Consumerism — Not Just For The 1950s

Last week I mentioned The Story of Stuff in my post about slave labor and fair trade initiatives.  I’d like to draw us back to that video for a bit and talk about planned obselescence and perceived obselescence.  In the first Story of Stuff video, Annie Leonard explains the structure of consumerism and how it was used post WWII to finish reviving the economy.

That golden arrow is called the Golden Arrow of Consumption.  That’s us.

The concept is simple enough.  Create a consumer product (say, a mop).  Advertise that everyone who has hard flooring should own a mop.  Then either design your mop so that it stops working after a time, or create a newer and better product (a swiffer mop) before the original mop dies out.  Now people who merely mop their floors aren’t good enough; they must convert to a swiffer.  The falling-apart mop is planned obselescence (designed so that it will stop working eventually, but only after you have enough faith in the product to purchase a new one) and the swiffer replacement is perceived obselescence (the consumer perceives a change in status quo, and thus to maintain appearances will purchase the new item despite the old item’s continued effectiveness).  Think this is crazy?  How many times have you upgraded your phone in the past four years?

Anyway, Annie Leonard’s video series does a great job at exposing the structured failings of the consumer world, but there is this feeling that consumerism began in the 1950s.  Perhaps that’s when the government decided to give it a hand, but consumerism (and both planned and perceived obselescence) matured in the late 19th century.

It all started with factory production.  As working class people moved into cities, they took jobs in factories (I’ll focus on the textile industry here).  As the textile industry boomed, “ready-made” clothing came into stores.  Men and women now had the option of purchasing clothing instead of making it.  Stores expanded to huge conglomerates rife with brightly colored advertisements pronouncing the importance of consumer goods.  The clothes you wore (whether you made them or bought them), the furniture you owned, the wallpaper you used, your wax fruit — everything within the home was a mark of social status, and the more consumer goods you had, the more status you had.  For example, a working class woman who owned a mink was at the top of her social world, but a middle class woman who owned a mink also had to own the appropriate outfit to wear with said mink plus a variety of other ensembles, and the right amount of tasteful art to decorate her home.

Now that clothing could come ready-made, women and men were instructed by advertising that they must own multiple outfits, not just one or two.  A lady needed an outfit for the morning, an outfit for going to the store, an outfit for social visits, an outfit for riding a bicycle, an oufit for flying to the moon.  Of course, she also needed the shoes and gloves to match.  Men were also victims of the multiple-ensemble craze, but the major thrust of this trend was thrown upon women.  Since women who had traditionally made clothing were now spared from that particular toil, it became a woman’s duty to shop for herself and her family.  Thus, advertisers geared their marketing techniques toward women.  Whereas it used to be considered motherly to make clothing for your children, you were now old-fashioned and uncaring if you didn’t purchase children’s clothing ready-made.  And of course, your child will grow.  Dress fashions began to shift seasonally, and anything old was considered poor taste and bad breeding.  Nineteenth century markets were experts on perceived obselescence.

Consumerism then, as we know it today, does not really have its roots in the 1950s governmental monkeying with planned obselescence.  It began in the late 19th century with perceived obselescence.