World War I disillusioned the American people; it broke their sense of quintessential, idyllic American safety that the prior policy of isolationism. During the war, manufacturing advanced not just for warfare purposes, but also technology that could be adapted after the war for consumer goods. As horrible as the war was, it did lead to a new globalization of the market, American products could be bought and sold all over the world, and vice versa. The birth of modern advertising and technology set the stage for capitalism and consumerism that stained the 1920s. New technological advances allowed for electric appliances, a radio in every home, and affordable cars for most families.
To understand why American became such a consumerist nation is based upon a chain of events that beings some 50 years prior to the end of the First World War. The American Industrial Revolution led to a plethora of advances within the realm of manufacturing, and the advances that occurred during such allowed for the success of the United States during the war. To clarify the correlation, the Industrial Revolution put in place the manufacturing and infrastructure that allowed for easy and economical production of goods. Once the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, this infrastructure was quickly converted to the creation of war materials. Interestingly, some items still being consumed today were invented as a result of the war effort. “But it was Gideon Sundback, a Swedish-born emigrant to the US who mastered it…The US military incorporated them into uniforms and boots, particularly the Navy. After the war, civilians followed suit.” Once the war ended, the manufacturing industry could return to consumer goods that would characterize the new consumerism.
Manufacturing infrastructure wasn’t the only technology in place from the war that allowed for the conversion to consumerism post-war. Wireless radios were developed for the war effort, a way for different military divisions to communicate, as well as allies on each side of the conflict. When the war was over, all of the radio-related infrastructure remained in place, but with no use during peacetime. Within a few years, however, there was a radio in almost every single American home. At first, the radio was used for primarily for news broadcasts, but it soon became a medium for entertainment as well as advertising. “Radio changed the way people thought and bought. As radios became increasingly elaborate and expensive, consumers often had to buy their sets on credit. For rural Americans, the radio provided a vital link to the broader civic and cultural life of the nation that justified the purchase.” The buying of radios on credit led to the exposure of American people to the malicious advertisements of the time. In return, this led to more purchases on credit which fueled the consumerism of the era (and later, the Great Depression). In many ways, radio was the impetus was for the advertising boom of the time.
After World War I, advertising changed from the straightforward summary of what a product does, into a persuasive propaganda that employed psychology, peer pressure, and other morally ambiguous methods to convince people to purchase said products. “’Ad men’ of the 1920s perfected methods that drew on insights from psychology and anthropology to shift Americans away from traditional values of thrift toward borrowing and spending on nonessential personal items.” This shift in advertising is one of, if not the most important factors that led to the consumerism of the time, as people began focusing more material wealth and creature comforts. This kind of advertisements, much like today, prayed on people’s insecurities in order to make profit. For example, certain ads took advantage of women wanting to be skinny and men wanting to be more muscular. An advertisement for ‘The one and only TITUS’ from New York City promises to increase ones muscles by inches, in only a month. Obviously this ad plays on both a man’s insecurity of being too small and not muscular enough, as well as making a completely ridiculous claim to add inches of muscle in such a short amount of time, a claim that isn’t even possible with modern performance enhancing drugs.
Finally, the consumerist era was characterized by the fact that, for the first time in America, almost everybody had a car, as they had become increasingly affordable and accessible. As with radio, manufacturing infrastructure already existed in America prior to the war, but afterwards it could be used to build automobiles. Additionally, as with advertising, the automobile industry was slanted in such a manner that disadvantaged the consumers, as was the theme of the period. “Sloan’s [chairman of GM] notion of ‘planned obsolescence’ boosted sales, luring consumers into purchasing new cars before their old ones wore out. GM also increased sales by offering installment purchasing and promoting the idea of a product ladder with different grades of cars pegged to different incomes. By 1927, two-thirds of car buyers used the installment plan, as they sometimes spent above their means to participate in the car craze.” Not only did the General Motors plan take advantage of the American people by manipulating the mood of the consumer time for the sake of profits; as well as the encouragement of buying on credit, which will subsequently lead to problems down the road (pun intended).
America’s ‘Age of Consumerism’ was allowed to happen because of the events leading up to it. Beginning with the industrial revolution, Americans built the infrastructure that allowed for advanced manufacturing. Following this, the manufacturing allowed for all of the facilities to be dedicated to the war effort and weapons development. Upon the conclusion of the war, the manufacturing abilities of America to produce consumer goods; as well as utilize new inventions that were a result of World War I. The assembly lines and factories weren’t the only significant remains of the Industrial Revolution and WWI that had an impact on the Consumerism. During the conflict, wireless radio was used to communicate between different groups and allies from a long difference. After the Treaty of Versailles, the radio infrastructure was still in place, with no immediate use. Soon after, however, the radio was used for news broadcasts. Another year after that, radios filled the homes of most Americans, and so did the entertainment and advertisements that came with it. These advertisements became manipulative in a new way during this time period, often taking advantage of peoples’ insecurities or the trends of the time to turn a profit. Not only this, but various industries encouraged consumers to buy things on credit which led to the Great Depression. Surprise!