Selling Consumption, 1880-1930 Essay Sample
Consumer culture and advertising enable historians to understand what the lives of middle-class Americans were like, as material culture reflects how advertisers and tailors appealed to the emotions of consumers. Advertisements shed light not only on salient attitudes towards the consumption of clothing but also on the psychological processes and experiences of selling clothing to a mass consumer society. By closely analyzing advertisements, historians can better understand how the interests, habits and tastes have shifted due to epochal contingencies. Advertisers appeal to the salient emotions of the American middle class to subliminally proffer an argument that is rhetorical in nature for why consumers should purchase certain products or embrace certain sartorial fashions. These advertisements subconsciously shaped the perceptions of American consumers through the deployment of both negative and positive messages that underscored the utility and efficiency of certain products \.
At the turn of the century, consumer behaviors and particular fashions appealed to a generation of Americans who felt fears and anxieties as a result of technological innovations, economic downturns, an influx of immigrants from southern and eastern European. As a result, department store entrepreneurs appealed to the ubiquity of these fears in order to cultivate a desire for consumer goods that had not existed prior. Amidst the commercial revolution that took place during the nineteenth century, the advent of photography appealed to consumers because it portrayed the real rather than the ideal. Moreover, advertisers used subject matter that appealed to mass consumerism rather than merely one sector of American society. It emerged as business activity that actually skewed reality in a way that underscores the potential of the product that would benefit consumers in their quotidian activities. Advertising during the interwar period was a successful business as it catalyzed a paradigm shift in consumer's thought processes, which deviated from pre-war cognitions. By emphasizing the new, advertising retained the capacity to “obliterate old sets of words and phrases, fashions, and customs” in order to appeal to the consumer’s sense of renewal after World War I ended. Tensions , however were evident as advertising conjured up idyllic images of pre-war society rooted in traditional gender mores.
Advertising played a critical role in constructing ideas about masculinity and femininity that reflected shifting gender mores due to impact of World War I in many social and political arenas. Advertisers “taught” the public through advertising to “usebelieve in, and to demand” new goods available for a society characterized by mass consumerism. These goods included vacuum cleaners, kitchen cabinets, and foods, which were featured with women smiling as they used these new products. Such images reinforce the notion that women would be much happier if they return back to the domestic sphere. Advertising visually articulated the desire for gender mores to revert back to the Victorian structure in which “Man is the stronger, as a rule. He is the bread-winner, to a large extent. His job is more in the outside world. He grows up to severer tasks, as a rule.” Women had encroached on the masculine public sphere and “progressed a long way in her placeyet she is still to a large extent more sheltered than man. Her affairs are more within the home. Her sex makes her interest in clothes, home furnishings, and the like keener than man’s a general thing” The rise of the emancipated female in the public sphere manifested in their new sartorial patterns, hair styles, and consumer goods purchased. Macy’s advertisements depict this emancipated woman donning free-flowing clothing and skirts while engaging freely in outdoor activities. Marshall Field’s advertisement published in the 1920s underscores the importance of middle-class families purchasing finely crafted furniture and domestic products to adorn the middle-class home. Women’s new clothing styles provided a rationale for dress reform because men, oppressed by their restrictive and dreary clothing, became an inferior corollary to the emancipated female.
As such, the majority of contemporary discourses rendered shopping and consumer activities a female activity. Consumer culture during the 1920s nonetheless helped men reassert male authority in the public arena and orchestrated a new form of manhood in response to the encroachment of women in the public sphere. The behaviors and habits of men undergirded the consumer revolution that took place during the interwar era, which resulted in advertisers and marketers alike molding a plurality of identities for men quite disparate from pre-war American society. Moreover, men’s magazines helped redefine the middle-class male consumer and ideas about American manhood during a time epoch when the domestication of American life caused heightened anxiety over the emasculation of American men. This so-called “crisis in masculinity” called for American men to counter the dominant female consumer and directly address the fear of male emasculation by transforming into tasteful male consumers. Macy’s advertisements published during the 1920s reify this paradigm shift in conceptualizing shopping and consumerism as a manly activity as well.
Beyond gender, advertising played a formative role in articulating ideas about one’s class affiliation. Clothing choices made by men and women between 1880-1930 were primarily influenced by their desire to belong to a certain social group—particularly class—and their desire to live up to certain gender and class ideals. Clothing did not solely reflect an individual’s group affiliation or conformity to a particular mode of gender and class. Rather, clothing constituted and reinforced both. Advertized images thus evoke not only notions about gender and class but also provide lens to help assess how particular events such as the Great War affected various social groups of men and women in an idiosyncratic fashion. Although advertising sought to reproduce class distinctions, during the interwar period, it targeted society at large as a result of mass consumerism. Rather than cater advertising to certain segments of society divided by class, it targeted a mass audience according to epochal contingencies and trends. The development of the department store reified the advent of a new mass consumer culture during the interwar period..
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Hall, S. Roland The Advertising Handbook: A Reference Work Covering the Principles and Practice of Advertising (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1921).
Hopkins, Claude, C. My Life in Advertising and Scientific Advertising. Chicago: Advertising Publications, 1966.