Tuesday, February 1, 2011

History Of Consumerism In The United States

In spite of being founded under precepts of simple life and frugality, like those held by the Pilgrims, consumerism in the United States has been a strong driving force since the times around its foundation. Regardless of the open criticism by some sectors of society along the years in different period of its history, consumerism has triumphed in the consumer society of the United States as can be seen on the high levels of consumption all along its history as a nation up to the present time. The term “consumerism” is commonly used for expressing different ideas. In this essay the term is used to “describe the effects of equating personal happiness with purchasing material possessions and consumption”. As such it is a term “often associated with criticisms of consumption starting with Karl Marx and Thorstein Veblen, but can actually be traced back to the first human civilizations.”

According to Professor Peter Stearns at George Mason University a reasonable shorthand definition of modern consumerism can be given stressing two distinct features: “1) a serious commitment to the acquisition, display, and enjoyment of goods and commercial services clearly not necessary to subsistence however generously defined, and 2) participation in the process by social groups outside the upper classes.” (Stearns 2003, para. 5). These definitions are very important to consider as they shed light upon the use of the term “consumerism” in the present essay about the history of consumerism in the United States.

In order to study the history of consumerism in the United States two different approaches will be taken. First, the rise of consumerism in the United States will be seen from a general point of view emphasizing some philosophical and ideological aspects of consumerism in modern society. Second, a brief history of consumerism in the United States will be undertaken under a chronological point of view making emphasis on some relevant dates and cornerstones of consumer culture in the United States up to the present.

All along the way certain significant features of consumerism in the United States will be taken into account in order to give a broader idea of the implications and causations of consumerism in the United States. As consumerism and globalization are closely interlinked, it is necessary to understand the present interactions of both in the United States.

The rise of consumerism in the United States has been a steady process along the years, especially throughout the twentieth century around World War I. Charles Kettering, from General Motors, put it simply this way: "The key to economic prosperity is the organised creation of dissatisfaction". (FAIR n. d.). In the first quarter of the twentieth century in the United States there were technological advances that helped to enhance production processes. There was overproduction, and consumers couldn’t afford what was being produced at such a high pace.

The rise of consumerism in the United States is also linked to the birth of Public Relations. Around 1915 the so-called father of modern Public Relations, Edward Bernays, created propaganda techniques for the U.S. government in relation to World War I in order to control public opinion about this war. After his success in getting support for the government in wartime, Bernays began to apply that knowledge in peacetime in the areas of business and commerce. One of his famous expressions of that time states the following: "the conscious and intelligent manipulation of the … opinions of the masses is an important element in a democratic society. It is the intelligent minorities which need to make use of propaganda continuously and systematically". (FAIR n. d.). The idea behind those kinds of phrases has been widely used for political and commercial profits through the manipulation of public opinion and the power of mass marketing.

On the other hand, taking a look at the history of consumerism in the United States from a chronological perspective, the article “The History of Affluenza” by PBS (n. d.) is really very valuable in order to have a clear picture of consumerism along the years in the United States since the Discovery of America up to the present day.

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