Livin the American Dream

We spent last week finishing up Susan Strasser’s book, Satisfaction Guaranteed. We discussed how companies used promotions and sales to push the sale of a product. Gimmicks like coupons, redeemable points, display cases, and new “helps” were new ways of displaying products and selling modernism to consumers. A new era of retailing evolved with the development of department stores, mail-order firms, and chain stores. Department stores such as Macy’s in New York City were known as extravagant “palaces of consumption”, complete with beauty parlors, restaurants, tea rooms, public phones, child care, music, and soda fountains. Department stores not only offered shoppers the latest fashions at affordable prices, but a whole new shopping experience as well.

Macy’s was even the first department store to feature Santa Claus at Christmas time!

Department stores were the first to set prices on new price tags. There were high turn-over rates and new products arriving all the time!

Mail-order catalogues like Sears and Roebuck and Montgomery Ward were popular in the west and other rural areas where it was more difficult to reach the nearest Macy’s store.

Chain stores such as A & P and Woolworth’s made big profits because they hired unskilled laborers, cut prices, and did not do deliveries or credit buying. Chain stores used modern accounting techniques and bought in bulk in order to distribute it to multiple stores.

The last chapter of the book discussed how the Progressive movement attempted to move onward and upward by reforming American society through the government. Progressives thought the relationship between the government representing the needs of the people should be done through industry reform.  The Food and Drug Act of 1906 stopped the practices of using fillers, labels that lied, mysterious chemicals, and harmful packaging products such as lead cans. This era also saw the standardization of measurements – Americans now were paying for what they were buying! Americans were becoming educated on the less than honest practices of the food and packing industry through muckraking journalists like Upton Sinclair and also the introduction of home economics courses in public schools. The Housewives League (although they turned out to be corrupt and sided with national brands) organized boycotts and fought for pure food and drug laws.  Also, Strasser discussed how the issue of price maintenance was debated in the courts up until 1972!

Strasser concludes her book with a look at how consumption looks in America today. How we consume represents our social status (I guess Marx and Baudrillard weren’t just making that stuff up!) The present-day American consumer society is based on fundamental decisions that echo a one-dollar-one-vote basis. Poor people are disenfranchised because they don’t have as much purchasing power. This is how consumerism adds to a socially stratified society. Today we are dealing with issues of pollution, road congestion, and buyers who are trying to find fulfillment through the purchase of more and more material goods. You can tell a lot about a society by examining their consumption behaviors! I already think it is interesting to learn more about my classmates through the shopping blogs they post. It should be fun to observe shoppers in their “natural habitat” as we begin to explore the concept of a “downtown” next week!

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