a perfectly innocent way, which yet stung Cain to the quick, he would rattle on to his brother about the increase of his herds, about his plans and prospects, and the pleasant things that people were saying of him." After hearing such glowing reports, Cain began to envy Abel. "He kept comparing his own life of grinding toil with the easy, lazy life of the shepherd ... his own poverty with the other's wealth, his own loneliness with Abel's popularity." The more he thought of his brother's good fortune, the more troubled he became. He began to frown, grew "moody and silent," and "knew that he was not in the right state of mind." An inner voice told him: "'Sin is at thy door, but thou canst become master over it.'" Sin, explained Adler, "is like a wild beast crouching outside the door of the heart. Open the door ever so little, and it will force its way in, and will have you in its power. Keep the door shut, therefore; do not let the first evil thought enter into your heart. Thus only can you remain master of yourself." Tragically, however, Cain could exercise no such self-mastery. "[T]oo far gone to heed the warning voice," he murdered Abel.

Adler summed up the story for his readers, noting that had Cain learned to suppress his envy, he would not have killed his brother. His sin sprang from his failure to practice emotional control. Adler suggested that parents repeat the tale to their offspring so that they would learn to control the "wild beast crouching outside the door of the heart" and would repress their envy. Children needed to reconcile themselves to the hard reality that some people would have more of the world's goods than they, and they must resist any feelings of envy or rancor towards those who were more fortunate.

Some 35 years later, social worker Sybil Foster praised parents who bought extra gifts for their children. If a son or daughter needed a hat, adults should buy it, but they should also purchase hats for their other offspring, whether or not they needed them. This would prevent children from envying one another. (1) Whereas in the 1890s and 1900s children were expected to live with deprivation and conquer their envy, children of the 1910s and 1920s were learning that they need never feel such deprivation. Instead, they should acquire or be given whatever they wanted. In a quarter of a century, conventional wisdom about envy had changed dramatically.

This shift in attitudes represented a significant cultural reorientation which was visible not only in literature about child-rearing but also was evident throughout American culture. The changed view of envy bespoke a new tolerance for pleasure and indulgence and a turn away from the repression which the Victorian moral code had demanded of the envious. It also signaled the emergence of a full-blown consumer ethic.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many Americans worried about the influence of the expanding consumer economy on morality and behavior. Educators, moralists, and child-rearing experts focused particular attention on the effects of consumerism on children.

During the last years of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth, they often expressed the fear that the dresses, toys, wagons, and other playthings which were being mass produced, and which store windows, catalog pages, and magazine ads prominently displayed, would corrupt the nation's youth. Moralists and educators who hoped to limit youthful involvement in the consumer culture often focused on young people's envy, believing that if they could teach children to control the emotion, they might be able to limit their consumer activity and reduce the amount of moral damage which the material world--and all of its temptations--could wreak on young character. …

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