An All-Consuming Century: Why Commercialism Won in Modern America

Gary Cross, Author
Gary Cross, Author Columbia University Press $83.5 (352p) ISBN 978-0-231-11312-0
Open Ebook - 333 pages - 978-1-281-96131-0
Open Ebook - 333 pages - 978-0-231-50253-5
Paperback - 352 pages - 978-0-231-11313-7
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According to this absorbing cultural history of how Americans' personal and public identities have evolved in relationship with consumer goods, the battle between consumerism and anti-consumerism has been a defining struggle of 20th-century life. While Americans have always actively partaken in consumer culture, Cross (Kids' Stuff: Toys and the Changing World of American Childhood) notes that there have also been equally strong movements and even aesthetic traditions that resist consumerism and materialism, ranging from Puritanism and strains of immigrant Catholicism to the 1960s counterculture and the simplicity movements exemplified by E.F. Schumacher's 1973 classic Small Is Beautiful and Ralph Nader's consumer rights work. Still, the ethos of commercialism won out by the end of the century. Deftly integrating the theoretical arguments of anti-consumerists (from Thorstein Veblen's The Theory of the Leisure Class to Vance Packard's Hidden Persuaders) with a complex analysis of the history of U.S. buying and socializing patterns, Cross explains why. His provocative study investigates the Americanizing effect of amusement parks on immigrant identity in the early century; how the manufacture of the inexpensive radio promoted domesticity in the 1930s; and how the conflation of toys and fast food radically altered children's consumption patterns. While continually critiquing free market consumerism, Cross makes clear how consumerism shaped, and continues to shape, our lives today. (Sept.)
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