The Journal for MultiMediaHistory
Volume 1 Number 1 ~ Fall 1998
 

American Women and the Making of
Modern Consumer Culture

Kathy L. Peiss
 

Editor's Note: This is the electronic text of the annual Phi alpha Theta lecture delivered by Professor Kathy L. Peiss at the University at Albany, State University of New York, on March 26, 1998. Click on bold numbers in the text to follow links to footnotes. Use the "back" button on your browser to return to the main text. A bibliographic note can be found at the end of the text. Click here to return to Real Audio sound files of the lecture.

In 1929, home economist and marketing expert Christine Frederick published Selling Mrs. Consumer, a popular book that schooled manufacturers and advertisers in the art of pitching products to American women. Seventy years later, consumer culture is part of the air we breathe, and women’s role as consumer seems almost a natural one—a role captured in the phrase, "born to shop." Even in this age of market segmentation, when men are addressed as style-conscious buyers, the association of femininity and consumption remains nearly seamless. And these terms have been mutually reinforcing. Consumption is coded as a female pursuit, frivolous and even wasteful, a form of leisure rather than productive work. In turn, consumer identity obscures women’s important contributions to economic and political life. In such locutions as "Mrs. Consumer" and "born to shop," women appear only on the receiving end of consumer culture. Far from being a natural or inevitable phenomenon, however, this feminized image was rooted in a specific historical development, one in which women themselves played a key role.

Defining consumer culture and its origins has become a vexing historical problem in recent years. One historian locates it in Renaissance Florence, another sees it in the tulip craze of early modern Holland, a third finds it in the purchase of crockery and clothing in eighteenth-century London. Some argue that the first North American consumer culture emerged in the earliest years of European settlement, among both the colonists who purchased goods to enhance their comfort and status, and the Native Americans who amassed decorative wares in trade. In this welter of conflicting claims, clearly we would do better to posit many consumer cultures and work toward delineating their particular characteristics—their emergence, continuities, and transformation.

Modern American consumer culture arose after 1890, the outcome of a synergy of economic and cultural forces. In the history of goods, exchange, and consumption, it was qualitatively different from what had come before. An industrial revolution that had begun with the manufacture of cotton and woolen textiles had, by the end of the nineteenth century, transformed the production of most everyday goods. From convenience foods to clothing, appliances to automobiles, the enormous output of industrial production led businesses to coordinate methods of distribution and sales and to forge the infrastructure of our consumer culture. Sears, Avon, A & P, Macy’s: these familiar names represent an array of mail-order houses, door-to-door firms, chain stores syndicates, and department stores that transformed the landscape of commerce. As businesses sought ways to insure and enlarge consumer demand, they embraced new styles of merchandising, display, packaging, and advertising. If the nineteenth century offered a carnivalesque, chaotic promotional world of peddlers and hucksters, the modern ad agency promised to create a national market of consumers, indeed, to systematize desire. A new professional and managerial class of college-educated, white-collar men spurred the growth of the corporation’s marketing and advertising functions. For members of this new middle class, a powerful source of masculine identity lay in an orientation toward efficiency, method, and control.

One of the cultural products of this new infrastructure was an explicit conception of consumer identity, an identity that was simultaneously bound up in notions of the feminine. Born at the same time, the "organization man" and "Mrs. Consumer" in many ways reprised the older dichotomy of manly producers and domestic women. American women had long been consumers in a sense: they bought, bartered, and used goods. Except on the far reaches of the frontier, few eighteenth-century households were entirely self-sufficient. During the Revolution, women’s political role involved consumer boycotts of imported teas and cloth; expected to run a household well, they took an increasingly active role in purchasing decisions. By the nineteenth century, middle-class women became newly defined as "audiences" and "readers," consuming melodramas and novels for pleasure.

Nevertheless, the self-conscious identification of women with consumerism after 1890 was distinctive, linked to the growing sense that consumption involved not only the purchase of goods but an entire way of life. Thorstein Veblen’s famous critique of conspicuous consumption highlighted the social display of leisured women, who wore the signs of their familial and class status. But it was not only as passive objects of display and emulation that women became the quintessential consumer. Rather that definition emerged as women experienced and responded to the new consumer economy.

Shopping was transformed from a functional activity of women into a form of leisure. Like attending a matinee, eating at a restaurant, or going to the beauty parlor—all new activities for women—shopping took place in a semi-public, commercial, and safe realm, an important consideration for women concerned about their respectability. One of the most well known shopping districts in New York City was a stretch of dry-goods emporia and specialty shops called "Ladies Mile," where women would come to promenade and shop, to see and be seen. Promoting the pleasures of looking and touching, merchants encouraged women to desire goods and be seduced by them. (This sometimes backfired, and department stores found themselves battling women shoplifters—newly medicalized and diagnosed as "kleptomaniacs.") Department stores pioneered now-familiar techniques of display using show windows, glass cabinetry, and mirrors everywhere; they offered a range of services to appeal to women, from restrooms to restaurants, package delivery to credit.

New mass-circulation magazines also fostered a female culture of consumption. The "big six" women’s magazines—Ladies’ Home Journal, McCall's, Delineator, Woman’s Home Companion, Pictorial Review, and Good Housekeeping—were founded in the period from 1885 to 1910. Originally dress-pattern magazines and farm journals, they became all-purpose "trade papers for women," with a mix of fiction, general-interest news, and service departments for food preparation, fashion, and household management. Such editors as Edward Bok of the Ladies’ Home Journal linked womanly duties and respectability to the emergent consumer culture. Editorials urged women to buy brand-name, packaged products, in a period when most groceries, hardware, and other goods were unbranded and sold in bulk quantities. Bok banned dubious patent medicines from the publication and mounted a crusade against deceptive advertising, putting the magazine’s reputation behind the products appearing in its pages.

Magazine layout itself reinforced the woman reader’s identity as a consumer. Bok began to break up stories and articles in 1895, forcing readers to turn to the back pages where most of the advertisements were placed. Ads for cornflakes or baking soda were strategically placed next to cooking columns. "When pages are properly made up," one writer observed, advertising "is contiguous to the department to which it is most nearly akin."[1] One magazine placed nearly a third of its ads in this way. Even short stories rein forced consumerism by frequently mentioning brand names, describing clothing styles, and stressing the household comfort possible through the purchase of goods.

By the 1910s, advertisers and manufacturers had begun to see women as the "chief purchasing agents" for their families, buying most of the household’s food, clothing, appliances, and other goods. Although at times they nodded to an ideal of the rational consumer-citizen, older assumptions about female sensibilities usually gained the upper hand. The woman consumer was considered emotional and impulsive, driven by "inarticulate longings" and "dormant desires." If men responded to the intrinsic qualities and function of a product, women dwelled on its social and psychological effects, its style and smartness. To "cash in on women’s sphere," advertisers embraced a new language of persuasion: "If you are selling to women, nothing succeeds like a woman’s view point." Advertising expert Carl Naether advised copywriters to write "in woman’s own language," using evocative words, poetic images, French phrases, and soft touches. Ads, he observed, should imitate the "intimate conversations" that "take place at the glove counters, in the drug or toilet preparations’ department."[2] Erasing the differences among women and stressing those between the sexes, advertisers touted women’s supposedly universal desire for beauty, their inherent taste, and their natural sense of duty to the family’s well-being.

This strategy appeared most often in promotions for products long associated with women, such as food, fashion, and cosmetics. It also surfaced when companies repositioned consumer goods initially associated with men in order to expand the market. At first automobiles and radios were marketed to men in ads that stressed mechanical and technological superiority. By the late 1920s, advertisers began to direct ads at women, with striking results. One automaker produced cars in a multitude of colors and urged women to match their cars to their frocks. Radio manufacturers housed vacuum tubes and wires inside mahogany cases that would complement living room furniture. Smoking by women, once considered a sign of immorality, was encouraged in cigarette ads whose slogans—"reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet"—appealed to a slender body image.

The image of the female consumer came into prominence in a period when American society made women’s nature and appropriate roles a subject of intense debate. After all, women were increasingly visible in higher education, the professions, and the workplace. They had won the right to vote, participated in urban reform, and volunteered for war relief work. Some scientists questioned the very existence of sex differences. In an era in which traditional roles were challenged from many quarters, the mass-market’s model of the woman consumer tended to reinforce the gender divide. The growing display of female images in the mass media—which presented youth, beauty, and sexuality in ways often divorced from the realities of women’s physical bodies and social experiences—only exacerbated these tendencies.

The gendering of consumption would seem to leave little room for women as producers in the new consumer industries and services. Indeed, women composed a small minority of professionals working in advertising, magazines, and newspapers in the early twentieth century, and they rarely controlled those enterprises or held executive positions within them. In advertising agencies, the number of career women rose substantially after 1910 but still made up only about three percent of advertising professionals in the largest firms in 1930. Women were generally excluded from positions that required face-to-face interaction with manufacturers’ representatives, considered "contact" or "outside" jobs. A few became account executives, space buyers, and department heads, but most labored as copywriters, deemed women’s "proper sphere" in advertising. Similarly, publishers and retailers were predominantly male, although there were a handful of women who edited the top women’s magazines, managed department stores, and owned large specialty shops -- Gertrude Lane of the Woman’s Home Companion and Dorothy Shaver of Lord and Taylor, for instance.

Ironically, the promotion of the female consumer did open up opportunities for women, albeit circumscribed, in the new mass consumer culture. Exploiting the gap between male manufacturers and female consumers—gender differences men in industry had indeed reinforced—business and professional women promoted the "woman’s viewpoint" to advance their own standing. As one woman copywriter observed, "If the last word and the most important word is always going to be a man’s word, I think on a woman’s account that could be damaging." "Men can and do write very successful copy aimed at women," stated another, "but they have a harder job and more to overcome than women."[3]

Thus businesswomen entered a particular niche as information brokers, interlocutors, and taste-makers who claimed to understand and communicate with women consumers effectively. The early advertising women, described by one of them as "keen, brilliant . . . pioneers of their sex," found assignments in the large agencies on so-called "women’s accounts," such as beauty products, soap, fashion, food, and housewares.[4] Others worked in local ad agencies, mail order firms, and the advertising staffs of small businesses. In department store merchandising, over forty percent of buyers were women by 1924; known for their independence, fashionability and world travel, they identified style trends and determined how to translate them for popular taste. Home economists like Christine Frederick also played a role in encouraging consumption as part of women’s concerns with nutrition, health, and household efficiency. A number worked for manufacturers and magazines to promote standardized goods, sanitary packaging, and brand-names, under the guise of good domestic practices. The Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval—assuring consumers of the quality and safety of products—was one familiar result of such collaboration.

Many women worked in the lower rungs of magazine publishing. Editors of magazine "service departments" played a pivotal role in fostering modern consumer culture: they promoted new inventions and styles, cooperated with advertisers, mentioned brands in recipes and advice columns, conducted market research, and even put their own names on products. For instance, Antoinette Donnelly, who wrote a syndicated newspaper column called "Beauty Hints," sold her name to a manufacturer of facial soap, who capitalized on her "brand identity." The trade press applauded this marketing move, noting that consumers "have acquired a confidence in her judgment through years of familiarity with her writings."[5]

Businesswomen also organized associations in the fashion trade, advertising, and merchandising. Some of these originated defensively: women began advertising clubs in response to their exclusion from men’s organizations. Others perceived a niche within style marketing specifically for women and actively cultivated it. In a period when garment manufacturers, fashion consultants, department store merchandisers, and women’s magazines were increasingly coordinating their efforts, women created the Fashion Group in 1931 to report on trends in art, design, and popular culture.

These women, working in large firms and corporations as mid-level managers, executives, or salaried staff, carved out "female" sectors and specialties within mass consumer industries overwhelmingly dominated by men. To a certain extent, they exploited gender differences to promote their own careers and standing. But fashion, beauty, and domesticity were not static concepts linked to the feminine. Some women actively sought to negotiate and even redefine what it meant to be a modern woman in a consumer society.

The career of Helen Landsdowne Resor illustrates both the opportunities and limitations women encountered in this effort. Born in 1886, Helen Landsdowne had only a high school education when she took a job as a secretary in a Cincinnati advertising agency in 1904. She worked her way up to copywriter, creating ads that appeared in newspapers and magazines and on streetcars in the early 1900s. When her boss, Stanley Resor, left the firm to open a branch of the J. Walter Thompson Company in 1908, she went along as a copywriter; they transferred together to the New York office in 1911. Resor took control of the firm in 1916, and the two of them married in 1917. Stanley Resor was a very visible executive officer, but Helen was not. She largely worked behind the scenes and did not take public credit for her accomplishments.

Yet there is no doubt that she was the driving, creative force at the company. She devised ad campaigns that are still striking today. Woodbury’s facial soap, for instance, had long been advertised as a patent medicine that could rid the skin of blemishes, sores, and ailments. Helen Resor created a new campaign that identified the product with facial beauty, not skin disease. She hired illustrators to draw attractive young women and men in romantic, intimate settings, and came up with a slogan—"a skin you love to touch"—that was catchy and slightly racy for its time. The campaign transformed Woodbury’s fortunes, turning a harsh, stinging soap into a popular beauty aid. Resor’s ads often told a story that encouraged the reader to identify with developing romance or a social dilemma; she put little "feminine" touches in the ads, such as a note urging women to tear out a picture of the soap as a reminder when shopping.

It may come as a surprise, then, that Helen Landsdowne Resor called herself an ardent feminist. During the mass suffrage parades in New York in 1915 and 1916, she led a contingent of advertising women. Resor, her secretary recalled, "got us all big campaign hats to wear of various colors—green, purple, white." In keeping with her politics, she aggressively hired and promoted women at the agency. Believing that women would advance further in a single-sex environment, she created a "Woman’s Copy Department" separate from men. As one executive emphasized, "the women were terrifically powerful."[6]

The firm’s personnel records reveal the social background and work experience of these early women in advertising. Typical of profession al women in these years, most graduated from women’s colleges or coeducational universities. Still, the firm was suspicious of English majors who displayed "literary aspirations" but had little knowledge of business. Successful recruits usually had already gained indispensable experience in the world of commerce. Many had been department store merchandisers, publicists, mail-order and local advertisers, and magazine writers. Others had previously worked for manufacturers in product testing, market research, or sales.

At the same time, a significant number of women at J. Walter Thompson came directly from the suffrage campaign and women’s reform. Helen Resor hired activists newly unemployed after passage of the women’s suffrage amendment, among them Terese Olzendam, circulation manager of The Suffragist magazine, and Frances Maule, formerly head of the publication department of the National American Women’s Suffrage Association. Ruth Waldo, J. Walter Thompson’s first woman vice president, worked for the Russell Sage Foundation and the New York Charity Organization Society before joining the firm in 1915. As one of her co-workers recalled, "When Waldo went back to tell the Social Work people, they were scandalized. You see, they thought it was fine to be helping people, but not to work to make money." She added: "Miss Waldo felt a bit that way herself."[7]

The Woman’s Copy Department at J. Walter Thompson reveals the underlying tensions in the social definition of women as consumers. Those who embraced the "woman’s viewpoint" argued that their own buying habits as women gave them special insight into consumer motivations. On cosmetics, food, and fashion accounts, said one, a woman copywriter "naturally falls into the vocabulary—those little phrases and intimate ways of talking that strike a house wife as ringing true." They knew their place in an industry dominated by men rested on their authority with and service to female consumers. Yet advertising women were also disturbed by this argument, because it implied they secured their position not through professional training, but by virtue of their "natural" feminine qualities. One worried that the "women’s view point" was "really an old story" and stressed that professional women had other capacities as managers and workers that belied female stereotypes. Thus some actually distanced themselves from consumers, emphasizing their intelligence, training, and the importance of scientific market research rather than intuition in gaining insight into housewives’ "unformulated ideas—impulses, prejudices, desires.[8] Yet their approach, as those words suggest, ultimately reinforced the stereotype of the female consumer.

A few challenged that stereotype, however. Feminist Frances Maule argued that advertisers relied too much on "the good old conventional ‘angel-idiot’ conception of women" rather than seeing them in the concrete terms of their daily lives. She found that the woman consumer was more motivated by the price and merits of the product, "bent on getting real value for her money and possessing a good deal of capacity for judging whether she was doing it or not," and less by "the atmosphere, the sentiment, the prestige that we throw around our copy." Maule urged copywriters to remember the "old suffrage slogan—that ‘Women Are People.’" She observed, "It is just as impossible to pick out a single feminine type and call it ‘woman,’ as it is to pick out a single masculine type and call it ‘man.’"[9]

Yet it was profoundly difficult to present a more complex appeal to the woman consumer. An instructive example is an advertising campaign for Pond’s skin creams in 1924. These inexpensive products were losing sales to the higher-status brands like Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein. Helen Landsdowne Resor and the Woman’s Copy Department decided to revive and upgrade an old advertising technique, the testimonial. "Distinguished" women would be interviewed and asked to endorse the product. Significantly, the first Pond’s testimonial featured Alva Belmont, a wealthy society woman and militant feminist; Belmont had been active in the suffrage campaign, supported working women’s causes, and bankrolled the National Woman’s Party. The ad agency secured Belmont’s cooperation by exploiting their copywriters’ ties to feminism: Frances Maule persuaded another veteran of the suffrage movement, Katherine Leckie, to act as a go-between and approach Belmont; the agency offered each woman a one-thousand-dollar contribution to the National Woman’s Party as an incentive.

The full-page advertisement for Pond’s, mainly text in tiny print accompanied by a small illustration, ran in the leading women’s magazines. It began with a narrator saying: "I was excited and eager for the interview because I knew that Mrs. Belmont not only has given lavishly to women’s causes from her colossal fortune, has been and is a tremendous worker, but also is particularly interested in woman’s special problem of how to keep her force and her charm through middle life and later."[10]

In light of this text, the illustration was incongruous, even incomprehensible. It was not an image of the forceful, charming Alva Belmont, but rather a photograph of her library. Belmont had refused to allow her picture to run, concerned that her prestige and reputation would diminish if she was seen as a shill. Other early testimonials featured such women as Alice Roosevelt Longworth and Mary McConnell Borah, daughters and wives of powerful men, visible in the world of politics but on its periphery. These ads were intended to show case distinguished women not only or primarily because they were beautiful, but because they had accomplished something newsworthy and of significance to women. At the same time, the campaign had been created to impart an "image of status and prestige" to skin cream, and the advertisers increasingly engaged beautiful socialites and attractive aristocrats to accomplish this goal. When the agency researched consumers’ responses to the various Pond's endorsers in 1925, they found that Princess Marie de Bourbon was most popular because "she is young and pretty and the photographs were romantic and sentimental."[11]

The Pond’s campaign suggests how difficult it was not only to create an alternative conception of female beauty in advertising but also to address women consumers in complex ways. Even women who identified themselves as feminists found themselves caught in contradictory impulses. They recognized the variations in women’s experiences in modern society and celebrated women’s achievements. And in these ads they maintained that beautifying and achievement need not be mutually exclusive: caring for appearance could be seen as an aspect of women’s self-expression and dignity. But this was a subtle and difficult argument to make, easily submerged in the celebration of female beauty as an end in itself. Women advertisers were unable to reconcile these tensions, and conventional notions of women—in terms of beauty, frivolity, and romance—resurfaced. Even with a background in feminism and reform, many women found themselves actively reinforcing conventional notions of gender difference.

The mass consumer culture that arose in the early twentieth century seems resistant to more complicated definitions of consumer identity. However, at different moments in our history, alternative, collective, and politicized concepts of consumption have come to the fore. The identity of "woman consumer" was not only a creation of retailers, manufacturers, and magazines that had an economic interest in this ideal. At the turn of the century, educators, home economists, and reformers all advanced an uplifted version of the female consumer as citizen, rational and oriented toward social goals. The National Consumers’ League, founded in 1890 in New York, mobilized middle- and upper-class women to use their purchasing power for social change. The League urged women to boycott department stores whose poor wages and working conditions harmed saleswomen, and it publicized the labels of clothing made in sweatshops. Other women became active in the Progressive Era movement for pure food and drugs. This politicized notion of the consumer, promoted especially by white middle-class women, started from the insight, propounded by late-nineteenth-century economists, that consumption was a kind of work and consumers were economic actors. The National Consumers’ League had an inkling of what feminists in the 1960s and 1970s would later argue: consumption was necessary if unpaid labor that required time, energy, and skill; it transformed purchases into usable goods; and it ensured the social reproduction of the family. Nor were these perceptions limited to affluent women: in some class-conscious cities, like Seattle after World War I, working-class women organized consumer boycotts and union label campaigns to support union activism in the workplace.

Just as striking are the businesses created and run by women that offered an alternative vision of consumer culture. The remarkable careers of Annie Turnbo Malone and Madam C. J. Walker, leaders of the early African-American beauty industry, are illuminating. Born after the Civil War, they grew up in a world of poverty, racial discrimination, and hard manual labor. Walker, for example, had worked nearly two decades as a domestic and laundress before she became an entrepreneur. In the 1890s Walker and Malone independently became interested in the difficulties African-American women faced in caring for their hair. Each woman claimed to have invented her own formulas: Malone cited the influence of an aunt who was a herb doctor schooled in traditional medicinal lore, while Walker declared she had discovered the formula in a dream, when God answered her prayer for a way to save her hair. It is likely that they modified hair tonics and combs already on the market, adjusting them for the condition and texture of black women’s hair. They offered hair treatments and free demonstrations, showing women how to care for the scalp, apply hair grower, and use a pressing comb.

Malone and Walker also created systems of training, distribution, and marketing that proved enormously successful in the early 1900s. As black women, they were not welcomed by drugstore retailers, so they started out by selling door to door. As they became more successful locally, each developed a regional trade. They traveled across the Midwest and even the South in a period of growing racial violence and segregation. At each stop, they gave speeches in women’s clubs and black churches, demonstrated products, and taught women to be sales agents and hairdressers. Their recruits in turn trained other agents, eventually widening distribution throughout the nation. The businesses were incredibly successful: Walker supposedly started out with a dollar and a half in her pocket in 1905; in 1919, the year she died, the company did $500,000 in sales.

These African-American businesswomen did not divide production and consumption, but fused them in a vision of racial advancement and women’s freedom. They believed that improving appearance would open economic opportunities for women and ensure their self-respect. Their clients were not simply consumers of beauty products, but potential trainees, salon workers, and even proprietors. Nor did they view the consumer solely through the lens of the profit motive, but committed themselves to African-American community building, social welfare, and politics. Malone built an immense complex called Poro College, which housed not only the manufacturing plant, sales operations, and school for training agent-operators, but also a gymnasium, chapel, and hall for theater, music, and lectures; it served as a community center for black residents of St. Louis. Walker organized agent-operator clubs similar in function to working-class benevolent societies. Walker Clubs provided mutual aid, insurance and death benefits, and offered opportunities for leisure and charitable work. Walker also encouraged women’s political involvement: her agents condemned lynching and racism at their first national convention. One woman who heard Walker speak offered a typical reaction: "Your talk inspired me so that I was determined to see what good I could do in this world and for my people."[12]

These women’s enterprises charted a distinct path in the development of mass-consumer goods and service industries. And they give evidence that alternative conceptions of consumer culture could emerge at different historical moments, among different populations of women. Not the one-dimensional Mrs. Consumer, then: women played a more complex role in the formation of modern consumer culture. Professional and managerial women, carving out a niche for themselves in mass-market industry, often reinforced dominant ideologies of gender and consumption despite their best intentions. Other women, however, including middle-class reformers, working-class activists, and African-American businesswomen, offered collective and politicized challenges to those ideologies. Behind the compelling image of the woman consumer projected by national advertising and mass media, women engaged in a myriad of commercial and social practices that gave shape and substance to modern consumer culture.

Notes

Bibliographic Note

This essay is based in part on my book, Hope in a Jar: The Making of America's Beauty Culture (New York: Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt, 1998), as well as a reading of the innovative new scholarship on the history of American consumer culture. These works include:
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Kathy L. Peiss
American Women and the Making of Modern Consumer Culture (electronic text)
Copyright © 1998 by The Journal for MultiMedia History



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Contents: JMMH Volume 1 Number 1 ~ Fall 1998