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Reviews in American History 30.4 (2002) 646-654
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Remembering Willie Wirehand:
Consumer Culture and Consensus in American Life
Gary Cross. An All-Consuming Century: Why Commercialism Won in Modern America. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. ix + 320 pp. Illustrations, notes, and index. $29.00 (cloth); $18.50 (paper).
Ronald R. Kline. Consumers in the Country: Technology and Social Change in Rural America. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000. xii + 372 pp. Illustrations, appendix, notes, and index. $45.00 (cloth); $18.95 (paper).
I remember Willie Wirehand. The smiling stick figure, with a light bulb for a head, worked to convince members of rural electric cooperatives to use more electricity at home and to use it safely and efficiently. The cartoon figure appeared on billboards, leaflets, even Zippo lighters, and on the pages of the co-ops' consumer magazines with articles that reminded readers that they could keep cool on hot summer days by using electric ceiling fans and "power roof ventilator[s]" and by preparing meals with "all-day slow cookers [and] electric skillets." Electricity was not expensive, but rather a bargain that improved the quality of life and freed country people from "all those chores . . . that had to be done by hand before we got electricity." 1 As a kid growing up in the heartland in the 1970s, this seemed to me altogether unnecessary. Why would anyone hesitate to use electricity? Who still actually needed to be convinced to use an electric refrigerator, washing machine, or iron rather than an icebox, gas-powered washer, or flat, heavy sad iron?
In two thoughtful books, Frank Cross and Thomas Kline address these issues in historical perspective. The authors engage two key questions: to what extent did consumer culture define American life in the twentieth century? And to what extent did consumers have agency in deciding that? In a sweeping synthesis, Cross argues that "[c]onsumerism, the belief that goods give meaning to individuals and their roles in society," prevailed over other political ideologies and other ways of forming and communicating identity to become the "real winner of the century" (p. 1). In a more narrowly focused monograph, Kline argues that rural Americans in the twentieth century "resisted, modified, and selectively used" new technologies "to create new [End Page 646] rural cultures, new forms of rural modernity" (p. 8). Both these books raise broader questions of whether or how consumption in the twentieth century became the vehicle for a new social, political, and cultural consensus in American life. At the same time, they highlight issues in the ongoing debate over the advantages and disadvantages of scholarship that stresses synthesis over difference.
To a field now rich with historical monographs that identify and analyze the distinct consumption experiences of working-class shop girls, African Americans in the Jim Crow South, Mexican American families in the postwar period, and many others, Cross offers a wonderfully balanced assessment of the pros and cons of consumer society in an effort to "help us all understand what a new and challenging world we have created for ourselves" (p. viii). 2 Showing an impressive command of secondary literature and bolstered by a selection of primary sources including business and leisure magazines and contemporary studies of consumer practices, Cross argues that throughout the twentieth century, and despite "challenges to the social order, most Americans continued to define themselves and their relationships with others through consumer goods" (p. 67). Neither the penury of the Great Depression nor the privations of World War II weakened the commitment of Americans to consumer culture as their vehicle of choice for self-expression and resolution of social conflict; nor did seemingly producerist or anti-consumption movements such as the Arts and Crafts movement, Prohibition, the counter-cultures of the 1960s, or the late-twentieth-century environmental movement make a dent in this commitment as Americans consistently rejected a "culture of constraint" (pp. 1, 114,163, 13). Not that consumer culture remained static: for example, Cross reads the evolution through the twentieth century of consumer preferences for "goods...