The unqualified victory of consumerism in America was not a
foregone conclusion. The United States has traditionally been the
home of the most aggressive and often thoughtful criticism of
consumption, including Puritanism, Prohibition, the simplicity
movement, the '60s hippies, and the consumer rights movement. But
at the dawn of the twenty-first century, not only has American
consumerism triumphed, there isn't even an "ism" left to challenge
it. "An All-Consuming Century" is a rich history of how market
goods came to dominate American life over that remarkable hundred
years between 1900 and 2000 and why for the first time in history
there are no practical limits to consumerism.
By 1930 a distinct consumer society had emerged in the United
States in which the taste, speed, control, and comfort of goods
offered new meanings of freedom, thus laying the groundwork for a
full-scale ideology of consumer's democracy after World War II.
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 commercialism -- with reservations. However, Gary
Cross shows that even the Depression, the counterculture of the
1960s, and the inflation of the 1970s made Americans more
materialistic, opening new channels of desire and offering
opportunities for more innovative and aggressive marketing. The
conservative upsurge of the 1980s and '90s indulged in its own
brand of self-aggrandizement by promoting unrestricted markets. The
consumerism of today, thriving and largely unchecked, no longer
brings families and communities together; instead, it increasingly
divides and isolates Americans.
Consumer culture has provided affluent societies with peaceful
alternatives to tribalism and class war, Cross writes, and it has
fueled extraordinary economic growth. The challenge for the future
is to find ways to revive the still valid portion of the culture of
constraint and control the overpowering success of the
all-consuming twentieth century.
Columbia University Press
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