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American Consumer Society, 1865 - 2005: From Hearth to HDTV

ISBN: 978-0-88295-264-2
330 pages
December 2008, ©2009, Wiley-Blackwell
American Consumer Society, 1865 - 2005: From Hearth to HDTV (0882952641) cover image

This startlingly original and highly readable volume adds a new richness and depth to an element of U.S. history that is all too often taken for granted. In American Consumer Society, Regina Lee Blaszczyk examines the emergence of consumerism in the Victorian era, and, in tracing its evolution over the next 140 years, shows how the emergence of a mass market was followed by its fragmentation. Niche marketing focused on successive waves of new consumers as each made its presence known: Irish immigrants, urban African Americans, teenagers, computer geeks, and soccer moms, to name but a few.

Blaszczyk demonstrates that middle-class consumerism is an intrinsic part of American identity, but exactly how consumerism reflected that identity changed over time. Initially driven to imitate those who had already achieved success, Americans eventually began to use their purchases to express themselves. This led to a fundamental change in American culture—one in which the American reverence for things was replaced by a passion for experiences. New Millennium families no longer treasured exquisite china or dress in fine clothes, but they’ll spare no expense on being able to make phone calls, retrieve emails, watch ESPN, or visit web sites at any place, any time. Victorian mothers just wouldn’t understand.

Using materials and techniques from business history, art history, anthropology, sociology, material culture, and good story-telling, this lavishly illustrated and highly thoughtful narrative offers a compelling re-interpretation of American culture through the lens of consumerism, making it perfect for use not only as supplementary reading in the U.S. survey, but also for a variety of courses in Business, Culture, Economics, Marketing, and Fashion and Design history.

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Foreword vii

Introduction 1

Shopping for a Perfect Self 1

The Passion for Possessions 2

Dissonant Voices 3

Treasures and Throwaways 4

From KnickKnacks to Kickin’ Back 5

Part One 7

Victorian America, 1865-1900 8

Victorians, Hierarchy, and Progress 8

Early European Antecedents 10

Opportunities for Display 11

1876 Centennial Exposition, the Industrial Cornucopia 14

The Allure of Cities 16

The Rise of the New Middle Class 18

Labor’s Consumerist Turn 20

Buying American or Pursuing Empire? 22

Advertising Abundance 23

Chapter One Home, Sweet Home 28

Separate Spheres 29

Dreams of Home Ownership 31

Womanly Creativity and the Art Craze 35

The Victorian Parlor 38

“Making Do” 40

Toward Modern Simplicity: The Bungalow and the Living Room 43

Martha Stewart Revisited 49

Chapter Two: Dress Codes 51

Fashion and Social Identity 53

Ready-to-Wear and the Democratization of Clothing 54

The Clothes Make the Man: Dark Suits and White Collars 56

Corsets and the Hourglass Shape 60

The Art of Dressmaking 61

The Easter Parade 64

Stepping Out with the Gibson Girl and Arrow Man 67

Why Fashion Mattered 70

Chapter Three New Ways to Shop 73

Dry-Goods Emporiums 74

Department Stores as “Palaces of Consumption” 76

John Wanamaker’s Luxury Department Store 77

Five-and-Tens 79

Window Shopping 82

Mail-Order Catalogs 84

Old-Fashioned Retailers 90

Tiffany Tastes and a Woolworth’s Pocketbook 91

Part Two: Modern America, 1900-1945 94

The New Tempo 95

From the Standard of Living to the American Dream 99

Middletown, U.S.A.: Average America 101

The Modern Identity Kit 102

Resetting the Stage, Hollywood Style 104

Down and Out 107

Purchasing Power and the New Deal 110

Patriotic Consumers at War 112

Chapter Four Mr. Advertiser Meets Mrs. Consumer 116

National Magazines, National Brands 116

Ladies’ Home Journal, the Bible of the American Home 118

Selling Soap, or Selling Sex? 120

The Colonel’s Lady and Judy O’ Grady 123

Images of the Good Life 125

Discovering Boys and Girls 128

The Power of Marketing 130

Advertising Overload 132

Forging the American Way 133

Chapter Five Sensing a Wider World 137

Bicycles, Cameras, and the Great Outdoors 137

Giving a Human Face to Electricity 139

The Phonograph in the Parlor 140

Radio, the Electronic Hearth 145

The Jazz Age Radio Craze 148

The Electric Twenties 152

The Golden Age of Radio 154

Creating Unity amid Diversity 156

Chapter Six Designing the Auto Age 159

Automobility and the Pursuit of Pleasure 160

“The Proper Thing for a Man of Wealth”: Motor Racing and Car Collecting 162

Ford’s Model T, The Car for the Common Man 164

GM and the “Car for Every Purse and Purpose” 168

Design Wars 170

Buy Now, Pay Later 172

The Paradox of the Auto Boom 174

Streamlining the Great Depression 175

Imaging the Future 176

Part Three 179

Boomer America, 1945-2005 180

Populuxe Push-Button Technology 182

Keeping Away from the Joneses 185

Plastics Triumphant 187

Fallout of Affluence 188

Rediscovering Diversity 190

The Global Village of Goods 192

Brands as Experience 194

The New Mainstream 195

Chapter Seven Destination Suburbia 198

America Moves from City to Suburb 199

“We Got a Piece of the American Dream”: Levittown, New York 201

Blue-Collar Aesthetics, Appliances, and Automobiles 204

Mall Culture 206

Making Ends Meet 210

Edge Cities and Big-Box Retailers 211

Chapter Eight Casual Style 215

The Mamie Look 215

Rebels, Teens, and Beatniks 217

Youth Quake 219

The Me Generation 223

Celebrity Style, Yuppie Tastes 226

Polo Meets Hip-Hop 228

Chapter Nine Electronics “R” Us 232

Information Snacking 232

The Year of Consumer Electronics: 1948 233

TV in the Fifties 234

Radio, Records, and High-Fidelity 238

Tape It! 244

Video Games: New Devices and Desires 247

Personal Computers before the Internet 249

Connecting to the Internet 251

Cable Television 255

Everything is Digital 258

Hardware to Software, Hearth to HDTV 262

Conclusion264

Who We Are 264

Seven Big Themes 265

Bibliographical Essay 276

Acknowledgements 305

Index 309

Photographs follow pages 92, 178, and 275

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Reginal Lee Blaszczyk, Visiting Scholar in the Department of the History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania, received a B.A. from Marlboro College, an M.A. from George Washington University, and an M.A. and Ph.D. from the Hagley Program at the University of Delaware. A specialist in the history of capitalism and consumer culture, Blaszczyk has published numerous books, articles, and reviews. Her first book, Imagining Consumers: Design and Innovation from Wedgwood to Corning (2000), received the Hagley Prize for the Best Book in Business History for 2001, and her co-edited reader, Major Problems in American Business History; Documents and Essays (2006), is widely used in courses on American capitalism. Partners in Innovation: Science Education and the Science Workforce (edited; 2005) considers the skills needed to compete in the global business environment, while Producing Fashion: Commerce, Culture, and Consumers (edited; 2008) suggests new approaches to the history of fashion, business, and consumer culture.

Blaszczyk has received fellowships from Harvard University’s Charles Warren Center for Studies n American History, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Chemical Heritage Foundation. She has taught at Boston University, Rutgers University-Camden, the University of Delaware, and the University of Pennsylvania, and spent eleven years as a cultural history curator at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. In 2008, she received the Harold F. Williamson Prize in Business History for mid-career achievement from the Business History Conference, the largest international association of business historians.

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"[American Consumer Society] is a clearly written, well-illustrated exploration of American consumerism, attentive to the need to define terms and make cultural references appropriate for college students today. This book draws on essential and revealing statistics and offers memorable stories to drive home themes. ...Blaszczyk does more than survey her topic. She offers original research from her scholarship on the history of design, advertising, and fashion...whatever your view, you will find this book a gold mine of information and analysis, and an example of just good writing." (Harvard Business School Business History Review, Winter 2009)
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