The Creation of the American mass market and consumer culture

Essay, 2004

5 Pages, Grade: 1,0


The Creation of the American mass market and consumer culture

Robert A. Gross begins his article Markets, Magazines, and More with reference to a quote from Ellen Gruber Garvey’s book The Adman in the Parlor: Magazines and the Gendering of Consumer Culture which summarizes quite well the essential reason behind many developments that led to the creation of an American mass market. “Why…do men make magazines? To sell ad. space in them. What’s a magazine? So many pages of ad. space.”[1] According to Gross magazines were not so much about content as they were about the advertisements in them. Of course, magazines had to be sold in order for people to read the ads, but the content of the magazine was not designed to improve the reader’s life but to get him interested in the product and eventually make him buy it.

Many scholars such as William Leach see this development in the American media landscape from a purely informational and even missionary character to a consumption and marketing based arena as a major move away from the traditional values of media outlets such as the newspaper and others. Leach evaluates this change in his book The Land of Desire where he takes a close look at the changes within the American culture and market. He argues that in the decades after the Civil War “American capitalism began to produce a distinct culture, unconnected to traditional family or community values, to religion in any conventional sense, or to political democracy. It was a secular business and market-oriented culture […].”[2] He traces this change from the time of the Protestant settlers and early American community life, where the ultimate fulfilment was salvation, spiritual blessings for all and an end to poverty, to the 1900s, where those religious ideals were increasingly transformed and commercialized into personal satisfaction and individual pleasures and profit.

With the appearance of “new pleasure palaces” such as department stores, theaters, restaurants, hotels, dance halls, and amusement parks Americans experienced the joy of personal satisfaction. Whereas in the past, Leach writes, “values had taken their character from … the church; now they were deriving it from business and consumption.”[3] This democratization of individual desire of the post Civil War culture is probably one of the “most notable contributions to modern society”[4] according to Leach. Book reviewer Lizabeth Cohen characterizes the experience of mass consumption in the later years of the twentieth century as an “overriding cultural experience, much the way religion must have been in the seventeenth century, revolution in the late eighteenth century, and industrialization a century ago.”[5] There seems to be a consensus among scholars concerning the importance of the rise of mass markets and consumer attitudes for the contemporary American culture and society. Differences arise when the origins of consumer culture are discussed. Did the American public suddenly feel the need to buy more and enjoy themselves whenever they could or were they forced into the role of the consumer by the producers and publishers of mass products?

William Leach identifies three key reasons why and how the “culture of consumer capitalism” emerged: “the development of a new commercial aesthetic, the collaboration among economic and noneconomic institutions, and the growth of a new class of brokers.”[6] Leach argues that it was very important that the American businesses created and offered a vision for a good life, an alternative paradise on earth to the one in heaven. With the help of new advertising techniques such as images, signs, symbols and the breakthroughs in technology, which made advertisements even at night possible with electric, glowing and colored signs, producers projected their new products right into the conscience of the average American citizen. The key was to create a vision which was affordable for the average citizen so that they felt it is worth trying to reach that new standard of living and at the same time make the vision look desirable and rewarding so that people realized the urging need to improve their lives with the products being offered.


[1] Robert A. Gross: Markets, Magazines, and Mores: Periodicals and Print Culture. In The Book (Newsletter of the Program in the History of the Book in American Culture), 41 (March 1997). American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Mass. p. 1.

[2] William Leach: Land of Desire . New York: Pantheon, 1993. p. 3.

[3] Ibid.: p. 8.

[4] Ibid.: p. 7.

[5] Lizabeth Cohen: The Mass in Mass Consumption. In Reviews in American History 18 (1990). John Hopkins University Press. p. 548.

[6] Leach: Land of Desire . p. 9.

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The Creation of the American mass market and consumer culture
Indiana University  (School of Journalism)
Journalism J650
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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385 KB
Creation, American, Journalism, J650
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Michael Schmid (Author), 2004, The Creation of the American mass market and consumer culture, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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