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  • Trams or Tailfins? Public and Private Prosperity in Postwar West Germany and the United States by Jan L. Logemann
  • Els De Vos (bio)
Trams or Tailfins? Public and Private Prosperity in Postwar West Germany and the United States. By Jan L. Logemann. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012, Pp. xvi+300. $45.

European postwar consumer societies often are depicted as places where the “Americanization” of consumption has taken place, with American types of mass-scale consumption replacing a more bourgeois mode. Recently, however, that generalization has been challenged. For example, in the framework of the European Science Foundation–funded project European Ways of Life in the American Century: Mediating Consumption and Technology in the Twentieth Century, several (mainly European) researchers question the extent to which the European postwar modes of consumption and material cultures were “Americanized.” In the project’s just-published synthesizing book, they shed light on processes of transforming, ignoring, or resisting American influences that took place in various countries (see Per Lundin and Thomas Kaiserfeld, eds., The Making of European Consumption).

Jan L. Logemann’s Trams or Tailfins fits this new approach. Logemann, a research fellow at the German Historical Institute in Washington, D.C., compares the postwar American consumer society with the West German one. While the suburban house, supermarket, fully equipped kitchen, and individual’s car were dominating the American consumer landscape, West German consumers preferred urban living, trams, and the local grocery store within walking distance. Logemann looks for explanations in the following areas: public policy, social norms, and the geographical environment.

As a result, the book is divided into three parts. The first maps the public policy attitudes toward public and private consumption in West Germany and the United States. The higher level of private spending in the United States can be attributed to the higher purchasing power of Americans, less state intervention in the free market, and less public spending. This last point is very interesting, as consumption history has focused mainly on private consumption, with public consumption remaining out of sight. Nevertheless, the investments in areas such as public transport and social provisions were crucial in the formation of the European welfare states. They cultivated an urban culture. [End Page 283]

The second part focuses on consumer aspirations and the social meaning of consumption. Logemann argues that American citizens bought more durable goods because they saw doing so as a way to increase their social status, while in West Germany, social stratification dominated consumption patterns. That might be mistaking cause for effect, however: as incomes increased in the United States, possession of certain material goods became a measure of social status. In this vein, Logemann notes that the easy accessibility of mortgage loans accelerated private U.S. consumption.

The last part discusses how consumption reconfigured space, while space reinforced certain consumption patterns. In the United States, large-scale suburbanization took place, which encouraged (and depended on) car ownership to reach the workplace. Car use was a catalyst for supermarkets situated near big roads and surrounded by large parking lots. The long distance to the city center led people to invest more in leisure activities at home, which contributed to the disinvestment in public provisions such as the theater, cinema, or public transport.

Logemann convincingly outlines the developments of the consumer societies in the two countries. Instead of the Americanization of West Germany, he shows how the country took lessons from the developments in the United States. The West Germans did not blindly adore the U.S. system; its policymakers worked to maintain lively and compact cities with small shops. West German consumers remained critical toward American products. They preferred sound, durable goods instead of fancy objects. Certain “American” evolutions were present in Germany, such as suburbanization, the rise of car ownership, and the emergence of supermarkets. However, these were guided and regulated much more in favor of public interests. The case of West Germany illustrates how the “soft power” of the United States was quite successfully resisted and transformed in Europe.

Despite his interest in the role of public policy, Logemann pays little attention to a set of influential actors. In Europe, many organizations and institutions, including state agencies...


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pp. 283-284
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