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Rise of Consumerism

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Rise of Consumerism

Today, we can order things from Amazon and have them at our doorstep the next day with the click of a button. In the late 19th century, such a process would be incomprehensible. However, during this time consumerism took hold in America and mail order catalogs--the Amazon of the Gilded Age--became all the rage.

Meaning of The Rise of Consumerism

Consumerism is an economic term referring to a culture of spending, or consumer culture. According to the theory of consumerism, spending helps boost the overall economy by creating new businesses and jobs.

Historically, the rise of consumerism did not occur simultaneously in countries across the world. Instead, consumerism developed as industrialization took hold in various places.

History of the Rise of American Consumerism

In America, the rise of consumerism occurred during the Gilded Age, lasting from the end of the Civil War to the turn of the 20th century. The Gilded Age was a period of immense wealth but also inequality. Leaders of industries, known as robber barons, were accumulating unprecedented wealth, while their workers struggled to make ends meet. But as industries expanded even further, a new class of professionals developed that would mark the rise of the middle class in America.

History of the Rise of American Consumerism: The Middle Class

The middle class had something the lower, working class did not have: a disposable income. Gone were the days of struggling to pay rent and purchasing the bare necessities. Middle-class families could afford to spend money on goods and services that they simply desired. And with industrialization came a host of cheaper, mass-produced goods for the middle class to consume, such as clothing and appliances.

With time, the middle class began to use the goods they could afford (e.g., dresses, furniture, fine China) as a status symbol. With the increase in trade and travel during the Gilded Age, the middle class could even buy products from around the world (which were of particular interest). This was a stark change from the days of local stores or making goods at home.

Leisure Time

Consumerism did not limit itself to physical goods. During the Gilded Age, the middle class had another thing the lower, working class did not: leisure time. They could afford to spend their money on new forms of entertainment, such as vaudeville shows and sporting events. It was during this time that baseball became America’s favorite pastime.

History of the Rise of American Consumerism: New Technology

Rise of Consumerism in America Phonograph StudySmarterPhonograph, Source: Wikimedia Commons.

During the Gilded Age, there was a host of new technology that helped push along industrialization, but there were also many innovations that became available to the average middle-class household, such as the telephone, the lightbulb, and the phonograph. Middle-class families could go to see the newest inventions at fairs and expositions, such as the infamous World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.

The serial killer, H.H. Holmes, was operating in Chicago during the World's Columbian Exposition and preyed on unsuspecting visitors staying at his hotel.

Effects of the Rise of Consumerism

The rise of consumerism led to the rise of consumer-oriented stores and processes in America.

Effects of the Rise of Consumerism: The Rise of the Department Store and Mail Order Catalogs

Before the Gilded Age, families bought local products from their local stores. With the rise of consumerism, department stores began to open up in urban areas where middle and upper-class families could shop for a wide variety of products. New construction techniques allowed these stores to be perfectly catered towards the consumer. For example, department stores had high ceilings and large windows for displaying their products.

Some of these stores might sound familiar today. For example, the department store, Macy’s, opened up in New York City during this time.

Chain stores and mail-order catalogs catered to those in rural areas who did not wish to travel into the cities. They were geared towards the average person, rather than the wealthy elite, and had cheaper prices than the small, locally owned stores. Products varied from farm supplies to toothpaste and sewing machines to bicycles. For a mail-order catalog like Sears, all a shopper had to do was call to place an order, and their product would arrive at their doorstep.

Rise of Consumerism Effects Sears Catalog StudySmarterA page in the Sears, Roebuck, and Company catalog, Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Effects of the Rise of Consumerism: The Rise of Advertising

The rise of consumerism also saw the rise of brand names and competition. Advertising became a major factor in attracting consumers and preserving brand loyalty. Promotions became popular and the phrase “new and improved” was everywhere. Small paragraphs in columns transitioned to full-page advertisements in newspapers and magazines. It was during this time that the first advertising agencies developed.

John Pemberton created Coca-Cola in 1886. Asa Griggs Candler bough the recipe and founded the Coca-Cola Company in 1892.

Rise of Consumerism Effects Advertisement StudySmarterAdvertisement for Chase's Liquid Glue, Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Effects of the Rise of Consumerism: The Rise of Buying on Credit

But what if a middle-class wife didn’t have enough money to buy an important status symbol upfront? Well, the seller certainly didn't want to lose her business. Instead of turning her away, they would offer the option of buying on credit. While credit cards wouldn’t become the norm until the mid-20th century, the basic process was the same. A consumer could obtain a certain product with the promise of paying it off in the future.

Women As Consumers

You might have noticed in the above example that the consumer was a middle-class wife. This is because women tended to do the household shopping. Relegated to the domestic sphere, their role was to run the household efficiently and keep up with the newest status symbols.

Rise of Consumerism - Key takeaways

  • The rise of consumerism, or a culture of spending, occurred as industrialization took hold in America during the Gilded Age.
  • As industries expanded, new professional jobs became available, leading to the rise of the middle class. This new middle-class could afford to spend money on desires rather than necessities.
  • For the middle class, goods such as clothing and fine China became status symbols. New technology such as telephones and light bulbs became widely available.
  • Middle-class families also had leisure time and the disposable income to spend on new forms of entertainment.
  • The rise of consumerism led to the rise of department stores, mail order catalogs, advertising, and buying on credit. Generally, middle-class women did the shopping for the household.

Frequently Asked Questions about Rise of Consumerism

The expansion of industry and the rise of the middle class led to the rise of consumerism. 

The rise of consumerism occurred during the Gilded Age, lasting from the end of the Civil War to the turn of the 20th century.

The rise of department stores, mail order catalogs, advertising, and buying on credit contributed to consumerism. 

The rise of consumerism affected American politics by giving immense power to industry leaders and big business.

Final Rise of Consumerism Quiz

Question

When did the rise of consumerism occur in the United States?

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Answer

The Gilded Age

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Question

What socioeconomic class contributed most to the rise of consumer culture?

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Answer

the middle class

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Question

Consumerism applies to goods, not services or forms of liesure. 

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Answer

False

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Question

What technology did not become available to the average middle-class family during the Gilded Age?

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Answer

the radio

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Question

What industrial process helped produce cheaper goods?

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Answer

mass production

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Question

Who did most of the shopping for the household?

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Answer

middle-class women

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Question

Which was not a new way consumers could purchase goods?

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Answer

department stores

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Question

Which was not a development in advertising during the Gilded Age.

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Answer

the rise of brand names and brand loyalty

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Question

How did buying on credit work?

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Answer

Consumers could "buy" products with the promise of paying it off in the future. 

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Question

Which new type of store carried a wide variety of products and catered to urban areas?

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Answer

department stores

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