History Of Consumerism in The United States of America

History Of Consumerism In The United States

Executive Summary.

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.” (Wikipedia 2006). 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.” (Wikipedia 2006).

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.

History Of Consumerism 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.

A little earlier, back in 1907, economist Simon Nelson Patten had said:

\"the new morality does not consist in saving, but in expanding consumption\". (FAIR n. d.). So the creation of \"the dissatisfied consumer\" was a necessity of those times. Time passed by and after World War II a new boom period promoted consumerism in the United States. During the sixties with the Hippies and the seventies with the petroleum crisis the consumer habits were strongly questioned. The bold statement by Jimmy Carter in 1979 against consumerism has been pinpointed as one of the reasons for his loss to Ronald Reagan for the Presidency of the United States. It is interesting to note that consumption patterns soared immediately after the Reagan Administration took office. Throughout this period the widespread use of new marketing techniques for the creation of need has been a prominent sign of the times.

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. Let’s see.

1.- 1600 - Founding Fathers and Mothers.

The Puritans who founded Massachusetts an the Quakers who colonized Pennsylvania were clearly against the materialism of the countries where they had come from. But by the middle of the seventeenth century, “the abundance of the new frontier and the many opportunities for entrepreneurs had led to a significant dilution of both Quaker and Puritan practice of simplicity”. (PBS n. d.).

2,. 1770s - How Affluenza Started Our Revolution.

The colonies in America were exploited to keep England aristocracy living luxurious lives. The “Boston Tea Party” stands as a sign of rebellion against this exploitation scheme. A simple living movement was started by the leaders of the American Revolution to reduce the dependence on trade with England. Leaders of this frugality movement were Abigail Adams, John Adams, Samuel Adams and Paul Revere. As an outstanding example the case of George Washington is prominent. He was used to be a “shopaholic”, but “when the time came when frugality meant freedom, General Washington rose to the challenge and embraced simple living.” (PBS n. d.).

3.- 1845 - Thoreau Goes To Walden Pond.

Henry David Thoreau felt like other Americans of that time that materialism was killing the American spirit. He retired to experience simple living in the Walden Pond for two years. His book about this experience of frugality over and over again “appealed to Americans to \"simplify, simplify, simplify,\" with the rewards of living in harmony with nature and living more fully.” (PBS n. d.).

4.- 1870s - A Store Is Born.

In the 1870s, smart retailers such as John Wanamaker in Philadelphia and Marshall Field in Chicago created the department stores with a luxury touch. These new shopping centers gave women a place to escape from the routines of their homes. These luxury department stores were the ancestor of today\'s shopping mall.

5.- 1900s - The Gilded Age.

Mark Twain used to call as “The Gilded Age” the period near the turn of the twentieth century because there was a major shift in relation to consuming goods. Advertising and mass production walked hand in hand in order to provide the “needed” new goods. Around this time economist Simon Nelson Patten made his famous remarks in favor of consumption. Government and industry leaders also encouraged consumerism as a way of being good Americans.

6.- 1919 - “Buy Now, Pay Later” Fever Spreads.

In 1919, The General Motors Acceptance Corporation (GMAC) was founded, and it started to make loans for auto buyers. Americans got used to the new credit plans on everything else as well. The credit industry got a strong hold on the consumer culture since then.

7.- 1925 - The Drive To Keep Up With The Joneses.

Around 1925, when General Motors introduced the yearly automobile model change, that is the point in time that historians call as the beginning of the American consumer culture. From that time on, the idea of changing a car model every year meant that you had to keep up with the Joneses when it came to consuming a product that you could change according to new tastes.

8.- 1929-1945 - Depression and War.

It is incredible to believe but during The Great Depression –although Americans economized in a lot of ingenious ways- the consumption of food and general merchandise did not decline at all. But during World War II, Americans sacrificed themselves in every possible way in order to help the nation in its efforts to win the War.

9.- 1945 - Peace Breaks Out and So Does Affluenza.

After the victory in War World II, a big boom in consumerism was started up to the present times. Advertising and marketing have been an influential force in the consumer society in the United States after the War.

10.- 1950s - “Charge It!” Enters Our Vocabulary.

In the 1950s, Diners Club introduced credit cards for traveling salesmen. In the 1960s, other companies got into the business. American Express and MasterCard made huge profits as the credit card revolution started to take a hold on consumers with the \"charge it\" advertising slogan.

11.- 1967- Hippies.

Out of disillusionment by the Vietnam War, racism, politics, and the corporate and consumer cultures, a great segment of the young people in the United States rebelled against the materialistic system in the mid-1960s. Ironically, after their influential and peaceful revolution, corporations made -and continue to make- millions by marketing their culture.

12.- 1970s - Questioning Growth.

The 1973-74 oil crisis produced by the Arab embargo awakened the American consumers in relation to the fragile interconnectedness and finiteness of world resources. Since then there has been a growing environmental awareness. “The Cousteau Society and Greenpeace are two of the hundreds of environmental groups that were founded in the 1970s, and Americans joined them by the millions.” (PBS n. d.).

13.- 1979 - A President Weighs In- And Is On His Way Out.

In 1979, President Jimmy Carter spoke publicly in the following terms: \"In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities and our faith in God, too many of us now worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns.\" (PBS n. d.). His message was not really accepted, and he lost the re-election.

14.- 1980 - It’s Morning In America!

Ronald Reagan won the election and the rest is history. He preached prosperity and optimism all across America. Greed surfaced once again and money became once again an idol to be worshipped. At the end of this period, national columnist Richard Reeves wrote: \"Nine out of ten people got screwed....The richest 10 percent of the nation got richer and paid fewer taxes. The middle class made less money and paid more taxes. The poor got poorer and there were more of them. The money was trickling up, not down.\" (PBS n. d.).

15.- The 90s and Beyond.

This is a good period of time for fresh research. To study consumerism in the last decade is a challenging task. The Worldwatch Institute is an organization interested in such studies. Their findings are very enlightening and useful for getting to know the trends ahead.


The consumer society in the United Status has to face the facts about the negative effects of consumerism in order to find new meanings in the founding principles of the nation based on the simplicity and frugality of life as endorsed by the Puritans and the Quakers as well as George Washington and Henry David Thoreau, among others. These principles will enhance the quality of life in the United States by giving a new sense to the spirituality that can be found living without complications and enjoying the pleasures of simplicity with peace of mind.

Works Cited

FAIR. “The Rise of Consumerism”. (n. d.). 24 February, 2006.


PBS. “The History of Affluenza” (n. d.). 24 February, 2006.


Stearns, Peter. “Teaching Consumerism in World History”. (2003). In World History Connected. Vol. 1. No. 2. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. 25 February, 2006.


Wikipedia. “Consumerism”. (24 February, 2006). 25 February, 2006. .

Worldwatch Institute. “State of the World Trends and Facts”. (2005). 25 February, 2006.


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