Research on the History of Consumption in the United States: An Overview

  • Gary Cross
Part of the Worlds of Consumption book series (WC)


In many ways, consumer society defines America just as it defines the modern. Curiously, however, the history of American consumer society has flowered only recently and then with a heavy overlay of moral and ideological division. American approaches focus on the social and cultural impact of affluence and are deeply wed to issues of the changing American character, the contradictions between traditional values of simplicity and the virtues or perils of plenty,1 the historical shifts from the political (or rational and activist) understanding of the consumer to the materialist and psychological meaning of “consumerism,” and the impact of consumer goods on class, race, gender, and political identity. All this reflects an abiding debate over whether consumer culture should be associated with “mass culture” or “popular culture.” While mass culture suggests passivity, depoliticization, and infantilization in a life increasingly saturated with purchased goods, popular culture implies the liberation, the subversion, and even the empowerment of the group and the individual through consumer choice.2 The modern jeremiad against consumption in what Daniel Horowitz calls the “new moralism” appears in a disparate social and cultural critique of American affluence that emerged especially after 1945.3 David Potter’s People of Plenty., written from the perspective of an elite conservative Yale historian from the South, argues that, despite the gains of material progress, affluence undermined cultural stability. Others from the left like J. K. Galbraith and Vance Packard demanded more balance between private and public spending.


Consumer Good Popular Culture Mass Culture Consumer Choice Consumer Culture 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


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Copyright information

© The German Historical Institute 2012

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  • Gary Cross

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