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

By Gary Cross | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 2
Setting the Course, 1900-1930

No century began with as much promise for change as the twentieth. The automobile and airplane, motion pictures and radio, the electric light and appliances, bottled soft drinks and canned soups, all so prosaic and common at the end of the century, were the new wonders of 1900. While these were hardly all American inventions, the United States was poised to take advantage of them on a massive scale. This young nation had just completed a century of unprecedented progress, conquering and unifying an “empty” continent of extraordinary fertility (compare with Australia). This was hardly a painless process: native cultures were crushed, traditional ways of life were cast aside for the machine age and the modern market, and far more dreams of riches were dashed than were fulfilled. But in 1900, the United States was already the richest country in human history — and well situated to create far more wealth. And despite the legacy of slavery, property and opportunity were sufficiently well distributed to produce an extraordinarily broad and high standard of living. According to German sociologist Werner Sombart, plenty of “roast beef and apple pie” saved the United States from the extremes of class war that plagued Europe at this time.1 American consumer society rose on the solid base of increasing purchasing power. Discretionary spending (beyond that for the necessities of housing, clothing, and food) increased from 20 percent to almost 35 percent in the first three decades of the century. To consume took on whole new meanings.2 American prosperity gave quite ordinary citizens cars, electric gadgets, telephones, and ready-to-wear fashions for which European masses would have to wait until mid-century. On top of this, Americans had more free

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

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Preface vii
  • Chapter 1 - The Irony of the Century 1
  • Chapter 2 - Setting the Course, 1900-1930 17
  • Chapter 3 - Promises of More, 1930-1960 67
  • Chapter 4 - Coping with Abundance 111
  • Chapter 5 - A New Consumerism, 1960-1980 145
  • Chapter 6 - Markets Triumphant, 1980-2000 193
  • Chapter 7 - An Ambiguous Legacy 233
  • Notes 253
  • Index 307
  • The Politics of the Asian Economic Crisis 323
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