How Did Consumers Weaken the Economy in the Late 1920s

How Did Consumers Weaken the Economy in the Late 1920s


3. Consumerism

  • Collected commentary on mod consumer culture, 1924-1931

  • PDF

  • Florine Stettheimer,
    The Cathedrals of Fifth Artery, oil on canvas, 1931
    Internal Link to Discussing Art page

    • – Large image
    • – Prototype with give-and-take

  • PDF

  • Humorists on salesmanship

    • – Robert Benchley, “How to Sell Goods,”
      New York World, May x, 1920
    • – Will Rogers, syndicated column on slogans, April 12, 1925

  • PDF


  • Theater commercials (silent)

    • – Electric refrigerator, ca. 1926 (0.43)
    • – Flash mitt cleaner, 1920s (1:00)
    • – Onward flour, 1920s (0.41)

Mass-produced consumer goods like automobiles and ready-to-wear clothes were not new to the 1920s, nor were advertising or mail-lodge catalogues. Merely
was new virtually Americans’ relationship with manufactured products, and it was accelerating faster than it could be defined. Not only did the latest goods go necessities,
itself became a necessity, it seemed. Was that skillful for America?
Yes, said some—people can alive in unprecedented comfort and textile security.
Not so fast, said others—tin can we predict where consumerism will take us before nosotros’re inextricably

  • Collected commentary. Advertizement, installment ownership, consumer credit, the attraction of ever-better mass-produced goods—did these herald the triumph or disuse of American civilisation? Illustrated with numerous advertisements, this collection samples the agog opinions voiced by champions and critics of “consumptionism” in the 1920s. What was the core of their disagreement? Did they concur on whatever cardinal points? How does their discussion resemble today’due south commentary on consumerism? Selections tin exist divided among students for research and classroom discussion. (16 pp.)

  • Cathedrals of Fifth Avenue PDF file

  • The Cathedrals of 5th Avenue,
    Internal Link to Discussing Art page
    oil on canvas, 1931. In a personal fashion unique among the American modernists, creative person Florine Stettheimer created her
    series to showcase, and whimsically satirize, New York City’s pre-eminence in entertainment, consumerism, finance, and art. The four big paintings—each five feet past iv feet—are flamboyant, witty, unapologetically decorated, and incontestably eye-catching. Each unfurls from a key curvation, the “cathedral altar,” and is constructed like an “elaborate stage design for an over-the-top Broadway musical production number.”one
    The Cathedrals of 5th Avenue, the “cathedrals” are the secular temples of consumer worship—the sectional shops and restaurants of Fifth Avenue, their names and logos emblazoned in the sky like fireworks. At center is the cathedral “altar,” modeled on the entrance to St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Cathedral, equally a club wedding party exits the church and enters the enticing secular domain of Fifth Avenue. What response to the painting, and to consumerism, exercise you think Stettheimer intended? Why is the painting fun to look at (and why is it important to ask)? Compare
    The Cathedrals of 5th Artery
    The Cathedrals of Broadway
    in this collection. (2 pp.)

  • Humorists on salesmanship. “For amend or for worse,” wrote consumer activist Stuart Hunt, “nosotros have entered the Historic period of the Salesman. The final objective of the salesman is to put it across, to become abroad with it, to secure the gild. The signature on the dotted line becomes the Supreme Adept.”2
    In numerous manufactures with difficult-striking prose, Hunt warned Americans of the wiles of modern salesmanship. And in their unique style, so did humorists. Here nosotros read columns by two of the most pop humorists of the 1920s—the urban wit Robert Benchley, on “How to Sell Goods,” and the “cowboy philosopher” Will Rogers decrying slogans in advertising and politics. (See Rogers on credit buying and Chase on the “Age of the Salesman” in the collected commentary.) What unique modes of conveying a bulletin does humor offer? What constitutes a successful use of sense of humor in persuasive prose? (4 pp.)

  • Silent theater commercials. Imagine yourself settled into a movie theater seat and viewing these cursory ads for flour, mitt cleaner, and the electric refrigerator before the main feature. How did the producers hope to motivate the viewers to buy the products? What did they use every bit visual enticement? What information did they convey? Did whatsoever use humor? Which of the three ads was most successful, in your opinion? How exercise they compare with moving-picture show theater advertizement today?

Meet also in this collection: “Age of Prosperity.”

Discussion Questions

  1. Overall, what benefits and impairment to American civilization resulted from modern consumer civilization, according to the commentators in this section?
  2. What unprecedented opportunities and threats to American republic were presented by mass product and consumption? by the ever-increasing “standard of living”?
  3. Was the American economy producing “too many goods to consume”? Was this a real or presumed trouble?
  4. How would modern consumerism change Americans’ bones attitudes, goals, and character, for better or for worse?
  5. How was American consumerism singularly

Collected commentary___

  1. Complete the chart below as you read the commentary to organize the major problems and positions. Include two or more comments for each factor (paraphrase the comments).

    one. Christine Frederick

    2. William Chenery

    “Consumptionism” gives the consumer more power than e’er before.

    We are healthier, happier people due to the mass-produced and advertised goods.

    Prosperity based on consumption of goods If consumers stopped buying enough goods, the entire nation would be seriously weakened.

    People are losing the habits of austerity and avoiding waste.

    1. Samuel Strauss

    ii. Stuart Hunt

    Comfort and convenience from manufactured goods
    Advertising & Salesmanship
    Installment Buying
    & Consumer Credit
  2. Co-ordinate to Samuel Strauss, how was the vast increase in consumer goods “outward bear witness of the new force” in American democracy?
  3. What was this “new force” and why did Americans view it as the “natural fruit of that democratic seed” which the earliest colonists had planted in America?
  4. Why did Strauss remember the Founding Fathers would have disagreed with this view of modern consumer culture, despite their hope that future generations would live in material comfort?
  5. What did Strauss place as the cadre danger from the new “consumptionism”? How could it threaten the nation itself?
  6. How did “Middletown”—Muncie, Indiana—reflect the national consumerism of the 1920s, according to sociologists Lynd and Lynd?
  7. Compare the two lists of mod conveniences and expectations in the commentary: (ane) “The New Standard of Living” in Hunt’due south
    Prosperity: Fact or Myth?
    and (2) the “new tools and services” favored by Muncie residents in Lynd and Lynd’s
    Middletown. How do the lists compare to American living standards today?
  8. What positive aspects did dwelling house economist Christine Frederick identify in the new “consumptionism”? Why was it the “greatest idea that America has to give to the world [today]”?
  9. What power did consumers concur in the new “consumptionism” that they could not exercise before, according to Frederick? Why were women nearly meaning in this development? why
  10. Why did Frederick support advert, particularly in women’s magazines? How did she argue that it strengthened, not weakened, character? How would Stuart Chase have disagreed?
  11. Why did Stuart Chase describe the abundance of manufactured goods a “wilderness in which we consumers wander without chart or compass”? How would Frederick have disagreed?
  12. How would William Chenery, editor of
    Collier’s, take replied to Chase and Frederick? What were the benefits of advertising for which consumers should be grateful?
  13. How would William Retlaw’s list of “magic words” that announced near often in advertising compare to a similar list today? What was Retlaw’s opinion of this phenomenon?
  14. How would you describe the Andy Consumer ads in
    magazine? empowering? condescending? straightforward? manipulative? Do you think they were constructive?
  15. Co-ordinate to the editors of
    Life, why did they create the Andy Consumer ad series? How did they explicate their decision to their advertisers (in the
    Advertising and Selling
    ads on the serial), and to their readers, the “Andy Consumers”?
  16. What were the benefits and downsides of installment ownership, according to James Couzens and C. H. Hanch? How did the automobile manufacturing feel of each man influence his opinion?
  17. Co-ordinate to John Crowe Ransom, what made the American consumer a “new man”—for the worse?
  18. According to William Chenery, what made the American consumer a “new rex”—for the better?

The Cathedrals of Fifth Artery___

  1. What is your overall impression of the
    Cathedrals‘ series of paintings? Did you lot find them visually compelling? conceptually interesting? (See Supplemental Sites below.)
  2. Why is
    The Cathedrals of Fifth Avenue
    fun to look at (and why is it important to enquire)?
  3. Describe the visual elements and system of
    The Cathedrals of Fifth Avenue. Compare its “altar” with the altars of American Gothic-manner cathedrals such every bit Saint Patrick’due south Roman Catholic Cathedral and St. Thomas Episcopal Church, both on Fifth Avenue in New York City.
  4. How did the “cathedral” motif provide Stettheimer an effective format for depicting secular aspects of American culture? (Compare
    The Cathedrals of 5th Avenue
    The Cathedrals of Broadway
    in this drove.)
  5. What commentary, if any, did Stettheimer incorporate in
    The Cathedrals of 5th Avenue? What response exercise yous think she hoped to evoke in the viewer?
  6. Why are the bride and groom depicted similar figures on a hymeneals cake? Why are their parents more realistically portrayed, the bride’southward male parent looking straight out from the canvas?
  7. Why are the spectators more than interested in the hymeneals party than in the ticker-tape parade for a visiting dignitary (at center left)?
  8. How did Stettheimer portray herself and her sisters in the painting (far right)?
  9. Create other questions for yourself and others based on details in the painting. What did you discover from close viewing of the canvass?

Humorists on salesmanship___

  1. What principal points did Robert Benchley and Will Rogers deliver in their humorous essays?
  2. How might ane of the economists or social scientists (in the collected commentary) have expressed the same points?
  3. What unique modes of conveying a message does sense of humor offer?
  4. What constitutes a successful use of sense of humor in persuasive prose?
  5. Attempt your hand at humor. Select one of the serious narrative pieces in the collected commentary and rewrite it in the style of Robert Benchley or Will Rogers. Why is it then hard?

Silent theater commercials___

  1. How did the producers hope to motivate the viewers to buy their products? Is similar motivation used today?
  2. What did they apply as visual enticement? What information did they convey? Did they use persuasion, repetition, humor, or other devices?
  3. Which commercial was about successful, in your opinion? Why?


  1. Select one of the pairs beneath and create a dialogue (not all pairs held opposing viewpoints). Innovate an consequence about 1920s consumerism at the beginning of the dialogue. Be sure to demonstrate how the speakers’ perspective every bit consumer activists, humorists, etc., influenced their positions. Finish the dialogue with (a) a shared insight that surprises both parties, (b) a prediction for the year 2000, or (c) an appearance by you with a consideration they had disregarded.
    Stuart Hunt and Christine Frederick consumer activists
    Lynd & Lynd and Wilbur Plummer social scientists
    Will Rogers and Robert Benchley humorists
    Florine Stettheimer and Winson McCay artists/illustrators
    William Chenery,
    and Life
    editors; creators of
     the Andy Consumer ads
    magazine editors
  2. Write an editorial comparing 1920s consumerism with that of the 21st
    century. Express a specific viewpoint, and offer a recommendation, insight, prediction, or critical analogy with the past. Begin or stop your editorial with 1 of the following statements from the resources in this section.

Framing Questions

  • What factors nurtured or weakened the unprecedented prosperity of the 1920s?
  • How did “prosperity” become a hallmark of national pride? How was the word adjusted for political and psychological aspirations of the nation?
  • What role did “workingmen” and labor unions play in the economical panorama of the catamenia?
  • Compare the Twenties’ boom-and-bust with similar economic cycles before and afterwards the decade.


Nerveless commentary
The Cathedrals of Fifth Avenue

Robert Benchley on salesmanship
Will Rogers on slogans
Silent theater commercials

xvi pp.
2 pp.
two pp.
ii pp.
View online.
22 pp.

Supplemental Sites

Prosperity and Thrift: The Coolidge Era and the Consumer Economy (American Retention, Library of Congress)

Christine Frederick (Library of Congress)

Stuart Chase (Library of Congress)

Other Library of Congress resources

“The Rise of Consumerism in the 1920s,” video lecture by Michael Flamm (Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History)

Emergence of Advertising in America, 1850-1920 (Duke Academy Libraries)

Main sources in History Matters (George Bricklayer University and the Urban center University of New York).

Florine Stettheimer, Cathedrals serial (Metropolitan Museum of Fine art)

Florine Stettheimer, overviews

Will Rogers, overviews

Robert Benchley, overviews

Jan Hornung, Seven Steps to Better Humor Writing, 2002 (Net Writing Journal)

H. Alexander Rich, “Rediscovering Florine Stettheimer (Over again): The Strange Presence and Absence of a New York Fine art World Mainstay,”
Woman’due south Art Journal,

32.2 (Autumn-Winter 2011), p. 22.

Stuart Chase, “Six-Cylinder Ethics,”
The Forum, January 1928.

– Florine Stettheimer,
The Cathedrals of Fifth Avenue, oil on sheet, 1931 (full image and three details). Gift of Ettie Stettheimer, 1953. 53.24.4. Paradigm: Art Resource, NY. Reproduced by permission of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
– Ad for QRS player pianos and rolls,
Collier’south, Oct xv, 1921. Digital image courtesy of Hathi Trust Digital Library.
– Leonard Dove, cartoon (“Hot Chestnuts”),
The New Yorker, Oct 26, 1929 (third frame of four-frame cartoon). Reproduced by permission of the
New Yorker.
– Gluyas Williams, illustration (client and store salesman) in Robert Benchley,
Dear Conquers All, essay collection, Harper & Bros., 1922; permission request in procedure.
– Advertizing for the Leonard Refrigerator,
Good Housekeeping, Feb 1926. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, in online collection Prosperity and Austerity: The Consumer Era and the Consumer Economy, 1921-1929.
– Ad for Keller Knitting Co.,
Men’s Wearable, 1921. Courtesy of the New York Public Library, Digital ID 828196.
– Ad for Dr. Eliot’s Five-Foot Shelf of Books (“Take It Complimentary”),
Collier’s, July ix, 1921. Digital image courtesy of Hathi Trust Digital Library.
– Advertizement for Underwood typewriters,
Collier’s, November 5, 1921. Digital paradigm courtesy of Hathi Trust Digital Library.
– Editors of
Life, Andy Consumer advertisements,
Life, July 9, 1925, and December 29, 1927. Current copyright holder of
content (1883-1936) unidentified; search in procedure. Digital images courtesy of ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

*PDF file – Yous will need software on your reckoner that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you practice non have this software, you lot may download information technology Costless from Adobe’s Web site.

How Did Consumers Weaken the Economy in the Late 1920s


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