- The Deeper Meaning of Tupperware:Consumer Culture and the American Home
There's no place like home. In our imagination if not in our experience, home is a place of warmth, security, and comfort. It is the place to which we return, and it is where we are supposed to belong. But it takes more than love to make a home. Apparently, it also takes a lot of stuff.
Three recent contributions to the history of consumption in the United States after the Civil War explore how Americans used stuff—the amazing array of goods produced by the new consumer economy—to communicate belonging, affiliation, and other meanings of "home." That consumer economy grew out of an interlocking series of social and economic changes that made inexpensive manufactures more widely available, aggregated potential buyers into markets, and afforded workers more time for leisure. Between the 1870s and 1920s, migrants and immigrants congregated in cities, concentrating laborers and consumers into accessible workforces and markets. Businesses created new corporate structures and built mass production factories, turning out boxcars full of inexpensive goods. Railroads developed an increasingly complex national network, delivering products from greater distances and more cheaply than ever before. New techniques in photography and printing lowered publishing costs and spurred advertising. These developments and others created an expanded national marketplace in which mass-produced consumer goods, including automobiles, appliances, ready-made clothing, processed foods, leisure magazines, movies, recorded music, and more, became plentiful and increasingly affordable.1 Consumer goods mattered, then and now, and not [End Page 195] only because their production and use impacts the environment, changes standards of living, and stimulates the senses. According to the historian Gary Cross, they also perform important cultural work, for consumer goods "give meaning to individuals and their roles in society."2
The books under review document a range of ways in which Americans between the end of the Civil War and the early cold war used consumer culture to define their place in the world, construct cultural boundaries that distinguished their national home from others, and negotiate new roles for homemakers in public life. Kristin Hoganson's Consumers' Imperium uncovers how American homemakers' passion for imports made them important players in the politics of empire. Charles McGovern's Sold American explores how early twentieth-century advertisers and consumer advocates connected national feeling with consumer culture, helping to make consumption a key element of American identity and belonging. Bob Kealing's Tupperware Unsealed recounts the life of Brownie Wise, the marketing genius who made Tupperware a household name. Together, these works add complexity to scholarship on the interrelationship of consumer culture, gender, and home, a literature with roots in Elaine Tyler May's classic 1988 text on cold war domesticity, Homeward Bound.3
In Consumers' Imperium, Hoganson demonstrates the increasing maturity of historical approaches that situate the United States "in the world." She shatters what is left of the boundary between the foreign and the domestic, a boundary that once isolated the history of foreign relations from the histories of just about everything else, by locating American encounters with the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century world in women's everyday activities of homemaking, shopping, and socializing. These ordinary pursuits regularly brought American women, especially those who were middle-class or elite and white, into contact with the "foreign," and many of these activities—interior decorating in the popular "Oriental" style of the period, cooking exotic dishes, entertaining guests with slide shows of travel abroad—took place in the most domestic of spaces, the home. No longer the Victorian haven from the outside world, home in...