History | Getting and Spending: Consumerism in Twentieth Century America
A379 | 13237 | K. Dunak

Open to undergraduates and Education MA's only

What do you think of when you hear “consumer culture”?  Popular
ideas often begin with images of post-World War II prosperity: young
couples enthusiastically purchasing homes in the suburbs, happily
embracing changing forms of entertainment, leisure, and technology,
and eagerly flocking to newly erected shopping centers.  And yet,
this popular notion obscures a much richer and far more complex
story of American consumer life.  This course aims to recover that
story by demonstrating how consumerism influenced the political,
social, and economic development of American life.

The twentieth century saw a remarkable shift in the ways in which
American society viewed consumption.  Emerging out of a Victorian
ethos of self-restraint and moderation, Americans increasingly began
to embrace a lifestyle characterized by the attainment and enjoyment
of material goods.  Frequently contested and often condemned,
consumerism nevertheless influenced generations of Americans,
embraced in a variety of ways by the United States’ increasingly
diverse population: as a way of expressing power, status, and
prestige; as a strategy for demonstrating loyalty and belonging; as
a means of retaining a group’s history and heritage; as a political
tactic to challenge oppression; and as a tool to reinforce
difference and maintain inequality.  The study of history demands
engagement with many demographic groups and multiple perspectives,
and consumerism provides a lens through which we might interpret and
evaluate the diverse nature of American life.  Consumer life and
culture will help students to weave one cohesive narrative from the
many strands that make up American history.

Students will be responsible for weekly reading, consisting of both
primary and secondary sources.  The course requires two short papers
and three exams.  Readings and assignments will provide students
with opportunities to explore and engage with multiple
understandings of twentieth-century American consumerism.