Rationalizing Consumption: Lejaren à Hiller and the Origins of American Advertising Photography, 1913–1924

  • Elspeth H. Brown


By the second decade of the twentieth century, the rationalization of the American economy threatened to founder, not on the shoals of production or distribution, where mechanization and national transportation systems had nearly vanquished challenges to middle-class material abundance, but on those of consumption. As numerous historians have argued, advertising matured as a profession in response to a new problem for American business: how to stimulate demand among white, middle-class consumers for the machined cornucopia of standardized products filling the shelves of American retail establishments. Whereas earlier advocates of American productive efficiency, such as the motion-study experts Frank and Lillian Gilbreth, had championed the use of photography in rationalizing the working body in production, by the 1920s the influence of applied psychology had reoriented managers toward an appreciation of the mind as the critical element of rationalized consumption.2 Achieving greater sales in an increasingly competitive and national marketplace required convincing hesitant consumers that individual difference and personal meaning could be theirs, despite a regularized landscape of standardized goods. Corporations increasingly hired advertising agencies and their creative staffs, in Jackson Lears’ phrase, to “surround mass-produced goods with an aura of uniqueness” designed to stimulate consumption through the promise of individuality.3


Visual Strategy Rational Appeal Advertising Photograph Saturday Evening Photographic Medium 


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  1. 2.
    See my chapter on the Gilbreths in Elspeth H. Brown, The Corporate Eye: Photography and the Rationalization of American Commercial Culture (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005).Google Scholar
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    T. J. Jackson Lears, Fables of Abundance: A Cultural History of Advertising in America (New York: Basic Books, 1994), 270.Google Scholar
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Copyright information

© Elspeth H. Brown, Catherine Gudis, and Marina Moskowitz 2006

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  • Elspeth H. Brown

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