Why Americans buy so much stuff: A short history

Originally published on December 1, 2021 9:01 am

Updated December 1, 2021 at 9:01 AM ET

Cyber Monday and Black Friday are behind us for the year, but the holiday shopping season isn't over just yet. It's always been a time when Americans buy more, but nearly two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, and Americans are spending way more — outsize amounts of money on things.

But why do Americans buy so much stuff and how did we become champion consumers? Lizabeth Cohen is an American history professor at Harvard and the author of A Consumer's Republic: The Politics Of Mass Consumption In Postwar America.

Cohen says since World War II, the U.S. government has presented consumerism as a way out of crisis or decline.

"Consuming has been a way of demonstrating that the economy and the society are continuing to be vital and viable," Cohen says. "This is a real dilemma, I would say, today, where 70% of GDP is dependent on consumption ... which really does lead to a great dilemma around our growing awareness of environmental degradation that comes with these high level of private consumption."

Cohen spoke with NPR's All Things Considered about how the end of World War II ushered in an era of mass consumerism, the role of the government in that push and whether Americans might ever buy less.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Interview Highlights

On when the change in spending habits shifted in America and what prompted it

It really happens during the 1930s that there is a recognition that the way to get us out of the Depression most effectively would be to prime the pump, to actually put money in people's pockets. And, of course, the war comes. And most historians agree that it was the war that got us out of the Great Depression. People are earning money, but they can't spend it in the ways that they might have because of the price controls of World War II. And so during the war itself, there is a consensus that emerges that the solution to the postwar economy would be to create an economy that is based on mass consumption. So prosperity will be achieved through people purchasing lots of goods.

On the role of the government in the economic shift

It's the government. And it's also manufacturers and corporations who'd been making munitions and airplanes and tanks who are thinking about what are we going to be doing when peace time comes. And so even during the war, you start to see advertising that promises people that when victory comes, you will have a home equipped with full appliances. And so that appetite gets fed.

On how the culture of consumption changed from saving to spending

The nature of that culture around consumption does change over the postwar period. It starts off as a promotion of mass consumption, mass marketing. We're just going to get lots of people to buy the same things. By the late 1950s, however, retailers, manufacturers, advertisers come to recognize that, despite the planned obsolescence that's built into that which encourages people to buy new things because the old things are out of fashion or they're going to break down — that there would be a market saturation. There's a limit to what people are going to buy. And so what happens is that the market shifts to market segmentation and a targeting of goods to very specific segments of the market.

On if we'll ever buy less and the inequality in American consumerism

Well, that is a huge dilemma. I think that many people would like to imagine a United States that is less materialistic and less consumed with consuming. And yet we have the problem of, what will fuel this economy? But we also should remember that not everybody can consume equally, that there's a lot of inequality that has been built into this what I call the consumers' republic, where there's a promise that democracy and equality will be delivered through mass consumption. We know that in the real estate market, for example, that homeownership, which is often the most prized consumer item, is not available to everybody. So, you know, there's a lot of imperfection in the consumer's republic, and yet we're kind of tied to it.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

It is Cyber Monday, the online equivalent of Black Friday, the day we Americans are supposed to log on and shop til we drop. The holiday season has always been a time when Americans bought more. But nearly two years into this pandemic, Americans are spending way more - outsize amounts of money on things. We wanted to learn more about how and why Americans buy so much stuff. To do that, we reached out to Lizabeth Cohen, American history professor at Harvard and the author of "A Consumer's Republic: The Politics Of Mass Consumption In Postwar America." Professor Cohen, welcome.

LIZABETH COHEN: Thank you - glad to be here.

KELLY: We're glad to have you with us. I want to go back and try to figure out how this started that Americans became such champion consumers. And I gather you would take us to somewhere right around World War II.

COHEN: Yes, I would. And it really happens during the 1930s that there is a recognition that the way to get us out of the Depression most effectively would be to prime the pump, to actually put money in people's pockets. And, of course, the war comes. And most historians agree that it was the war that got us out of the Great Depression. People are earning money, but they can't spend it in the ways that they might have because of the price controls of World War II. And so during the war itself, there is a consensus that emerges that the solution to the postwar economy would be to create an economy that is based on mass consumption. So prosperity will be achieved through people purchasing lots of goods.

KELLY: The way you're describing this sounds very much as though this were government-directed. This wasn't people just woke up and decided, I want to blow all my money. This was the government saying, this is the way out.

COHEN: It's the government. And it's also, you know, manufacturers and corporations who'd been making munitions and airplanes and tanks who are thinking about what are we going to be doing when peace time comes. And so even during the war, you start to see advertising that promises people that when victory comes, you will have a home equipped with full appliances. And so that appetite gets fed.

KELLY: In those postwar years when spending, when buying really took off, it's an economic story, a business story, of course, but also a cultural story. There's a shift, it sounds like, there from, you know, wartime years, we're all going to save, this culture of thrift and sacrifice to, hey; I got money, and I'm going to show it off, and I'm going to do something with it.

COHEN: Absolutely. But the nature of that culture around consumption does change over the postwar period. It starts off as a promotion of mass consumption, mass marketing. We're just going to get lots of people to buy the same things. By the late 1950s, however, retailers, manufacturers, advertisers come to recognize that, despite the planned obsolescence that's built into that which encourages people to buy new things because the old things are out of fashion or they're going to break down - that there would be a market saturation. There's a limit to what people are going to buy. And so what happens is that the market shifts to market segmentation and a targeting of goods to very specific segments of the market.

KELLY: I do want to pin down one more historical moment because it gets at how consumerism can also become weaponized. Talk about the kitchen debate. This was Richard Nixon back when he was vice president and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.

COHEN: Yes. This is kind of a crucial moment in the Cold War, when Vice President Nixon and Premier Khrushchev debate at the American Exposition in Moscow over which society is delivering a better quality of life to its citizens. And they stand in front of a model kitchen that Sears had created there at the exposition.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICHARD NIXON: This competition, which you have just described so effectively in which you plan to outstrip us and particularly in the production of consumer goods...

COHEN: Nixon says - and this is 1959 - the United States comes closest to the ideal of prosperity for all in a class society, which is really hitting Khrushchev where it hurts with the kind of Soviet message of the benefits for all, of a more classless society. But the message was that Americans have more goods to consume and more choice about what those goods actually are.

KELLY: So fast-forward to this century because things changed again with 9/11.

COHEN: Yeah. I think at many moments of crisis in the society and then, following that, the economy, we return to that message - that the way to get out of any kind of crisis or decline is to encourage people to consume. So coming out of 9/11, President Bush's message to Americans was, show them that we have not been affected by this. We will continue to buy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GEORGE W BUSH: We cannot let the terrorists achieve the objective of frightening our nation to the point where we don't conduct business, where people don't shop. That's their intention.

COHEN: So GM's message was, keep America rolling again.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: One country, one way. Keep America rolling.

COHEN: Consuming has been a way of demonstrating that the economy and the society are continuing to be vital and viable. This is a real dilemma, I would say, today, where 70% of GDP is dependent on consumption...

KELLY: Seventy percent, seven-zero. Wow.

COHEN: Seven-zero is spent on consumption, which really does lead to a great dilemma around our growing awareness of environmental degradation that comes with these high level of private consumption. You know, on the one hand, we can say that we're living in a world with too much waste, of overconsumption. On the other hand, what is the solution going to be to keeping the economy going? And that, you know, we have not really solved.

KELLY: So this is a big question, but how has this shaped us - consumerism, buying? How has it shaped us as a country, as Americans? And do you ever see a transition to where we buy less?

COHEN: Well, that is a huge dilemma. I think that many people would like to imagine a United States that is less materialistic and less consumed with consuming. And yet we have the problem of, what will fuel this economy? But we also should remember that not everybody can consume equally, that there's a lot of inequality that has been built into this what I call the consumers' republic, where there's a promise that democracy and equality will be delivered through mass consumption.

KELLY: Whereas historically, what you're describing as this is very much a white, middle-class pattern of consumption.

COHEN: Absolutely. And, you know, we know that in the real estate market, for example, that homeownership, which is often the most prized consumer item, is not available to everybody. So, you know, there's a lot of imperfection in the consumer's republic, and yet we're kind of tied to it.

KELLY: Lizabeth Cohen, Thank you.

COHEN: Thank you. I enjoyed it.

KELLY: She is a professor of American history at Harvard and also author of "A Consumer's Republic: The Politics Of Mass Consumption In Postwar America."

(SOUNDBITE OF KLANGKARUSSELL SONG, "SONNENTANZ") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.