The origins of consumer culture

For awhile now I’ve had a pretty good understanding of what it means that we are a consumer culture. And I knew that consumer culture was something newer than the industrial revolution, coming about somewhere in the early years of the 20th century. But I never knew exactly how it happened until now, as I finish reading a book by Stuart Ewen called Captains of Consciousness: Advertising and the Social Roots of the Consumer Culture.

Although the book taught me many valuable things, I can’t recommend it. Not because I think it is bad—I really can’t say, because many of Ewen’s arguments and observations went off in directions I wasn’t able to follow. Ewen is a Marxist historian (I think), which is good because it makes him an astute critic of capitalism but bad because it encourages him to write impenetrable prose. At least I often had a hard time plodding through it.

Most of what I learned from the book came not so much from what Ewen had to say as from the primary sources he cited in making his arguments. Here’s are some of the things I learned:

  • For the average person, the transition from agrarianism to industrialism (beginning in 1830 or so) was strictly a transition from providing for one’s own needs directly to laboring for wages which would buy the things one needed; the needs themselves did not change significantly.

  • Around 1910 industrial techniques became so effective that to run factories at full capacity would mean producing large piles of stuff that would go unsold, since people needed much less than the factories could make.

  • Although this could have been viewed as a blessing—the people’s needs could be met with ever decreasing amounts of labor, leaving them increasingly free to do other things—the industrialists viewed it as a curse, an obstacle to maximizing their profits.

  • Beginning after 1910 and peaking in the 1920s, industrialists deliberately embarked on an effort to turn people into consumers, using advertising to inflame their desires and prey on their fears. By 1930 the effort had achieved total success; people were eager to buy as much as the factories could produce, and more.

This last point may sound extreme, and all I can do is recommend that you look at this book or some other history of advertising to see for yourself. Ewen offers many examples of products which prior to 1910 were advertised strictly on the basis of their usefulness but after 1920 were sold as antidotes to social problems that resulted from urban industrial living—soap, toothpaste, clothing, mouthwash, movies, even baby food.

And he offers plenty of quotes from advertisers of the time, who were shockingly frank about the fact that they were deliberately manipulating the public. Here’s how one agency head instructed a new copywriter to do an ad for baby food:

Give them the figures about the baby death rate—but don’t say it flatly. You know if you just put a lot of figures in front of a woman she passes you by. If we only had the nerve to put a hearse in the ad, you couldn’t keep the women away from the food.

Strong measures, but industrialists were up against some deeply ingrained habits and traditions that made the average American unacceptably self-sufficient. Ewen offers this great excerpt from the diary of a nineteenth century New England farmer:

My farm gave me and my whole family a good living on the produce of it and left me, one year with another, one hundred and fifty silver dollars, for I never spent more than ten dollars a year, which was for salt, nails, and the like. Nothing to eat, drink, or wear was bought, as my farm produced it all.


5 thoughts on “The origins of consumer culture

  1. You might want to see the series “The Century of the Self.” It is a BBC documentary series on the deliberate manipulation of individuals by corporations and government. It gives a historical overview of the techniques used. It is available on google videos,


  2. You know a civilization is getting decadent, when there is a billion doller industry of rented storage. Can you imagine what the reaction would be, if you brought that New England farmer into todays world? Miles, and miles of useless junk. I have this crazy theory that there is a toaster, somewhere, that has traveled across America, one garage sale after the next. From Maine to California.

  3. A side note – Rick, have you read Ferenc Mate’s “A Reasonable Life”. I’m about half-way through it and its fantastic. I think you would really enjoy it, even with its shortcomings it has a lot of great observations on the consumer culture.

    Mark’s comment reminded me of something Calvin noted, that a sign of a culture becoming godless was the proliferation of rooms for rent (meaning hotels and inns). Just look at entire industries like that which should be completely unnecessary, and consider what a high price we really pay for such a world.

  4. Wow, thanks for this article. It has started a snowball effect in myself and now into our home. I followed JBC’s comment and found the “Century of Self” series on youtube and am undergoing the stomach-twisting realizations. O-kay, I realized some of it but just hadn’t allowed myself to believe the scale of it all. It was the main subject of all our talk before bedtime.

    I’m so glad that someone has been paying attention and sounding this alarm. Maybe we can pull ourselves and children from this burning building with only minor burns. Others will never believe the house is on fire even as it consumes them.

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