- Financing the American Dream: A Cultural History of Consumer Credit
In the best tradition of cultural history, Lendol Calder explores the fusion of materialistic and idealistic impulses within the much-heralded American Dream. Although the Dream upholds such ideals as freedom and self-fulfilment, it rests on access to the consumer commodities that are the building blocks of personal identity under capitalism. For Calder, the costly nature of these products explains the “long-standing American tradition of going into debt to bring unattainable dreams within reach” (p.290). Financing the American Dream is an institutional history of the consumer credit industry, a social history of consumers, and a cultural history of debt. It not only suggests how Americans learned to pay for goods in creative ways but explains the process by which consumer credit came to receive widespread moral sanction. By depicting how people came to “feel good” (p.10) about borrowing money and by focusing on the public debate over the morality of consumption as a way of life, Calder makes a major contribution to the debate over the cultural significance of American consumerism.
Skillfully placing American buying habits within the context of culture and history, Calder describes how the Victorian money management ethic distinguished between the producer debt of farmers or small business folk, and self-indulgent consumer debt. Although the latter supposedly undermined thrift and self-control, debts for middle-class commodities that increased in value (from homes secured by mortgages to reapers, sewing machines, and pianos bought on time) were considered productive and appropriate. By 1890, the nation’s estimated $11 trillion in private debt was segmented along social class lines: while the urban working class turned to pawnbrokers, small-loan agencies, and marginal retailers selling furniture or clothing on the installment plan, middle-class clients patronized more respectable building and loan associations for five-year mortgages for the constructon of residential homes. Calder argues that the ‘credit revolution’ (p.111) of the early twentieth century made consumerism the “foremost cultural authority” (p.8) of American society. Ironically, Progressive era reformers played a major role in this transition. Seeking to democratize access to reliable sources of credit, reformers succeeded in repealing or amending state usury laws. By 1932, twenty-five states had some version of the Uniform Small Loan Law, thereby creating a legal foundation [End Page 773] for non-profit loan societies as well as privately run ‘consumer’ or ‘household’ (p.211) finance companies. A greatly expanded credit industry now celebrated the productive nature of small loans and offered personal finance professionals as ‘counselors to the consumer’ (p.147). Licensed lenders reached out to as much as one-eighth of the population in the states in which they operated, with particular success among skilled workers, lower-echelon white collar employees, and women homemakers (80 percent of 1920s personal loans were signed over to married women whose credit was based on their husbands’ earning power).
After 1915, many personal finance loans enabled debtors to pay off retail installment plan obligations. Concentrated in clothing, hardware, appliance, jewelry, and department store outlets as well as the auto industry, the time payment system accounted for some two-thirds or more of durable goods sales in the 1920s. “Installment credit generated a psychology of affluence that contributed immensely to the spirit of the Roaring Twenties” (p.206), concludes Calder. Yet critics warned that the 1930s depression would provide the credit system’s ultimate test. Surprisingly, then, that debt actually declined in hard times as both buyers and lenders became more conservative. As finance companies often extended payment deadlines to avoid defaulted contracts, borrowers continued to use cash loans to pay off installment obligations. The credit system further stabilized when the New Deal government loaned funds to farmers and homeowners and insured mortgages and bank deposits. By 1940, strengthened commercial banks had become the largest lenders of consumer credit as a result of extensive dealings with affluent white collar and professional borrowers.
Despite its spectacular role in...