Concept of Consumerism: Analytical Overview
The typical American household contains an average of 300,000 items (MacVean). This staggering, slightly terrifying statistic displays America
Consumerism is the idea that the mass purchase of goods and services is economically desirable (“Consumerism,” 2018b). It all stems from the belief that of high amounts of economic activity and strong consumer purchasing habits make for a better society (“Consumerism,” 2018b). These strong purchasing behaviors allow for large amounts of money to flow through the economy (“Consumerism,” 2018b). This probes economic growth and better standards of living (“Consumerism,” 2018b). Consumerism has been proven to be a fairly successful tactic. It creates extremely vast amounts of money, as consumer spending contributes to 70 percent of the U.S. GDP (“Consumerism,” 2018b). In fact, according to author Richard Heinburg, without consumerism, we’d go into a long, deep depression. He states that, “Commerce would contract; jobs would vanish; pension funds would lose value; tax revenues would shrivel, and so would government services.” (Heinburg). Despite its advantages, consumerism has several obvious downfalls. The trash and pollution produced by throwing away and transporting goods has been linked to climate change (“Consumerism,” 2018b). Some argue that the relentless plugging of consumer culture leads to people putting their own personal gains and goals before the greater good (“Consumerism,” 2018b). Additionally, consumerism can’t go on forever due to the massive amounts of resources it uses up (Heinburg). Such limits include few fossil fuels, environmental sink limits, and debt restrictions (Heinburg). Despite its pros and cons, consumerism has played a vital role in shaping our nation today, especially during the Roaring Twenties.
The period between the 1880s and the 1920s marked a time of great change in America (“Consumerism,” 2018a). During this era, the U.S. morphed from a producer-oriented society into a consumerist society (“Consumerism,” 2018a). Advances in communication, transportation, and technology allowed for consumerism to progress (“Consumerism,” 2018a). Steamboats and railroads made it possible for industry centers to boom (“Consumerism,” 2018a). Interchangeable parts, the telephone, and the invention of the electric light bulb made for faster production, communication, and longer workdays (“Consumerism,” 2018a). Fossil fuels such as oil offered cheap, portable energy, which in turn could be used in the manufacturing process (Heinburg). Population movement from rural to urban areas created a larger workforce to be employed in factories (“Consumerism,” 2018a). These factors all worked in harmony to foster the growth and development of consumerism in America. Once they were all set in place, consumerism took off.
During the Roaring Twenties, the American consumerist movement was in full swing. More products were available than ever before. With the assistance of credit, or paying in installments over time, luxuries reserved only for the wealthy became perceived necessities for the middle class (“A Consumer”). The term “buy now, pay later” became a common phrase in this era (“A Consumer”). Buying on credit allowed single-income families to purchase numerous goods all at once (“A Consumer”). Thousands of different inventions completely changed people’s lives. Refrigerators prolonged food life (Alchin). Radios allowed for news and music to be broadcasted all over the world (Alchin). The Ford Model T was another extremely influential product in the Twenties (“The Roaring”). They cost a mere $260 and could be bought with credit, making them exceedingly affordable (“The Roaring”). People could now travel to their destinations in the comfort and safety of their own car, rather than by horses or trains. Other products included dishwashers, vacuums, and televisions. Material objects weren’t the only arrival, as influxes of new entertainment were also introduced (“Consumerism,” 2018a).
New forms of entertainment changed America dramatically (“Consumerism,” 2018a). Cinemas with silent movie showings were extremely popular in the early Twenties (“Popular Culture”). They were easily accessible, cheap, and a great place to socialize (“Popular Culture”). Audio films, also known as talkies, were later developed in 1927 and also boasted massive success (“Popular Culture”). By 1929, 110 million Americans went to cinemas weekly (“Popular Culture”). Jazz music became extraordinarily popular as well (“Popular Culture”). Many Americans desired a newer, faster lifestyle (“Popular Culture”). Jazz music matched this urge entirely (“Popular Culture”). Jazz music’s lively, rhythmical beat created a fun-loving atmosphere, which was exactly what lots of Americans wanted at the time (“Popular Culture”). Arguably the most popular form of entertainment was the radio (“Popular Culture”). By the late 1920s, almost 40 percent of the population owned a radio set (“Popular Culture”). Radios had a wide range of functions, including serving as a form of communication, broadcasting the news, music, and information (“Popular Culture”). Additionally, it was an effective place for manufacturers to advertise their products (“Popular Culture”). These various forms of entertainment and new products were seen in almost every city and town, which lead to studies being conducted on them (“Consumerism,” 2012).
In 1924, two sociologists selected a town in “middle America” which they felt represented the typical towns of that day (“Consumerism,” 2012). Using this town of Muncie, Indiana, they conducted research using the data collected to study American culture (“Consumerism,” 2012). They observed that purchasing goods on credit became a way of life (“Consumerism,” 2012). One official at a local loan company said, “People don’t think anything nowadays of borrowing sums they’d never have thought of borrowing in the old days. They will assume an obligation for $2,000 as calmly as they would have borrowed $300 or $400 in 1890” (“Consumerism,” 2012). In Muncie, consumerism was seen as an obligation and duty (“Consumerism,” 2012). A local newspaper said, “The first duty of a citizen in to produce”; and later, “The American citizen’s first importance to his country is no longer that of citizen but that of consumer. Consumption is a new necessity” (“Consumerism,” 2012). Products and amenities found in towns such as Muncie included washing machines, automobiles, cinemas, and radios (“Consumerism,” 2012). But the manufacturers of these goods and services couldn’t survive without one component: advertising.
William Cheney once said, “Advertising, essentially, is the awakening of human desire. There is no stronger force in this new world of ours.” (“Consumerism,” 2012) Advertising was undoubtedly an essential part of consumerism in the 1920s. From 1860 to 1920, the American population increased three times, but production increased by 12 to 14 times (Beder). This created obvious issues of how to generate more demand (Beder). As production kept rising, manufacturers needed to constantly create and maintain markets (“Consumerism,” 2018a). This was done with the help of mass advertising (“Consumerism,” 2018a). Several mediums were used to advertise products and services, including as newspapers, radios, and magazines such as Good Housekeeping and Ladies’ Home Journal (“Consumerism,” 2018a). Advertisers used several effective tactics to sell their goods. They often made posters filled with vibrant colors and catchphrases (Hardcastle). They made generalizations about people and society, like “healthy children eat whole grain cereals,” or “in order to be socially acceptable, you need a clean bathroom” (“Consumerism,” 2018a). The people portrayed in advertisements were almost always middle- or upper- class (“Consumerism,” 2018c). Using strategies like these, advertisers were able to appeal to emotions and basic human need, thus creating the vast markets needed to sell their products (“Consumerism,” 2018a). Consumerism and all its pieces helped contribute to what would be one of the world’s most life-altering events: the Great Depression.
What began as a typical recession in mid 1929, the Great Depression escalated into the longest lasting, most severe economic depression the industrialized Western world has experienced (“Great Depression,” 2017). Spanning from 1929 to 1939, nearly every single country suffered effects due to the Depression, the U.S. and Europe being hit the hardest (“Great Depression,” 2017). Causes associated with the Depression include low consumer demand, financial panics, and unwise government policies (“Great Depression,” 2017). The effects of the Depression were detrimental. Nearly 25 percent of working eligible people was unemployed, but in some places, it reached a staggering 97 percent (Ecenbarger 15). People lost their entire life savings due to the mass closing of banks (Ecenbarger 15). Everyday necessities such as food, clothing, and shelter became luxuries. The Great Depression marked a dark, grave time in our world, and consumerism is considered partially to blame.
By the end of the 1929s, the majority of America had adapted the “more is more” philosophy. This desperate urge to buy, buy, buy also applied to the stock market (“Great Depression History”). People from all walks of life started to buy stocks, some even pouring their life savings into them (“Great Depression History”). Stock prices rose dramatically from 1921 to 1929 (“Great Depression”). In 1925, all stocks combined were valued at $27 billion, but by October of 1929 it reached a soaring $87 billion (Boyer). In the fall of 1929, the increase in prices reached a screeching halt (“Great Depression”). Investors began to realize that at these ever increasing prices, they were never going to get return on their investments (“Great Depression”). They lost their confidence in the stock market and “Black Thursday”, or October 24, 1929, they began rapidly selling their shares (“Great Depression”). On “Black Tuesday” five days later, even more stocks were sold (“Great Depression History”). In those two days, a record-breaking 28.6 million shares were traded and sold (“Great Depression History”). But many stocks were purchased on margin through loans, so some were even forced to sell their shares (“Great Depression”). This resulted in extremely low share prices (“Great Depression”). This was known as Stock Market Crash (“Great Depression”). The Crash had a huge impact on America, and is often said to be the main cause of Great Depression (“Great Depression History”).
The effects produced by the Stock Market Crash led to a plethora of issues. The loss of investment and consumer spending caused businesses and their factories to slow production and fire their employees (“Great Depression History”). The ones who were fortunate enough to keep their jobs experienced decreased wages (“Great Depression History”). Items necessary to survival, such as food, clothing, and shelter, became scarce. The debt acquired through buying on credit led to thousands of foreclosures and repossessions (“Great Depression History”). The rest of the world suffered the results of the Crash because of its connection to America through the gold standard, “which joined countries around the world in a fixed currency exchange” (“Great Depression History”). These effects, along with many more, changed the world as people knew it. No longer were the days of security, comfort, and certainty. The ten years following the Crash were full of fear, scarcity, and death.
The evolution of consumerism and its influence on society is a fascinating story that explores people’s traits, values, and faults. Throughout history, consumerism has proven to be the cause of economic advancement and destruction. During the 1920s, consumerism, along with many several other factors, allowed for the economy to thrive and grow. But in the following years, these behaviors created the perfect environment for the Crash (“Great Depression History”). The result was a severe depression that rocked the world. It left society to question its ethics, values, and morals. What would life be like without overflowing pantries, jam-packed storage closets, and wardrobes filled to the brim? It may have become a way of life for Americans, but at what cost? Then again, society would have to alter dramatically if it were to give up its extreme spending habits. Through the mess and turmoil of it all, one thing can be agreed upon: consumerism has the power to both boost and destroy the world.
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