Jonas Geweke: Purchasing the American Dream.

Jonas Geweke: Purchasing the American Dream – A Historical Analysis of the Impact of Consumerism on Racial and Social Equality in the American Republic from 1890 to 1960.


The concept of the »American Dream« has been one of the predominant and overarching themes of the national identity of the United States for more than two centuries. Despite the dynamic variety of meanings that were subsumed under the term, it always included the notion of unrestricted upward social mobility – generally open to everyone regardless of his or her ethnic, religious, and social background – and the pursuit of financial stability to provide one’s family with the means to achieve a decent standard of living. In essence, the American Dream has therefore always been a materialistic dream, which heavily depended on the ability to consume. As purchasing power lies at the heart of one of the guiding and identity-creating principles of the nation, an analysis of its influence is central to a deeper understanding of the cultural and socioeconomic constitution of the U.S. Hence, this essay considers to what extent and in what ways consumerism defined life in the American republic. It argues that consumerism became a universal mindset and ideology during the 20th century, which strongly influenced public opinion and behavior leading to governmental policies that subtly but decisively promoted economic and racial inequality and thereby shaped the fundamental social structure of the U.S.[1]

Although historians produced several, slightly differing definitions of »consumerism«, this essay refers to the term to describe a society that is defined by a population whose major life goals include the acquisition of goods that they do not need for subsistence. To a large extent, those goods are valued more because of their symbolic meaning than their material worth. This gives individuals an opportunity to create an identity through the consumption of certain products, which positions them in a particular milieu of the society. Due to this definition, this essay focuses on the 20th century, as the time when the preconditions of consumerism were met in that it became possible for an increasing number of people to acquire a growing range of goods.

The underlying question of this essay will be approached in a chronological order to give a differentiated, albeit sketchy and simplified, overview of how decisive watersheds in U.S. history were shaped by consumerism in various ways. Its general focus will be on developments between the late 19th century and the 1960s, when the basic social, political, and cultural structure of a consumerist society was formed.[2] Beginning with the origins of consumerism as a mental concept in the Progressive Era, this essay will further point out how it became established as a central ideology in the public and governmental sphere during the Great Depression. Subsequently, it will be discussed how federal policies translated into social and racial inequality in the post-war era, while consumerism itself became a self-assuring national myth during the Cold War.

As consumerism is essentially a mindset, it can only have a structuring influence when people begin perceiving themselves as consumers with a basic desire to buy a variety of goods. During the Progressive Era from the late 19th century until the 1920s, such a mental change gradually occurred, heralding modifications in the public, political, and economic sphere. Since one of the basic characteristics of the Progressive Era was a growing criticism of ostensibly ruthless, profit-seeking businesses, the public became concerned about the protection of their interests as consumers. Due to increasing popular pressure, the federal government introduced the »Pure Food and Drug Act« and the »Federal Meat Inspection Act« in 1906 to prevent the commercial dissemination of potentially harmful foods and alcohol. Additionally, consumerism increasingly influenced organized labor movements, as workers embraced wage labor as a means to consume instead of rejecting it as a form of exploitation. Following the changing zeitgeist, businesses also induced the power of demand. Having himself an interest in a high wage for his workers, Henry Ford announced in 1909 his willingness to take advantage of a wide-spread consumerism by focusing on the mass production of a car »so low in price that no man making a good salary, will be unable to own one.«[3]

Although purchasing power gained recognition and importance during the Progressive Era, it was not until the Great Depression that consumerism became established as a central part of the governmental and public discourse. The Roosevelt administration introduced new economic and social policies in response to the enduring recession. Usually subsumed under the term »New Deal«, these policies created a welfare state whose priority it was to foster consumerism, modifying the American republic for at least half a century. Due to the growing traction of Keynesian economics, which theoretically reflected the economic ideas of the Progressive Era, explanations and solutions for the Great Depression focused on the macroeconomic importance of demand. Consequently, President Franklin D. Roosevelt implemented consumer-oriented policies by introducing several so-called New Deal agencies, such as the National Recovery Administration (NRA) in 1933. In his statement on the National Industrial Recovery Act, which established the NRA, Roosevelt recognized the mental change of the Progressive Era. He announced that the NRA’s »aim […] is to restore our rich domestic market by raising its vast consuming capacity«[4]. Therefore, wages had to be increased to become »living wages« in the sense as Roosevelt described them: »[…] by living wages I mean more than a bare subsistence level – I mean the wages of decent living«[5].[6]

By implementing consumer-oriented policies, Roosevelt and his administration not only reversed economic politics, but also responded to the changing zeitgeist and the increasingly overlapping interests of consumers and voters. As consumerism became essential for the economic prosperity of the country and the accumulation of political votes, purchasers gained influence in the political sphere due to their vital importance for the well-being of the individual and the nation. Minorities and underrepresented groups especially pressed for social and economic changes through their role as consumers by organizing themselves in activist movements, which emerged throughout the U.S. during the 1930s and 1940s. Black communities, for example, fought against political and economic discrimination by boycotting stores who refused to hire black workers. The northern »Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work« campaigns drew considerable attention to the suppressed position of Afro-Americans in the nation, resulting in the partial opening of the economic market for many black people. In fact, in 1955, the Montgomery Bus Boycott proved to be a triggering event for the development of the larger Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Additionally, activist groups were often dominated by women, whose role was generally limited to the household but who found an opportunity to make themselves heard as political actors in the consumerist sphere.[7]

However, as much as consumerism empowered minorities and ostensibly strengthened democratic tendencies, purchasing was to a larger extent a channel through which racial and social inequality was experienced, reinforced, and perpetuated. As economic and political influence was increasingly tied to consumption, a lack of financial means became almost equivalent to the deprivation of essential rights of citizenship. Despite Afro-Americans’ efforts to fight discrimination through their power as consumers, they experienced unequal preconditions and pre-imposed limits on consumption due to social and economic disadvantages caused by the long-term effects of slavery. While social structures tend to perpetuate themselves anyway, racial inequality – inextricably intertwined with class – was further promoted by federal policies in the post-war era. Anxious about a renewed recession following demobilization after the Second World War, the Roosevelt administration encouraged consumer investments by implementing the so-called G.I. Bill of Rights in 1944, which entitled returning soldiers to unemployment benefits, financial support to attend educational institutions, low-cost mortgages, and low-cost loans. Although historians generally agree that the G.I. Bill of Rights significantly contributed to the roaring post-war economy by fueling general demand, it only applied to veterans, who were predominantly white males. Furthermore, despite the egalitarian language of the bill, eligible black veterans had to overcome long-standing racism of local administrations and executives. Consequently, the G.I. Bill reinforced women’s and especially Afro-Americans’ discrimination in the consumerist sphere.[8]

As the G.I. Bill of Rights provided veterans with low-cost mortgages, the government deliberately stimulated investments in real estate, leading to a geographical segregation of races, which exacerbated socioeconomic disadvantages of Afro-Americans. Due to the financial favoritism of white males, white middle-class families were able to acquire property in emerging suburban areas, while Afro-Americans continued to live in the city. In subsequent years, shopping centers became pivotal to suburban commerce, leaving downtown shops to city residents. By excluding Afro-Americans from the suburban sphere of consumption, their influence as consumers was restricted to the city, which further undermined their struggle for full citizenship. Furthermore, as a dominating percentage of the funding of public schools was maintained through property taxes, the quality of the education available within neighborhoods became intertwined with the wealth of their inhabitants. Since Afro-American neighborhoods usually lacked prosperity, they received lower-quality education, which reinforced social and racial inequality.[9]

While consumerism led to racial and social disparities domestically, it was elevated to a moral credo of the American republic during the era of the Cold War. Realizing that the ideological struggle of the Cold War would be decided on the home front, Western abundance became a political instrument to prove the superiority of democratic and capitalist systems. U.S. policymakers evoked the notion of a wide-spread realization of a »living wage« by displaying middle-class suburban homes as characteristic for the average affluence of American citizens at the American National Exhibition in Moscow in 1959. During the event, Richard Nixon, who was the U.S. vice president at that time, and the Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev argued about the meaning of consumerism in the so-called Kitchen Debate. Nixon equated the vast variety of goods, which could be consumed by everyone, with the essence of freedom, democracy, and equality. Consequently, he stressed the importance of purchasing, as a way to express one’s identity, as he urged Khrushchev: »Let the people choose the kind of house, the kind of soup, the kind of ideas that they want«[10]. By emphasizing the democratizing tendencies of consumerism, Nixon even proclaimed in 1960 that mass consumption had brought the U.S. closer to a »prosperity for all in a classless society«[11] than the Soviet Union was to that aim.[12]

Richard Nixon’s statements reveal that consumerism had been established as an essential mindset in the 1960s, presenting an integral part of the national identity and self-perception of the United States, in which consumption itself became a patriotic act. The egalitarian elements of consumerism fashioned it as a concept that ostensibly strengthened and embodied the value of individual freedom, which was supposed to enable every citizen to pursue the American Dream. However, consumerism did not lead to a classless society with equal opportunities in reality, as Afro-Americans remained structurally oppressed. By emphasizing the ideal of a democratic free market, Nixon not only glossed over but ideologically legitimized this racial and social exclusiveness of the consumerist sphere as an inevitable result of the economic system. Yet, racial inequality was perpetuated by consumerist U.S. economic and social policies – for the first time implemented during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency – which led to the spatial segregation of the races. Although consumerism influenced – and still influences – the nation in various ways, it was especially its impact on the racial and social structures of the country that decisively defines life in the American republic until today.[13]

[1]     Lawrence Samuel: The American Dream. A Cultural History. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press 2012. P. 1f..

[2]     Peter Stearns: Consumerism in World History. The Global Transformation of Desire. London: Routledge 2001.
P. ix; Gary Cross: An All-Consuming Century. Why Commercialism Won in Modern America. New York: Columbia University Press 2000. P. 1; Juliet Schor: The Overspent American: Upscaling, Downshifting, and the New Consumer. New York: Basic Books 1998. Pp. 29-32; Pierre Bourdieu: »Introduction to Distinction.« In: The Consumer Society Reader. Hrsg. von Martyn J. Lee. Oxford: Blackwell 2000. Pp. 84-91; Meg Jacobs: »The Politics of Plenty in the Twentieth-Century United States.« In: The Politics of Consumption. Ed. by M. J. Daunton/Matthew Hilton. Oxford: Berg 2001. Pp. 223-40. Here p. 226.

[3]     Eric Foner: The Story of American Freedom. New York: W.W. Norton 1998. P. 147; Lizabeth Cohen: »Citizens and Consumers in the United States in the Century of Mass Consumption.« In: The Politics of Consumption. Hrsg. von M. J. Daunton/Matthew Hilton. Oxford: Berg 2001. Pp. 203-22. Here p. 205; Lawrence Glickman: »Born to Shop: Consumer History and American History.« In: Consumer Society in American History. A Reader. Ed. by Lawrence Glickman. Ithaca: Cornell University Press 1999. Pp. 1-14. Here pp. 3f.; Lawrence Glickman: »Workers of the World, Consume. Ira Steward and the Origins of Labor Consumerism.« In: International Labor and Working-Class History 52. (1997) Pp. 72-86. Here pp. 72-75; Lawrence Glickman: A Living Wage, American Workers and the Making of Consumer Society. Ithaca: Cornell University Press 1997. Pp. 25-34; Meg Jacobs: »Politics of Plenty.« Pp. 226-230; Gary Cross: »Corralling Consumer Culture. Shifting Rationales for American State Intervention in Free Markets.« In: The Politics of Consumption. Ed. by M. J. Daunton/Matthew Hilton. Oxford: Berg 2001. Pp. 283-299. Here p. 283; Henry Ford: My Life and Work. Garden City: Doubleday, Page & Company 1923. P. 73.

[4] Franklin D. Roosevelt: »Address to the Representatives of Industry on N.R.A. Codes.« (16.03.2018).

[5] Franklin D. Roosevelt: »Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Statement on the National Industrial Recovery Act.« (26.10.2017).

[6]     Some historians argue that the U.S. welfare state was abolished during the Reagan era, see Ian Haney-López: Dog Whistle Politics. How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class. Oxford: Oxford University Press 2014. Pp. 65-75. Lizabeth Cohen: A Consumers‘ Republic. The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America. New York: Vintage Books 2004. Pp. 18-28; Lizabeth Cohen: »The New Deal State and the Making of Citizen Consumers.« In: Getting and Spending: European and American Consumer Societies in the Twentieth Century. Ed. by Susan Strasser/Charles McGovern/Matthias Judt. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1998. Pp. S. 111-25. Here pp. 111-125; Lizabeth Cohen: »Citizens.« Pp. 205-210; Meg Jacobs: »Politics of Plenty.« Pp. 232-236; Dexter Keezer: »The Consumer under the National Recovery Administration.« In: The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 172. (1934) Pp. 88-97. Here pp. 88-90.

[7]     However, already Hoover had implemented consumer-oriented policies on a smaller scale, Eric Rauchway: The Great Depression & the New Deal. A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press 2008. P. 63. Lizabeth Cohen: »New Deal State.« P. 117; Jeffrey Helgeson, »Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work‘ Campaigns.« In: Encyclopedia of U.S. Labor and Working-Class History. 1. Bd. Ed. by Eric Arnesen. London: Routledge 2007. Pp. 380-382; Lizabeth Cohen: »Citizens.« Pp. 209-219; Stacy Sewell, »The >Not-Buying Power< of the Black Community. Urban Boycotts and Equal Employment Opportunity, 1960-1964.« In: The Journal of African American History 89. (1994) Pp. 135-151. Here pp. 135f.; Lawrence Glickman: »Born to Shop.« P. 5; Susan Strasser/Charles McGovern/Matthias Judt: »Introduction.« In: Getting and Spending. European and American Consumer Societies in the Twentieth Century. Ed. by Susan Strasser, Charles McGovern, and Matthias Judt. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1998. Pp. 1-7. Here p. 5; Charles McGovern: »Consumption and Citizenship in the United States, 1900-1940.« In: Getting and Spending: European and American Consumer Societies in the Twentieth Century. Ed. by Susan Strasser/Charles McGovern/Matthias Judt. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1998. Pp. 37-58. Here pp. 37-44; Robert E. Weems: Desegregating the Dollar. African American Consumerism in the Twentieth Century. New York: New York University Press 1998. Pp. 56-61.

[8]     Elizabeth Chin: Purchasing Power. Black Kids and American Consumer Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 2001. P. 3; Eric Foner: The Story of American Freedom. P. 148; Gary Walton/Hugh Rockoff: History of the American Economy. 11. Aufl. Mason: South-Western 2010. P. 480f.; Ira Katznelson/Suzanne Mettler: »On Race and Policy History. A Dialogue about the G.I. Bill.« In: Perspectives on Politics 6. (2008) Pp. 519-37. Here pp. 519-524; Ira Katznelson: When Affirmative Action Was White. An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America. New York: W.W. Norton 2005. Pp. 113-141; Lizabeth Cohen: Consumers’ Republic. P. 200; Lizabeth Cohen: »Citizens.« P. 217.

[9]     Elizabeth Chin: Purchasing Power. Pp. 3-12 and 23-30; Lizabeth Cohen: Consumers‘ Republic. Pp. 200-289; Stacy Sewell: »The >Not-Buying Power< of the Black Community.« P. 138f.; David M. Freund: »Marketing the Free Market. State Intervention and the Politics of Prosperity.« In: The New Suburban History. Ed. by Kevin M. Kruse/Thomas J. Sugrue. Chicago: University of Chicago Press 2006. Pp. 11-32. Here pp. 11-14.

[10] Richard Nixon/Nikita Khrushchev: »The Kitchen Debate« (26.10.2017).

[11] Richard Nixon: Speech by the Vice President at the Civic Center, Charleston. (26.10.2017).

[12]   In the literal battlefields of the Cold War as well, abundance and consumption played an increasingly important role, see Meredith Lair: Armed with Abundance. Consumerism and Soldiering in the Vietnam War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press 2011. Greg Castillo: Cold War on the Home Front. The Soft Power of Midcentury Design. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 2010. Pp. vii-xxii; Laura Belmonte: »Selling Capitalism. Modernization and U.S. Overseas Propaganda, 1945-1959.« In: Staging Growth: Modernization, Development, and the Global Cold War. Ed. by David C. Engerman/Nils Gilma/Mark H. Haefele. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press 2003. Pp. 107-128. Here pp. 107-121; Lawrence Glickman: »Born to Shop.« P. 8; Eric Foner: The Story of American Freedom. Pp. 262-267.

[13]   For today’s influence of consumerism on U.S. life, see Dana Heller: »Introduction. Consuming 9/11.« In The Selling of 9/11. How a National Tragedy Became a Commodity. Ed. by Dana Heller. London: Palgrave Macmillan 2005. Pp. 1-26; David M. Freund: »Marketing the Free Market.« Pp. 11-14.