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Book Review for An All-Consuming Century: Why Commercialism Won in Modern America

Joshua Manning
Dr. Price
Hist 416
March 31, 2003

Cross, Gary. An All-Consuming Century: Why Commercialism Won in Modern America. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.

An All-Consuming Century: Why Commercialism Won in Modern America by Gary Cross is a survey written about the consumer culture and its place in twentieth-century America. This paper will attempt to discuss this book while answering several questions in an organized manner. It will discuss the organization of the book, and will then give a summary of each of the main chapters. It will then discuss the author's stated thesis and show whether or not he stuck to his thesis or strayed from it by discussing the book's strengths and weaknesses.

The book is divided into seven chapters, each dealing with a different aspect of this consuming century. These seven chapters are further divided into two pairs of chapters with introductory, transitional, and concluding chapters. The first chapter, "The Irony of the Century," is the introductory chapter. It states the main thesis of the book as well as explains the book layout and the author's purpose for writing this work. The next two chapters, "Setting the Course, 1900-1930" and "Promises of More, 1930-1960," show the emergence of the consumer society and how it was distinct from the years before it. It shows how consumerism was actually strengthened by the troubled economy of the 1930s and 1940s, and shows its success and popularity during the 1950s. The author says that "[i]t was during these years that Americans encountered a dramatic new world of clothing, cosmetics, candy bars, and cars," and that, "[t]hese goods gave people ways of identifying themselves in groups when the old associations of family and neighborhood no longer worked" (14). Cross designed these two chapters to be positive in tone to explain how and why the consumer society rose to the top of the ideological gene-pool while slaying its competition. The fourth chapter, "Coping with Abundance," is the transitional chapter. It discusses the criticism leveled at consumerism. It goes into several arguments and accusations aimed at commercialism, yet shows that these critics failed in their attempts to abolish the market system by providing no real working alternative to it. The next two chapters, "A New Consumerism, 1960-1980" and "Markets Triumphant, 1980-2000," are more negative in tone than the proceeding chapters. They deal with what the author calls the "rise and ultimate fall of movements to rationalize and constrain consumption" (15). They look first at the challenges to consumerism during the 1960s and 1970s. They look at the conservative movement of the last twenty years of the century and its affect on consumerism. The last chapter, "An Ambiguous Legacy," concludes the book. In this last chapter, the author challenges the reader, while respecting where consumerism has brought America to and what it has brought her from, to not be satisfied with where we are at and what we are, but to push for a culture of constraint and implement more morals into our lives and society.

In chapter two, "Setting the Course, 1900-1930," Cross shows the emergence of commercialism as the driving force in American culture. He tells us that spending on items that were not considered necessary, such as those of housing, clothing, and food, increased from 20 percent to almost 35 percent during the period of time from 1900-1930. He calls this discretionary spending. He says, "The surge in free time, personal income, and new products made possible a new consumer society" (18). He shows us how Americans began to leave their jobs on the farm and take industrial and service related jobs. They made more money in these fields, though, as Cross explains, their autonomy was lost. He discusses how workers did not mind loosing this autonomy at work as long as they were able to spend their money on things which made them feel good. He says that skilled workers made a salary which gave them the same lifestyle as the high class white-collar workers. He shows how, through the purchase of cars, radios, and movie tickets, Americans gained a symbolic entry into a world most of them had only fantasized about. Many of these goods were mass-produced, for example Henry Ford's Model T. Through their inexpensiveness and availability, the common American could supposedly lead the same life as the Robber-Baron.

In chapter two, "Promises of More, 1930-1960," Cross follows consumerism through both the Great Depression and World War II. He tells us that during the Great Depression unemployment rose from 1.5 million individuals in 1929 to 12.8 million in 1933. Not only that, but the per capita income fell from $681 to $495 in that same period. Despite this, however, Cross claims that Americans did not change much of their spending habits. He claims that they were "unwilling to abandon the 'luxuries' of the 1920s" (69). He says that people continued to smoke cigarettes (sales only dropped 6 percent), drive their Model Ts (gasoline sales rose 16 percent), and continued to go on auto-vacations (thirty-five million in the summer of 1935 alone). He says that many Americans also bought electrical appliances, such as refrigerators and radios. He credits this to the nature of the depression and to the welfare system. He says, "Because prices often declined further than did hourly wages, those with steady, full-time jobs could get bargains. More important still, because of support from family members and a bare-bones welfare system, few of the jobless experienced health-threatening misery. Instead, unemployment meant social and psychological deprivation" (71). He says it was humiliation rather than anything else. Though people were buying these products, he shows that they were still being thrifty by giving up on small mom and pop stores and beginning to shop at wholesale discount stores. He says, "[P]rice, not service, quality, or status, became the key in American consumerism" (76). He explains that the depression, and the war that followed, may have to an extent suppressed the buying habits of Americans, but only for a short time. He says that this suppression and frugality caused Americans to desire their old way of life even more than they once had, and that "the postwar era unleashed these deferred desires in extraordinary and even extravagant ways" (109). He then shows the boom in American spending in the postwar era. He says personal spending was 20 percent higher in 1946 than it was in 1945. Housing prices had doubled in the 1940s and cars became much more expensive with the development of high-compression engines. In the 1950s, many two car families emerged. Many people also began to buy televisions as they became available. In all, this thirty year period contained both frugality and splurging, usually by the same people. Cross says that consumerism thrived in this time period because "it combined aspiration and restraint" (109). He says this balance between fulfilling one's needs with the constraint of not fulfilling all one's wants was what made this system strong.

In chapter three, "A New Consumerism, 1960-1980s," Cross looks at three main challenges to the consumer society. They were the consumer rights movement, the environmental movement, and the countercultural movement. The consumer rights movement stressed that the freedom to buy was not the only right consumers had, but that Americans should have corners of their lives, such as childhood or dinner time, that should be free from advertisements and other pressures to spend. The environmental movement asked Americans to consider the effect their purchases such as cars and suburban lawns had on the environment before buying or using them. The countercultural movement challenged Americans not to conform to the consumer society and "keep up with the Joneses." Although these challenges did not go unnoticed, by the 1980s the American public was tired of hearing them. They began to simply ignore the consumer rights and environmental challenge and laugh at the irony of the countercultural movement that splurged on music, drugs, and "Afro-Sheen" shampoo.

Chapter six, "Markets Triumphant, 1980-2000," claims that Ronald Reagan and the New Right destroyed all the barriers to the consumer society. Cross says that though the Right claimed to see "the need to preserve family from the panderers of pleasure," their hands-off small government approach caused them to "[deny] the collective rights of consumers and [tear] down the walls that held back the market from seeping into every corner of the American psyche and society" (193). Cross eludes that the public officials appointed by Reagan to regulate the environment, mass media, and advertising were a step back compared to the progressive challengers from the previous two decades. He believes that the philosophy used by the Reagan administration - a philosophy which allowed businesses and people to make their own choices while trusting them to be responsible - opened the door for commercialism to create a children's market and invade every aspect of the home while destroying the environment.

In all, the book is quite helpful to students of the twentieth century by showing them what was happening during this period in a non-textbook formatted, almost discussion-like way. It is a good reinforcement by not just showing facts and policies, but by putting a psychological spin on the everyday lives of Americans. The sources used were excellent and plenty of evidence was used to back up the authors main points. It definitely makes for an enjoyable educational experience.