Social Class and Consumer Culture

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Benson, Susan Porter.  “Gender, Generation, and Consumption in the United States: Working Class Families in the Inter-war Period” in in Getting and Spending: European and American Consumer Societies in the Twentieth Century, Susan Strasser,, eds.  New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Burt, Elizabeth V.  “Class and Social Status in the Lydia Pinkham illustrated ads, 1890-1900.”  American Journalism 30 (2013): 87-111.

Butsch, Richard, ed.  For Fun and Profit: The Transformation of Leisure into Consumption.  Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990.*

Cohen, Lizbeth.  “The Class Experience of Mass Consumption: Workers as Consumers in Interwar America” in The Power of Culture: Critical Essay in American History, Richard Wightman Fox and T.J. Jackson Lears, eds.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

    Cohen discusses class consciousness and consumer culture among working class citizens of Chicago in the years between the first and second World Wars.  She argues that these working class families did begin to take part in mass culture, including mass consumption, but that they attempted to maintain “working class consumption communities” by patronizing local neighborhood stores and buying local products when possible.  To a large degree, working class Chicagoans avoided the chain stores and most widely advertised nationally distributed brands that dominated the consumption of middle and upper class Americans during the same period.  Cohen sees an ethnic element to this group cohesion.  Through the end of the 1930s, consumption led to a more homogeneous working class culture and helped build bonds among workers of different ethnic and racial groups.  Purchasing a mass produced item did not automatically integrate a working class family into the emerging mass culture.  Some of this material is explored in more detail in Cohen’s Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

Currarino, Rosanne.  “The Politics of ‘More’: The Labor Question and the Idea of Economic Liberty in Industrial America.” Journal of American History 93:1 (June 2006): 17-36.   

Glickman, Lawrence.  “Inventing the ‘American Standard of Living:’ Gender, Race and Working Class Identity, 1880-1925.” Labor History 34 (Spring-Summer 1993): 221-35.

Glickman, Lawrence B.  A Living Wage: American Workers and the Making of a Consumer Society.  Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997.

Hubka, Thomas C.  How the Working-Class Home Became Modern, 1900-1940.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2020.

Kim, Eung-Sook.  “Confession, Control, and Consumption: The Working Class Market of True Story Magazine.”  PhD dissertation, University of Iowa, 1992.

Lears, Jackson.  “A Matter of Taste: Corporate Cultural Hegemony in a Mass Consumption Society.” In Recasting America: Culture and Politics in the Cold War, Lary May, ed.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.

        This essay seeks to address a perceived misunderstanding of 1950s and 1960s culture that has been portrayed by critics and by academics has been depicted as an era of conformity and consensus.  Lears discusses a series of influential critics of the postwar consumer society (Reisman, Whyte, Mills, Packard, among others) who bemoaned the homogeneity of a culture dominated by consumption and faced with a loss of political energy.  The essay, however, argues that the image of the postwar years as homogeneous, generally articulated by intellectuals and scholars writing from  a privileged perspective, overlooks a profound lack of consensus and diverse social reality that was dominated in many ways by political concerns.  Lears argues that this interpretation results from the fact that corporate images, largely based around advertising and pro-consumption cultural messages centered on taste and fastion, were dominant at the time.  The period, even today, is remembered for its commodity-centered focus and what appeared to be an increasingly democratic system of consumption.  Making use of Gramscian theory, Lears agues that corporate messages achieved a level of cultural hegemony as it was able to legitimate the rhetoric of consumption and the mass market while alternative trends or systems of meaning were delegitimized, which led to the image of consensus.  This hegemonic relationship masked a more complex economic and social reality that was actually not marked by conformity and homogeneity, in spite of the dominant messages in the mass media for example, or the raw statistics of increasing production and sales.  Corporate hegemony is problematic for at least two reasons.  Those seeking political change in the late 1960s ran into a depoliticized mass culture that was less aware of the necessity of change.  Moreover, historians and other scholars have found it difficult to pierce this surface level of messages to find more accurate evidence of real-life attitudes and concerns, leading to a misinterpretation of the “consensus” postwar era.

Levine, Susan.  “Workers’ Wives: Gender, Class, and Consumerism in the 1920s United States.”  Gender and History 3 (Spring 1991): 45-64.

Nickles, Shelly.  “More is Better: Mass Consumption, Gender, and Class Identity in Postwar America.”  American Quarterly 54 (December 2002): 581-622.

Parkin, Katherine.  “Driving Home Class Status: Women and Car Advertising in the United States.”  Advertising & Society Quarterly 20:2 (2019).

Rizzo, Mary.  “Consuming Class, Buying Identity: Middle-Class Youth Culture, ‘Lower-Class’ Style, and Consumer Culture, 1945-2000.”  Phd dissertation, University of Minnesota, 2005.

Sivulka, Juliann.  “The Fabulous Fifties: Selling Mr. and Mrs. Consumer.”  Advertising and Society Review 9:4 (2008).

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