Consuming Angels: Advertising and Victorian Women

By Lori Anne Loeb | Go to book overview

7 Social Emulation and Mass Consumption: Elitism or Material Democratization?

Since Veblen, social emulation has been a centripetal force for historical studies of the so-called consumer revolution. These studies have focused on the eighteenth century or on the efflorescence of mass production up to 1850. They have rarely concentrated on the heights of mass production and mass advertising that were achieved between 1885-1914. An examination of advertisements during these years brings into question an uncritical acceptance of the hypothesis of social emulation. Coincident developments suggest alternative explanations. The consumer revolution achieved unprecedented heights precisely during the period in which the Great Depression occurred, in which aristocratic fortunes waned and in which glaring social inequalities spawned socialist panics and collectivist sentiments. The key to consumer demand, I will argue, lay not so much in imitation of aristocratic (or even rich) behavior, as in a distinctively bourgeois pursuit of equal opportunity. This was already a virtual fait accompli politically, but remained an unfulfilled material prospect, dramatized by late nineteenth- century studies of poverty. The democratic vision and the material fantasy were surprisingly similar. Mass consumption was the material analogue of political democratization, a complementary manifestation of an increasingly hedonistic perspective.

Veblen argues in The Theory of the Leisure Class ( 1908) that wants are motivated by a desire to imitate or emulate the behavior of other consumers. 1 Consumption is not a simple matter of satisfying needs; it is a way to enhance social status. The consumer's drive to imitate the consumption of his social betters may overpower even basic instinctual needs. Some con-

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