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A Consumers' Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America

A Consumers' Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America Citation Cohen, Lizabeth. 2004. A consumers’ republic: The politics of mass consumption in postwar America. Journal of Consumer Research 31(1): 236-239. Published Version doi:10.1086/383439 Permanent link http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:4699747 Terms of Use This article was downloaded from Harvard University’s DASH repository, and is made available under the terms and conditions applicable to Other Posted Material, as set forth at http:// nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:dash.current.terms-of-use#LAA Share Your Story The Harvard community has made this article openly available. Please share how this access benefits you. Submit a story . Accessibility Reflections and Reviews A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America LIZABETH COHEN* istorians and social scientists analyzing the contem- sumer market. A wide range of economic interests and play- H porary world unfortunately have too little contact and ers all came to endorse the centrality of mass consumption hence miss some of the ways that their interests overlap and to a successful reconversion from war to peace. Factory the research of one field might benefit another. I am, there- assembly lines newly renovated with Uncle Sam’s dollars fore, extremely grateful that the Journal of Consumer Re- stood awaiting conversion from building tanks and muni- search has invited me to share with its readers an overview tions for battle to producing cars and appliances for sale to of my recent research on the political and social impact of consumers. the flourishing of mass consumption on twentieth-century If encouraging a mass consumer economy seemed to America. What follows is a summary of my major argu- make good economic sense for the nation, it still required ments, enough to entice you, I hope, to read A Consumers’ extensive efforts to get Americans to cooperate. Certainly, Republic (Cohen 2003), in which I elaborate on these there was tremendous pent-up demand for goods, housing, themes. Although this essay is by necessity schematic, the and almost everything else after a decade and a half of book itself is filled with extensive historical evidence and wrenching depression and war, but consumers were cautious is heavily illustrated with period images. In tracing the grow- about spending the savings and war bonds that they had ing importance of mass consumption to the American econ- gladly accumulated while consumption was restricted on the omy, polity, culture, and social landscape from the 1920s home front. Hence, beginning during the war and with great to the present, I in many ways establish the historical context fervor after it, business leaders, labor unions, government for your research into contemporary consumer behavior and agencies, the mass media, advertisers, and many other pur- markets. I hope you will discover illuminating and fruitful veyors of the new postwar order conveyed the message that connections between your work and my own. mass consumption was not a personal indulgence. Rather, The United States came out of World War II deeply de- it was a civic responsibility designed to improve the living termined to prolong and enhance the economic recovery standards of all Americans, a critical part of a prosperity- brought on by the war, lest the crippling depression of the producing cycle of expanded consumer demand fueling 1930s return. Ensuring a prosperous peacetime would re- greater production, thereby creating more well-paying jobs quire making new kinds of products and selling them to and in turn more affluent consumers capable of stoking the different kinds of markets. Although military production economy with their purchases. As Bride’s magazine told the would persist, and expand greatly with the cold war, its acquisitive readers of its handbook for newlyweds, when critical partner in delivering prosperity was the mass con- you buy “the dozens of things you never bought or even thought of before . . . you are helping to build greater se- *Lizabeth Cohen is the Howard Mumford Jones Professor of American curity for the industries of this country. . . . What you buy Studies in the Department of History, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA and how you buy it is very vital in your new life—and to 02138 (cohen3@fas.harvard.edu). She received her Ph.D. from the Uni- versity of California, Berkeley, and has taught at Carnegie Mellon and our whole American way of living” (quoted in Harvey 1993, New York universities. She is the author of Making a New Deal: Industrial p. 110). Workers in Chicago, 1919–1939 (New York: Cambridge University Press, For its promoters, this mass-consumption-driven econ- 1990), which won the Bancroft Prize and was a finalist of the Pulitzer, and omy held out the promise of political as well as economic most recently, A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption democracy. Reconversion after World War II raised the in Postwar America, work on which was supported by fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Association of Learned So- hopes of Americans of many political persuasions and social cieties, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Radcliffe positions that not only a more prosperous but also a more Institute of Advanced Study. equitable and democratic American society would finally be 2004 by JOURNAL OF CONSUMER RESEARCH, Inc. ● Vol. 31 ● June 2004 All rights reserved. 0093-5301/2004/3101-0021$10.00 MASS CONSUMPTION IN POSTWAR AMERICA 237 possible in the mid-twentieth century due to the enormous, as well as particular social groups, benefited over others. and war-proven, capacities of mass production and mass Dependence on new single-family, privately owned, de- consumption. As Americans lived better and on a more equal tached home construction to solve the enormous postwar footing with their neighbors, it was expected, the dream of housing crunch as well as to fuel the economy privileged a more egalitarian America would finally be achieved. Pol- suburbs over cities. By 1965, a majority of Americans would iticians never tired of tying America’s political and eco- make their homes in suburbs rather than cities. nomic superiority over the Soviet Union to its more dem- The home ownership at the heart of the Consumers’ Re- ocratic distribution of goods. public did more than expand the numbers and enhance the The new postwar order deemed, then, that the good cus- status of suburbanites over urbanites. Through their greater tomer devoted to “more, newer, and better” was in fact the access to home mortgages, credit, and tax advantages, men good citizen, responsible for making the United States a benefited over women, whites over blacks, and middle-class more desirable place for all its people. Wherever one looked Americans over working-class ones. Men, for example, se- in the aftermath of war, one found a vision of postwar Amer- cured low VA mortgages, and the additional credit that home ica where the general good was best served not by frugality ownership made available, as a result of their veteran status or even moderation, but by individuals pursuing personal in World War II and the Korean War, while women generally wants in a flourishing mass consumption marketplace. Pri- did not. White Americans more easily qualified for mort- vate consumption and public benefit, it was widely argued, gages, including those dispensed through the GI Bill, which went hand in hand. And what made this strategy all the worked through existing—and consistently discrimina- more attractive was the way it promised a socially pro- tory—banking institutions, and more readily found suburban gressive end of social equality without requiring politically houses to buy than African Americans could. And while progressive means of redistributing existing wealth. Rather, some working-class Americans did move to suburbs, in- it was argued, an ever-growing economy built around the creasingly they tended to settle in “cops and firemen” sub- twin dynamics of increased productivity and mass purchas- urban towns quite distinct from where successful profes- ing power would expand the overall pie without reducing sionals and entrepreneurs lived. A metropolitan landscape the size of any of the portions. emerged where whole communities were increasingly being What I have called the ideal of the Consumers’ Repub- stratified along class and racial lines. As home, particularly lic—my phrase, not a label used at the time—had far-reach- a new one, in the Consumers’ Republic became a com- ing ramifications for the physical character of postwar Amer- modity to be traded up, “property values” became the new ica. To begin with, new house construction provided the mantra. Of course, people still chose the towns they lived bedrock of the postwar mass consumption economy, both in, but increasingly they selected among internally homo- through turning “home” into an expensive commodity for geneous suburban communities occupying different rungs purchase by many more consumers than ever before and by in a hierarchy of property values. A community’s racial stimulating demand for related commodities, such as cars, profile contributed along with its house prices to positioning appliances, and furnishings. The scale of new residential it on that ladder of prestige. Many suburban whites leaving construction following World War II was unprecedented. cities with growing African American populations felt that One out of every four homes standing in the United States only an all-white community would ensure the safety of in 1960 went up in the 1950s. As a result of this explosion their investment, often their entire life savings, and they did in house construction, by the same year, 62% of Americans everything within their means to restrict blacks’ access to could claim that they owned their own homes, in contrast real estate. As the neighbor of the first black family to move to only 44% as recently as 1940 (the biggest jump in home into Levittown, Pennsylvania, in 1957 told a Life magazine ownership rates ever recorded). And this explosion of the reporter, “He’s probably a nice guy, but every time I look at private real estate market was made possible by a mixed him I see $2000 drop off the value of my house” (Life 1957). economy of private enterprise bolstered by government sub- This increasing segmentation of suburbia by class and sidy—in the form of mortgage guarantees with low interest race fueled even more damaging social inequality because rates and no down payment directly to buyers as part of the of Americans’ traditional devotion to home rule as a critical veterans benefits under the GI Bill of 1944, and indirectly pillar of democracy, a conviction that only intensified with to buyers through loan insurance to lenders and developers suburbanization in the postwar period. As a result of postwar through the Federal Housing Administration. The federal Americans’ loyalty to localism, the quality of crucial ser- government assisted as well through granting mortgage in- vices soon varied much more than they formerly had when terest deductions on income taxes, a mass tax since World more people lived within larger units of cross-class and War II, and constructing highways from cities out to the interracial cities. Education, for example, widely recognized farmland that overnight was being transformed into vast as the best ticket to success in postwar America, became suburban tract developments. captive to the inequalities of the new metropolitan land- The greater democracy and equality expected to accom- scape, since local communities substantially provided, and pany the flourishing of private real estate markets in the paid for, their own schools through local property taxes. The Consumers’ Republic proved illusive, however. The passage wealthier the community, the more it had to spend, and the of time revealed that certain kinds of metropolitan locales, greater prospect of its children receiving the kind of edu- 238 JOURNAL OF CONSUMER RESEARCH cation that led to prestigious college and graduate degrees depend on hiring part-time female sales help living nearby, and well-paying jobs. to whom they offered low pay and few benefits. Not only The stratification of the residential metropolis in postwar did suburban housewives offer cheap and flexible labor, but America was accompanied by a similar segmentation, as their hiring helped branch department stores undermine the well as commercialization and privatization of public space, retail clerks unions that had successfully organized the flag- of what previously had been the urban downtown. By the ship stores downtown. mid-1950s, a new market structure—the regional shopping The economic and social stratification of metropolitan center—well-suited to this suburbanized, mass consump- America was reinforced by marketers and advertisers, who tion-oriented society emerged, a vision and soon a reality simultaneously discovered the greater profits to be made in where the center of community life was a site devoted to segmenting the market into distinctive submarkets based on mass consumption, and what was promoted as public space gender, class, age, race, ethnicity, and lifestyle. The Con- was in fact privately owned and geared to maximizing prof- sumers’ Republic was founded in the 1940s and 1950s on its. As developers and store owners set out to make the the conviction that mass markets offered endless potential shopping center a more perfect downtown, they explicitly for growth and appealed to all Americans. “The rich man aimed to exclude from this community space unwanted so- smokes the same sort of cigarettes as the poor man, shaves cial groups such as vagrants, racial minorities, political ac- with the same sort of razor, uses the same sort of telephone, tivists, and poor people. They did so through a combination vacuum cleaner, radio and TV set,” and drives a car with of location, marketing, and policing. only minor variations, Harper’s Magazine typically asserted Whereas at first developers had sought to legitimize the (quotation by Professor H. Gordon Hayes [1947], cited in new shopping centers by arguing for their centrality to com- Allen 1952, p. 193). But by the late 1950s, advertisers, merce and community, over time they discovered that those marketers, and manufacturers began to worry that mass mar- two commitments could be in conflict. When antiwar pro- kets would soon be saturated as more and more Americans testers or striking employees noisily took their causes to the bought a house, car, refrigerator, and washing machine. The mall, the rights of free speech and free assembly were not alternative that emerged, and flourished by the 1960s, was always good for business and could conflict with the rights market segmentation, the division of mass markets into of private property owners—the shopping centers—to con- smaller market segments defined by distinctive orientations trol entry to their land. Beginning in the 1960s, American and tastes, each to be sold different products, or if the same courts all the way up to the Supreme Court struggled with product, to be sold in a totally different way. As segmenting the political consequences of having moved public life off pioneer Pierre Martineau argued in a groundbreaking article the street into the privately owned shopping center. The in the Journal of Marketing in 1958, a member of a market ultimate outcome was that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled segment defined by social class or other criteria is “pro- that the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution did not foundly different in his mode of thinking and his way of guarantee free access to shopping centers, and it was left to handling the world. . . . Where he buys and what he buys the states to decide whether or not their own constitutions will differ not only by economics but in symbolic value” did. Only in six states have state supreme courts protected (Martineau 1958, pp. 122–23). citizens’ rights in privately owned shopping centers, and When market segmentation exacerbated the divisions be- even in some of those states activity has been limited. tween social groups, it reinforced the fragmentation created The shopping centers of the 1950s and 1960s also con- by residential communities and commercial centers. And tributed to a new calibration of consumer authority in the when politicians and campaign managers began to apply the household between men and women that in many ways techniques of market segmentation to the political sphere limited women’s power over the family purse. For all the beginning in the 1960s, the shift from mass to segment took attention that shopping centers lavished on women, they did on larger political significance. Politicians targeted voters little to enhance their social and economic power. Rather, with distinctive messages aimed at their political interests as mass consumption became more and more central to the narrowly construed, and voters, much like the segmented health of the economy, shopping centers and the stores buyers of goods who sought the best match for their dis- within them celebrated the family as a consumer unit and tinctive tastes and desires with what was available in the paid increasing attention to men as the chief breadwinner commercial marketplace, similarly came to expect the po- and consumer. Men’s increased involvement in family pur- litical marketplace—consisting of candidates, government chasing was also reinforced by the huge expansion of credit agencies, and PACS—to respond to their particular needs that shopping centers encouraged, making credit cards and and interests. In multiple arenas, then, Americans were pro- other forms of credit the legal tender of mall purchasing. pelled away from the common ground of the mass toward Until the passage of equal credit legislation in the 1970s, the divided, and often unequal, territories of population frag- the growing importance of credit deepened men’s oversight ments, in the process accentuating everything that made of their wives and daughters, as male names and credit them different from each other and undermining any broad- ratings were required for women’s own access. Finally, based political agenda designed to serve the public good. shopping centers put limits on women’s independence as The application of market segmentation to politics be- workers, not just consumers, as suburban stores came to ginning in the 1960s and increasing thereafter was part of MASS CONSUMPTION IN POSTWAR AMERICA 239 a larger tendency in the Consumers’ Republic to let the 1970s, as citizen consumers aimed to hold corporations and techniques and standards of the private marketplace define government to higher moral and quality standards. But by success in more and more spheres of American life. As the the beginning of the twenty-first century, more often than not Americans are asking of the public domain, “Am I get- test of value increasingly became market viability, even the ting my money’s worth?” rather than “What’s best for Amer- notion of public government itself became at risk. During ica?” Knowingly or not, they speak in an idiom that evolved the last half century, Americans’ confidence that an econ- out of the perhaps initially naive but ultimately misguided omy and culture built around mass consumption could best conviction of the Consumers’ Republic that private markets deliver greater democracy and equality led us from the Con- could solve the nation’s social and political as well as eco- sumers’ Republic to what I call the “consumerization of the nomic problems, somehow delivering greater democracy republic.” Americans increasingly came to judge the success and prosperity to one and all at the very same time. of the public realm much like other purchased goods, by the personal benefit individual citizen-consumers derived [Dawn Iacobucci served as editor for this article.] from it. I do acknowledge in this book that the linkage made in REFERENCES the Consumers’ Republic between citizen and consumer spawned some important grassroots, democratic political Allen, Frederick Lewis (1952), The Big Change: America Trans- forms Itself, 1900–1950, New York: Harper & Bros. action, most notably the civil rights movement that be- Cohen, Lizabeth (2003), A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of gan as a drive for access to public—often commercial— Mass Consumption in Postwar America, New York: Knopf. accommodations in the North right after World War II. If Harvey, Brett (1993), The Fifties: A Women’s Oral History, New citizens had a patriotic responsibility to consume, then de- York: HarperCollins. nying them was a violation of both a free market and a free Life (1957), “Integration Troubles Beset Northern Town,” Septem- society, it was argued. And I also explore how the demo- ber 2, 43–46. cratic expectations raised by the Consumers’ Republic fu- Martineau, Pierre (1958), “Social Classes and Spending Behavior,” eled the impressive consumer movement of the 1960s and Journal of Marketing, 23 (October), 121–30. http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png Foreign Affairs Unpaywall

A Consumers' Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America

Foreign AffairsJan 1, 2003

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A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America Citation Cohen, Lizabeth. 2004. A consumers’ republic: The politics of mass consumption in postwar America. Journal of Consumer Research 31(1): 236-239. Published Version doi:10.1086/383439 Permanent link http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:4699747 Terms of Use This article was downloaded from Harvard University’s DASH repository, and is made available under the terms and conditions applicable to Other Posted Material, as set forth at http:// nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:dash.current.terms-of-use#LAA Share Your Story The Harvard community has made this article openly available. Please share how this access benefits you. Submit a story . Accessibility Reflections and Reviews A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America LIZABETH COHEN* istorians and social scientists analyzing the contem- sumer market. A wide range of economic interests and play- H porary world unfortunately have too little contact and ers all came to endorse the centrality of mass consumption hence miss some of the ways that their interests overlap and to a successful reconversion from war to peace. Factory the research of one field might benefit another. I am, there- assembly lines newly renovated with Uncle Sam’s dollars fore, extremely grateful that the Journal of Consumer Re- stood awaiting conversion from building tanks and muni- search has invited me to share with its readers an overview tions for battle to producing cars and appliances for sale to of my recent research on the political and social impact of consumers. the flourishing of mass consumption on twentieth-century If encouraging a mass consumer economy seemed to America. What follows is a summary of my major argu- make good economic sense for the nation, it still required ments, enough to entice you, I hope, to read A Consumers’ extensive efforts to get Americans to cooperate. Certainly, Republic (Cohen 2003), in which I elaborate on these there was tremendous pent-up demand for goods, housing, themes. Although this essay is by necessity schematic, the and almost everything else after a decade and a half of book itself is filled with extensive historical evidence and wrenching depression and war, but consumers were cautious is heavily illustrated with period images. In tracing the grow- about spending the savings and war bonds that they had ing importance of mass consumption to the American econ- gladly accumulated while consumption was restricted on the omy, polity, culture, and social landscape from the 1920s home front. Hence, beginning during the war and with great to the present, I in many ways establish the historical context fervor after it, business leaders, labor unions, government for your research into contemporary consumer behavior and agencies, the mass media, advertisers, and many other pur- markets. I hope you will discover illuminating and fruitful veyors of the new postwar order conveyed the message that connections between your work and my own. mass consumption was not a personal indulgence. Rather, The United States came out of World War II deeply de- it was a civic responsibility designed to improve the living termined to prolong and enhance the economic recovery standards of all Americans, a critical part of a prosperity- brought on by the war, lest the crippling depression of the producing cycle of expanded consumer demand fueling 1930s return. Ensuring a prosperous peacetime would re- greater production, thereby creating more well-paying jobs quire making new kinds of products and selling them to and in turn more affluent consumers capable of stoking the different kinds of markets. Although military production economy with their purchases. As Bride’s magazine told the would persist, and expand greatly with the cold war, its acquisitive readers of its handbook for newlyweds, when critical partner in delivering prosperity was the mass con- you buy “the dozens of things you never bought or even thought of before . . . you are helping to build greater se- *Lizabeth Cohen is the Howard Mumford Jones Professor of American curity for the industries of this country. . . . What you buy Studies in the Department of History, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA and how you buy it is very vital in your new life—and to 02138 (cohen3@fas.harvard.edu). She received her Ph.D. from the Uni- versity of California, Berkeley, and has taught at Carnegie Mellon and our whole American way of living” (quoted in Harvey 1993, New York universities. She is the author of Making a New Deal: Industrial p. 110). Workers in Chicago, 1919–1939 (New York: Cambridge University Press, For its promoters, this mass-consumption-driven econ- 1990), which won the Bancroft Prize and was a finalist of the Pulitzer, and omy held out the promise of political as well as economic most recently, A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption democracy. Reconversion after World War II raised the in Postwar America, work on which was supported by fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Association of Learned So- hopes of Americans of many political persuasions and social cieties, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Radcliffe positions that not only a more prosperous but also a more Institute of Advanced Study. equitable and democratic American society would finally be 2004 by JOURNAL OF CONSUMER RESEARCH, Inc. ● Vol. 31 ● June 2004 All rights reserved. 0093-5301/2004/3101-0021$10.00 MASS CONSUMPTION IN POSTWAR AMERICA 237 possible in the mid-twentieth century due to the enormous, as well as particular social groups, benefited over others. and war-proven, capacities of mass production and mass Dependence on new single-family, privately owned, de- consumption. As Americans lived better and on a more equal tached home construction to solve the enormous postwar footing with their neighbors, it was expected, the dream of housing crunch as well as to fuel the economy privileged a more egalitarian America would finally be achieved. Pol- suburbs over cities. By 1965, a majority of Americans would iticians never tired of tying America’s political and eco- make their homes in suburbs rather than cities. nomic superiority over the Soviet Union to its more dem- The home ownership at the heart of the Consumers’ Re- ocratic distribution of goods. public did more than expand the numbers and enhance the The new postwar order deemed, then, that the good cus- status of suburbanites over urbanites. Through their greater tomer devoted to “more, newer, and better” was in fact the access to home mortgages, credit, and tax advantages, men good citizen, responsible for making the United States a benefited over women, whites over blacks, and middle-class more desirable place for all its people. Wherever one looked Americans over working-class ones. Men, for example, se- in the aftermath of war, one found a vision of postwar Amer- cured low VA mortgages, and the additional credit that home ica where the general good was best served not by frugality ownership made available, as a result of their veteran status or even moderation, but by individuals pursuing personal in World War II and the Korean War, while women generally wants in a flourishing mass consumption marketplace. Pri- did not. White Americans more easily qualified for mort- vate consumption and public benefit, it was widely argued, gages, including those dispensed through the GI Bill, which went hand in hand. And what made this strategy all the worked through existing—and consistently discrimina- more attractive was the way it promised a socially pro- tory—banking institutions, and more readily found suburban gressive end of social equality without requiring politically houses to buy than African Americans could. And while progressive means of redistributing existing wealth. Rather, some working-class Americans did move to suburbs, in- it was argued, an ever-growing economy built around the creasingly they tended to settle in “cops and firemen” sub- twin dynamics of increased productivity and mass purchas- urban towns quite distinct from where successful profes- ing power would expand the overall pie without reducing sionals and entrepreneurs lived. A metropolitan landscape the size of any of the portions. emerged where whole communities were increasingly being What I have called the ideal of the Consumers’ Repub- stratified along class and racial lines. As home, particularly lic—my phrase, not a label used at the time—had far-reach- a new one, in the Consumers’ Republic became a com- ing ramifications for the physical character of postwar Amer- modity to be traded up, “property values” became the new ica. To begin with, new house construction provided the mantra. Of course, people still chose the towns they lived bedrock of the postwar mass consumption economy, both in, but increasingly they selected among internally homo- through turning “home” into an expensive commodity for geneous suburban communities occupying different rungs purchase by many more consumers than ever before and by in a hierarchy of property values. A community’s racial stimulating demand for related commodities, such as cars, profile contributed along with its house prices to positioning appliances, and furnishings. The scale of new residential it on that ladder of prestige. Many suburban whites leaving construction following World War II was unprecedented. cities with growing African American populations felt that One out of every four homes standing in the United States only an all-white community would ensure the safety of in 1960 went up in the 1950s. As a result of this explosion their investment, often their entire life savings, and they did in house construction, by the same year, 62% of Americans everything within their means to restrict blacks’ access to could claim that they owned their own homes, in contrast real estate. As the neighbor of the first black family to move to only 44% as recently as 1940 (the biggest jump in home into Levittown, Pennsylvania, in 1957 told a Life magazine ownership rates ever recorded). And this explosion of the reporter, “He’s probably a nice guy, but every time I look at private real estate market was made possible by a mixed him I see $2000 drop off the value of my house” (Life 1957). economy of private enterprise bolstered by government sub- This increasing segmentation of suburbia by class and sidy—in the form of mortgage guarantees with low interest race fueled even more damaging social inequality because rates and no down payment directly to buyers as part of the of Americans’ traditional devotion to home rule as a critical veterans benefits under the GI Bill of 1944, and indirectly pillar of democracy, a conviction that only intensified with to buyers through loan insurance to lenders and developers suburbanization in the postwar period. As a result of postwar through the Federal Housing Administration. The federal Americans’ loyalty to localism, the quality of crucial ser- government assisted as well through granting mortgage in- vices soon varied much more than they formerly had when terest deductions on income taxes, a mass tax since World more people lived within larger units of cross-class and War II, and constructing highways from cities out to the interracial cities. Education, for example, widely recognized farmland that overnight was being transformed into vast as the best ticket to success in postwar America, became suburban tract developments. captive to the inequalities of the new metropolitan land- The greater democracy and equality expected to accom- scape, since local communities substantially provided, and pany the flourishing of private real estate markets in the paid for, their own schools through local property taxes. The Consumers’ Republic proved illusive, however. The passage wealthier the community, the more it had to spend, and the of time revealed that certain kinds of metropolitan locales, greater prospect of its children receiving the kind of edu- 238 JOURNAL OF CONSUMER RESEARCH cation that led to prestigious college and graduate degrees depend on hiring part-time female sales help living nearby, and well-paying jobs. to whom they offered low pay and few benefits. Not only The stratification of the residential metropolis in postwar did suburban housewives offer cheap and flexible labor, but America was accompanied by a similar segmentation, as their hiring helped branch department stores undermine the well as commercialization and privatization of public space, retail clerks unions that had successfully organized the flag- of what previously had been the urban downtown. By the ship stores downtown. mid-1950s, a new market structure—the regional shopping The economic and social stratification of metropolitan center—well-suited to this suburbanized, mass consump- America was reinforced by marketers and advertisers, who tion-oriented society emerged, a vision and soon a reality simultaneously discovered the greater profits to be made in where the center of community life was a site devoted to segmenting the market into distinctive submarkets based on mass consumption, and what was promoted as public space gender, class, age, race, ethnicity, and lifestyle. The Con- was in fact privately owned and geared to maximizing prof- sumers’ Republic was founded in the 1940s and 1950s on its. As developers and store owners set out to make the the conviction that mass markets offered endless potential shopping center a more perfect downtown, they explicitly for growth and appealed to all Americans. “The rich man aimed to exclude from this community space unwanted so- smokes the same sort of cigarettes as the poor man, shaves cial groups such as vagrants, racial minorities, political ac- with the same sort of razor, uses the same sort of telephone, tivists, and poor people. They did so through a combination vacuum cleaner, radio and TV set,” and drives a car with of location, marketing, and policing. only minor variations, Harper’s Magazine typically asserted Whereas at first developers had sought to legitimize the (quotation by Professor H. Gordon Hayes [1947], cited in new shopping centers by arguing for their centrality to com- Allen 1952, p. 193). But by the late 1950s, advertisers, merce and community, over time they discovered that those marketers, and manufacturers began to worry that mass mar- two commitments could be in conflict. When antiwar pro- kets would soon be saturated as more and more Americans testers or striking employees noisily took their causes to the bought a house, car, refrigerator, and washing machine. The mall, the rights of free speech and free assembly were not alternative that emerged, and flourished by the 1960s, was always good for business and could conflict with the rights market segmentation, the division of mass markets into of private property owners—the shopping centers—to con- smaller market segments defined by distinctive orientations trol entry to their land. Beginning in the 1960s, American and tastes, each to be sold different products, or if the same courts all the way up to the Supreme Court struggled with product, to be sold in a totally different way. As segmenting the political consequences of having moved public life off pioneer Pierre Martineau argued in a groundbreaking article the street into the privately owned shopping center. The in the Journal of Marketing in 1958, a member of a market ultimate outcome was that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled segment defined by social class or other criteria is “pro- that the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution did not foundly different in his mode of thinking and his way of guarantee free access to shopping centers, and it was left to handling the world. . . . Where he buys and what he buys the states to decide whether or not their own constitutions will differ not only by economics but in symbolic value” did. Only in six states have state supreme courts protected (Martineau 1958, pp. 122–23). citizens’ rights in privately owned shopping centers, and When market segmentation exacerbated the divisions be- even in some of those states activity has been limited. tween social groups, it reinforced the fragmentation created The shopping centers of the 1950s and 1960s also con- by residential communities and commercial centers. And tributed to a new calibration of consumer authority in the when politicians and campaign managers began to apply the household between men and women that in many ways techniques of market segmentation to the political sphere limited women’s power over the family purse. For all the beginning in the 1960s, the shift from mass to segment took attention that shopping centers lavished on women, they did on larger political significance. Politicians targeted voters little to enhance their social and economic power. Rather, with distinctive messages aimed at their political interests as mass consumption became more and more central to the narrowly construed, and voters, much like the segmented health of the economy, shopping centers and the stores buyers of goods who sought the best match for their dis- within them celebrated the family as a consumer unit and tinctive tastes and desires with what was available in the paid increasing attention to men as the chief breadwinner commercial marketplace, similarly came to expect the po- and consumer. Men’s increased involvement in family pur- litical marketplace—consisting of candidates, government chasing was also reinforced by the huge expansion of credit agencies, and PACS—to respond to their particular needs that shopping centers encouraged, making credit cards and and interests. In multiple arenas, then, Americans were pro- other forms of credit the legal tender of mall purchasing. pelled away from the common ground of the mass toward Until the passage of equal credit legislation in the 1970s, the divided, and often unequal, territories of population frag- the growing importance of credit deepened men’s oversight ments, in the process accentuating everything that made of their wives and daughters, as male names and credit them different from each other and undermining any broad- ratings were required for women’s own access. Finally, based political agenda designed to serve the public good. shopping centers put limits on women’s independence as The application of market segmentation to politics be- workers, not just consumers, as suburban stores came to ginning in the 1960s and increasing thereafter was part of MASS CONSUMPTION IN POSTWAR AMERICA 239 a larger tendency in the Consumers’ Republic to let the 1970s, as citizen consumers aimed to hold corporations and techniques and standards of the private marketplace define government to higher moral and quality standards. But by success in more and more spheres of American life. As the the beginning of the twenty-first century, more often than not Americans are asking of the public domain, “Am I get- test of value increasingly became market viability, even the ting my money’s worth?” rather than “What’s best for Amer- notion of public government itself became at risk. During ica?” Knowingly or not, they speak in an idiom that evolved the last half century, Americans’ confidence that an econ- out of the perhaps initially naive but ultimately misguided omy and culture built around mass consumption could best conviction of the Consumers’ Republic that private markets deliver greater democracy and equality led us from the Con- could solve the nation’s social and political as well as eco- sumers’ Republic to what I call the “consumerization of the nomic problems, somehow delivering greater democracy republic.” Americans increasingly came to judge the success and prosperity to one and all at the very same time. of the public realm much like other purchased goods, by the personal benefit individual citizen-consumers derived [Dawn Iacobucci served as editor for this article.] from it. I do acknowledge in this book that the linkage made in REFERENCES the Consumers’ Republic between citizen and consumer spawned some important grassroots, democratic political Allen, Frederick Lewis (1952), The Big Change: America Trans- forms Itself, 1900–1950, New York: Harper & Bros. action, most notably the civil rights movement that be- Cohen, Lizabeth (2003), A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of gan as a drive for access to public—often commercial— Mass Consumption in Postwar America, New York: Knopf. accommodations in the North right after World War II. If Harvey, Brett (1993), The Fifties: A Women’s Oral History, New citizens had a patriotic responsibility to consume, then de- York: HarperCollins. nying them was a violation of both a free market and a free Life (1957), “Integration Troubles Beset Northern Town,” Septem- society, it was argued. And I also explore how the demo- ber 2, 43–46. cratic expectations raised by the Consumers’ Republic fu- Martineau, Pierre (1958), “Social Classes and Spending Behavior,” eled the impressive consumer movement of the 1960s and Journal of Marketing, 23 (October), 121–30.

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Published: Jan 1, 2003

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