[Access article in PDF]
Regina Lee Blaszczyk. Imagining Consumers: Design and Innovation from Wedgwood to Corning. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000. xiii + 363 pp. Illustrations, figures, notes, essay on sources, and index. $39.95.
The rise of consumerism has long occupied a prominent place in general accounts of the American past. Almost a half century ago, David M. Potter posited in his landmark People of Plenty (1954) that economic abundance was a defining feature of the American character. In 1973, Daniel J. Boorstin celebrated the emergence of "consumption communities" in his Americans: The Democratic Experience. More recently, Susan Strasser and Richard S. Tedlow have analyzed how mass merchandisers created a national mass market. 1 In addition, a legion of social and cultural historians has explored the complex and sometimes paradoxical relationship between mass marketing and American values. 2
While these works differ in many respects, they share several common assumptions. Each dates the emergence of a modern consumer society to the period between the mid-nineteenth century and the Second World War. Each agrees that this development could properly be termed a "revolution" in the sense of being a significant, large-scale, and enduring change. And each shares Potter's conviction that some kind of relationship existed between institutional innovations and cultural norms. Few, of course, would be willing to generalize broadly, as Potter did, about the American character. Yet the notion that mass marketing has had a discernible effect on the wider society is relatively uncontroversial. Like the "transportation revolution," the "communications revolution," and other similar constructs that historians routinely invoke to make sense of the past, the "consumer revolution" is fast becoming something of a textbook cliché. To be sure, colonialists have long trumpeted the existence of a consumer revolution in the eighteenth century. Yet, with few exceptions, this work has had little effect on historians who set their sights on the less recent past.
Historical assessments of the moral import of consumerism are more divided. Some regard consumerism as a serious social problem, keeping alive a critical tradition that goes back at least as far as fin-de-siecle social critic [End Page 271] Thorstein Veblen. The most significant issue was not whether Americans desired material abundance, observed Susan Strasser in Satisfaction Guaranteed (1989), her provocative exploration of the making of the American mass market. The very title of her book made it plain that they did. Rather, Strasser warned of the consequences of consumerism for American society and the global environment. Consumption decisions might well be personal, Strasser observed, yet they have never been private. To reach any other conclusion was to subscribe to a "mythology of consumption" in which sovereign consumers benignly presided over an ever-expanding empire of goods (p. 290).
Not everyone, however, dismisses consumerism as a dangerous delusion. For a small but growing number of mostly younger historians, the acquisition of consumer goods becomes a morally neutral or even laudable pursuit. Inspired by the cultural anthropologist Mary Douglas, these revisionists praise material objects as things of beauty, emblems of personal identity, and repositories of shared meaning. Without necessarily endorsing conspicuous consumption, they deride taste-based distinctions as cultural snobbery and elevate consumer sovereignty into a populist rallying cry.
Among the most spirited and suggestive of the recent works in this revisionist tradition is Regina Lee Blaszczyk's Imagining Consumers: Design and Innovation from Wedgwood to Corning. Long awaited by specialists, Imagining Consumers is an engagingly written, solidly researched, and copiously illustrated monograph on the marketing of home furnishings in the United States. Suitable for adoption in upper-level courses in business history, American studies, popular culture, and the history of the decorative arts, it cogently makes the case for those who hail consumerism as a defining feature of the modern democratic creed.
Blaszczyk's subject is the design and marketing by American home furnishing firms of glassware, china, and plumbing fixtures in the period between the Civil War and the Great Depression. Among the firms she singles out for detailed treatment are Libbey Glass, Homer...