Retailing and Conveniences

During the early 20th century, the United States became the first modern consumer society—a society whose prosperity depended on providing goods to a mass market. From the introduction of Henry Ford´s Model T ("so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one") and the innovations in selling that arrived with the department store (window displays, self service, the installment plan) to the development of new arenas for spending (amusement parks, penny arcades, baseball parks, and dance halls), Americans embraced the new culture of consumerism.

By the end of the 20th century, consumerism had triumphed over all competitors around the world: socialist, fascist, Communist.

Sugar rationing.
The war has brought new purchasing procedures to American consumers. The ration book assures all Americans just distribution of the available sugar on the market. Note the "ceiling prices" posted on the grocery shelves, a guarantee to consumers that prices will not exceed those of March this year.
Albert Freeman, Photographer, July 1946
Library of Congress

Not coincidentally, the United States has bred consumerism’s harshest critics, from Thorsten Veblen to Ralph Nader.

Key Questions:

1. Trace the rise of consumerism in the United States.

2. What conveniences have appealed to Americans at different times?

3. What factors explain the triumph of consumerism in the United States?

4. What was the impact of the Great Depression of the 1930s on consumerism?

5. Why have consumerism’s critics’ condemnation of materialism, over-commercialization, and environmental degradation failed to have much influence on the American public?

6. Trace the growth of “niche” marketing.

Copyright Digital History 2019