A Renegade History of the United States: The Invention of Shopping

In his new book, Thaddeus Russell shows how American culture was formed on the fringes of society. This excerpt is not the history you will find in textbooks, but one driven by clashes between insiders who sought to preserve social order and outsiders bent on pursuing their own desires.

Shopping: The Real American Revolution

If you were a typical American living in the early part of the nineteenth century, you had to plant, tend, harvest, slaughter, and process your own food. You had to make your own clothing, and all of it had to be strictly utilitarian: no decorations, unnecessary colors, or “style.” You worked from before dawn until late at night. Your only source of entertainment was books, and most that were available were moral parables. You spent your entire life within a fifty-mile radius of your home. You believed that leisure was bad. There was no weekend.

By the end of the nineteenth century, you as a typical American bought most of your clothing from stores. You owned clothes whose sole function was to make you attractive. You ate food that had come from all over the country. You drank cold beer and ate ice cream. If you lived in a city, you went shopping at Montgomery Ward, Sears, Roebuck, Macy’s, Abraham & Straus, Jordan Marsh, Filene’s, or Wanamaker’s. If you lived in the country, you shopped from the same stores by mail order. You read dime novels whose sole purpose was to provide you with fun. If you lived in a city, you went to amusement parks, movie theaters, and vaudeville shows. You went dancing. You rode on trains. You worked fewer hours than your parents and many fewer hours than your grandparents. You believed that leisure was good.

Who was responsible for this revolution in everyday American life? Scholars have attributed it to the vast natural resources of the North American land mass; the lack of trade barriers among the states; the building of mass, integrated industries such as railroads, steel, oil, wheat, lumber, and meat; the early development of the modern corporation in the United States; technological advances in production such as rubber vulcanization, the sewing machine, refrigeration, the Bessemer and open-hearth steel processes, the assembly line, and electric light and power; as well as the assistance of the federal government to economic development in the form of protective incorporation laws, land grants, the authorization of stocks and the backing of bonds, protective tariffs to shield American companies from foreign competition, and armed intervention against labor strikes.

And yet not a single consumer good would have been produced if people did not want them or did not allow themselves to seek them. Without desire there would have been no demand. Without demand there would have been no production. What was necessary for the consumer revolution to take place was a radical change in the way Americans thought about desire, pleasure, leisure, and spending. Without renegades, we'd all still be farmers.

The Customer is Queen

Most historians of the “consumer revolution” argue that it came from above, directed from the offices of advertising agencies. The standard story is that advertisers created desires and invented false needs in the minds of consumers. They seized consumers’ minds, established “cultural hegemony,” and were nothing less than the “captains of consciousness,” according to the title of one of the leading histories of the advertising industry.

However, in the eighteenth century, the first mass marketers of consumer goods understood that to be successful meant to treat the “consumer as king”—or, more precisely, as queen. Josiah Wedgwood and Thomas Bentley, the first manufacturers of pottery and among the first capitalists to seek broader markets for consumer products, acknowledged to each other that they could not allow their own tastes to determine what they produced. When Wedgwood found that a particular vase which he thought unattractive was widely popular, he did not hesitate to mass produce it. “I do not see any beauty in it but will make something of it,” he told Bentley. To guide their production, Wedgwood and Bentley spent as much time as possible in their London shop, observing what customers purchased and asking them their opinions. According to business historian Regina Lee Blaszczyk, the partners “acknowledged consumer sovereignty and crafted a strategy aimed at meeting demand, rather than shaping it.” They “perfected techniques that registered the nuances of consumer taste and channeled this information into the factory’s design shops.” At first responding only to the preferences of the London elite, Wedgwood and Bentley found that the principle of consumer sovereignty applied to the lower classes as well. Rather than seeking to dictate taste to “the Middling Class of People,” the pair acknowledged that “Their character is established” and would only “buy quantitys” of products that they already knew they liked. By the end of the eighteenth century, this strategy made Wedgwood the best-selling pottery line on both sides of the Atlantic. Similarly, Frederick Hurten Rhead, one of the leading Anglo-American potters of the early twentieth century, learned that only consumers, and not style experts, could “tell the manufacturer what to make.”

In the 1920s, what Nation’s Business called the “economic necessity” of “fact finding” compelled the creation of the audience survey. Procter & Gamble pioneered the method by sending questioners door-to-door in neighborhoods across the country, keeping track of the number of items returned, and interviewing shoppers about their likes and dislikes. The company would not launch a product that had not gone through rigorous vetting with consumers. Paul T. Cherington, research director of the J. Walter Thompson advertising firm, said in 1931, “the consuming public imposes its will on the business enterprise.” The company promised to get “the facts from the real consumer.” The central problem for any business, according to Cherington, was to understand the “fussy and troublesome ideas” that consumers had about particular products. The most successful enterprise would attempt not to manipulate but “to please and satisfy the public.” To Cherington, the consumer held “the balance of power” in the marketplace, and “the measure of the manufacturer’s or merchant’s skill” was the extent to which it knew and satisfied the consumer’s desires.

By the end of the nineteenth century, every major business that catered to consumers was conducting market research surveys to find out what they wanted, then producing it as soon as they could. Ordinary Americans with new, extraordinary desires were voting with their feet and their hard-earned money every day, electing new lives for themselves and a new way of life for everyone.

Anyone who believes that advertisers control consumers need only be told a few names: Tucker, Henry J., Ford, Edsel, Mercury Park Lane, Studebaker, Wagonaire, Lincoln Blackwood, AMC Marlin, Buick Reatta, and Eagle Premier. These were among many automobiles that were marketed strenuously by their manufacturers but quickly discontinued due to weak sales. Moreover, of the 30,000 new products introduced in grocery stores after 1960, more than 80 percent were pulled from the shelves by 1980. In the 1980s, consumers rejected even more products. Of the 84,933 grocery store products introduced after 1980, fully 86 percent did not survive to 1990. And ask any Hollywood executive how easy it is to please the customer. There have been thousands of big-budget, highly advertised films that lost millions for studios. Indeed, it has been estimated that at least 80 percent of Hollywood productions have lost money, while many have lost fortunes.

No less an authority than Carl Laemmle, founder of Universal Film Manufacturing Company, spoke to the inability of Hollywood to control its audience. Testifying before a congressional committee in 1916 on the moral content of his films, Laemmle reported that he had sent a survey to twenty-two thousand theater owners titled “What Do You Want?” The studio chief said that he expected 95 percent of the respondents to ask for clean and wholesome films, but “instead of finding 95 percent favoring clean pictures, I discovered that at least one-half, or possibly 60 percent, want pictures to be risqué, the French for smutty. . . . They found their patrons were more willing to pay money to see an off-color than a decent one.” Because “one after another [theater owner] said that it would be wise to listen to the public demand for vampire pictures,” Laemmle argued that film producers could not be the “guardian of public morals.”

From early in the history of American marketing, producers understood that, in the words of the advertising trade journal Printers’ Ink in 1929, “The proper study of mankind is man, but the proper study of markets is woman.” This was especially true in the burgeoning markets for fun. Several historians have shown that the early motion picture industry was driven largely by female consumption. According to historian Nan Enstad, “during the same years that working women went on strike in unprecedented numbers, they were creating a motion picture ‘craze’ ” when “neighborhood theaters, called nickelodeons, boomed after 1905.” Though women possessed far less money and had far fewer opportunities for leisure than men, they comprised nearly half of movie audiences in the early years of the motion picture industry. Consequently, producers increasingly geared their films to female audiences, including “a long line of motion picture serials featuring female heroines” such as the long-running and enormously popular series What Happened to Mary and Hazards of Helen.

Working-class women flocked to amusement parks as well and helped make them the living symbols of the end of the Victorian age. “Coney ­Island in effect declared a moral holiday for all who entered its gates,” the historian John Kasson has written. “Against the values of thrift, sobriety, industry, and ambition, it encouraged extravagance, gaiety, abandon, revelry.” At first catering to a “sporting” male subculture in the 1870s—with venues for horse racing, prizefighting, and prostitution—by the end of the nineteenth century, newly liberated working-class women made Coney ­Island their own. To cater to what was becoming the resort’s most ardent patrons, proprietors built dancing pavilions up and down the boardwalk. These open-air dance halls became the scene of “thousands of girls who are seized with such madness for dancing that they spend every night in the dance halls and the picnic parks,” as one observer put it.

The mostly female crowds that flocked to the dancing pavilions drove the rapid growth of Coney Island at the turn of the century, spurring the construction of amusement parks to lure in the throngs. Three parks—Dreamland Park, Luna Park, and Steeplechase Park—catered to the new sexual culture of New York’s working girls. Rides at the amusement parks “encouraged closeness and romance” by deliberately jostling patrons so as to cause patrons to bump into one another. The Barrel of Love, a revolving drum at Steeplechase Park, went even further by tumbling riders on top of one another. Other rides, such as the Canals of Venice and the Tunnel of Love, simply sent patrons into dark passageways. Without a population of women wishing for such encounters and willing to experience them in public, Coney Island and American amusement parks as we know them would not have existed. As Kathy Peiss puts it, “the desires of such working women as Agnes M., who loved to dance, see the men, and have a good time, shaped the emergent mass culture.”

The generation of working-class women who drove the American revolution of leisure and pleasure overcame the opposition of protective parents who didn’t want them to work outside the home or have their own money. They broke through the common belief that women seeking pleasure in public spaces were immoral and degenerate. And they simply ignored the Puritan and Victorian proscriptions against “indolence,” “extravagance,” and “dissipating luxury.” They created the weekend, and for this alone, they should be considered national heroes. But they accomplished something even more phenomenal. Against all odds, they created American fun.

Purchase a copy of A Renegade History of the United States.

Add New Comment

0 Comments