Pop quiz: Patriotism involves (a) giving your life for your country; (b) flying the flag on national holidays; (c) shopping till you drop. If you answered (c), you’ll be well prepared to follow this intriguing, oblique look at the recent American past by Bancroft Prize–winner Cohen (Making a New Deal, 1990).
Mass consumption, whether of canned soup, laundry detergent, or cookie-cutter houses, already had a long pedigree by WWII, the author writes; the 1920s in particular saw a huge growth in mass-market advertising and national brand-building. But the war and its immediate aftermath gave American consumers an ideology to justify their acquisitive habits, argues Cohen (History/Harvard): Americans of the time “saw their nation as the model for the world of a society committed to mass and what were assumed to be its far-reaching benefits.” In this democracy of the checkbook, spending was perceived as a duty, and the Consumers’ Republic became even more ideologically charged during the Cold War, when propagandists contrasted the overflowing aisles of American supermarkets with the bread lines and empty shelves of the Soviet bloc. Cohen links such postwar policies as the GI Bill and the restructuring of collective-bargaining procedures to this national marketplace; elsewhere she couples African-Americans’ dawning awareness of their purchasing power with the rise of the civil-rights movement. She examines the growth of suburbs and other features of “the landscape of mass consumption,” together with the social tensions resulting from changes in gender, class, and economic dynamics as everyone increasingly ate the same burgers and bought the same soap. Cohen’s arguments are dense, her tone academic, but the narrative is always accessible and enlivened by telling asides: “Department store profits reached a new peak during 1941,” she notes, “with the bombing of Pearl Harbor casting only a small shadow over Christmas gift-buying that December.”
A fine work of history, showing how we came to live in a world of things, fat if not necessarily happy.