|The Journal for MultiMediaHistory
Volume 1 Number 1 ~ Fall 1998
American Women and the Making
of Modern Consumer Culture
Kathy L. Peiss
Kathy L. Peiss is currently a professor of history
at the University of Massachusetts. She has written and lectured on American
women's history and cultural history for fifteen years. Her first book,
Cheap Amusements (1986), explored the social life of working women
in turn-of-the-century New York, and a coedited anthology, Passion and
Power (1989), surveyed the history of sexuality. Love Across the
Color Line, based on an interracial romance in Massachusetts in the early
twentieth century, was published in 1996. Her new book, Hope in a Jar:
The Making of America's Beauty Culture (Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt,
1998), examines the history of the mass-market beauty industry and the
changing cultural meaning of cosmetics for American women. Peiss has consulted
on documentary films and museum exhibits, including a Smithsonian Institution
show on costume and gender, for which she coauthored the exhibition booklet.
She has also been interviewed on the history of cosmetics and beauty by
CNN, the Washington Post, New York Times, Philadelphia
Inquirer, Allure, Out, and other publications.
|Kathy L. Peiss. Source: JMMH
|Cover of Hope in a Jar.
Peiss received her B.A. from Carleton
College in 1975 and completed her doctorate at Brown University in 1982.
She has taught at Rutgers, Cornell, and the University of Maryland - Baltimore
County, where she developed a women's studies program. She has been teaching
at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst since 1986 and currently
serves as director of the history graduate program there. Among Peiss'
many honors are fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities,
American Council of Learned Societies, Smithsonian Institution, Rutgers
Center for Historical Analysis, and the Woodrow Wilson Foundation.
The following lecture by Peiss (on audio file) was
delivered at the University at Albany, State University of New York, on
March 26, 1998. The text
of her lecture, with additional notes, is also available.
Lecture by Kathy L. Peiss:
Audience Questions and Answers: Unfortunately, there was no audience microphone, so all questions are transcribed. Fortunately all of Peiss' answers were recorded clearly. Click on the icons following each question to hear her response.
Did women play a role in defining women by playing
a role in what was actually produced, or what was provided the consumersthinking now to focus test groups that we have today that actually shape
Question: You talked about things like Carnation milk appearing in ads
instead of things like cream. Do you see similar things in magazines like
Field and Stream, and Car and Driver; in terms of editorial texts deliberately
appealing to products on the market?
When you talked earlier about women having a place in production,
you talked about feminists being involved, and then you talked about women
who were suffragists. Are you making distinctions there that are accurate?
Because a lot of women were suffragistsa lot of women supported the
vote who were very very conservative women. Women in the D.A.R., for instance,
who supported the vote were not feminists . . .
(Follow-up) And your sources
Question - follow-up: You're not convincing me that you actually
found good grounds for identifying women as feminists. We talked about
women who think subconsciously that they are feminists. You know the
term feminism was very, very loosely used; very loosely used. A woman who
might call herself a feminist and really not have committed herself in
any way to feminism.
Question: Obviously both suffragist and anti-suffragist women believed in
domesticity across the board and perhaps all that you're talking about
[here], and feminists and suffragists are talking about, is abundance.
One historian said that no feminist has ever repudiated that. In some sense
consumerism is just simply an updating, an upgrading in all kinds of ways
. . . of abundance.
Question: Thinking about what's perhaps the biggest campaign I can think of to reshape
behavior to make a product acceptablethat is the campaign to get women
riding bicycles in the 1890'sI know that Colonel Pope, and others,
heavily subsidized that campaign by commissioning articles and planting
stories with journalists. Do you find women played any part in this effort
to get women to ride bicycles? It succeeded, of course.
Question: I am persuaded by you that women who were feminists did enter the world
of advertising and did participate in developing marketing strategies to
convince women to buy goods. Do you find any who felt uneasy about it?
They were caught in a dilemma. I like the way you put it. Were they aware
of the dilemma; were they self-conscious about it; did they think about
it; did they respond to it; were they uneasy about it?
Question: I think of The Bell Jar and of Sylvia Plath going to New York
to work for Mademoiselle, Glamoursome serious comments.
The falsity that she portrayed!
Question: I just wanted to ask about home economics courses. When did they start
pushing consumer goods? I remember that ours in seventh grade used a 1950s
textbook that was entirely about buying convenience food. [Follow-up comment:
You just might want to know that the field has been renamed family and
consumer sciences. As a whole field, in the nation, they don't call it
You argue that there's a period when the consumer was solely
pitched as a woman, maybe before the 1950s. Was there a male consumer
in the minds of the businesses and the advertisers? It seemed to be a big
economic incentive, and certainly by the second half of the century.
Question: Isn't this one of the Barbara Ehrenreich's points in The Hearts of Men
about Playboy in the 1950s? Wasn't this one of the first avenues
where men were encouraged to beautify themselves but at the same time not
be seen as homosexual?
Question: You can also see that in business magazines like Fortune
and Business Week there's a shift around the fifties from more industrial
advertisements to more consumer-oriented ones . . . .
quickly following up on this oneby another member of the audience.]
But I think in the thirties you see ads in McFadden's Magazine,
or other magazines, that are directed exclusively to men and are all about
male fearsmale fears about weakness, balding, and so on. They're also
tied to very gendered male excitements because McFadden's Magazine
also covers a lot of crime, true confession, and romance. I think you see
it segmented earlier than traditional . . . . ]
To what degree was the content of women's magazines changednot just
in terms of putting bicycles, or other products, into stories? To what
degree was the political program, and even feminism, of such magazines
subverted by the new commercialism?
~ End ~
American Women and the Making of Modern
Copyright © 1998 by The Journal for MultiMedia History
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