The Arrival of the Consumer Economy

November 26th, 2013
By Anne Dealy, Director of Education and Public Information
Geneva, like most of American society, was gradually but completely transformed between the post-Civil War period and the early 20th century from an agrarian and somewhat homogenous village into a much more diverse, industrialized, and wealthy city. This transformation led to political and cultural shifts that challenged long-standing ideas about identity, work, gender, religion, and family roles. One of the most significant changes that clearly emerged by the 1910s and 1920s was the shift to a modern consumer culture. Whereas in the past, most Americans had defined themselves by religious, work and family roles, by the 1920s Americans were increasingly demonstrating their values and identity through the things that they owned.
Buick markets its 1923 sedan as a car for a woman and her children.
Technological advances, improvements in productivity, and innovations in financing combined with the development of mass media to create this mass culture. The prosperity of the 1920s led to an explosion of consumer goods available even to people of modest means. Household products and conveniences that were developed in the late 19thcentury and used by wealthy Americans became cheaper and began to spread down the economic ladder. As production increased, companies had to figure out how to sell their products to more and more people. Marketing and advertising became major components of national businesses. Newspapers and magazines were the preferred way to reach people. Then, as now, marketers believed that women were the major consumers of household products, and so, many goods were marketed to them, even those not originally considered to be of interest to women.
There was no shortage of stuff to buy in Geneva. Kresge’s variety store opened in 1930 on Seneca Street, right between Keilty’s Dry Goods and Woolworth’s 5 and 10.
Genevans participated in this new economy, both as consumers and as producers. New retail shops opened in town to sell automobiles, phonographs, radios, electrical and heating equipment, furniture, cameras, sporting goods, clothing, food, typewriters and vacuum cleaners. Among the many goods manufactured by Geneva companies for sale nationally were typewriter type, cutlery, boilers, stoves, canned foods, eyeglasses, razor strops, boats, and auto wheels.
Geneva companies reached a national audience through magazines like Popular Science.
Houses in local 1920s real estate listings boasted modern conveniences like electricity, bathrooms, garages, paved streets and steam heating. The long list of contractors indicates that there was a strong market for building and redecorating houses, as people added wiring, central heating and plumbing.
Local and national advertisements featured modern, “sanitary” bathrooms.
National women’s magazines advertised stoves, kitchen cupboards, bathrooms and cleaning products to make the home safer, more efficient and pleasant. Women in the upper class and growing middle class no longer had to spend the whole day doing food preparation and housework. They were free to pursue other activities—joining women’s clubs and lending a hand to church charities, the suffrage movement and the prohibition lobby. People spent more time reading, eating out, playing sports, listening to the radio, and going to the movies.
Advertisers stressed how their products saved time and money, appealing to housewives’ interest in doing things other than housework. Efficiency and organization, which had revolutionized factory production in the 1910s, were applied to the household. Professionals in the new field of home economics worked with manufacturers to bring efficient and sanitary principles to the home.
Advertisers sold the idea that a modern kitchen was a healthier and more efficient one.
Marketers also had solutions for those who aspired to consume the latest goods, but had less money. Products like linoleum were sold as durable and cheap alternatives to more expensive rugs or patterned hardwood floors. Hats could be dyed or refreshed with a coating that made them look new. Payment plans allowed people to buy on installment. A woman could sew her own dress in the latest styles of Paris. With these products any woman could save money and still identify with movie stars and socialites.
Advertisers prompt Americans to keep up with fashion on a budget.
Although it would slow consumption down for a decade, even the Great Depression could not stop the American desire to buy. Kresge’s (now Kmart), which opened just as the Depression began, survived the contraction, as did most other Geneva department and variety stores. The post-war period brought consumption back full force, and we have not looked back since.
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