- Raising Consumers: Children and the American Mass Market in the Early Twentieth Century
Lisa Jacobson's book, Raising Consumers: Children and the American Mass Market in the Early Twentieth Century is the latest contribution to the growing scholarship on children in consumer society. Her work joins other recent titles such as Gary Cross's The Cute and The Cool: Wondrous Innocence and Modern American Children's Culture (Oxford University Press, 2004 ) and Kelly Schrum's Some Wore Bobby Sox: The Emergence of Teenage Girls' Culture, 1920-1945 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004). All of these works argue that children became consumers much earlier than previous histories have suggested. Whereas scholars once assumed that youngsters went from being innocent creatures sheltered from economic or material concerns to acquisitive consumers only after World War II, these new works argue that the transformation occurred in the early decades of the twentieth century and that children's role in the consumer economy has been expanding ever since.
Jacobson's argument is a persuasive one. She presents significant evidence of advertisers' efforts to reach out to children in the early twentieth century. She also shows how their efforts were abetted by other cultural forces at the time. School curricula, once dedicated to teaching industry, thrift, and delayed gratification through School Savings Bank programs, gradually shifted towards lessons in wise spending rather than saving. By the 1930s, consumer education had overtaken thrift education. Simultaneously, American middle-class parents showed an increasing willingness to give their children allowances, with the hope that this would teach their children prudent spending habits. They too were training their children for participation in the consumer economy. Jacobson ably demonstrates how the allowance gradually eroded the boundary between public commercial life and private family life, and how money and affection became more and more intertwined.
The acceptance of the allowance was part of a larger shift in family dynamics that Jacobson insightfully analyzes. During the early twentieth century, middle-class American families adopted a more egalitarian and companionate form of family life. Theoretically, children and parents were supposed to be connected [End Page 1203] to one another through spontaneous affection rather than through structured, hierarchical bonds. For instance, middle-class children and parents often heard the rhetoric that they were all part of the "family firm," and that each family member should have a voice in making family spending decisions. Love and equality were the watchwords of the idealized modern family, if not always the reality. Child-rearing experts told parents that they and their children should engage in wholesome play and free expression. Worried by the rise of mass entertainments such as movies, they suggested that parents build play rooms for their offspring, where they could participate in pure and improving activities. Theoretically, the play room would offer a moral alternative to the temptations of mass culture. Many of these play rooms, however, ended up stocked with toys and gee gaws not very different from the commercial amusements that the middle class initially had feared and disdained. Family life thus became increasingly enmeshed in and dependent upon consumer culture.
Raising Consumers offers a convincing portrayal of how consumerism powerfully reshaped childhood. Jacobson is at her best when she explains how curricular changes, marketing transformations, and revolutions in the family combined to legitimate children's spending.
Somewhat less strong is the discussion of children's perceptions of and participation in these new developments. In the introduction, the book claims that it will present children as historical actors and restore to them their agency, but it does relatively little of this. Throughout the book, the reader hears far more of the advertisers', educators', and parenting experts' voices than of children's. While Jacobson is able to demonstrate that youngsters often became disillusioned with radio clubs and their gimmicks, she is less successful in showing how children responded to the many other campaigns that she describes. For instance, in a chapter on boy consumers, there is a nuanced discussion of how ads portrayed...