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3. Consumerism

Mass-produced consumer goods like automobiles and ready-to-wear clothes were not new to the 1920s, nor were advertising or mail-order catalogues. But something was new about Americans' relationship with manufactured products, and it was accelerating faster than it could be defined. Not only did the latest goods become necessities, consumption itself became a necessity, it seemed. Was that good for America? Yes, said some—people can live in unprecedented comfort and material security. Not so fast, said others—can we predict where consumerism will take us before we're inextricably there?

    Collected commentary on Consumerism PDF file
  • Collected commentary. Advertising, installment buying, consumer credit, the allure of ever-better mass-produced goods—did these herald the triumph or decay of American civilization? Illustrated with numerous advertisements, this collection samples the ardent opinions voiced by champions and critics of "consumptionism" in the 1920s. What was the core of their disagreement? Did they agree on any central points? How does their discussion resemble today's commentary on consumerism? Selections can be divided among students for research and classroom discussion. (16 pp.)

  • Cathedrals of Fifth Avenue PDF file
  • The Cathedrals of Fifth Avenue, Internal Link to Discussing Art page oil on canvas, 1931. In a personal style unique among the American modernists, artist Florine Stettheimer created her Cathedrals series to showcase, and whimsically satirize, New York City's pre-eminence in entertainment, consumerism, finance, and art. The four large paintings—each five feet by four feet—are flamboyant, witty, unapologetically busy, and incontestably eye-catching. Each unfurls from a central arch, the "cathedral altar," and is constructed like an "elaborate stage design for an over-the-top Broadway musical production number."1 In The Cathedrals of Fifth Avenue, the "cathedrals" are the secular temples of consumer worship—the exclusive shops and restaurants of Fifth Avenue, their names and logos emblazoned in the sky like fireworks. At center is the cathedral "altar," modeled on the entrance to St. Patrick's Roman Catholic Cathedral, as a society wedding party exits the church and enters the enticing secular domain of Fifth Avenue. What response to the painting, and to consumerism, do you think Stettheimer intended? Why is the painting fun to look at (and why is it important to ask)? Compare The Cathedrals of Fifth Avenue with The Cathedrals of Broadway in this collection. (2 pp.) METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART/NHC

  • Humorists on salesmanship. "For better or for worse," wrote consumer activist Stuart Chase, "we have entered the Age of the Salesman. The final objective of the salesman is to put it across, to get away with it, to secure the order. The signature on the dotted line becomes the Supreme Good."2 In numerous articles with hard-hitting prose, Chase warned Americans of the wiles of modern salesmanship. And in their unique fashion, so did humorists. Here we read columns by two of the most popular humorists of the 1920s—the urban wit Robert Benchley, on "How to Sell Goods," and the "cowboy philosopher" Will Rogers decrying slogans in advertising and politics. (See Rogers on credit buying and Chase on the "Age of the Salesman" in the collected commentary.) What unique modes of conveying a message does humor offer? What constitutes a successful use of humor in persuasive prose? (4 pp.)

  • Silent theater commercials. Imagine yourself settled into a movie theater seat and viewing these brief ads for flour, hand cleaner, and the electric refrigerator before the main feature. How did the producers hope to motivate the viewers to buy the products? What did they use as visual enticement? What information did they convey? Did any use humor? Which of the three ads was most successful, in your opinion? How do they compare with movie theater advertising today? LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

See also in this collection: "Age of Prosperity."

Discussion Questions

  1. Overall, what benefits and harm to American civilization resulted from modern consumer culture, according to the commentators in this section?
  2. What unprecedented opportunities and threats to American democracy were presented by mass production and consumption? by the ever-increasing "standard of living"?
  3. Was the American economy producing "too many goods to consume"? Was this a real or presumed problem?
  4. How would modern consumerism change Americans' basic attitudes, goals, and character, for better or for worse?
  5. How was American consumerism singularly American?
Collected commentary___
  1. Complete the chart below as you read the commentary to organize the major issues and positions. Include two or more comments for each factor (paraphrase the comments).
    1. Christine Frederick

    2. William Chenery
    "Consumptionism" gives the consumer more power than ever before.

    We are healthier, happier people due to the mass-produced and advertised goods.
    Prosperity based on consumption of goods If consumers stopped buying enough goods, the entire nation would be seriously weakened.

    People are losing the habits of thrift and avoiding waste.
    1. Samuel Strauss

    2. Stuart Chase
      Comfort and convenience from manufactured goods  
      Advertising & Salesmanship
        Installment Buying
    & Consumer Credit
  2. According to Samuel Strauss, how was the vast increase in consumer goods "outward evidence of the new force" in American democracy?
  3. What was this "new force" and why did Americans view it as the "natural fruit of that democratic seed" which the earliest colonists had planted in America?
  4. Why did Strauss think the Founding Fathers would have disagreed with this view of modern consumer culture, despite their hope that future generations would live in material comfort?
  5. What did Strauss identify as the core danger from the new "consumptionism"? How could it threaten the nation itself?
  6. How did "Middletown"—Muncie, Indiana—reflect the national consumerism of the 1920s, according to sociologists Lynd and Lynd?
  7. Compare the two lists of modern conveniences and expectations in the commentary: (1) "The New Standard of Living" in Chase's Prosperity: Fact or Myth? and (2) the "new tools and services" favored by Muncie residents in Lynd and Lynd's Middletown. How do the lists compare to American living standards today?
  8. What positive aspects did home economist Christine Frederick identify in the new "consumptionism"? Why was it the "greatest idea that America has to give to the world [today]"?
  9. What power did consumers hold in the new "consumptionism" that they could not exercise before, according to Frederick? Why were women most significant in this development? why American women?
  10. Why did Frederick support advertising, especially in women's magazines? How did she argue that it strengthened, not weakened, character? How would Stuart Chase have disagreed?
  11. Why did Stuart Chase describe the abundance of manufactured goods a "wilderness in which we consumers wander without chart or compass"? How would Frederick have disagreed?
  12. How would William Chenery, editor of Collier's, have replied to Chase and Frederick? What were the benefits of advertising for which consumers should be grateful?
  13. How would William Retlaw's list of "magic words" that appear most often in advertising compare to a similar list today? What was Retlaw's opinion of this phenomenon?
  14. How would you describe the Andy Consumer ads in Life magazine? empowering? condescending? straightforward? manipulative? Do you think they were effective?
  15. According to the editors of Life, why did they create the Andy Consumer ad series? How did they explain their decision to their advertisers (in the Advertising and Selling ads on the series), and to their readers, the "Andy Consumers"?
  16. What were the benefits and downsides of installment buying, according to James Couzens and C. H. Hanch? How did the automobile manufacturing experience of each man influence his opinion?
  17. According to John Crowe Ransom, what made the American consumer a "new man"—for the worse?
  18. According to William Chenery, what made the American consumer a "new king"—for the better?
The Cathedrals of Fifth Avenue___
  1. What is your overall impression of the Cathedrals' series of paintings? Did you find them visually compelling? conceptually interesting? (See Supplemental Sites below.)
  2. Why is The Cathedrals of Fifth Avenue fun to look at (and why is it important to ask)?
  3. Describe the visual elements and organization of The Cathedrals of Fifth Avenue. Compare its "altar" with the altars of American Gothic-style cathedrals such as Saint Patrick's Roman Catholic Cathedral and St. Thomas Episcopal Church, both on Fifth Avenue in New York City.
  4. How did the "cathedral" motif provide Stettheimer an effective format for depicting secular aspects of American culture? (Compare The Cathedrals of Fifth Avenue with The Cathedrals of Broadway in this collection.)
  5. What commentary, if any, did Stettheimer incorporate in The Cathedrals of Fifth Avenue? What response do you think she hoped to evoke in the viewer?
  6. Why are the bride and groom depicted like figures on a wedding cake? Why are their parents more realistically portrayed, the bride's father looking straight out from the canvas?
  7. Why are the spectators more interested in the wedding party than in the ticker-tape parade for a visiting dignitary (at center left)?
  8. How did Stettheimer portray herself and her sisters in the painting (far right)?
  9. Create other questions for yourself and others based on details in the painting. What did you discover from close viewing of the canvas?
Humorists on salesmanship___
  1. What main points did Robert Benchley and Will Rogers deliver in their humorous essays?
  2. How might one of the economists or social scientists (in the collected commentary) have expressed the same points?
  3. What unique modes of conveying a message does humor offer?
  4. What constitutes a successful use of humor in persuasive prose?
  5. Try your hand at humor. Select one of the serious narrative pieces in the collected commentary and rewrite it in the style of Robert Benchley or Will Rogers. Why is it so hard?
Silent theater commercials___
  1. How did the producers hope to motivate the viewers to buy their products? Is similar motivation used today?
  2. What did they use as visual enticement? What information did they convey? Did they use persuasion, repetition, humor, or other devices?
  3. Which commercial was most successful, in your opinion? Why?
  1. Select one of the pairs below and create a dialogue (not all pairs held opposing viewpoints). Introduce an issue about 1920s consumerism at the beginning of the dialogue. Be sure to demonstrate how the speakers' perspective as consumer activists, humorists, etc., influenced their positions. End the dialogue with (a) a shared insight that surprises both parties, (b) a prediction for the year 2000, or (c) an appearance by you with a consideration they had overlooked.
    Stuart Chase and Christine Frederick consumer activists
    Lynd & Lynd and Wilbur Plummer social scientists
    Will Rogers and Robert Benchley humorists
    Florine Stettheimer and Winson McCay artists/illustrators
    William Chenery,
      Collier's editor
    and Life editors; creators of
     the Andy Consumer ads
    magazine editors
  2. Write an editorial comparing 1920s consumerism with that of the 21st century. Express a specific viewpoint, and offer a recommendation, insight, prediction, or critical analogy with the past. Begin or end your editorial with one of the following statements from the resources in this section.

Framing Questions

  • What factors nurtured or weakened the unprecedented prosperity of the 1920s?
  • How did "prosperity" become a hallmark of national pride? How was the word adapted for political and psychological aspirations of the nation?
  • What role did "workingmen" and labor unions play in the economic panorama of the period?
  • Compare the Twenties' boom-and-bust with similar economic cycles before and after the decade.


Collected commentary
Stettheimer, The Cathedrals of Fifth Avenue
Robert Benchley on salesmanship
Will Rogers on slogans
Silent theater commercials
16 pp.
  2 pp.
  2 pp.
  2 pp.
    View online.
22 pp.

Supplemental Sites

Prosperity and Thrift: The Coolidge Era and the Consumer Economy (American Memory, Library of Congress) Christine Frederick (Library of Congress) Stuart Chase (Library of Congress) Other Library of Congress resources "The Rise of Consumerism in the 1920s," video lecture by Michael Flamm (Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History)

Emergence of Advertising in America, 1850-1920 (Duke University Libraries)

Primary sources in History Matters (George Mason University and the City University of New York). Florine Stettheimer, Cathedrals series (Metropolitan Museum of Art) Florine Stettheimer, overviews Will Rogers, overviews Robert Benchley, overviews Jan Hornung, Seven Steps to Better Humor Writing, 2002 (Internet Writing Journal)

1 H. Alexander Rich, "Rediscovering Florine Stettheimer (Again): The Strange Presence and Absence of a New York Art World Mainstay," Woman's Art Journal, 32.2 (Fall-Winter 2011), p. 22.

2 Stuart Chase, "Six-Cylinder Ethics," The Forum, January 1928.

– Florine Stettheimer, The Cathedrals of Fifth Avenue, oil on canvas, 1931 (full image and three details). Gift of Ettie Stettheimer, 1953. 53.24.4. Image: Art Resource, NY. Reproduced by permission of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
– Advertisement for QRS player pianos and rolls, Collier's, October 15, 1921. Digital image courtesy of Hathi Trust Digital Library.
– Leonard Dove, cartoon ("Hot Chestnuts"), The New Yorker, October 26, 1929 (third frame of four-frame cartoon). Reproduced by permission of the New Yorker.
– Gluyas Williams, illustration (customer and store salesman) in Robert Benchley, Love Conquers All, essay collection, Harper & Bros., 1922; permission request in process.
– Advertisement for the Leonard Refrigerator, Good Housekeeping, February 1926. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, in online collection Prosperity and Thrift: The Consumer Era and the Consumer Economy, 1921-1929.
– Advertisement for Keller Knitting Co., Men's Wear, 1921. Courtesy of the New York Public Library, Digital ID 828196.
– Advertisement for Dr. Eliot's Five-Foot Shelf of Books ("Take It Free"), Collier's, July 9, 1921. Digital image courtesy of Hathi Trust Digital Library.
– Advertisement for Underwood typewriters, Collier's, November 5, 1921. Digital image courtesy of Hathi Trust Digital Library.
– Editors of Life, Andy Consumer advertisements, Life, July 9, 1925, and December 29, 1927. Current copyright holder of Life content (1883-1936) unidentified; search in process. Digital images courtesy of ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

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