Shopping, Buying, Owning: The Consumer Experience in America
Prof. Wendy Woloson
This course places American consumption into a larger historical context, discussing what Americans consumed, how they thought about what they bought, and what various acts of consumption meant – socially, culturally, and economically.
Readings and discussions will track change over time as well as highlight recurrent themes. Some of the overarching questions we will ask include, What is a consumer and what does it mean to "consume"? How is shopping both a limiting and liberating experience? What are the politics of consumption, and are we expressing individuality or conformity when we buy things? How have things changed and remained the same over time?
• Class participation: Each class will begin with a brief lecture, followed by class discussion based on the readings, seminar style. It is imperative that you do the readings for each class. In addition to actively engaging in the discussion, each student is required to bring no less than 3 discussion points to each class (they will be collected). These are meant to be informal, and can consist of simple bullet-pointed statements or questions in response to the readings. For example, if you take issue with a certain author, say why. If you think an idea is particularly provocative or confusing or contradictory, note that as a discussion point. Or, if a reading or class topic has relevance to something happening today, write it down: that counts as well. (15% total)
• Short essays: Students will write four thought pieces based on the main questions posed each week. You are at liberty to choose which four essays you will write, but each essay is due in class the Thursday it appears on the syllabus. Successful essays will range from 5-7 pages long, set out a clear and coherent thesis, incorporate secondary sources from class, and at least 2 primary sources to serve as evidence for your argument. (15% each)
• Final exam: Yes, you will have a final exam. It will be open-note and open book. I'll give you a choice of questions – drawing on subject matter introduced in the short essays and taken from discussion points and lectures – that you will answer in an essay incorporating as much of the course material (both readings and primary sources) as possible. It will be fair and as pain-free as possible. (25%)
• Turn off all electronic devices: this includes computers and cell phones.
• Attendance: required at every class. Absences will affect your class participation grade and more than two absences will automatically result in a drop in your overall letter grade.
• Food: You are free to eat and drink if it is permitted in our classroom and not disruptive to the rest of the class.
Week 1: Introduction
- Russell W. Belk, "Possessions and the Extended Self," Journal of Consumer Research 15.2 (Sept. 1988).
- Jean-Cristophe Agnew, "Coming Up for Air: Consumer Culture in Historical Perspective," in John Brewer and Roy Porter, eds., Consumption and the World of Goods (1993).
- Colin Campbell, "Consuming Goods and the Good of Consuming," in Lawrence Glickman, ed., Consumer Society in American History: A Reader (1999).
- What do we mean by "consumers" and "consumer culture"? And why might this be a useful (or narrow) lens through which to see and understand the American past? What are some useful frameworks to consider as we move forward in the semester?
Week 2: The First American Consumers?
- James Axtell, "The First Consumer Revolution," in Lawrence Glickman, ed., Consumer Society in American History: A Reader (1999).
- Ann Smart Martin, "The Business of Revolutions: John Hook and the Atlantic World," in Buying into the World of Goods: Early Consumers in Backcountry Virginia (Johns Hopkins, 2008).
- Carole Shammas, "America, the Atlantic, and Global Consumer Demand, 1500-1800," OAH Magazine (January 2005).
- Joyce Appleby, "Consumption in Early Modern Social Thought," in John Brewer and Roy Porter, eds., Consumption and the World of Goods (Routledge, 1993).
- Who were the first consumers and how should we think about the purchasing behaviors of people who lived before mass production and disposable income? When did consumer culture first appear, and were there consumers before then?
Week 3: Revolutionary Consumers
- T.H. Breen, "Strength Out of Dependence: Strategies of Consumer Resistance in an Empire of Goods," in The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence (Oxford, 2004).
- Ellen Hartigan-O'Connor, "Shopping Networks," in The Ties that Buy: Women and Commerce in Revolutionary America (Penn Press, 2009).
- Mary Beth Sievens, "Female Consumerism and Household Authority in Early National New England," Early American Studies 4 (2006).
- Paul G.E. Clemens, "The Consumer Culture of the Middle Atlantic, 1760-1820," The William and Mary Quarterly 62.4 (Oct. 2005).
- How did Americans in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries use consumption as a way to wield political and social power? To what extent were they effective in their efforts?
Week 4: The Rise of the Modern Consumer
- David Jaffee, “Peddlers of Progress and the Transformation of the Rural North, 1760–1860,” Journal of American History 78 (1991).
- Joanna Cohen, "'The Right to Purchase Is as Free as the Right to Sell': Defining Consumers as Citizens in the Auction-house Conflicts of the Early Republic," Journal of the Early Republic, Vol. 30, No. 1 (Spring 2010).
- Richard Bushman, "Vernacular Gentility in Rural Delaware," in The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities (Vintage, 1993).
- James Harvey Young, "Vials and Vermifuges: The Expansion of American Nostrums During the Early 19th Century," in The Toadstool Millionaires: A Social History of Patent Medicines in America before Federal Regulation (Princeton UP, 1961).
- Selections from Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835, 1840).
- What were the vehicles of persuasion that democratized consumer desire for antebellum Americans, and how did the encroachment of the market change their ideas about self and society?
Week 5: The Consumer Revolution
- Brian Luskey, "Homo Counter Jumperii," in On the Make: Clerks and the Quest for Capital in 19th-Century America (NYU Press, 2010).
- Michael Zakim, "Sartorial Ideologies: From Homespun to Ready-Made," The American Historical Review 106.5 (December, 2001).
- Stuart Blumin, "'Things Are in the Saddle': Consumption, Urban Space, and the Middle-Class Home," in The Emergence of the Middle Class: Social Experience in the American City, 1790–1900 (Cambridge UP, 1991).
- Wendy Woloson, "The Economies of Everyday Life," in In Hock: Pawning in America from Independence through the Great Depression (U Chicago Press, 2010).
- Rebecca Yamin, "Lurid Tales and Homely Stories of New York's Notorious Five Points," Historical Archaeology 32.1 (1998).
- Did the so-called "consumer revolution" put Americans on a more equal footing with each another or serve to stratify them?
Week 6: The Rise of Advertising, Print Culture, and Persuasion
- Jackson Lears, "The Modernization of Magic," in Fables of Abundance: A Cultural History of Advertising in America (BasicBooks, 1994).
- Jay Last, "Lithography in America," in The Color Explosion: 19th-Century American Lithography (Hillcrest, 2006).
- David Henkin, "Street Signs and Store Signs," and "Hand Bills and Trade Cards," in City Reading: Written Words and Public Spaces in Antebellum New York (Columbia, 1999).
- a field trip to the Library Company of Philadelphia to view primary sources including lithographs, pamphlets, posters
- What were the immediate and long-lasting effects of new media on nineteenth-century Americans (either individually or collectively)? Are there parallels to today?
Week 7: Spectacles and Entertainment
- James Cook, "The Feejee Mermaid and the Market Revolution," in The Arts of Deception: Playing with Fraud in the Age of Barnum (Harvard, 2001).
- Selections from: The Life of P.T. Barnum (1855).
- Robert Rydell, "The Culture of Imperial Abundance: World's Fairs in the Making of American Culture," in Simon Bronner, ed., Consuming Visions: Accumulation and Display of Goods in America, 1880-1920 (Winterthur, 1989).
- David Nasaw, "Dollar Theaters, Concert Saloons, and Dime Museums," in Going Out: The Rise and Fall of Public Amusements BasicBooks, 1993).
- Ellen Gruber Garvey, "Readers Read Advertising into Their Lives: The Trade Card Scrapbook," in The Adman in the Parlor: Magazines and the Gendering of Consumer Culture, 1880s-1910s (Oxford, 1996).
- Describe the importance of spectacle, entertainment, and leisure to nineteenth-century Americans (and to whom). How did entertainment relate, if at all, to mass consumption and consumer behavior?
Week 8: Consuming Institutions: Department Stores and Dimestores
- William Leach, "The Dawn of a Commercial Empire," in Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture (Random House, 1994).
- Susan Porter Benson, "A Homogenous Business: Organizing the Department Store," in Counter Cultures: Saleswomen, Managers, and Customers in American Department Stores, 1890-1940 (U of Illinois Press, 1987).
- Susan Strasser, "The New Retailing," in Satisfaction Guaranteed: The Making of the American Mass Market (Pantheon, 1989).
- David Nasaw, "All that Money Could Buy," in Children of the City: At Work and At Play (Oxford, 1986).
- In what novel ways did owners of retail stores manipulate physical space to enhance the shopping experience? And what relationship, if any, was there between department stores and other popular spectacles of the time?
Week 9: Consumption and Identity
- Selections from Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899).
- Karen Halttunen, "From Parlor to Living Room: Domestic Space, Interior Decoration, and the Culture of Personality," in Simon J. Bronner, ed., Consuming Visions: Accumulation and Display of Goods in America, 1880-1920 (Winterthur, 1989).
- Andrew Heinze, "From Scarcity to Abundance: The Immigrant as Consumer," in Lawrence Glickman, ed., Consumer Society in American History: A Reader (1999).
- Mark A. Swiencicki, "Consuming Brotherhood: Men's Culture, Style, and Recreation as Consumer Culture, 1880-1930," in Lawrence Glickman, ed., Consumer Society in American History: A Reader (1999).
- How did Americans use consumption to define themselves in terms of class, ethnicity, or gender? Were they successful?
Week 10: Consumption, Mass Media, and Mass Markets
- Roland Marchand, "Apostles of Modernity," "Men of the People: The New Professionals," and "Abandoning the Great Genteel Hope: From Sponsored Radio to the Funny Papers," in Advertising the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity, 1920-1940 (U of California Press, 1985).
- Kathy Peiss, "The Rise of the Mass Market" and "Shades of Difference," in Hope in a Jar: The Making of America's Beauty Culture (U Penn Press, 2011).
- Jennifer Scanlon, "Advertising Women: The J. Walter Thompson Company Women's Editorial Department," in Inarticulate Longings: The Ladies Home Journal, Gender, and the Promise of Consumer Culture (Routledge, 1995).
- Maurice M. Manning, "The Old South, the Absentee Mistress, and the Slave in a Box," in Slave in a Box: The Strange Career of Aunt Jemima (U of Virginia Press, 1998).
- Discuss the impact of mass markets on American culture and life, and why they arose when they did. What was the overall impact of the mass market, and how did it forge ideas about national individual and identity?
Week 11: New Ways of Buying and Borrowing
- Lendol Calder, "Hard Payments: The Rise of Installment Selling," and "From Consumptive Credit to Consumer Credit," in Financing the American Dream: A Cultural History of Consumer Credit (Princeton UP, 2001).
- Louis Hyman, "Postwar Consumer Credit: Borrowing for Prosperity," in Debtor Nation: The History of America in Red Ink (Princeton UP, 2012).
- Howard Karger, "Debt and the Functionally Poor Middle Class," in Shortchanged: Life and Debt in the Fringe Economy (Berrett-Koehler, 2005).
- Some say that consumer credit was liberating, because it enabled people to purchase goods they normally could not afford. Others argue that consumer credit enmeshed consumers in endless cycles of emulation and debt. Who is right, and why?
Week 12: Post-War Consumption
- Elaine Tyler May, "The Commodity Gap: Consumerism and the Modern Home," in Lawrence Glickman, ed., Consumer Society in American History: A Reader (1999).
- Lizabeth Cohen, "From Town Center to Shopping Center: The Reconfiguration of Community Marketplaces in Postwar America," in Roger Horowitz and Arwen Mohun, eds., His and Hers: Gender, Consumption, and Technology (UP of Virginia, 1998).
- Robert E. Weems, Jr., "The Revolution Will Be Marketed: American Corporations and Black Consumers During the 1960s," in Lawrence Glickman, ed., Consumer Society in American History: A Reader (1999).
- Daniel Horowitz, "Critique from Within: John Kenneth Galbraith, Vance Packard, and Betty Friedan," in The Anxieties of Affluence: Critiques of American Consumer Culture, 1938-1974 (U of Mass. Press, 1995).
- In previous classes, we have talked and read about the manipulation of the consumption environment, consumerism as a way to express (and conceal) membership in certain groups, and offering, alternately, liberation and oppression. What, if anything, had changed in the post-War twentieth century?
Week 13: The Global Consumer
- Lawrence Glickman, "Consumer Activism Comes Full Circle," in Buying Power: A History of Consumer Activism in America (U Chicago Press, 2012).
- Ellen Ruppel Shell, "Discounting and Its Discontents," in Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture (Penguin, 2010).
- Matthew Hilton, "Choose Life: Consumer Rights Versus Human Rights," and "Shopping for Justice: The Freedom of Free Trade," in Prosperity for All: Consumer Activism in an Era of Globalization (Cornell UP, 2009).
- Elizabeth L. Cline, "The Afterlife of Cheap Clothes," in Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion (Portfolio, 2012).
- Consider these chapters in light of previous readings, especially those asserting that consumption and boycotts can make strong political statements and have profound political meaning. Do you buy it? Why or why not?
Week 14: Wrap Up: Our Stuff, Ourselves
- James Twitchell, "Two Cheers for Materialism," in Juliet B. Schor and Doublas B. Holt, eds., The Consumer Society Reader (The New Press, 2000).
- Gail Steketee and Randy O. Frost, "We Are What We Own: Owning, Collecting, and Hoarding," in Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things (Houghton Mifflin, 2010).
- What, if anything, do our decisions about what to consume (to purchase, to eat, to wear, to care for, to use, and to give away) say about who we are as individuals and as a society? And how has this changed over time, if at all?