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Rise of the Citizen Consumer
A paradox arose in the midst of the Great Depression of the 1930s. Hard times forced many Americans to struggle to find and keep work, to feed their families, and to hold on to their homes or pay their rent. Yet increasingly they were being viewed by policymakers—and were thinking of themselves—as consumers, as purchasers of goods in the marketplace. Even as many people were barely making ends meet in the thirties, two images of the consumer came to prevail and, in fact, competed for dominance. On the one hand, what I will call citizen consumers were regarded as responsible for safeguarding the general good of the nation, in particular for prodding government to protect the rights, safety, and fair treatment of individual consumers in the private marketplace. On the other hand, purchaser consumers were viewed as contributing to the larger society more by exercising purchasing power than through asserting themselves politically.
Consider these two contrasting depictions of the consumer from the 1930s. When in 1933, Congress passed the National Industrial Recovery Act, it authorized this keystone program of the first New Deal to include representatives of the “consuming public” alongside business and labor. In practice this meant that the National Recovery Administration (NRA) made consumers members of some code authorities as well as established a Consumer Advisory Board (CAB), which, despite a constant struggle to get equitable recognition from NRA officials, gave consumers a legitimate voice in the federal government's efforts to foster recovery. After angry consumer advocates descended upon Washington to complain about the inadequacy of the CAB, a Consumers' Counsel was added as well.
The comments of one of CAB's members, the prominent Columbia University sociologist Robert S. Lynd, document well the citizen consumer perspective that prevailed among New Dealers at the time. Again and again Lynd articulated the importance of empowering consumers-whom he labeled "forgotten men"—to a viable democracy. The consumer “stands there alone—a man barehanded, against the accumulated momentum of 43,000,000 horse power and their army of salesmen, advertising men, and other jockeys. He knows he buys wastefully . . . that his desires and insecurities are exploited continually, that even his Government withholds from him vitally important information by which both it and industry save millions of dollars annually.” As a remedy, Lynd and other New Dealers repeatedly called for permanent representation of the consumer point of view in government, most fully through the creation of a federal consumer agency to complement those already devoted to commerce, agriculture, and labor. They also sought protections for consumers against exploitation by business or government, such as requiring quality and labeling standards for all products. Nothing less than the viability of American democracy was at stake, Lynd insisted. “The only way that democracy can survive . . . is through the quality of living it can help the rank-and-file of its citizens to achieve,” not simply an adequate standard of living.
The competing vision of Americans as purchaser consumers came through powerfully in a twenty-six-minute public relations film that the Chevrolet Motor Company produced in 1937, entitled From Dawn to Sunset. Released only months after General Motors, Chevrolet's parent company, signed an historic union contract with the United Auto Workers (UAW), it depicted employees in twelve plant cities serving the corporation and the nation more as purchasers of goods, including but by no means limited to cars, than as workers in factories. The film followed the typical day of an “army of interdependent automotive workers and salaried personnel” in these twelve cities, showing repeated scenes of workers receiving pay packets and then, often accompanied by wives and children, spending them in downtown stores on everything from new living-room furniture to children's bicycles and stylish clothing. To triumphal music, the narrator proclaimed that “tens of thousands of men on one single payroll have money for themselves and their families to spend,” making possible “the pleasure of buying, the spreading of money, and the enjoyment of all the things that paychecks can buy.”
Chevrolet obviously had a vested interest in depicting new UAW members as well-paid and job-secure customers rather than as tenacious rank-and-file unionists. But much more was at stake. That Chevrolet sought to improve its public image by boasting that “the purchasing power of pay packets fuels the local economies of twelve plant cities” revealed the company's confidence in consumers as the savior of the nation's economy. Because “America has a ready purse and gives eager acceptance to what the men of motors have built,” the United States will enjoy “a prosperity greater than history has ever known,” the film proclaimed. It was the buying power of consumers in the aggregate, not the protection of individual consumers in the marketplace, that manufacturers like General Motors, along with a growing number of economists and government officials by the late 1930s, thought would bring the United States out of depression and ensure its survival as a democratic nation.
Why in the thirties did a wide range of Americans, from ordinary citizens to policymakers, begin to recognize that consumer interests and behavior had profound economic and political consequences for the nation? And what did it mean that they endorsed two very different prescriptions—the citizen consumer and the purchaser consumer—for the proper role of consumers? Answering these questions matters not only for understanding the 1930s, but the decades that followed as well. The new expectations that Americans developed during the Great Depression for how consumers should contribute to a healthy economy and polity would leave a legacy for World War II and the postwar era.
Discovering the Consumer Interest
The 1930s, of course, were not the first time that Americans took note of the importance of consumption and consumers. Almost from its initial European settlement, America participated in an economy of commercial exchange, and gradually over the centuries a market revolution increased the amount of goods that Americans purchased rather than made at home (or did without). Not only did people consume more ready-made products as time passed, but the accumulation of luxury goods-at first, imported china and textiles, later fineries manufactured domestically-marked distinctions among Americans, such as between urban and rural dwellers and among social classes. Moreover, at crucial moments of political conflict, Americans exercised their clout as consumers, withdrawing their purchasing power to put economic pressure on their opponents. On the eve of the American Revolution of the late eighteenth century, colonists shirked imported British tea and fabrics. Likewise, nineteenth-century workers organized boycotts of their employers' goods as part of their campaigns for shorter hours, higher wages, and better working conditions. But despite the longstanding significance of consumption in their lives, when Americans before the twentieth century contemplated what made for the most robust national economy, the most stable American polity, and the most independent citizenry, they overwhelmingly pointed to the vitality of production and the power of producers.
The Progressive Era of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries marked a significant shift toward recognizing the centrality of consumers to the nation's economy and polity, so much so that I will refer to it as the “first-wave consumer movement.” Aspects of the Progressive program could qualify as proto-citizen consumer, anticipating as they did concerns and responses that would emerge more fully in the “second-wave consumer movement” of the 1930s and 1940s. The Progressives identified consumers as a new category of the American citizenry, an ideal broad-based constituency desirous and deserving of political and social reforms to limit the dangers of an industrializing, urbanizing, and politically corruptible twentieth-century America. Because all men and women were thought to suffer as consumers from unfairly jacked-up prices, defective manufactured goods, and unresponsive if not deceitful politicians, reform was easily pursued in their name. Progressives sought more direct democracy-primaries, initiatives, referenda, recalls, and female suffrage-as well as specific remedies to protect consumers and taxpayers from exploitation, such as municipal and consumer ownership of utilities and fairer tax policies. The Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act (1906), although weak, were passed to set some minimum standards for the safety and quality of goods increasingly being produced for national markets. And Progressives promoted anti-trust legislation, culminating in the Federal Trade Commission Act (FTC, 1914), to protect against monopolies that violated an idealized America where consumers were best served by local, independent, and competitive businesses.
Consumers at the grass roots complemented Progressive reformers' efforts by asserting their power in the marketplace. Housewives in some local communities successfully boycotted merchants to bring down prices when they climbed too high. Particularly well documented are the protests of New York's immigrant Jewish housewives in kosher meat boycotts in 1902, rent strikes in 1904 and 1907-08, and cost-of-living protests in 1917.
Likewise, organized workers who long had rejected wage labor as slavery depriving workers of their freedom as citizen producers now accepted the reality of industrialized labor and began to agitate for “a living wage” adequate to provide an “American standard of living” for working-class consumers. A fair shake at consumption-achievable through the eight-hour day, government-regulated minimum wages, and union labels-seemed to promise workers both a better quality of life and full rights as citizens. In the tradition of their nineteenth-century antecedents, workers also expanded their use of consumer boycotts to punish uncooperative employers, as during the Seattle labor movement's impressive organizing drive after World War I.
Most visible nationally were the efforts of middle-class women's reform organizations, such as the National Consumers' League (NCL) and its state chapters, to convince female consumers to practice “ethical consumption,” selective buying to pressure employers and the state to improve wages and working conditions for employed women and children. Through its symbolic “Consumers' White Label” campaign, for example, the league urged consumers to purchase only white muslin underwear bearing a label testifying to its manufacture under morally acceptable and sanitary conditions, both to protect their own families from injurious goods and to lobby for protective labor legislation, child labor laws, and improvements in retail and factory work environments. The NCL viewed consumer organization instrumentally as a strategy to better the working conditions of producers; only tangentially did it concern itself with the exploitation of the consumer.
During the 1920s mass consumption-the production, distribution, and purchase of standardized, brand-name goods aimed at the broadest possible buying public-grew more prevalent. By the end of the decade, most Americans, regardless of how much money they had to spend, recognized the growing dominance of mass consumption in the nation's purchasing. Not all Americans participated equally in mass consumer markets; many more lacked a car, washing machine, vacuum cleaner, and radio in 1930 than had one. Yet the expansion of a middle class with more time and money to spend, the extension of consumer credit and installment buying, and the burgeoning of advertising ensured that more and more Americans would consider themselves mass consumers by the 1930s.
At the same time that mass consumption boomed in the 1920s, however, governments only acted minimally to protect consumers from the growing dangers of substandard and sometimes dangerous products, unfair pricing, and misleading advertising. Manufacturers, distributors, and advertisers essentially enjoyed free rein in the increasingly national mass marketplace. During this business-dominated decade, consumers' political consciousness was not high. Much of the fervor had gone out of Progressive Era reform movements. But so long as exciting new products like automobiles, radios, and household appliances kept coming on the market, and affluence seemed to be growing-at least for the middle and upper classes who could afford these consumer durables-few challenged the status quo by calling for stronger regulation. General acceptance of a doctrine of “voluntary compliance” even weakened the authority of the existing regulatory agencies established during the Progressive Era, the FTC and the Federal Drug Administration (FDA). Rather, those in power in a Republican-dominated Washington argued that the consumers' and manufacturers' joint interests were best served by allowing business to pursue unfettered technological innovations and economic efficiencies. The free market would do the rest to deliver to consumers the best-quality goods at the cheapest prices.
As most Americans concentrated on getting ever greater access to the fruits of mass consumption, some persistent Consumers' Leaguers and unionists still sought to enlist consumers in the battle to improve the conditions under which these goods were made. But few Americans during these years considered consumers a self-conscious, identifiable interest group on a par with labor and business whose well-being required attention for American capitalism and democracy to prosper. That shift in mind-set would await the economic collapse of the Great Depression and the second-wave consumer movement it inspired.
The depression and the Democratic administration's eclectic efforts to overcome it, collectively known as the New Deal, remade the American political economy. A national welfare state emerged, industrial relations were restructured around state-sanctioned collective bargaining, and the federal government assumed a more active role in the economy. Less often mentioned but equally noteworthy was a growing recognition by those in and out of government of the importance of considering the consumer interest in reconstructing a viable economy and polity. By the end of the depression decade, invoking “the consumer” would become an acceptable way of promoting the public good, of defending the economic rights and needs of ordinary citizens.
Economist John Kenneth Galbraith argued in his American Capitalism of 1952, and historian Ellis Hawley elaborated a decade later, that a lasting impact of the New Deal lay in the way it implemented the concept of “countervailing power” or “counterorganization.” By this Galbraith and Hawley meant the New Deal government's efforts to organize economically weak groups to balance more powerful interests. This approach to restoring the economic equilibrium upset by the Great Depression avoided more direct confrontation with existing bastions of power such as big business.
Well known is the New Deal's “counterorganization” of farmers, laborers, and small businessmen. Less appreciated is its growing attentiveness to consumers as a way of institutionalizing, and protecting, the public interest. As the federal government vastly expanded in authority, it became imperative politically that the general good somehow be represented. Making “consumers” a residual category and empowering them to speak for the public became a way of mitigating the excessive power of other political blocs, including the state itself. Attending to the consumer also conformed to another prevailing tendency of the New Deal, the commitment to resuscitate a severely damaged economy without jettisoning the basic tenets of capitalism. Empowering the consumer seemed to many New Dealers a way of enhancing the public's stake in society and the economy while still preserving the free enterprise system.