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Keeping Up with the Joneses

Envy in American Consumer Society, 1890-1930

By Susan J. Matt

Publication Year: 2011

A century ago many Americans condemned envy as a destructive emotion and a sin. Today few Americans expect criticism when they express envy, and some commentators maintain that the emotion drives the economy. This shift in attitude is Susan Matt's central concern. Keeping up with the Joneses: Envy in American Consumer Society, 1890-1930 examines a key transition in the meaning of envy for the American middle class. Although people certainly have experienced envy throughout history, the expansion of the consumer economy at the turn of the twentieth century dramatically reshaped the social role of the emotion. Matt looks at how different groups within the middle class—men in white-collar jobs, bourgeois women, farm families, and children—responded to the transformation in social and cultural life.

Keeping Up with the Joneses traces how attitudes about envy changed as department stores, mail-order catalogs, magazines, movies, and advertising became more prevalent, and the mass production of imitation luxury goods offered middle- and working-class individuals the opportunity to emulate upper-class life. Between 1890 and 1910 moralists sought to tame envy and emulation in order to uphold a moral economy and preserve social order. They criticized the liberal-capitalist preoccupation with personal striving and advancement and praised the virtue of contentment. They admonished the bourgeoisie to be satisfied with their circumstances and cease yearning for their neighbors' possessions. After 1910 more secular commentators gained ground, repudiating the doctrine of contentment and rejecting the notion that there were divinely ordained limits on what each class should possess. They encouraged everyone to pursue the objects of desire. Envy was no longer a sin, but a valuable economic stimulant.

The expansion of consumer economy fostered such institutions as department stores and advertising firms, but it also depended on a transformation in attitudes and emotional codes. Matt explores the ways gender, geography, and age shaped this transformation. Bridging the history of emotions and the history of consumerism, she uncovers the connection between changing social norms and the growth of the consumer economy.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press


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pp. 1-3

Title Page

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p. 4-4

Copyright Page

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p. 5-5

Dedication Page

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pp. 6-7

Table of Contents

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pp. 8-9

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pp. 1-10

In 1897, readers of the Saturday Evening Post encountered the story of Mary, "a very pretty girl of sixteen," who was the daughter of "a man in moderate circumstances." "Oh! If I onlyhad a pair of diamond earrings!" said Mary to her mother. She confided, "I believe I should be perfectly happy if I had them. You don't know, mama, what a beautiful pair Esther Haley has. ...

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1. City Women and the Quest for Status

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pp. 11-56

In 1900, a Ladies' Home Journal columnist inquired, "How much time do we give to studying our fashionable neighbor's hat, or to making cheap, sleazy imitations of her Doucet confections?" Convinced that her readers undoubtedly devoted too much time to such activities, she questioned further, "How much of that discontent . . . found in our faces has ...

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2. Envy in the Office

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pp. 57-95

In the 1890s, as he was struggling to establish himself on Wall Street, Bernard Baruch observed around him men who had amassed greater fortunes and secured better positions than he had. He longed to join these men and felt uncomfortable with his relatively modest circumstances. He recalled, "another battle I had to fight out within myself as a young man ... [was] to prevent feelings of envy from driving me to ...

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3. "The Prizes of Life Lie Away from the Farm"

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pp. 96-126

When urban women and men felt twinges of envy as they looked at more affluent people on streets and in stores, they could try to assuage their envy through emulation. They could attempt to recast themselves into what they longed to be. America's rural population had little opportunity to do the same. While envy was at least as prevalent among country ...

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4. From "Sturdy Yeoman" to "Hayseed"

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pp. 127-147

Day after day, Edgar Lee Masters gazed out the window of his father's second-floor office in the small town of Lewiston, lllinois, and watched the fanners and townspeople go about their business. As he contemplated the scene before him, and thought about his own future in the town, Masters became deeply pessimistic. ...

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5. Coming of Age in Consumer Society

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pp. 148-181

In 1920, when she was twelve years old, Louise Rosenfield left her affluent family and their comfortable home in Des Moines, Iowa, and boarded a train bound for Maine. She was headed for summer camp, wearing a brand-new outfit in which she felt "very well dressed." She wore a navy skirt, a white shirt, white socks, "low-heeled shoes, and best of all, a ...

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pp. 182-185

In 1899, long before many Americans accepted such ideas, Robert Ellis Thompson, a professor of political economy at the University of Pennsylvania, proclaimed, "It is a benefit to spread a discontent with ugliness in dress, house and furniture. The peddler and the storekeeper are missionaries of civilization, and through their labor we have reached the point at which the poorest are no longer ...


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pp. 187-214


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pp. 215-220

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pp. 221-223

There are many people and institutions who helped me during the long process of writing this book. My graduate school advisors helped me launch this project and continued to take an interest in it long after their formal obligations ended. Michael Kammen has been a tremendous mentor whose understanding of American cultural history has shaped and influenced ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780812202724
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812236866

Page Count: 232
Illustrations: 10 illus.
Publication Year: 2011