Memo - Oct. 11 - National Markets, Local Cultures

With the exam on Thursday, we have only one regular class this week. In it, I want to turn our attention from a top-down perspective on how consumer society worked (i.e., advertisers looking down at the "suckers" from up on high) to a bottom-up perspective. What happens when we consider how consumers themselves, especially working-class consumers, experienced the new regime of rationalized marketing and consumption. The short story by O. Henry that we read several weeks ago introduced a few issues relevant here. The one reading for this week--a well-known article from 1989 by the historian Lizabeth Cohen--will introduce several more. As its title suggests, the article concerns the experience working-class Chicagoans in the consumer culture of the 1920s, especially in terms of chain stores, consumer credit, and the kinds of commodities that had the most meaning for them.

As you read, and afterwards, please think about:
  • How did the experience of these working-class consumers in Chicago differ from the middle-class consumers that most advertisements depicted? What consumption issues (what goods, what choices, what conveniences or servces) were most important to them? Why?
  • According to this article, how do consumers make their own meanings from the commodities they consume--meanings that might be very different from those intended by manufacturers and advertisers? How are these meanings related to where, how, and what consumers purchase?
  • How does this article challenge the idea of unified, homogenous mass markets?
  • How does it challenge the idea conveyed by the Bernays and Rorty readings that advertisers and manufacturers were nearly all-powerful in their abilities to manipulate consumers and transform their everyday behavior?