Turn back the pages of history to the rise of consumerism in America. Josh McMullen, interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Regent University in Virginia Beach, delves into when and how America become the consumer giant that it is today.
How have department stores and advancements in transportation influenced consumerism? What are the striking similarities between advertisements through the decades? And did consumerism play a role in the battle against communism in the mid-1900s?
We discuss these questions and more on this episode of The Daily Signal Podcast. Enjoy reading the lightly edited transcript below or listening to the podcast:
Virginia Allen: We are joined on The Daily Signal Podcast by Dr. Josh McMullen, interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Dr. McMullen, thank you so much for joining us.
Josh McMullen: It’s very wonderful to be here. Thank you.
Philip Reynolds: Dr. McMullen, let’s start with an easy question. How long have you been teaching history and was that something you always knew you wanted to do?
McMullen: I’ve been teaching history … at the university level for close to 12 years now, almost 10 of those here at Regent University. I’ve always been fascinated by history. Even as a child, I tended to really enjoy nonfiction kind of history books.
My undergraduate degree was actually in biblical studies but I did make the transition over to history when I was in seminary. I first began as a church historian and then eventually went on to do doctoral work in American history.
Allen: Both Philip and I graduated from Regent University and we were both privileged to to have you as a professor and to take your history classes. I remember sitting in your history classes just being amazed at how you were able to really make history come alive.
One of my favorite subjects that we discussed in your U.S. history class was the rise of consumerism in America. You know, it’s so easy to forget that there was a time before Amazon Prime where we couldn’t just buy anything when we wanted to, but there actually was a shift in society and this didn’t just happen by accident.
You break down that shift in American history when the home really began to become a place of consumption instead of production. Can you explain a little bit of that transition?
McMullen: Sure. I’d be happy to. Particularly in the colonial era, the home really was kind of a place of production. I mean, it was either family farms and so you were producing crops either to sustain yourself or maybe to also engage in trade, or if you are an artisan, you know, a baker, a butcher, your shop tended to be connected to your home or very close to your home and so work and family life, there wasn’t a sharp distinction. These things overlapped.
I mean, even children, if we think about it, children often engaged in farm work. They also tended to be apprentices and they learned the trade of their father or their grandfathers. This is why so many of our last names are based on maybe the trade of our family.
We do begin to see a shift in the late 1700s and early 1800s in American culture. There’s this kind of what we might call bifurcation between work and home life, where people begin to leave home to go to work. That seems, of course, completely normal to us now. I mean, it’s hard for us to actually imagine anything different than that but that was not always the case.
The home then in some ways after work gets taken out of the home and put into a business or a factory or the office, the home then becomes, particularly during the Victorian Era, during the 19th century, as really a place of consumption, right? We purchase things, we put them in our homes on display. The home, and really the family, kind of shifts pretty dramatically in American life after the early 19th century.
Reynolds: You know, this shift of work identity really that we see taking place, it was very important to that era, especially, I remember, in our U.S. History 1 class we talked about the Victorian Era and that was kind of one of the hallmarks of the Victoria Era, this work identity.
Could you go a little more in-depth about sort of the thought process behind this shift in work identity and the thought processes behind that and behind this larger amount of consumption that started to take place?
McMullen: Yes. You know, there is this interesting shift, particularly in identity, and so in the Victorian Era you have pretty strong, and we might even say strict, kind of female and male roles, and of course there have always been male and female roles in all periods of society.
In the Victorian Era, you really begin to see this kind of rise of the Christian gentleman who kind of … leaves the home, goes out into the marketplace, kind of does battle—the marketplace is this kind of jungle, this place where, you know, he’s really got to fight tooth and nail—and then he comes home and the home is kind of a place where he’s the gentleman, it’s full of etiquette.
And we see a real shift with women as well, where the Victorian mother, she … gets really separated from work. She’s no longer really seen as a worker. She’s kind of seen more in a domestic role and that domestic role in a lot of ways also takes on a consuming role, a consumption role.
In the colonial period, men really probably did as much purchasing as women, to the best of our knowledge, but once we get into the Victorian Era and then even further into the 1900s we see that men are kind of seen as the workers and women in many ways are kind of seen as the consumers. There’s this kind of interesting gender role change that is affected by the market economy and the role of consumption in American life.
Allen: Let’s talk about the rise of the department store. What was the very first department store and how did Americans react to its establishment?
McMullen: Yes. The department store … you know, it wasn’t like it was unveiled at one moment. These stores developed over time and so there’s actually a lot of debates surrounding which was really truly the first department store in terms of how we think of a department store.
Le Bon Marché in Paris makes a case that it’s really the first. You have others like Macy’s. In New York, of course, we think of the Thanksgiving Day Parade, and you’ve got Marshall Field’s in Chicago, Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia. You know, all of these these now-department stores can kind of try to make a case that they were truly the first, but they all really begin to emerge in the mid-1800s and by the late 1860s, really 1870s and 1880s, the department store as kind of we know it really emerged.
I think Americans at this point were already embracing consumerism, that in many ways the middle class and consumption were almost synonymous, right? Kind of American thought is you’ve reached a particular status and basically that status means that you’re able to consume.
I guess if there was one criticism of the department stores, it was the fact that so many young women worked in department stores and in some ways this gave those women a little bit more social and economic independence.
Some critics of the department store may have seen it as loosening maybe the moral fiber of the Victorian family. But really most of these women, at least in the 1800s, working in department stores were not kind of radical feminists.
They liked the independence that the job gave them, the economic and the social independence, but most of them still went on to get married. They would quit their job, they would quit their job at the department store, and kind of really become that kind of domestic matriarch of the Victorian Era. Their time in the department store was more kind of a period of life rather than a new self-identity.
Now, that does change once we get into the 20th century, but throughout the 1800s we kind of see that’s the role that department stores play.
Allen: That is really interesting.
Reynolds: Yeah, absolutely. Now to sort of shift gears here, and, yes, pun intended, but to shift gears, let’s talk about road infrastructure. I think that’s something that not a lot of people realize is something that influences us day to day. … What sort of role did [road infrastructure] play in the rise of consumerism?
McMullen: Yeah, that’s a great question. Well, in the early period of the department store, so 1860s, 1870s, 1880s, it was the railroad that played a key role because the railroad really did primarily two things. It allowed those goods to be brought in at cheaper rates to these department stores and so the department stores, you know, they don’t rise in a vacuum. They rise in the context of all kinds of industrial revolution and transportation developments.
Then the railroad also could bring people on the outskirts of the cities or these kind of just beginning suburbs into the department stores. The train played a key role in that early part of the consumer era in America.
Post-World War II we do see that roads play a very key role in the development of what we might call modern American consumer culture.
You know, we tend to think of the 1950s as kind of this car-crazy culture. The interstate highway system is built during this time. We do see that roads play kind of a key role, right? People can take vacations, they can live in the suburbs, they can travel further to work, they can drive to stores. There’s a whole industry of consumption that arises around roads.
You know, Thanksgiving was very recently. Think about the kind of consumption that would have happened because of all of that holiday travel. You’ve got hotels and motels, you’ve got fast food, you’ve got all kinds of things that just cater to people traveling the roadways.
Again, with those roadways, just like with trains, we see increased transportation through trucking, which allows goods and services to be done more cheaply, which brings down prices of consumer goods, which allows people to spend more or to get more … bang for their buck. It allows people to travel to stores. … Transportation in general has always been tied very closely to consumer culture in America.
Allen: With that rise of consumerism, obviously, all those products now needed to be advertised so that people would buy them. What are some of those maybe early advertising trends that we’re even still seeing today?
McMullen: Yeah, there’s been some wonderful cultural historians who have done work on advertising in America. It really is shocking how closely the advertising strategies of our own era match some of the advertising strategies of the 1910s, 1920s.
From the very beginnings of advertising, you begin to see a celebrity endorsement. I mean, you have celebrity endorsements dating all the way back into the 1920s and, of course, celebrity endorsements are a huge aspect of advertising in the modern era. You know, you want this basketball player or this football player or this musician to endorse your product, whatever that product may be. That kind of celebrity, that celebrity status.
There’s always been an appeal to image as well. Very early on in the 1900s and 1920s we see that beauty products were the most advertised consumer products. I don’t know what the exact statistics today would be, but I’m assuming that beauty products still tend to be some of the most heavily advertised products that we have on the market.
There’s easily this appeal to image from the very beginning, right? You want to look this way because first impressions matter and many of the commercials that we see today still appeal to that “first impressions matter” kind of mentality. Yeah, [there are] striking similarities between early advertising and today.
Reynolds: Yeah. Now, this whole rise in consumerism has been going on for quite some time, but we definitely, I think, see somewhat of a boom, and you can confirm or deny this, but a boom in the 1950s and that’s right around the time when we have Communist Russia really growing in power and the Soviet Union expanding. Is there a link between this expansion of communism and America’s fear of communism and the rise of consumer culture?
McMullen: Yeah, I mean, I think that there is. I mean, I think it’s important to realize that consumer culture had developed earlier than the Cold War, but that the Cold War really expanded it and maybe increased it.
I think that one of the key ways that as a culture, and there are many ways that America defined itself in the face of kind of Soviet communism, but one of the key ways that Americans wanted to distinguish themselves from Soviet communism was to be this land of abundance, this land of economic, particularly, abundance.
We wanted to show that democratic capitalism literally could produce the goods in comparison to, you know, these descriptions of the Soviet Union as kind of these bleak non-consumeristic … you know, this land where no one had access to the latest and greatest goods.
This is absolutely tied to American identity in the ’50s and ’60s. … You know, here is a family, an average family, who can afford the latest washing machine. They can afford this nice home in the suburbs. They can enjoy this good meal. This is a comparison to this Soviet family who lives in Soviet bloc housing, who lives on rationed food, who doesn’t have the latest technology.
There really is this comparison with kind of the Soviet Union. I think one of the places that we see this very clearly is in this Nixon/Khrushchev debate.
There’s this debate in Moscow in 1959 between Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev and they’re having this debate in this model American home. The United States had gone over there as part of the United States Information Agency. We don’t necessarily need to get into details but there was this model American home and Nixon and Khrushchev have this debate in this model American home.
Nixon is … basically pointing at this model American home and saying, “This is where our average American family lives. This is what they have. Clearly democratic capitalism is better than Soviet communism.”
I think that’s a key kind of moment and I think it really illustrates the importance of consumption in the battle against communism in the ’50s, ’60s, and even into the ’70s and ’80s.
Allen: So interesting. Wow. For anyone who’s interested in learning more about the history of this rise of consumerism in America, do you have any great resources that you could recommend?
McMullen: Yeah, I mean, there’s a lot out there. People have been doing a lot of great work in this field for many, many years. I think one of the leaders in this field is an historian by the name of T.J. Jackson Lears. … He’s been doing work for several decades now in the area of consumerism and American culture advertising but there’s a lot of others as well.
There’s a classic book on advertising in the American dream by Roland Marchand. There’s even some great books out there that talk about the intermingling of economic and political policy in the United States with consumerism. Lizabeth Cohen has written a book called “A Consumers’ Republic,” which is excellent in that area.
I think there’s also kind of a fun read by Leigh Eric Schmidt. It’s called “Consumer Rites.” It talks about the intermingling of consumerism and holidays in America. He looks at Easter, he looks at Christmas, he looks at Valentine’s Day, and that’s kind of a fun read for people who really enjoy those holidays, but they can also see the intermingling of consumerism with those holidays. Those are just a few resources that people could go to.
Reynolds: Awesome. Thank you so much, Dr. McMullen.
McMullen: Well, thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it.