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. 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.)
The Cathedrals of Fifth Avenue, 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."
|POSITIVE ASPECTS||FACTOR IN CONSUMER CULTURE||NEGATIVE ASPECTS|
|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
|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, |
|and||Life editors; creators of |
the Andy Consumer ads