- Workers Go Shopping in Argentina: The Rise of Popular Consumer Culture by Natalia Milanesio
The consumer economy has become a topic of interest throughout the world. Retail commerce and its component parts have become well integrated [End Page 417] into historical studies—from new emporiums devoted to shopping (such as department stores, malls, and electronic commerce) to the ways by which governments promote the expansion of credit, devise new laws to make goods more affordable, and develop infrastructure to facilitate the shipment and availability of foodstuffs and durable goods. Many of these new studies focus on Latin America, especially Mexico and Argentina.
Milanesio’s work on the rise of working-class consumerism in Argentina is one of several books linking consumerism to the first two terms of President Juan Domingo Perón (1946–1955), providing fresh approaches to this complicated topic. Eduardo Elena’s Dignifying Argentina: Peronism, Citizenship and Mass Consumption, Workers Go Shopping in Argentina (Pittsburgh, 2011) traced the beginnings of mass consumerism to governmental policies during the 1940s. Milanesio goes beyond that work to focus on advertising that targeted the working class in Argentina and other Latin American countries and on Argentine postwar surveys of consumer habits that examined how working-class housewives decided which household items to buy—refrigerators, radios, phonographs, and dress suits. Milanesio also covers the reaction of the middle classes to the assumption that better-paid workers could afford to purchase items previously identified only with the upper classes. Although most of the written sources focus on Buenos Aires, Milanesio draws her conclusions about the working class from the twenty-five oral interviews that she conducted in the port city of Rosario in the province of Santa Fe.
The section about advertising and consumer interviews reveals insights into the involvement of sociologists. Most specialists of Argentina are familiar with Gino Germani’s anti-Peronist study, Política y sociedad en una época de transición (Buenos Aires, 1962), but few are aware of his work with advertisers in 1954 (59), or his collaboration with a psychologist analyzing dreams of lower-class women in a popular magazine (167). Letters to the magazine Idilio afforded insights into consumerist desires, but since they were published anonymously, they could have been written by shop clerks, bank tellers, and teachers, as well as factory workers. How does the author define working class? Milanesio’s analysis of the 1947 national census, rarely examined by historians, helps to link consumerism with demography.
The argument that higher wages and Peronist laws alone could expand consumer credit to the working class is perhaps the weakest in the book; it is difficult to determine how commerce implemented Peronist laws and exactly how merchants defined credit. Was it a layaway plan in which purchasers received an item only after paying all or part of the payments, or was it an installment plan that implied possession of an item even before payments were made? We also need to know exactly who purchased what to confirm that the working class could benefit from credit, as well as whether they paid their cuotas (payments) to the store or an agency. Although some of the people interviewed in Rosario claimed [End Page 418] to have been able to save for a refrigerator, which cost a year’s salary, most workers probably would not have been able to do so, particularly outside the capital and provincial cities. Nonetheless, that likelihood, along with the prospect of going to theaters and restaurants, inflamed the imagination of the middle class.
Despite minor issues, Milanesio offers a fascinating and well-written account of consumerism and its effect on class during Peronism. It remains the work of other scholars with more data to confirm her ideas.