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Reviewed by:
  • Jeffrey L. Meikle (bio)
From Submarines to Suburbs: Selling a Better America, 1939–1959. By Cynthia Lee Henthorn. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2006. Pp. xv+368. $59.95/ $26.95.

Historians tend to view World War II as a stark interruption to the expansion of consumer culture in the United States. Fueled by advertising and the automobile in the 1920s and stimulated into partial recovery by WPA pump-priming and consumer engineering in the 1930s, this ongoing process halted abruptly after Pearl Harbor, according to conventional wisdom, and resumed only after 1945 with the return of peace. For Cynthia Lee Henthorn, however, the war represents not an interregnum when consumer culture stalled out, but rather an extraordinary moment of consolidation and reformulation by the business community, establishing a fundamental continuity with what went before and what came after. This exhaustively researched, engagingly written study encompasses the war years within a historical narrative which previously had excluded them.

From Submarines to Suburbs opens with the "kitchen debate" between Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev in Moscow in 1959, an event whose juxtaposition of domestic abundance and military strength as weapons in a global struggle enables Henthorn to introduce her central questions: "What was the ideological role of modern comforts and conveniences that made them symbolic markers of national military superiority, and how did such concepts evolve into a marketing strategy deployed during the early cold war years?" (p. 4). Henthorn then presents the entire book as an extended [End Page 661] flashback, revealing how events of World War II ratified prewar tendencies of consumer culture and transformed them for postwar service. At a basic level, she posits a struggle between profit-oriented big business and a mostly benevolent government for control of the hearts and minds of citizen-consumers. With corporate America worried simultaneously about the lack of domestic products during wartime and about the expansion of government bureaucracies to administer the war, it seemed necessary to sell the public on the absolute necessity of the private sector's activities for victory. Henthorn deftly examines two mostly chronological but sometimes overlapping strategies: narratives of mobilization (illustrating contributions of familiar consumer companies to military procurement) and narratives of reconversion (highlighting wondrous domestic products, often stemming from military research, to be democratically broadcast at war's end). These are not entirely unfamiliar categories of corporate promotion, but Henthorn seamlessly links them back to the streamlined promises of Depression-era world's fair exhibitions and forward to the military-industrial rhetoric of the cold war.

Not since Roland Marchand's work on interwar advertising and public relations (which has clearly influenced Henthorn) has there been such a sophisticated historical analysis of corporate rhetoric, whether verbal or visual. Henthorn has examined an array of trade and popular periodicals in search both of narratives presented to the public and of private rationales for those narratives. She is equally adept at re-creating complex intellectual points of view by judiciously quoting and paraphrasing business leaders and at conveying conscious intent and probable impact through deep readings of advertising images. Only once, during detailed interpretations of some seventy images, does Henthorn err, missing the dirt under the fingernails of a clenched fist and declaring it "the elite fist of managerial power, not labor" (p. 58). Attentive to intended audiences, she reveals that the projected postwar cornucopia appeared differently to business readers (treated to functional modernism with a whiff of the laboratory) and the general public (whose domestic gadgets came wrapped in comfortingly traditional styles). Henthorn avoids the temptation to assume a universal middle class, instead revealing the failure of business's democratizing tendency by examining both the desire of African Americans to participate in a materialist American dream and their dissatisfaction when its partial attainment failed to convey social inclusion.

From Submarines to Suburbs is a major work that extends our understanding of twentieth-century consumer culture by examining a complex set of processes notably defined by journalist Eric Sevareid in 1944 as "super-dupering the war" (p. 175). Even so, there are a couple of quibbles, one rhetorical, the other substantive. Henthorn often anachronistically uses "New Deal" to indicate wartime bureaucracies despised by business leaders (by...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1097-3729
Print ISSN
0040-165X
Pages
pp. 661-663
Launched on MUSE
2007-07-30
Open Access
No
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