Over the food of the 20th Century, capitalism moulded the ordinary human into a consumer. Kerryn Higgs traces the historical roots of the world's unquenchable thirst for more stuff.

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The id of human beings as consumers first took shape before World war One, but became commonplace in America in the 1920s. Consumption is now typically seen together our principal role in the world.

People, the course, have constantly "consumed" the necessities that life – food, shelter, apparel – and also have always had to work-related to acquire them or have others job-related for them, however there was tiny economic motive for enhanced consumption among the fixed of people prior to the 20th Century.

Quite the reverse: frugality and also thrift were an ext appropriate to situations where survive rations were not guaranteed. Attempts to promote new fashions, exploit the "propulsive strength of envy," and boost sales multiply in brother in the late 18th Century. Here started the "slow unleashing the the acquisitive instincts," write historians Neil McKendrick, john Brewer, and J H Plumb in your influential book on the commercialisation the 18th-Century England, once the pursuit of opulence and display first extended beyond the really rich.

But, while poorer world might have acquired a very few useful family items – a skillet, perhaps, or an steel pot – the sumptuous clothing, furniture, and pottery that the era to be still confined to a very little population.


At first, consumer goods were an ext likely to supply basic needs quite than high-end items (Credit: Getty Images)

In late 19th-Century brothers a variety of foods became obtainable to the average person, that would previously have lived top top bread and potatoes – consumption past mere subsistence. This development in food variety did not extend long lasting items to the massive of people, however. The proliferating shops and also department stores of that duration served only a restricted population of city middle-class human being in Europe, yet the display screen of tempting commodities in shops in daily public see was greatly expanded – and also display was a vital element in the fostering of fashion and envy.

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Although the period after human being War 2 is often figured out as the start of the immense eruption of consumption across the industrialised world, the historian William Leach locates its root in the united States approximately the rotate of the century.

In the US, existing shops were rapidly prolonged through the 1890s, mail-order to buy surged, and the new century saw enormous multi-storey department stores covering numerous acres of selling space. Retailing was currently passing decisively from little shopkeepers to corporate giants that had accessibility to invest bankers and also drew ~ above assembly-line manufacturing of commodities, it is provided by fossil fuels. The timeless objective of making products for your self-evident usefulness to be displaced by the goal of profit and also the need for a machinery of enticement.

"The cardinal functions of this society were acquisition and also consumption as the method of afford happiness; the cult the the new; the democratisation of desire; and also money value as the predominant measure the all worth in society," Leach write in his 1993 publication "Land that Desire: Merchants, Power, and the increase of a new American Culture". Significantly, it was individual desire that was democratised, fairly than wide range or political and economic power.


The glove section at very early department store, which changed the way people shopped (Credit: Getty Images)

Release indigenous the risks of famine and premature famine was in ar for most people in the industrialised world soon after ~ WWI ended. US manufacturing was much more than 12 times better in 1920 than in 1860, when the population over the same period had enhanced by only a factor of three, suggesting just just how much extr wealth was theoretically available. The work struggles that the 19th Century had, without jeopardising the burgeoning productivity, slowly eroded the seven-day mainly of 14- and also 16-hour days the was worked at the beginning of the Industrial change in England. In the united state in particular, financial growth had succeeded in providing basic security to the good majority of whole population.

It would be feasible to reduce hrs of work and also release employees for the pleasurable activities of totally free time… but organization did not support such a trajectory

In these circumstances, there was a social choice to it is in made. A steady-state economy qualified of meeting the simple needs of all, foreshadowed through philosopher and also political economist man Stuart Mill together the stationary state, seemed well within with and, in Mill’s words, likely to be an development on "the trampling, crushing, elbowing and also treading on each other’s heels … the disagreeable symptoms of among the phases of commercial progress". It would be feasible come reduce hrs of job-related further and also release workers for the spiritual and also pleasurable activities of cost-free time through families and communities, and an innovative or educational pursuits. But business did not assistance such a trajectory, and also it to be not until the good Depression that hrs were reduced, in response to overwhelming levels of unemployment.


In 1930, Kellogg adopted a six-hour transition to assist accommodate unemployed workers. It no last lengthy (Credit: Wikipedia)

In 1930, the US cereal manufacturer Kellogg embraced a six-hour shift to assist accommodate unemployed workers, and also other creates of work-sharing became an ext widespread. Although the shorter workweek appealed come Kellogg’s workers, the company, after reverting to much longer hours during WWII, was reluctant come renew the six-hour change in 1945. Employees voted for it by three-to-one in both 1945 and 1946, suggesting that, in ~ the time, they still found life in their communities an ext attractive than consumer goods. This was an especially true of women. Kellogg, however, progressively overcame the resistance that its workers and also whittled away at the quick shifts until the last of them were abolished in 1985.

Even if a much shorter working day came to be an acceptable strategy during the an excellent Depression, the economic system’s orientation towards profit and its prejudice toward growth made together a trajectory unpalatable to many captains the industry and also the economists who theorised your successes. If profit and growth to be lagging, the mechanism needed new impetus. The brief depression of 1921–1922 led organization leaders and economists in the united state to are afraid that the immense abundant powers created over the vault century had actually grown saturated to accomplish the straightforward needs of the entire populace and had actually probably motivated a permanent dilemm of overproduction. Prospects for further financial expansion were assumed to watch bleak.

Unless the consumer could be persuaded to purchase lavishly, the whole stream the six-cylinder cars, at sight heterodynes, cigarettes, rouge compacts and electric ice cream boxes would certainly be dammed up

The chronicler Benjamin Hunnicutt, that examined the mainstream press of the 1920s, in addition to the publications of corporations, business organisations, and also government inquiries, uncovered extensive evidence that together fears were widespread in organization circles throughout the 1920s. Victor Cutter, president of the unified Fruit Company, exemplified the issue when he composed in 1927 the the biggest economic difficulty of the day to be the lack of "consuming power" in relation to the prodigious powers of production.

Notwithstanding the panic and also pessimism, a consumer solution was simultaneously emerging. Together the well-known historian of the moment Frederick Allen wrote, "Business had actually learned together never prior to the prestige of the can be fried consumer. Unless he can be convinced to buy and also buy lavishly, the totality stream the six-cylinder cars, at sight heterodynes, cigarettes, rouge compacts and electric ice boxes would be dammed up in ~ its outlets."


In his classic 1928 publication "Propaganda," Edward Bernays, among the pioneers of the public relationships industry, placed it this way: "Mass production is profitable only if that rhythm can be maintained." He suggested that organization "cannot afford to wait until the public asks because that its product; it should maintain consistent touch, with advertising and propaganda… to assure itself the constant demand i m sorry alone will make its costly plant profitable".

Edward Cowdrick, one economist who advised enterprise on their management and industrial relations policies, referred to as it "the new economic gospel the consumption", in which workers (people because that whom sturdy possessions had actually rarely been a possibility) might be educated in the brand-new "skills of consumption".

It to be an idea additionally put forward by the new "consumption economists" such together Hazel Kyrk and Theresa McMahon, and eagerly adopted by many company leaders. Brand-new needs would be created, v advertising carried into play come "augment and accelerate" the process. Civilization would be encouraged to offer up thrift and also husbandry, to value items over totally free time. Kyrk suggested for ever-increasing aspirations: "a high typical of living have to be dynamic, a progressive standard", whereby envy the those just over oneself in the society order incited consumption and also fuelled financial growth.

President Herbert Hoover’s 1929 Committee on current Economic alters welcomed the demonstration "on a grand range the expansibility of human wants and also desires", hailed an "almost insatiable appetite because that goods and services", and also envisaged "a boundless field before us … new wants the make method endlessly for more recent wants, as quick as they space satisfied". In this paradigm, people are motivated to plank an escalator of desire (a stairway come heaven, perhaps) and also progressively ascend come what were when the luxuries that the affluent.


People were encouraged to plank an escalator the desires and also progressively ascend to the luxuries of the affluent (Credit: Getty Images)

Charles Kettering, general director of basic Motors study Laboratories, related such perpetual change with progress. In a 1929 post called "Keep the consumer Dissatisfied", he stated that "there is no location anyone can sit and rest in an industrial situation. That is a question of change, change all the time – and it is always going to be that means because the people only goes along one road, the roadway of progress."

The prospect of ever-extendable consumer desire, characterised as "progress", promised a new method forward for modern-day manufacture, a means to perpetuate financial growth. Progress was about the endless replacement of old needs with new, old commodities with new. Notions of conference everyone’s requirements with an enough level of manufacturing did not feature.

The non-settler European nests were not related to as viable venues because that these brand-new markets, because centuries that exploitation and impoverishment expected that few people there were able to pay. In the 1920s, the target consumer market to it is in nourished lay at house in the industrialised world. There, specifically in the US, intake continued to increase through the 1920s, despite truncated through the great Depression the 1929.

Electrification was an essential for the intake of the brand-new types of resilient items, and also the fraction of US family members with electrical power connected virtually doubled between 1921 and 1929, from 35 to 68%. This was adhered to by a fast proliferation that radios, vacuum cleaners, and also refrigerators. Motor automobile registration rose from eight million in 1920 to much more than 28 million by 1929. The arrival of time payment arrangements assisted in the expansion of together buying further and also further under the financial ladder.

This an initial wave the consumerism was short-lived. Predicated ~ above debt, the took ar in an economy mired in speculation and risky borrowing. US consumer credit climbed to $7 billion in the 1920s, with banks engaged in reckless loan of all kinds. While it to be a lot less in gross terms than the load of debt in the united state in late 2008, the blame of the 1920s was an extremely large, end 200% the the GDP the the time. In both eras, obtained money to buy unprecedented quantities of material goods on time payment and also (these days) credit cards. The 1920s bonanza collapsed suddenly and catastrophically. In 2008, a comparable unravelling began; its implications still remain unknown. In the instance of the great Depression the the 1930s, a war economic climate followed, for this reason it was almost twenty years before mass usage resumed any duty in economic life – or in the way the economic climate was conceived.

The result of media

Once WWII to be over, consumer culture took off again throughout the occurred world, partly sustained by the deprivation the the good Depression and also the rationing that the wartime years and also incited v renewed zeal by that company advertisers utilizing debt facilities and also the brand-new medium of television. Stuart Ewen, in his background of the public connections industry, observed the birth of advertisement radio in 1921 as a an essential tool in the good wave of debt-financed usage in the 1920s – "a privately own utility, pump information and entertainment into people’s homes".

"Requiring no far-ranging degree of proficiency on the component of that is audience, radio offered interested corporations … unprecedented accessibility to the within sanctums of the general public mind," Ewen writes. The arrival of tv greatly amplified the potential influence of advertisers’ messages, exploiting image and symbol far much more adeptly 보다 print and also radio had actually been able come do. The phase was set for the democratisation of high-end on a scale hitherto unimagined.

Television and radio super-charged advertising, straight into people's houses (Credit: Getty Images)

Though the television sets that carried the heralding into people’s dwellings after WWII were new, and also were far much more powerful vehicles of persuasion 보다 radio had been, the theory and methods to be the same – perfected in the 1920s through PR professionals like Bernays.

Vance Packard echoes both Bernays and the consumption economists that the 1920s in his summary of the function of the heralding men of the 1950s. "They want to placed some sizzle into their message by stirring increase our condition consciousness," that wrote. "Many the the commodities they room trying to offer have, in the past, to be confined come a "quality market". The products have been the luxuries the the top classes. The video game is to do them the necessities of all classes… by striving to buy the product – say, wall-to-wall carpeting top top instalment – the consumer is do to feel he is upgrading himself socially."

Though that is condition that is gift sold, it is endless material objects that room being consumed.

In a little-known 1958 essay showing on the conservation effects of the conspicuously wasteful US consumer binge ~ WWII, john Kenneth Galbraith pointed to the possibility that this "gargantuan and growing appetite" might need to be curtailed. "What that the appetite itself?" that asks. "Surely this is the ultimate source of the problem. If it proceeds its geometric course, will it no one day need to be restrained? however in the literature of the resource problem this is the forbidden question."

We need things consumed, melted up, replaced and also discarded in ~ an ever-accelerating rate – retail analyst Victor Lebow

Galbraith price quotes the President’s products Policy Commission setup out the premise that economic growth is sacrosanct. "First we share the belief of the American people in the principle of Growth," the report maintains, specifically endorsing "ever much more luxurious requirements of consumption". To Galbraith, who had actually just released "The well-off Society", the wastefulness that observed appeared foolhardy, but he was cynical about curtailment. He established the starts of "a substantial conservative reaction to the idea the enlarged society guidance and control of economic activity", a backlash against the state taking duty for social direction. At the very same time he to be well mindful of the role of advertising. "Goods space plentiful. Demand for them must be elaborately contrived," he wrote. "Those who develop wants rank among our many talented and highly payment citizens. Want development – heralding – is a 10 billion dollar industry."

Or, as retail analyst Victor Lebow remarked in 1955: "Our enormously productive economic situation demands that we make intake our way of life, the we transform the buying and also use of products into rituals, the we seek our spiritual satisfaction, ours ego satisfaction, in consumption.… We require things consumed, melted up, replaced and discarded in ~ an ever-accelerating rate."

Thus, simply as immense initiative was being dedicated to persuading world to buy points they did no actually need, manufacturers additionally began the intentional design of worse items, which became known together "planned obsolescence". In his second major critique that the culture of consumption, "The garbage Makers", Packard figured out both useful obsolescence, in i beg your pardon the product wears out quickly and psychological obsolescence, in which assets are "designed to end up being obsolete in the mind of the consumer, even sooner than the components used to do them will certainly fail".

The commodification of reality and the to produce of need have had serious ramifications for the building and construction of people in the existing day, where, come quote thinker Herbert Marcuse, "people recognise us in your commodities".

This is reflect in current attitudes. For instance, the Australian comedian Wendy Harmer in her abc TV collection called "Stuff" expressed wake up at suggestions that consumption is simply produced out the greed or lack of awareness: "I am really proud to have actually made a documentary about consumption that does no contain the usual footage of factory smokestacks, landfill tips and also bulging supermarket trolleys. Instead, the features countless happy human being faces and also all their wonderful stuff! the a study of a love work as much as anything else."

The capitalist system, dependent on a logic of never-ending expansion from its more quickly inception, confronted the plenty it developed in its residence states, particularly the US, as a danger to its an extremely existence. It would not execute if world were content because they feeling they had actually enough. However, over the food of the 20th Century, capitalism kept its momentum by moulding the ordinary person into a customer with one unquenchable thirst for its "wonderful stuff".

*This is an edited variation of an short article that originally appeared in The MIT press Reader, and also is republished with permission.

Kerryn Higgs is an Australian writer and also historian. She is the author of "Collision Course: endless Growth top top a finite Planet," from which this article is adapted.


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