The Wave of New Consumerism in America Post WWI

By Patrick N. Allitt, Emory University

The American society witnessed extraordinary changes post the First World War. The 1920s became synonymous with new consumerism and the rise of new youth culture. The American government was steadily shrinking while the talkies and jazz were shaping the American culture. Were the economics, the politics, and the cultural fabric of the American society interconnected?

A beach official measuring the hemline of a woman's bathing suit.
Women wearing short dresses alarmed the traditionalists in the 1920s. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

America’s Government

In 1920s Mussolini was making Italy one of the first totalitarian states. It was also the time
of the Russian Revolution, where the state became all-powerful.

While these developments were going on in the world, the size of the federal government steadily declined. President Harding and his successor, Calvin Coolidge, had extremely modest ideas about the government. Coolidge said, “Government’s greatest duty and opportunity is not to embark on any new ventures.”

The leaders had the opportunity to enlarge the scope of the federal government, and yet they didn’t do so. They wanted it to have a minimal impact on ordinary citizens’ life. However, the lives of the American citizens underwent a drastic change.

This is a transcript from the video series A History of the United States, 2nd EditionWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Consumerism: The Child of the Roaring Economy

The 1920s was a period of sustained economic growth and rising real wages. This was the first decade in which many Americans could buy consumer durable goods. They began to internalize the idea that every few years a nice, new gadget was going to come along, which in one way or another, was going to make life a little bit easier.

Henry Ford with Model T, 1921 Car
Americans began to internalize the idea that every few years a nice, new gadget was going to come along, which in one way or another, was going to make life a little bit easier. (Image: New York/Public domain)

More and more women were enjoying the ownership of vacuum cleaners, the first washing machines were being made, all of which had a great labor-saving effect. Per capita income in America was $522 in 1921, and by 1928 it had risen to $716. This was vastly higher than in any other country in the world.

Criticism of the New Consumerism

There were people who said that the consumer way of life had costs. Some people speculated that it might actually be robbing Americans of their real individuality. As people became the consumers of standardized goods, and as they were swayed by advertising, they were simply becoming pawns of the corporations who were producing these goods.

This criticism of the new consumerism was reflected in Sinclair Lewis’s novel, Babbitt. It’s a description of a midwestern businessman named George Babbitt, who lives in a town called Zenith. He’s a property speculator in the town. The book shows how George Babbitt becomes a consumer without a backbone of his own.

Popular Culture

Hollywood movies were at a high level of technical accomplishment by the 1920s, particularly the “silents”. The first generation of great stars was being very creatively marketed and popularized in this period. Rapid technological improvements inside the medium paved way for the talkies, which more or less completely displaced the silents by the early 1930s. It happened because the opportunity for expression in talkies was higher than the silents.

The influence of jazz music in the society was causing alarm amongst the traditionalists. Jazz had started very much as an African American medium, and a very, very lower-class one as well. Musicians like Louis Armstrong had begun playing in seedy nightclubs and brothels in New Orleans, Memphis, and St. Louis. Therefore, the spread of jazz into the white middle-class society was regarded by some censorious people as very shocking.

The white bandleaders who loved jazz and wanted to play thought it was great, though. Composers like Gershwin actually incorporated jazz themes into symphonic music, and one of the most popular of the bandleaders of the 1920s renamed himself Paul Whiteman.

The Permissiveness of the New Youth Culture

The permissiveness was symbolized by women who cut their hair short. It was called “bobbing” their hair. Rather than growing it long and having it braided, women were cutting their hair short. It was an instant way of making a sort of social and political statement.

Women wearing short dresses, knee-length dresses was another way of shocking old conventions. Women openly challenged the tradition by smoking in public, the more daring ones even drinking illegal liquor in public and discussing Freud. He had become popular in America at this time.

The idea that repressive sexuality had created the dissatisfactions of a civilization was seen as an open scorn for Puritanism and repression. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby gave us a lovely picture of this new generation of men and women interacting in these new social circumstances.

Votes for Women

During the First World War as millions of men went into the military, the labor demands brought two new groups into the workforce—a large number of white women and also a large number of African Americans (men and women). It was largely because of the great work they’d done in the industrial workforce that women were rewarded in the Nineteenth Amendment with the vote, which came in at just about the same time as Prohibition.

Carrie Chapman Catt, one of the important figures in bringing about votes for women, was shocked by the way the women were adopting the new permissive social way of life. In general, the suffrage leaders had a rather puritanical approach to social life. The ex-suffragists were also very disappointed to find that votes for women didn’t seem to be making much difference.

Some of them had anticipated that there was going to be a women’s political party. It didn’t happen. The election of 1920 was the first general election in which women voted. The total number of votes cast was much higher than ever before. The women had voted in large numbers in 1920. It wasn’t at all clear that women having the votes would change the shape of political life.

Common Questions about New Consumerism in the American Society

Q: Which gadgets had a great labor-saving effect in the 1920s?

Vacuum cleaners and washing machines had a great labor-saving effect in the 1920s.

Q: What was the criticism of consumerism?

Some people speculated that consumerism was robbing Americans of their real individuality. They had become pawns in the hands of the organizations that were producing consumer goods.

Q: What was termed as “bobbing” in the 1920s?

The new hairstyle of women, of cutting their hair short, was termed as “bobbing” in the 1920s.

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