Consumerism, Concoctions, Communication… Oh My!
Optimism is a difficult trait to obtain. It can be hard to find the strength to look at the glass half full, especially when living during one of the most depressing economic times. It was challenging to separate reality from fantasy, the optimistic being the only people to be able to handle reality. Furthermore, people’s needs and wants, the government’s methods, and business practices differ with different time periods. While these influence consumerism, in hand consumerism influences everyone nationwide. Consumerism influenced the 1930s by creating an escape, during a time of economic despair through advertising and entertainment, yet also demonstrating the harsh reality of the Great Depression.
In the beginning, consumerism is a “movement that promotes the interests of buyers of goods and services”, including how advertisements affects buyers and the health of the economy (Time-Life Books 1017). After the stock market crash of October 1929, the Great Depression era started, a time where the unemployed earned little money, while goods and services inflated, or rose. This meant that goods cost more, while the value of money decreased. Consequently, people got less per dollar, which “shifted the American economy from one of plenty to one of scarcity once again” (“Consumerism” Par. 1). At the beginning of the Great Depression the unemployment rate was “more than 30 percent”, making it more challenging for families and individuals to live, not knowing if they were economically stable (“Consumerism” Par. 1). People indulged in entertainment and rich lifestyle making it so “necessities in the 1920s became luxury in the 1930s”, nonetheless people consumed entertainment on a smaller scale (“Consumerism” Par. 2). Consumerism also means the practice of advertising. In the 1930s an ad stated “Romance comes to the girl who guards against cosmetic skin”, showing how producers used propaganda such as glittering generalizations (Stillman 282). Using a certain product does not guarantee romance, but this idea increases customer demand. In all, the 1930s took an unexpected turn for the worse.
In fact, the background of 1930s consumerism actually started in the late 1920s. Consumers’ clubs “attempted to educate consumers on how to make better purchasing decisions”, trying to make consumers understand the value of the dollar (“Consumerism” Par. 1). With little effect nationwide, once the Great Depression started, many consumers did not shop educated, plus they needed to escape the harsh the reality. Therefore, a main good “in the 1930s was entertainment”; people often spent money on reading and viewing materials (“Consumerism” Par. 3). When deciding how to spend, sacrificing few pennies “bought a ticket into a theater where people could watch newsreels, cartoons, a serial, teasers, and a feature” (“Consumerism” Par. 3). Also, in terms of advertising practices, agencies took advantage of the fact that “the most menacing threats to the national well-being were bad breath, unpleasant body odors, Pyorrhea, and poor complexions”, being a benefit to such companies (Stillman 283). This shows that advertisements benefited from people’s worries, while people tried to escape worries through entertainment.
In addition, at a time of economic despair everyone craved entertainment. Thus the “two classic American superheroes-superman and batman- who fight crime and injustice” were born, facing hardships parallel to the ones of the time, but with successful endings (“Consumerism” Par. 4). Also, “unlike the serious programming of the 1920s, Lewis explains, popular comedies like Amos ‘n’ Andy offered release” demonstrating that the comedy industry and overall entertainment through radio prospered (Gerdes 159). The common term “Soap Opera” also originated from the 1930s when “soap manufactures sponsored” dramas, an example of how advertising affects our lifestyle (“Consumerism” Par. 4). Also, radios were a household item because they connected people to knowledge about the world and the country’s policies, where “Franklin D. Roosevelt explained his administration’s policies and gained citizen support during his radio ‘fireside chats’” (Gerdes 159). Because radio programs and comic books were so main stream, many people were entertained yet informed about society, showing that in people’s escapes, reality shone through, but with a successful result.
Another significant factor of 1930s consumerism is the change in American diet, starting when Clarence Birdseye “observed the practices of the Native Inuit people, seeing the preservative effects of extremely cold temperatures” (“Who Made America” Par. 3). He discovered that when food was “frozen fast enough, its cellular structure was minimally affected, and its appearance, taste, and texture were not changed”(“Who Made America” Par. 3). The depression changed the diet of Americans when “lower food prices and an increasing number of women working outside the home shifted many eating habits to canned and processed food” (“The 1930s: Business and the Economy: overview” Par.3). The new frozen packaged processed foods “were test marketed in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1930”, being a successful product and has continued ever since (“Who mad America” Par. 4). “The food went to retailers in refrigerated box cars, and Birdseye leased retailers specially designed freezer display cases” in order to continue keeping frozen food frozen until consumed (“Who made America” Par. 4). Canned foods and frozen products “save space and operating expenses”, making this a continued and profitable business practice (“The 1930s: Business and the Economy: Overview” Par. 3). In terms of propaganda usage, a popular patriotic consumer method was popular once “Hearst Jr. used the front pages of his 27 daily newspapers to promote a buy American campaign in the 1930s” (Klein Par. 3). This is still relevant today, where people want to buy products manufactured or produced in America rather than foreign countries. “Buying American became so popular that president Hoover signed it into law as the Buy American Act of 1933”, showing how much interest in this idea arose from consumers, and more significantly that consumers shaped a part of the government (Klein Par. 3). So out of this time of hardship, society made changes that are still visible today.
During the 1930s, decisions were based off of the health of the economy. With inflation came over priced items with appliances such as an “electric washing machine [costing] 47.95 dollars”, being more expensive than an “8 MM Movie Camera, costing 29.50 dollars” (Time- Life 27). Because of these prices consumers had to choose how to make the most informed purchase possible. Also, “growing demands for domestic apparel and a 25 percent drop in imports” was a result of the Buy American campaign started by Hearst Jr. and his newspaper company, showing that consumers started to care how and where products were produced (Klein 3). Advertisements made it more patriotic sounding like one was less American if they did not buy more or exclusively American based products. Consumerism also impacted literal health. In 1938, legislation was passed increasing the “oversight power of the Food and Drug Administration” as well as the Federal Trade Commission, which watches over advertising clams and techniques (“Consumerism” Par. 5). This was in response to consumers expressing the value of consumer safety. This represents that government accurately reflected Americans when they wanted a change in how safe what they were buying was. However, people chose to believe in certain things such as in “vitamin D and in irradiated foods and face creams”, showing how consumerism often influences believes and opinions of individuals (“Big business Creed for its many loyal believers” Par. 4).
In conclusion, during the worst stock market crash in American history consumerism acted as a distraction from hardships, while also a reminder when making purchasing decisions. Consumerism practices differ with each decade. When the economy is prospering, consumerism is. When the economy is sinking, what happens to consumerism? No matter the decade, individuals are influenced by consumerism. At the same time, consumerism also influences individuals. So, crawl around the skin of a 1930s consumer and see how your purchases would be different. How would your character change?