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  • Advertising Success Through Consumption: 1900–1929
  • Monica Brasted (bio)

As gentility spread during the 18th and 19th centuries, changes in consumption habits occurred and the consumer culture started to emerge. This study examines how two of the main values identified by Bushman (1992) as being associated with the spread of gentility and therefore the spread of the consumer culture are framed in the advertisements of the early 20th century. The first is success through consumption of symbolic goods of success. The second value is the idea of performance, which reflects the importance of appearances. People believed that they had to perform because they were always being criticized or judged by others and that they had to keep up the appearance of status and success. This analysis examines the framing of these cultural values in advertisements from the 1900s through the 1920s in the Saturday Evening Post. It is argued that through the appropriation and reflection of these cultural values, advertisements facilitated the transition to a consumer culture by reinforcing the preexisting cultural beliefs about consumption and success.

Imagine two men. Mike lives in a mobile home, drives a beat up pickup truck, buys his clothes at the discount store and eats cube steaks. Joe lives in a five-bedroom home, drives a jaguar, shops at specialty clothing stores and enjoys filet mignon. Both men have their needs for shelter, food, clothing and transportation satisfied, but Joe would be seen as more successful, based on what he consumes to satisfy his needs. In the “consumer society” of today’s United States, goods signal status. One set of objects signifies upward mobility or achievement, while another tags the owner as “downscale.”

Michael Schudson argues that the emergence of consumer society must be understood in social and historical terms because material needs are never biological givens, but instead are social constructions. He specifically refers to the beliefs held by both Karl Marx and Adam Smith that “basic needs” must be defined to include those goods that signify the minimal level of social creditability, whether it’s a pair of shoes or a pipeful of tobacco. He argues that, “what people require are the elements to live a social life, the elements to be a person.”1 Schudson emphasizes that, because such needs are socially-constructed, the specific items required to live a social life—to be a person deserving of respect and inclusion—varies from one society to another. Implicitly, those needs would vary over time in the same society, too. Thus, to understand the origins of the symbol system that differentiates Mike and Joe, we must look to the history of class and consumption in America. This article adds further evidence and argument for the essential premise of Schudson’s book: that understanding the emergence of consumer culture—and the burgeoning ability of its objects to signify as signs—requires knowing how the meanings of goods evolved in the context of social history.

Historical Backdrop

Many social critics have pointed to industrialization and advertising as the engines driving the growth of a consumer society in the United States. However, historians point to another important force contributing to the use of aspirational goods to signal social ambition and achievement: the American Revolution itself. Historians Gordon Wood and Richard Bushman, for instance, have carefully analyzed the way social instability and the emergence of the modern economy combined to produce, at one and the same time, the strong desire to consume in an “upscale” manner and the means to do so.

Though it seems strange to us now, the consumption of goods, especially clothing and housewares, was restricted by class in pre-Revolutionary America. When the defeat of the monarchy brought sudden democracy, past strictures on consumption fell away with the old social hierarchy. Within only two decades of the political Revolution, industrialization provided a revolution in the available goods. Suddenly, factories producing cheaper versions of the fine cloth and furniture previously allowed only to aristocrats made the erstwhile markers of class available to and affordable for the commonfolk. The desire of ordinary people to consume goods that had marked the former gentry provided a powerful impetus that, in essence, “jump...