The unqualified victory of consumerism in America was not a foregone conclusion. The United States has traditionally been the home of the most aggressive and often thoughtful criticism of consumption, including Puritanism, Prohibition, the simplicity movement, the '60s hippies, and the consumer rights movement. But at the dawn of the twenty-first century, not only has American consumerism triumphed, there isn't even an "ism" left to challenge it. An All-Consuming Century is a rich history of how market goods came to dominate American life over that remarkable hundred years between 1900 and 2000 and why for the first time in history there are no practical limits to consumerism.
By 1930 a distinct consumer society had emerged in the United States in which the taste, speed, control, and comfort of goods offered new meanings of freedom, thus laying the groundwork for a full-scale ideology of consumer's democracy after World War II. From the introduction of Henry Ford's Model T ("so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one") and the innovations in selling that arrived with the department store (window displays, self service, the installment plan) to the development of new arenas for spending (amusement parks, penny arcades, baseball parks, and dance halls), Americans embraced the new culture of commercialism—with reservations. However, Gary Cross shows that even the Depression, the counterculture of the 1960s, and the inflation of the 1970s made Americans more materialistic, opening new channels of desire and offering opportunities for more innovative and aggressive marketing. The conservative upsurge of the 1980s and '90s indulged in its own brand of self-aggrandizement by promoting unrestricted markets. The consumerism of today, thriving and largely unchecked, no longer brings families and communities together; instead, it increasingly divides and isolates Americans.
Consumer culture has provided affluent societies with peaceful alternatives to tribalism and class war, Cross writes, and it has fueled extraordinary economic growth. The challenge for the future is to find ways to revive the still valid portion of the culture of constraint and control the overpowering success of the all-consuming twentieth century.
According to this absorbing cultural history of how Americans' personal and public identities have evolved in relationship with consumer goods, the battle between consumerism and anti-consumerism has been a defining struggle of 20th-century life. While Americans have always actively partaken in consumer culture, Cross (Kids' Stuff: Toys and the Changing World of American Childhood) notes that there have also been equally strong movements and even aesthetic traditions that resist consumerism and materialism, ranging from Puritanism and strains of immigrant Catholicism to the 1960s counterculture and the simplicity movements exemplified by E.F. Schumacher's 1973 classic Small Is Beautiful and Ralph Nader's consumer rights work. Still, the ethos of commercialism won out by the end of the century. Deftly integrating the theoretical arguments of anti-consumerists (from Thorstein Veblen's The Theory of the Leisure Class to Vance Packard's Hidden Persuaders) with a complex analysis of the history of U.S. buying and socializing patterns, Cross explains why. His provocative study investigates the Americanizing effect of amusement parks on immigrant identity in the early century; how the manufacture of the inexpensive radio promoted domesticity in the 1930s; and how the conflation of toys and fast food radically altered children's consumption patterns. While continually critiquing free market consumerism, Cross makes clear how consumerism shaped, and continues to shape, our lives today.