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

By Fahrni, Magda | Urban History Review, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

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


Fahrni, Magda, Urban History Review


Jacobson, Lisa. Raising Consumers: Children and the American Mass Market in the Early Twentieth Century. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.

Raising Consumers: Children and the American Mass Market in the Early Twentieth Century is a well-written book that blends family history and consumer history in an innovative and convincing fashion. Lisa Jacobson's topic is the construction, between 1890 and 1940, of a consumer market targeting children. Her book explores competing visions of twentieth-century childhood--those promoted by advertisers and marketers, on the one hand, and those espoused by middle-class parents, educators, and childhood 'experts,' on the other--as well as the ways in which children themselves cultivated, participated in, and occasionally criticized the expanding consumer market. A worthwhile contribution to the history of American childhood (reminiscent of such earlier studies as Viviana Zelizer's Pricing the Priceless Child: The Changing Social Value of Children), Raising Consumers is also an important addition to recent works on the history of consumption, such as Lizabeth Cohen's A Consumers' Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America. Like many of these recent works, Raising Consumers insists upon both the "liberating" and the "limiting" (p. 225) aspects of consumer culture.

The juvenile market developed in the early-twentieth-century United States was created within a specific set of material and ideological conditions. Child labour laws, curfews, and compulsory schooling measures were intended to render children dependent for longer periods of time, and helped to effect a transition from children as producers to children as consumers. Increasingly, children, and middle-class children in particular, were seen as persons to be protected rather than put to work. If some children participated in the market thanks to their meagre earnings, an increasing number of children were spending allowances provided to them by their parents. The greater length of time spent in school by these cohorts of children and adolescents, along with the organized youth groups of the period (Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Camp Fire Girls), both created a target market for advertisers and subjected these children and teenagers to the consumer pressures of their peers. A youth market was created through juvenile advertising in children's periodicals, through contests, games, and radio clubs, and through corporate "enrichment materials" supplied to public schools. Significantly, children's spending came to be seen as a positive development over the course of the interwar years. If in the 1920s childhood 'experts' promoted thrift education and school savings banks, their Depression-era counterparts chose to focus instead on training in proper spending (through allowances, for instance). Ironically, as Jacobson points out, it was in the economically-depressed 1930s that youth spending was encouraged, a trend perfectly in tune with the Keynesian thinking of the late 1930s and the value accorded by popular psychology to children's self-expression. Children's consumer desires, experts argued, needed to be shaped rather than curbed.

Not surprisingly, much of Jacobson's evidence comes from advertisements in children's, women's, and parenting magazines. These advertisements, many of which are reproduced and integrated in the text, are carefully analysed. They are supplemented with other prescriptive evidence (advice columns, literature on child-rearing) and with sources that attempt to capture children's lived experiences (market research interviews, trade journals, contest data, autobiographies). The endnotes also reveal the use of oral histories, although there is no methodological discussion of these (number? provenance? basis for selection?) in the text.

The youthful shoppers analysed in this book are not depicted as dupes of advertisers or the market (witness the discussion of children's "consumer disappointment" in Chapter 6). …

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