The American Consumer - The Rise Of The Consumer Culture

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World War II

World War II (1939–45) is generally credited with lifting the United States out of the Great Depression—the period of economic disaster that lasted from 1929 through the early 1940s. The urgent need for weapons, tanks, planes, and other war-related items led the government to invest heavily in getting the nation's factories running again, especially after the United States joined the fighting in late 1941. At the war's end, these factories were easily converted into facilities to manufacture civilian products such as appliances and automobiles, for which demand was especially high after the war.

RATIONING AND THE WAR PRODUCTION BOARD. During the war, citizens were encouraged to exercise restraint in spending in order to conserve materials for the war effort. Some items were temporarily banned from public use; for example, platinum was declared a "strategic metal" to be used only in the manufacture of military goods, so its use in jewelry making was halted. The government also established rationing, or tight controls over how much of an item a person could use or consume in a certain amount of time. All citizens were issued coupon books for rationed items every six months; once they used up their coupons for the month, they had to wait until the next month to buy more rationed goods. Coffee, sugar, meat, butter, and canned vegetables were rationed, as were gasoline, rubber, silk (which was used for parachutes), fuel oil, and other goods put to military purposes. "Victory gardens" became common as the government encouraged Americans to plant their own vegetables rather than buying them.

In 1942 the War Production Board (WPB) was created to oversee production programs for war-related commodities. The agency's first move was to halt all American automobile production and order car factories to produce only planes, tanks, machine guns, diesel engines, and military trucks. Producers of other consumer goods were also ordered to join the war effort; for example, a domestic housewares company called International Silver converted its manufacturing facilities to the production of military goods including surgical instruments, machine-gun clips, and gasoline bombs. To conserve materials needed to clothe soldiers and make other fabric items for the war effort, the WPB regulated every aspect of U.S. clothing design. Silk stockings were banned, so women drew seams on the backs of their legs to simulate them. The WPB mandated that dresses and skirts be made shorter, and men's suits—marketed as "victory suits"—had narrower lapels and pants with no cuffs, to conserve fabric. Women's two-piece bathing suits became popular because they used less fabric than one-piece suits.

The Postwar Boom

By the mid-1940s the country had emerged from its economic slump. In 1944 the unemployment rate had dropped to just 1.2%, and the gross national product had increased by at least 70% from 1939 to 1944 (Robert Higgs, "World War II and the Triumph of Keynesianism," The Future of Freedom Foundation, March 1995, http://www.fff.org/freedom/0395d.asp). When the war came to an end in 1945, Americans were divided about becoming consumers again. While some had felt deprived for so long that they couldn't wait to start spending, others were reluctant. To help create jobs for the tens of thousands of soldiers returning to the workforce from the war and build on the country's newfound economic prosperity, the government, along with businesses and marketing firms, began a campaign to stir up consumer activity. Spending was promoted as a civic duty and an expression of patriotism rather than an indulgence.

THE COLD WAR: BEATING COMMUNISM BY SHOPPING. By the late 1940s, the Cold War—a decades-long period of political tension between the United States and the former Soviet Union that began just after World War II and ended in the early 1990s—was well underway. To contrast the U.S. open market system with Soviet socialism—under which private ownership was generally disallowed—U.S. politicians argued that widespread ownership of more possessions would create greater social equality, thereby proving the superiority of the market system. Consumerism, therefore, acted as a function of the drive to defeat communism.

HOME OWNERSHIP. Foremost on the list of items that American citizens were told they needed was new housing, and the ideal housing, according to the standards of the time, was a mass-produced single-family home in the suburbs. According to Lizabeth Cohen ("The Landscape of Mass Consumption," nthposition, February 2003, http://www.nthposition.com/landscapeofmass), residential housing construction after the war occurred at rates never before seen in the United States, with the federal government helping veterans buy homes with guaranteed loans and connecting the new suburbs to cities with an immense system of federally built highways. Between 1947 and 1953, the number of people living in the suburbs increased by 43%, and by 1960 62% of Americans owned their own homes.

AUTOMOBILES. Home ownership generated the need for many items, but few had more far-reaching effects than automobiles. With such a large proportion of Americans living in the suburbs, the ability to commute to work and shopping centers became essential, so a family car went from being a luxury to being a necessity in the 1950s. This was the birth of American car culture. Then, as now, a new car represented a substantial investment. The average income was $3,216 a year, and the cost of a Ford was between $1,399 and $2,262—at least half of a family's annual income. (Interestingly, this ratio has remained about the same: in 2003 the median family income was about $43,000, while a new car cost about $21,000). Car ownership led to more travel, which spawned more business opportunities. Fast food restaurants allowed people to eat in their cars. Motels ("motor hotels") provided inexpensive places to stay (and park cars overnight). Convenience stores sprang up along the new highways, encouraging drivers to stop and shop while they were on the road. Even the camping and outdoor industry saw a rush to its products, as Americans purchased campers and other outdoor equipment and took to the road for family vacations. By 1950, 60% of American households had a car, and transportation-related expenses accounted for one out of every seven dollars spent by the typical American household (Jerome Segal, Cynthia Pansing, and Brian Parkinson, "What We Work for Now: Changing Household Consumption Patterns in the Twentieth Century," Common Assets Program, December 2001, http://www.rprogress.org/publications/whatwework). By 1999 the average American household had 1.9 cars, with those in the highest earnings bracket averaging 2.8 cars per household.

TELEVISION. Along with the widespread ownership of automobiles, the introduction of television into daily U.S. life represented one of the most important social, economic, and technological changes of the twentieth century. Television was promoted as a social equalizer that would, again, prove the superiority of American capitalism over Soviet communism. With such unprecedented access to information, U.S. citizens were predicted to achieve equality across all classes and social groups. In 1945 there were about 7,000 working television sets and nine television stations in the country, and in 1950, when the total U.S. population was about 151 million, 3.8 million homes, or 9% of all households, had television sets. By the end of 1952, the number of households with TVs had grown to twenty million, and there were more than ninety-eight television stations ("The History of Film and Television," http://www.high-techproductions.com/historyoftelevision). In 1993, 98% of American households had at least one television, and 64% had two or more. Like automobiles, televisions were substantial financial investments for families in the middle of the century. A typical Philco Model 1403 TV cost $199, while the higher-end Admiral Home Entertainment TV System cost $549. Television commercials provided a new way to advertise consumer products in American homes, and advertisers were quick to recognize their effectiveness. In 1952 advertisers spent $288 million to purchase commercial airtime, an increase of more than 38% over the previous year. By 2004 airtime for a single thirty-second commercial to be shown during the Super Bowl cost an advertiser $2.3 million.

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