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American Consumerism

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American Consumerism

Consumerism is the theory that increased consumption of goods is beneficial for the economy. While the consumption of goods can drive economic growth, overconsumption can also have devastating effects on the environment, the financial situations and mental health of the general public.

American Consumerism Definition: Whilst the origins of consumerism began before the First World War, it only became commonplace in the USA during the 1920s. Throughout this era, production and consumerist instincts shaped the marketplace.

History of American Consumerism

Before WWI, the idea of buying more than you need for daily life, aside from occasional indulgence, was reserved for only the wealthiest Americans. Although department stores and mail-ordering were expanding across the United States, many families were either too conservative or couldn't afford to buy anything beyond their basic necessities.

However, at the end of World War I, American soldiers returned to a booming economy, a result of increased production during the war, which meant high levels of employment at better pay, which resulted in a lot of cash flow across the nation. Returning soldiers had just endured several years of brutal fighting in bleak conditions and were looking to start families and enjoy life.

Consumption of items like clothing, cars, and household appliances sky-rocketed, and some companies realized they had an exciting opportunity.

Model Ts for Credit

Credit cards didn't make their first appearance until the 1950s. Still, during the 1920s, many companies started offering individuals the opportunity to "buy" items on credit or to buy items in installments, often with sizeable interest charges.

American Consumerism, Model T in Seattle, StudySmarterMan driving a Model T in Seattle, sometime between 1917-1920. Source: Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

One well-known company that was successful in this venture was Ford and the company's creation of the Model T assembly line. Many Americans wanted to own a vehicle, but the hefty price tag meant it was out of reach for the average person. However, over time Ford developed an incredibly efficient assembly line that meant Model Ts could be built in record time, allowing their price to drop from over $800 when they were first released to just $300 in the mid 1920s. With the introduction of credit, Americans were able to buy cars with a down payment of less than ten dollars, meaning millions of citizens could suddenly take to the road.

The 1920s also experienced a massive expansion of ad firms. Companies knew that to keep up with demand, they had to create demand, and so they turned to ad companies to create print ads, posters and propaganda designed to entice the public and leave them feeling like they needed more, even if they already have everything they truly needed. In order for a consumerist society to be effective, there needs to be a culture of emptiness, so that the consumer is always left searching for something to fill the void.

Halt of American Consumerism

Although there was a boom of spending after the First World War, the United States experienced a sharp decrease in spending with the onset of the Great Depression in 1929. After the stock market crashed, production plummeted, and millions lost their jobs. Many citizens could barely afford to buy food, let alone a shiny new radio or a tailored suit.

The effects of the Great Depression continued to be felt for a decade, although many saw some relief in 1933 with the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt and his implementation of the New Deal policies. As the 30s rolled on, the economy experienced intense peaks and valleys, but America didn't fully bounce back until the onset of WWII, when wartime production once again ramped up, and government spending began again in earnest.

Rise of American Consumerism

Although the 1920s is often regarded as the start of American consumerism, many feel that the true rise of consumerism didn't begin until the years following WWII. After so many years of hardship and rationing, Americans were ready spend their money on things they enjoyed, or things that could make their life better or more efficient.

American consumerism, Woman advertising a fridge, StudySmarterWoman advertising a refrigerator on TES-TV, 1950s. Source: Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

Many young couples got married and immediately started families, which meant that demand for goods that would complement their growing families was high. Items that were still uncommon before the war were now becoming mainstream and affordable, and families bought items like washing machines, fridges and cars in astounding numbers.

American consumerism, An advert for kitchen cabinetry, StudySmarterAdvert for kitchen cabinetry, 1950s. Source: Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

Between 1945-1949 the US population sat at around 140 million people, and, during that time, Americans purchased 5.5 million stoves, 20 million refrigerators and 21.4 million cars! That's an increase of more than 200% when compared with pre-wartime spending.

Consumerism wasn't just driven by ad companies; it was also driven by politicians. After so many years of instability, American politicians really wanted to ingrain the idea of the perfect American family, which meant a white, suburban family with perfect kids, a working father, and a stay-at-home mother. Because of this ideal, most advertisements were targeted at women, who did most of the shopping for household goods.

Women were expected to provide a safe, clean and comfortable home for their husbands and children, and so buying the best possible appliances, clothing and toys was seen as almost a patriotic duty. What better way to support the post-war effort than by buying lots of things and contributing to the economy?

The Effects of Consumerism

Consumerism is still hailed by many as the model of what a good society should be. And to be certain, the consumption of goods is needed for companies to be able to turn a profit. If you start a business selling cookies you will need people to buy your cookies in order for you to be able to make a living, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. However, the United States is currently living in a time of massive overconsumption, and there is a downside to the rate at which we consume goods. The following are some of the common critiques of consumerism:


Materialism is not the same thing as consumerism, but the two can sometimes be hard to distinguish. Materialism is the idea that money and possessions are more important than other elements as life, such as spiritualism. Of course, everyone on the planet is a consumer to some level, so it would not be fair to say that all consumers are materialistic, but a consumerist culture can very easily create a materialistic mindset. In a culture where people feel like they never have "enough," it is natural to feel that the consumption of more goods will fill the void. Companies know this and will often specifically target consumers with products that are supposedly designed to "change your life" or "make you happy." This can sometimes result in people who continually buy products in the hopes of leading a more satisfactory life instead of investigating their feelings and trying to work on the issues that are making them feel sad, fearful or anxious in the first place.


With the introduction of credit cards in the 1950s, Americans were given the license to spend money they didn't have. While many Americans are in debt due to daily necessities, bills and education costs, others simply outspend their earnings because they want to give off the appearance of being rich or influential. High levels of debt come often leaving people with large monthly interest payments and constant stress, which can often lead to mental health and substance abuse issues.

Environmental Impact

Out of all the critiques of consumerism, the effect it has on the environment has been the most talked about over recent years. In order for people to keep buying new things, companies need to continually pump out products, which means excessive use of resources like gas, water and land. To add to that, many companies that make items such as toys, clothing and electronics, continually make new items so that their older products seem obsolete and are disposed of, filling up landfills and polluting waterways.

American consumerism, Four large In-N-Out burgers, StudySmarterFour large In-N-Out burgers. Source: Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

Overconsumption also affects how much food is available! Because of America's love of burgers and dairy, more than 40% of the land in the US is used as grazing land or crop cultivation for the soul purpose of feeding farm animals used for food. Worldwide, livestock takes up almost 80% of agricultural land. Much of the land used for crop cultivation could be used to feed those crops to the millions around the world who go hungry every day, but demand for animal products especially beef, plus the higher profits made from livestock, keep these systems in place.

Consumerism continues to be a controversial issues but remains prevalent in American society today.

American Consumerism - Key takeaways

  • Consumerism is the theory that the consumption of goods is good for the economy
  • Consumerism began to take off in the 1920s, after the end of WWI
  • Consumerism saw a huge boom after WWII, with a steep increase in the purchase of home appliances and cars
  • One of the biggest critiques of consumerism is the effect that overconsumption has on the environment

Frequently Asked Questions about American Consumerism

Consumerism can help drive the economy, but can also contribute to materialism and feelings of dissatisfaction. 

The theory that consumption of goods is good for the economy.

Consumerism began really taking off in the 1920s, but saw a steep rise after WWII.

Consumers were seen as good, patriotic citizens

Final American Consumerism Quiz


What is consumerism?

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The theory that consumption of goods is good for the economy

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When did American consumerism begin?

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Consumption began to increase in the 1920s

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When did consumerism in America experience a steep increase?

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After WWII

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What is the major critique of consumerism?

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Its impact on the environment

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What happened in 1929 the caused a halt in consumerism?

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The Great Depression

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Is consumerism and materialism the same thing?

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No, but they often go hand in hand.

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What is materialism?

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The idea that possessions are more important than other elements of life, such as spiritualism

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Who were most ads directed to after WWII?

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Women - they made most purchases for the home

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What did some companies introduce in the 1920s to allow people to buy more expensive products?

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Does eating food count as consumption?

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Yes. In fact, love of beef and dairy products has lead to widespread land use across the US and around the world. 

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