Consumption and Consumer Culture in the United States

Course Material 2023/24

This paper will investigate consumption in the United States from around the time of the Revolution to the present day. We will study the histories of consumer goods that dominated the trade of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and that are inseparable from the birth of the United States, such as sugar, tobacco, tea, and cotton. We will think about the ways that Americans used goods to convey their own distinction and refinement, thereby constructing class difference. Americans came to think of shopping as a woman’s activity in the nineteenth-century United States, and consumer goods began to play central roles in defining and policing not only gender norms but also those of race, ethnicity, and sexuality. As the United States’ formal and informal empire expanded at the beginning of the twentieth century, Americans consumed a widening array of products from abroad and exported more goods themselves. Fordist mass production and consumption, meanwhile, helped to usher in an era of unprecedented prosperity and put in place a middle-class “standard of living” that became a source of national pride and even a weapon in the Cold War. 

Critics have asserted that a consumer society is leading to the commodification of everything: food, water, emotion, religion, relationships. And no one can deny that a consumer economy has been disastrous for the environment—a story that historians are just beginning to tell. Students of this paper will consider Americans’ attempts to protest or outright reject the consumer society around them and to use or subvert it for their own ends. 

How have global flows of production and consumption shaped individual lives, international relations, and the natural world? Did consumer goods make for rich material with which to fashion individual and group identities, or did they create an impoverished understanding of human desire and potential? Did the advent of the consuming household liberate or further confine women? To what degree has it been possible to criticize and even opt out of consumer culture, or does consumerism simply co-opt its critics?

We will read theorists from Marx and Veblen to Adorno and Bourdieu to help us define and frame consumer culture. Class meetings will also incorporate primary sources—not only written texts but also advertisements, catalogs, film, and consumer products themselves—so that we may practice the varying methods that historians have used to reconstruct and understand consumer culture. 

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