When and why did consumerism/materialism become a "thing" in America

I’m reading a biography about Frances Perkins, FDR’s Labor Secretary. The timeline of the bio has reached the 1920s, the Jazz Age, Roaring 20s, etc. The author says that by this time in the U.S., “The pursuit of pleasurable living became an end in itself as Americans shook off their deep-seated cultural prejudices against materialism, previously anathema to the Puritan work ethic.” Later on it says, “Everybody was enjoying himself. Everybody was thinking he was richer and richer. Everbody was spending money. For the first time, the strange puritanical American attitude relaxed.”

So what exactly changed, and why did it happen? How different were American ideas about materialism before this era?

Reportedly the Third Great Awakening in America began in the 1850s and ended in the early 20th century. Just a WAG but it doesn’t seem too coincidental that the tapering off of religious fervor occurs as materialism begins to take hold.

One thing that makes such topics fuzzy is the matter of class.

Rich people were frequently into materialism and conspicuous consumption going back to ancient times. It was mentioned by the ancient Greek philosophers.

Roman emperors kept issuing edicts to stop people from buying silk from China because the flow of money to the east was hurting the economy.

And the middle class loved to emulate the upper class whenever they could.

What happened in the late 1800s is that mass production, the great increase in size of the middle class, etc. allowed a lot more people to get a taste of materialism.

So, it was always there. It just got to be a thing with more people.

I agree that mass production and the change in lifestyle it allowed for the middle class was the basis.

Commercialism was present in early America. The rich looked to England and France and imported almost every item in their houses using catalogs issued by manufacturers. Jefferson was perpetually in embarrassing levels of debt from his spending. The newspapers of the day also carried many advertisements for products and services as the cities grew larger.

The trend just went upward over the 19th century. The more industrialization the more products there were to buy. Factories drew people off farms and into the ever-growing cities. Buildings were plastered with advertising on every surface. Cheap newspapers begin before the Civil War when the rotary press was invented, and these spread the availability of goods to the masses.

It really took off after the Civil War. That spurred industry, which was fed by the millions of cheap labor immigrants landing in the country. All the world-changing inventions were bunched into a quarter-century from the telephone to the electric system to the automobile and airplane. Distance was conquered, the world became smaller, everybody wanted a piece of the new.

I think the Puritan work ethic is vastly overstated. More people gave it lip service than lived up to it. The loud voices were those like today who decry our consumer culture while denying themselves nothing.

Everybody makes a big deal of the 1920s because all these forces culminated at once. For the first time more Americans lived in cities than in rural areas; the war broadened the cultural horizons of millions; suffrage gave woman the vote and individual identities; prohibition created the first widespread underground culture; wealth was prevalent everywhere except on farms, which helped empty them out ever more. And it’s easy for authors to contrast the 20s against the Depression and war years. But if you spliced them together, the 20s and the 60s look incredibly similar and it becomes obvious that one single trend is involved, temporarily interrupted by weird one-time events.

How about 1908, aka the year 0 Anno Ford?

Traditionally it was religions that pounded the drum on the dangers of materialism. But as materialism really took off, with the industrial revolution and a swelling middle class with disposable income, church prosperity also benefited enormously. Witness the magnificent church edifices in the heart of most major cities. Those were large, RICH congregations, churches set their objections aside and dove right in.

Thorstein Veblen invented the term Conspicuous Consumption in 1899, so sometime before then probably.

Post WW2 had a lot to do with it. A few years earlier the US was in a depression and now post WW2 wages were high, production was high and international competition was low. Plus there was a lot of pent up demand since production during WW2 was devoted to the war effort, not consumer goods.

So all of a sudden you had people who had grown up in depression era poverty, who couldn’t find consumer goods even if they had money. Suddenly in post WW2 society jobs were plentiful, wages were high and growing and consumer goods were everywhere.

On an unrelated note I read that one of the things that North Korean refugees like to buy in South Korea is a rice cooker and a nice watch. Both are signs of wealth and status. So maybe emerging from a period of economic desperation makes people want status items.

The pursuit of pleasurable living and materialism aren’t the same thing although they may sometimes overlap.

As populations get richer, their survival is less shaky and they have more opportunities, their values change, they switch from traditional/survival values to rational/self-expression values, see the work of Ronald Inglehart with the world values survey https://www.vox.com/2014/12/29/7461009/culture-values-world-inglehart-welzel

It’s hard to be into consumer goods and pleasurable living when your standard of living is “one notch above starving or freezing” which has been the typical standard of living for most of human history. Were the Puritans supposed to be into scuba diving in the Caribbeans and 8K HDR movies?

The world we know came together in the second half of thy 19th century. The industrial revolution resulted in the combination of low cost products, the ability to transport them from the factory to the consumer, and the ability to communicate their availability. By the end of the century the Sears Catalog demonstrated this at a high level, from anywhere in the country you could look in the catalog to find available products and have them shipped to your location. 50 years earlier the cost of publishing and distributing a catalog like that and shipping this products would not be economically practical, and without industrial machines the products would have cost much more also. Nothing changed in people’s materialism at that point, the demand had always existed, the change was on the supply side of the equation, more products at lower cost rapidly available over long distances.

Yes, between the depression and WWII there are approximately 16 years of poverty and then limited production of consumer goods. Meanwhile the destruction of European industry meant a lot less competition in the marketplace. Add to that the emergence of automation for household tasks, mass production, and technology. Before 1930, how many could afford a car? With suburban sprawl in the 1950’s it was a virtual necessity. There was concerted rural electrification efforts.

Radio was just getting going in the 1920’s - whereas by the 1950’s there were radios and TV’s. (And Radio would create a bigger demand for gramophone records) Washing machines were becoming commonplace, dryers replaced clotheslines, etc. Were these conspicuous consumption or just replacing drudge work with automation?

And as Henry Ford originally figured out, all those factories paying decent wages meant people could afford all the new toys.

Is there ANY country where the people didn’t become more materialistic as their wealth increased? Perhaps a first world country where everyone lives extremely frugally, and saves all their money?

Materialism emerges when the masses have the wealth to buy material goods. That seems universal.

And at the same time, it’s one thing to have a Model T that’s the people’s car, but there is a change in paradigm when the makers introduced the system of “model years” where you begin introducing incremental functional improvements accompanied by merely cosmetic changes just to signal “new”. Or a washer or dryer or regrigeratior with new bells and whistles that tempt you even as your current one still has years of useful life left.

Most new models of cars did not have merely cosmetic changes. They had changes to respond to the market and to competitors. And while design is certainly a part of that, I guarantee you that every engineering team working on a new model year release has a list of things to change that would make the car better, or at least more acceptable to the marketplace.

Cars are a bad example of something that has only changed cosmetically, since cars have undergone rapid improvements in function in every decade since they entered the marketplace.

A better example would be light aircraft. A 1968 Cessna 172 is so similar to a 2018 Cessna 172 that only an enthusiast can tell them apart, and both have engines that were designed before WWII. But in this case, it’s not the fault of the companies or the market, but of government regulation that make those incremental annual improvements far too expensive, so we got stasis instead.


Japan seems pretty damned materialistic to me. They save a little more than other 1st world countries maybe, but that might be offset by the massive amount of deficit spending their government has engaged in.

Japan certainly doesn’t have the giant houses and giant cars that you see in America, but that’s a function of their lack of real estate. In my experience, in first world countries where people can’t invest in large homes and such, they spend more money on status and entertainment. When I was in Germany last, the difference in dwelling sizes was obvious from what we have in Canada, and more people took mass transit and such. But on the other hand, I saw very expensive designer goods everywhere. The MarienPlatz in Munich was full of stores selling really, really expensive goods. And the Apple Store there had a lineup half a block long to get in.

Post WW2 had a lot to do with consumerism in the 1920s? Are you Benjamin Button?

I was under the impression consumer culture exploded in the 50s due to low unemployment, wage growth, lack of international competition and 15 years of pent up demand due to the depression & ww2. I know this thread is about the 20s though.

Was consumerism something that waxed and waned over time? I would assume consumerism has no real history before the industrial revolution because there was no real wealth for the masses before that.

Was consumerism an issue in the 20s, then suppressed for 20 years, then an issue in the 50s, then hippies and the counterculture rejected it. Then the greed is good mentality of the 80s?

Millennials save more money than Gen X or Boomers, despite making (I would assume) less money. So maybe it comes and goes in waves. I dont’ know.

This is an excellent documentary on the development of consumerism. How people were trained to want more than they need.

It is called The Century of Self.


Nobody needs running water. Nobody needs indoor plumbing. Nobody needs long-distance transportation at all - staying close to home was fine for our ancestors. Nobody needs electricity, or communication devices of any kind.

Or, what did you mean by “need”?