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Creating Mexican Consumer Culture in the Age of Porfirio Díaz by Steven B. Bunker (review)

From: Journal of Latin American Geography
Volume 13, Number 1, 2014
pp. 235-236 | 10.1353/lag.2014.0008

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Historian Stephen B. Bunker’s vibrant history of consumption is one of everyday life–la vida cotidiana—in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Mexico. This engaging survey of modernizing Mexico is told through six well-integrated chapters that explain the marketing of machine-rolled cigarettes, the rise of popular advertising, the advent of French-influenced department stores and retailing, capital investment, shoplifting, and a jewelry store robbery. The book ably achieves its goal of presenting “discourses of consumption [and] also explores how individuals and groups use the goods, practices and spaces of urban consumer culture to construct meaning and identities in the rapidly evolving social and physical landscape of the capital city and beyond” (2–3).

Industrialization and incipient globalization create an array of products for the gente decente, city and country folks, as well as mestizos and indios in subtle but profound ways. Penny presses, illuminated walking sign holders (the Electric Man), billboards, street hawking, shop signs, bill posters, tram cars, free samples, glass kiosks, dirigibles, and myriad (now conventional) novel ways of consumer engagement capture the imagination and pocket books of Mexico’s transformation between 1876–1911. Under the administration’s motto of Order and Progress, we gain an understanding of how city life serves as a “consumer culture’s classroom,” (14), “the democratization of the image,” (22), “consumption, spectacle, and modernity” (33), where women function as the “guardian angels of the home” (42), and “collective purchasing [is] a form of voting” (49).

Elements of foreignness, like many societies in different places and times, make products in Porfirian Mexico objects of social display and conspicuous consumption. Life insurance, phonographs, clothing, banquet menus, foreign-sounding brand names and automobiles reflect this exotic flavor. But it is the Gallic imprint on this nascent consumer culture that is most pronounced. In Mexico, “enlightened” models of consumption transitioned from British and then to French influences before the United States dominated in the twentieth century. Haussmann’s Paris was imitated by the authoritarian liberation of Porfirio Díaz, and the cachet of French goods became the signs of good taste and modernity for the bourgeoisie and elites. Reports in the popular presses show that in the late nineteenth century, some Mexicans would give up a tortilla for a brand of cigarettes, cigars slowly become passé and came to symbolize the slower pace of rural life, and elements such as the color of foil, the use of glue in cigarette rolling, logos, and the promotion of cigarettes to both women and even crying babies served as the advertising value propositions as companies scrambled to segment, target and promote tobacco products. Saturation marketing and the practice of repetition as well as other kinds of commercial propaganda gradually come under state regulation to avoid unsightly signage and even to correct orthography (lest less-learned Mexicans and the público consumidor (consuming public) imitate these errors in a time of Porfirian progress). Many of these goods find their way into department stores, which serve as cultural primers and are very much in the vanguard. Brazil’s cities, Buenos Aires, and Santiago de Chile lag well behind the advent of department stores in Mexico.

A topic as visual as material culture necessarily requires images, and 20 of them grace the pages of the book. However, do we really need three of the Palacio de Hierro department stores, when there are no examples of say, the so-called penny presses directed towards the popular classes, nor of an “intermingled readership dressed in traditional and Western attire cuts”(85), or mug shots of shoplifters who varied by skin color (184)? Readers wishing to learn more about the Porfiriato era will be disappointed because the book either assumes that the Mexican president’s imprint on his country is either well known to readers, or that they will understand the meanings of references to Porfirian society’s obsession with social hierarchies, notions of chivalry and gender distinction (185), and other descriptions of the Porfiriato that beyond the two pages (6–7) sketched in the introduction. In fact, there is not a single primary entry to Porfirio Díaz in the work’s subject index, which with only nine and half pages...



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