Shop 'Til You Drop

A Consumers' Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America By Lizabeth Cohen, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 567 pages, $35.00

In many a family memory, the 25 years between the end of World War II and the economic crisis of the 1970s were the "good years" of the 20th century. These were the years of an unprecedented consumer revolution, in which the promise of America was recast in a new vernacular of mass-produced refrigerators, washing machines, television sets and tract houses. A quarter-century of steadily rising real incomes were poured into consumer goods and the jobs and investments to produce them. Turning their backs on the ethnic tenement neighborhoods of the cities, white working-class families moved into houses of their own in the new postwar suburbs. Familiar as this story is, A Consumers' Republic is the first historical account to examine closely the social world of postwar consumerism and the politics that were so tightly enmeshed with it.

The heady promise of the era was not in the goods themselves but in the new democracy they were said to construct. Class distinctions buckled, sociologists reported, as white-collar and blue-collar Americans converged on the same mass-produced consumer goods. A new economic democracy was under construction, not through contentious wrangling in legislatures or union halls this time but in the contents of tens of millions of shopping carts.

As Harvard University historian Lizabeth Cohen shows in this big, meticulously researched and revisionist account of the postwar consumer revolution, however, the practices of the consumers' republic were never as simple or as rosy as the myths. Cohen does not discount the material revolution set off by deferred savings at the end of the war. Eighty percent of American households in 1950 owned a refrigerator; 60 percent owned a car. For the first time in the 20th century, a majority of American families owned their own dwellings. But some of the most vaunted projects of economic equalization, such as the GI Bill, were riddled with inequities. The more education a veteran already had, the more likely he was to take advantage of the GI Bill's educational assistance. Soldiers from low-income families used up their reconversion allowances hunting for work. African American veterans, shunted into racially segregated American Legion posts and radically underrepresented in the Veterans Administration bureaucracy, found most school admissions barred to them.

The opportunities that beckoned in the new suburbs were riddled with similarly blatant inequities. In the first years of postwar suburbanization, white working-class and professional families often lived in the same communities. But economic filtering quickly set in. White-collar families moved to wealthier suburbs. Black Americans, fiercely resisted by their white neighbors and Jim Crowed by the GI Bill's and the Federal Housing Administration's loan officers, barely got a foothold in the suburbs.

Discrimination in housing was not new. What was different was the way in which the very diffusion of home ownership now supported the segmentation of suburbia along class and racial lines. With more and more family savings sunk into home ownership, the drive to defend property values acquired new urgency. "He's probably a nice guy," a white neighbor told a reporter of the first black family to buck the color line in Levittown, Pa. "But every time I look at him, I see $2,000 drop off the value of my house." Maintenance of property values became the chief business of zoning boards and town officials in suburbia's fragmented local governments. Towns eager to attract new suburban manufacturing plants refused to zone for housing that the plant's workers could afford. The template of northern New Jersey that Cohen reconstructs set the pattern for postwar America: a political patchwork of racially and economically segmented enclaves.

Americans increasingly saw material goods as carrying the very promise of America, and consumption became, in short, the site of heightened conflict. Much of Cohen's book is dedicated to tracking these contests -- from campaigns for wartime price controls, clean air and water, and consumer product safety to the "don't buy where you can't work" boycotts of African Americans and lunch counter and department store sit-ins. Her attempt to corral these flare-ups over goods into the history of a coherent, publicly interested consumer "movement" is perhaps the least successful part of this broadly ambitious book. Her efforts to sort out its history into competing ideals of "citizen consumers," "purchaser consumers," "purchasers as citizens" and "consumers/citizens/taxpayers/voters" show the marks of the struggle. For if consumers once constituted a united front, that unity vanished in postwar America.

In her earlier, prize-winning history of class and consumption in the 1920s and 1930s, Making a New Deal, Cohen traced the way in which Chicago's working-class families slowly deserted their neighborhood stores, ethnic self-help networks and ethnic-language entertainments for brand-name goods, commercial insurance companies and mass-marketed movies. Mass consumption Americanized. It did not buy off the working class, as Marxist critics of America had charged, but rather made possible the common social ground on which the Congress of Industrial Organizations' vision of a united working class could flourish.

That era of standardized consumer goods gave way to a new age of market segmentation sometime in the 1960s. Market differentiation was still an unfamiliar idea to most consumer goods producers in the late 1950s, but they quickly learned its practice. "Lifestyle branding" was the new imperative: products that imitated the segmentation of suburbia itself. The shopping malls that in the 1950s had touted themselves as the modern village commons -- with their playgrounds, laundromats and civic events -- began to target customers. When, as Cohen shows, the urban commercial districts, stripped of their customers by the malls, tried to lure shoppers back, they adopted the same segmenting, niche-marketing strategies. The saturated consumer markets that had once produced publics now disaggregated them.

The new marketing strategies were promptly injected into postwar politics. The first of the consciously mass-marketed presidential campaigns was Dwight Eisenhower's 1952 race. "You sell your candidates and your programs the way a business sells its products," Republican Party Chairman Leonard Hall said. By 1960, John F. Kennedy's campaign managers were testing targeted messages with great effect. The other techniques of differential marketing followed: direct-mail solicitation, code phrases and precisely focused polling, as political managers learned to construct not publics but political market shares, assembled as amalgams of precisely targeted fractions.

The myth of the "good years" after the "good war" will not die easily, and perhaps it shouldn't. Looking back from the New Gilded Age as it rolls into its third decade of wealth reconcentration, it is hard to resist a certain nostalgia for the postwar dream of democratizing goods, in which boosting ordinary families' purchasing power was a prime goal of the republic. It certainly seems archaic now, in the hegemony of trickle-down economic policy.

In showing how the promise of a democracy of goods was undermined by the practice and politics of segmentation, Cohen has written a sobering book -- and an essential one.

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