America As A Nation Defined By Consumerism

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America is a nation defined by consumerism. Today, purchasing goods that are considered “wants” as opposed to “needs” is largely how wealth and social status are represented. This was not always the case in America. Following World War 1, America and the world alike, experienced an extreme economic downturn. This period in history is known as The Great Depression and it represented a dark time for the American way of life. Following World War 2, economists predicted the world would face a similar economic crisis. The world was also facing the impending threat of the Cold War. America and the Soviet Union were in the midst of a feud that had the potential to greatly alter life as it was known across all western civilizations. However, Americans experienced something totally different when the soldiers began to return from World War 2. Production during the war helped pull the American economy out of the depression-like state it was experiencing. Jobs and Wages were increasing rapidly thus greatly increasing the overall spending power. The rise of high consumerism can be attributed to the emphasis on the family lifestyle, a newfound emphasis on class distinction, and goods being presented in a way like never before.

The aftermath of World War 2 and the impending threat of the Cold War brought about great uncertainty in America. A majority of the population spoke out against the vast amount of money that was being dedicated to the war effort and weapon development, others expressed their disapproval of the war by protesting the arms race altogether. However, the feeling of uncertainty and helplessness was shared by the population regardless of race or social class. The public feared a nuclear attack could break out at any time, many people even went as far as building nuclear fallout shelters. The public needed a way to regain control of their own lives and provide themselves with a sense of security. This is where the idea of the “American Dream” and the “suburban family” began to take shape. “For in the early years of the cold war, amid a world of uncertainties brought about by World War II and its aftermath, the home seemed to offer a secure, private nest removed from the dangers of the outside world” (May, Page 2). Along with the threat of nuclear meltdown was the threat posed by communism itself. The threat of communism was higher than ever. Many politicians and citizens alike believe that communism had the power to destroy America from the inside. Policymakers saw class and racial divisions as particularly dangerous because the dissatisfied and distraught were much more likely to embrace a radical movement like communism. Job roles also saw a drastic change during WWII. The men were off fighting in the war which left many blue-collar jobs unattended. Women were the driving force to pick up the slack and assume those roles that were previously reserved for males exclusively. Postwar, this shifting of workplace roles, furthered the need to live a “normal” suburban life. Women assuming roles previously held by men had the potential to represent a significant restructuring in America. A restructuring of this magnitude would be a form of strife that the public and policymakers alike saw as a potential breeding ground for communism. May, introduced the theory of “domestic containment” during this time. Domestic containment was the idea that American’s wanted to feel secure, whether it was in terms of work or in terms of their homes. This led to public policy and even political views that were centered around the home. While it provided a greater sense of security across the nation, it reinforced typical gender roles that were in the process of changing for the better. However, at the time, the war against communism was the main thing on the public’s mind.

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The Postwar economy in the United States was looking different than it ever had before. The prosperity being experienced in the job market led Americans to purchase goods at a historic rate. In the 5 years following the end of WWII, there was a 240% increase in the amount of household furniture and appliances being purchased. Mass-producing goods was more popular than ever. It was necessary to keep up with the demand put forth by the prospering economy. The increase of wages also afforded the working class that had not had available previously. Working-class families were beginning to populate the suburban areas once reserved for the middle class. Prosperity itself was eroding the traditional class identity associated with the American worker. The working class and middle class had very different taste in product design. The working class had a “more is better” taste. This style was defined by size and bulk along with boldness and color. These items were bigger and often much flashier than the typical product being purchased up to this point. The working class was more accustomed to this design as it was a mix of form and function. They were able to experience luxuries previously afforded to the middle class exclusively, but that was still functional with high capacity. The Middle class favored a more simplistic design with the “less is more” aesthetic. Middle-class appliances were up to date with a simplistic design that also achieved managerial efficiency while still maintaining a refined design. The “designer” elements of these products were much greater. Designers of Mass Produced products were faced with a choice in this new virtually classless society. The mass market was now a complete mix of working-class and middle class so the manufacturers had to choose between a bold “shiny” finish or a finish that favored simplicity. As Shelley Nickels states in More Is Better: Mass Consumption, Gender, and Class Identity in Postwar America, “In the postwar period, the question was whether design standards would have to be “lowered” to accommodate blue-collar women’s “more is better” idea about value or whether the working class be uplifted by their new prosperity to accept the upper-middle class “good design” available to them” (Nickels, 588). Manufacturers needed to find a way to connect with new market trends without losing the business of their former clientele. The design trends needed to reflect the new mass market and the “more is better” design was beginning to take hold. Mass producers saw that catering to the “more is better” clientele would provide the greatest value increase on a ladder of consumption. The sift in design if mass-produced products represented the assimilation of the working class with the middle class.

American consumerism took many faces in the years following World War 2. The public saw a shift in mass-produced products that favored a new growing working class. The idea of expression and demonstrating wealth through the purchase of products became more prominent than ever before. Consumers also began to see the impact of “The Color Revolution”. The color revolution was the beginning of the incorporation of color into all aspects of the public’s life. Designers and manufacturers were beginning to use color in a way it had not been used before. Color was beginning to be a very powerful marketing tool as color plays such a significant role in the lives of a consumer. Color had come to symbolize American consumerism. Color variety in products garnered mixed reactions from the public. Some saw color as a form of mass manipulation that led consumers to purchasing products that they didn’t need or “weren’t essential to daily life”. Others saw color as proof of American ingenuity. While both sides disagreed on the true intentions of introducing color into consumerism, neither could deny the impact it had on the marketplace. The kitchen was an area greatly affected by the post war consumerism color revolution. Life was beginning to feel a lot “brighter” meaning the public was moving towards a life centered around peace and relaxation. Interior design was shifting to match these feelings. Kitchens were previously a portion of the home that did not require much thought in regards to the design, all the emphasis was placed on the functionality of a kitchen. Consumers were now able to tailor their kitchens to meet any taste preferences they might have, which at this time, meant kitchens bursting with color. The automobile industry was another to fully embrace the color revolution. Car manufacturers began using two-tone color schemes and polychrome paint jobs. Color provided a way for the American consumer to represent both their status as well as their personality. The product marketplace was shifting to a more expressive vibrant design that reflected the tastes of both the middle and working class. These trends shaped the modern American consumer.

The United States saw many changes in the years following World War 2. America joined the war in a state of economic depression and general public unrest. The future of the nation was uncertain and the public mood reflected that. However, the end of the war breathed new hope into the nation. Americans began to adopt a greater sense of patriotism. Supporting domestic products became more important than ever before. The nation also saw a shift to a family-oriented lifestyle. The economy was on the rise and the job market was booming. More American’s than ever before had the opportunity to start a family and live the “typical” American life. Class lines were becoming blurred and the working class was beginning to experience the luxuries only afforded to the middle class previously. Designers of mass-produced products started to rework their designs to cater to the now much larger consumer base. The marketplace saw a shift from the previously popular “simplistic” design introduced by the middle class, to a flashier bulky, “functional” design which were formerly characteristics represented in the working-class consumer market. Color also emerged as a major contributor to the rise in consumerism. Color was being introduced into products in a way that generated public interest and afforded the consumer the ability to express status and personality in a completely new way. Thus, we see the rise of modern American consumerism. The consumer had more disposable income than ever before and were constantly looking for new ways to spend this money and display their wealth. The influence of the modern family aesthetic, social class distinctions and the presentation of the products in the marketplace all shaped the values of modern consumerism that are observed today in American culture.


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