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History 771  Themes in Recent United States History:  Consumer Culture

Autumn 2007  Dulles 168  3:30-6:18

Prof. William R. Childs

Office: Dulles 204 childs.1@osu.edu  292-7014

Office Hours:  TW 9-10:30 or by appointment.



Course Description.

This graduate-level colloquium will review the rise of consumerism and “consumer culture” in the United States.  Although focused on the period from about 1870 to the late 20th century, the course will review some scholarship on the early modern period, the 18th and early 19th century, and some European material.  It will draw on scholarship from business, cultural, and social historians and sociologists.


We will seek answers to the following questions: 


Why have historians, until recently, avoided studying consumerism? 

When did a “consumer culture” emerge in the U.S?  Why did it emerge? 

What is the difference between “consumer culture” and “mass consumer culture”? 

How and why did Americans change their focus from a work ethic to a consumer ethic?

How has consumerism interacted with business (production, advertising, retailing), politics (when and why did “the consumer” become so important to public policy- makers?), and social groups (e.g., ethnic, labor, and women)? 

How have historians employed race, class, and gender to understand consumerism? 

Why have there been anti-consumer movements?


Course Objectives.

The course is designed for History graduate students preparing for their general exams in Modern America and allied fields (e.g., Diplomatic, African American, Women’s, Business).  Students in other geographical fields or departments interested in the history of consumer culture and/or the approaches historians and others have developed to study the topic should also find the course useful.  All students should gain an appreciation for the breadth of scholarship on the topic of consumer culture.



All students should have access to the following (all are available at SBX):


Lawrence B. Glickman, Consumer Society in American History:  A Reader (1999).

Warren I. Susman, Culture as History:  The Transformation of American Society in the Twentieth Century (1984).

Lizabeth Cohen, A Consumers’ Republic:  The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (2003).



In addition to reading the assigned readings for the weekly meetings, students will contribute regularly to class discussion and complete three other written assignments.  The grade will be apportioned as follows:


10%                 Attendance/participation

30%                 Paired-book assignment (See Pairedbook for an example.)

30%                 Paired-book assignment

30%                 Final essay, 15-20 pages (topic to be determined individually) 







Class Meetings and Assignments


1. September 24  Introduction.



October 1  Frameworks.


Reading:  Glickman, Preface; Part I. Frameworks and Definitions; and Part II. Roots of American Consumer Society (Axtell essay only); Susman, xi-xxx; Part One.



2. October 8  Frameworks continued; Pre-industrial consumer culture.


Reading:  Glickman, Part II 100-169.




Scott King-Owen:

Carole Shammas, The Pre-Industrial Consumer in England and America (1990).

John E. Crowley, The Invention of Comfort: Sensibilities and Design in Early Modern Britain and Early America (2000).


Matthew Foulds:

Neil McKendrick, John Brewer, and J. H. Plumb, The Birth of a Consumer Society:  The Commercialization of Eighteenth-Century England (1982).

T.H. Breen, The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence (2004).



3. October 15   


Reading:  Glickman, 170-273.




Megan Chew:

Stuart Ewen, Captains of Consciousness:  Advertising and the Social Roots of the Consumer Culture (1976).

Pamela Walker Laird, Advertising Progress:  American Business and the Rise of Consumer Marketing (1998).


Emerson Lowell:

Michael Denning, Mechanic Accents:  Dime Novels and Working-Class Culture in America (1987).

Ian Gordon, Comic Strips and Consumer Culture, 1890-1945 (1998).







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4.  October 22   


Reading:  Susman, Chapters 7-11, 14.




Joe Arena:

Ellen Gruber Garvey, The Adman in the Parlor:  Magazines and the Gendering of Consumer Culture, 1880s to 1910s (1996).

Kathy Peiss, Cheap Amusements:  Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York (1986).


Sandy Bolzenius:

Susan Porter Benson, Counter Cultures:  Saleswomen, Managers, and Customers in American Department Stores, 1890-1949 (1986).

Janice Williams Rutherford, Selling Mrs. Consumer:  Christine Frederick and the Rise of Household Efficiency (2003).




An undated advertisement for Harlem's Cotton Club. In operation from 1922 to 1936, the Club employed black performers and staff but catered to a white clientele.Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library

An undated advertisement for Harlem's Cotton Club. In operation from 1922 to 1936, the Club employed black performers and staff but catered to a white clientele.
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library



5.  October 29




Matthew Foulds:

Roy Rosenzweig, “Eight Hours for What We Will”:  Workers and Leisure in an Industrial City, 1870-1920 (1983).

Richard Butsch, For Fun and Profit:  The Transformation of Leisure into Consumption (1990).


Mark Stickle:

Martha E. Olney, Buy Now, Pay Later:  Advertising, Credit, and Consumer Durables in the 1920s (1991).

Lendol Calder, Financing the American Dream:  A Cultural History of Consumer Credit (1999).



6.  November 5 


Reading:  Glickman, Part IV.




Sandy Bolzenius:

Hans B. Thorelli, The Federal Antitrust Policy (1955).

Robert Bork, The Antitrust Paradox (1978).


Emerson Lowell:

Regina Lee Blaszczyk, Imagining Consumers: Design and Innovation from Wedgwood to Corning (2000).

Daniel Thomas Cook, The Commodification of Childhood:  The Children’s Clothing Industry and the Rise of the Child Consumer (2004).



7.  November 12  NO CLASS – Veterans Day





8.  November 19


Reading:  Lizabeth Cohen, A Consumers’ Republic:  The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (2003).




Mark Stickle:

Susan Strasser, Satisfaction Guaranteed:  The Making of the American Mass Market (1991).

Richard Tedlow, New and Improved:  The Story of Mass Marketing in America (1996).


Megan Chew:

Kelly Schrum, Some Wore Bobby Sox:  The Emergence of Teen Girl Culture, 1920-1945 (2004).

Daniel Horowitz, Anxieties of Affluence:  Critiques of American Consumer Culture, 1939-1979 (2004).






9.  November 26 


Reading:  Copy of David Steigerwald’s JAH article (to be distributed): 

“All Hail the Republic of Choice:  Consumer Interpretations in American History Come of Age”




Joe Arena:

John Kenneth Galbraith, The Affluent Society (1958).

James Baughman, Same Time, Same Station: Creating American Television, 1948-61(2007)


Scott King-Owen:

Joseph G. Knapp, The Advance of American Cooperative Enterprise:  1920-1945 (1973).

Ellen Furlough and Carl Strikwerda (eds), Consumers Against Capitalism?  Consumer Cooperation in Europe, North America, and Japan, 1840-1990 (1999).



10.  Finals Week meeting


Reading:  Glickman, Part V.



Final Essay due to Prof. Childs



Final Class meeting:  During regularly scheduled time for the Final Exam.  Students will present a brief oral summary of their papers and fill-out SEIs/discursives.



Paired-book Assignment




Of the reviewer:  You are to follow all of the guidelines below carefully and submit copies of your reviews and discussion to your fellow students on time.


Of the colloquium participants:  You are to read carefully each of the reviews and discussions before the class meeting.  You should arrive in class with questions that relate to the themes of the course.



The assignment asks you to read two books, write a separate report for each (following strict guidelines!), compose a page or two of written discussion in which you relate both books to one another and to the weekly readings and major themes of the course, and present an oral report in which you highlight your major points and field questions from colloquium participants.


This assignment is intended to help you gain experience in how to read and understand and to compare and contrast two books.  A related purpose involves how to write clear and concise prose (the guidelines are rather rigid; you will have to rewrite your drafts to fit your information into the format, which will force you to be clear and concise).  Still a third purpose is to furnish you and your fellow students with short yet informative reviews of important books in the field(s).


These reports will be guides for your fellow students who have not read the books, but who desire to become “familiar” with them.  Thus, you should remind yourself that directness and clarity are valued highly in this assignment.


The Written Portion.


   General instructions.


First, read over the “sample” written report.  Note the seven structural divisions for each book review.  Your report must have all of these and in this order.  Note that except in the biographical, scope and source sections, complete sentences are used.


The “Discussion” page(s) include elaborations of points found on the one-page review, as well as issues not raised in the one-page review.  The organization of the discussion is more open to your inclinations than is the one-page review of each book.  The essence of each book and the weekly topics and course themes should guide you in composing the discussion.  Topics for possible inclusion in the discussion are:  prominent/questionable theses; documentation; organization and style of presentation; significance to historiography; etc.  You may use up to two pages (single spaced) for your “Discussion.”


  Specific instructions.


            1.  Each review will appear on one side of one page only, contain suitable margins, and include each of the seven descriptive items.  (Do not use more than one page per book; do not assume that you can extend the report of one book to the next page and simply cut short the second book.)  The Discussion may appear on the front and back of one page.  All pages should be stapled together.  Use type size PT 11 or larger (the size of this type).


            2.  Turn in two copies to Dr. Childs.  Make enough copies for each of your fellow students and distribute them by noon Monday of the week your report is due.


            3.  Please avoid the following:


            a)  “passive” constructions (the use of the passive confuses the reader and suggests the writer has not thought out exactly what s/he wants to say);

            b)  “due to” (this is bad form and is usually used incorrectly—use “derived from” or “because” or some similar phrase);

            c)  contractions (“he’ll,” “doesn’t,” etc.);

            d)  “lead” when you mean “led”

            e)  excessive quotations from the books.


            4.  You must:


            a)  use page numbers when quoting from the book or reviews.

            b)  consult at least 3 reviews of each book.


            5.  In the “Importance” section of the one-page review, as well as in the “Discussion,” be sure to relate the books to the historiography and to the themes of the course.


The Oral Presentation.

Most of the oral presentation will consist of you answering questions from your fellow students.


You will take no more than 10 minutes to relate the specifics of the books to the themes of the course and the common readings.  I will cut you off after 10 minutes!  (Students have consistently complained about overly-long, wandering, unfocused oral reports.)  In your presentation, try to stimulate the discussion that is supposed to follow; you should not say, “Well, are there any questions?”  Rather, try to come up with something provocative to get the discussion going.


A final note.

In order to do the best that you can on this assignment, you will need to read the two books AND the weekly reading well before the assignment is due.  I encourage you to see me before your report is due to discuss your work.