Lizabeth Cohen, Howard Mumford Jones Professor of American Studies and author of a new book that views postwar American history through the lens of consumerism, is laughing at herself. Asked to suggest a local shopping mall for a photo shoot, she’s stumped. “I hardly ever go to the mall,” she admits.
By the thesis of her own book, “A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America” (Knopf, 2003), Cohen may be falling down on her civic duty as consumer-citizen.
“A Consumers’ Republic” explores how, in the years following America’s Great Depression and World War II – particularly the 1950s, ’60s, and early ’70s – mass consumption was more than just the economic engine that fueled the nation’s unprecedented prosperity. It also transformed American political, cultural, and social life.
“The hope and expectation was that this mass consumption would be the way to deliver many long-sought American goals of greater equality, more democracy,” says Cohen. “If all Americans prospered and were on a similar footing as middle-class citizens, we would create a postwar American society of equals, of people who could participate in the political system as full players.”
In her book, Cohen mines everything from government studies and old magazine advertisements to the built environment of the suburbs and political movements to explore ways in which the “consumers’ republic” – a term she coined – made good on its promise of equal citizenship through consumerism but at the same time created new social and political inequalities.
Return to Jersey
Ten years in the making, “A Consumers’ Republic” picks up, historically, where Cohen’s previous award-winning book “Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939” (Cambridge University Press, 1990) left off.
“I was interested in developing a history of how an economy and a culture built around mass consumption shaped the larger political order of the postwar period,” she says. While that era is popularly conceived of in terms of material things – the ranch homes, washing machines, televisions, and Chryslers that forever changed our lives – Cohen maintains that mass consumption transformed our nation in the political and social spheres as well as in economic ways.
The Great Depression and World War II left the nation anxious to create a society that would prosper economically and uphold the national ideals of democracy, she says. As war-focused manufacturing shifted to producing consumer goods, and suburban hamlets arose to meet the unprecedented housing demands of returning veterans and their families, Cohen’s “consumers’ republic” was born.
While “A Consumers’ Republic” looks broadly at the nation’s enthusiastic embrace of mass consumption, Cohen focuses tightly on the sprawling suburbs of her New Jersey youth for specific examples.
As she began research on the book, Cohen and her husband, a professor of French history, moved from Pittsburgh, where she had been an assistant professor at Carnegie-Mellon University, to New York City, where both had faculty positions at New York University (NYU). After several years in NYU housing, Cohen and her family moved to a New Jersey suburb not far from her birthplace of Paramus.
“It just kind of dawned on me one day that where I had spent the first eight or nine years of my life was in many ways a wonderful laboratory for this project,” she says. “New Jersey was the quintessential suburban state in the postwar period.”
Equality and prosperity for some
Cohen’s own youth also illustrates how the egalitarian ideals of the postwar period gave way to a reality in which prosperity was not distributed equally. While her family’s Paramus neighborhood was a social and economic mix of professions, religions, and incomes, their next two suburban homes – the first nearby in New Jersey and the second in Westchester County, N.Y., were in more solidly middle-class neighborhoods that were far less diverse.
“Even as mass suburbanization offered more Americans a piece of the action – their own home, a car in the garage, a shopping center down the road – it created inequalities,” she says. “Those inequalities and hierarchies came because what was built into this consumers’ republic was the notion that private markets could deliver these kinds of social promises and ideals.”
But private markets, says Cohen, favor some people more than others. African Americans, women, and working-class families did not share in the nation’s prosperity in the same measure that white men did.
And dependence on private markets can undermine citizens’ stated ideals, as Cohen illustrates with cases of white suburban homeowners’ resistance to black families purchasing neighboring homes. “He’s probably a nice guy,” said a white neighbor of the first black family to move into his Levittown, Pa., suburb in 1957, “but every time I look at him I see $2,000 drop off the value of my house.”
With enormous home investments to protect, “you’ve set up a situation where peoples’ politics are captive to their bank accounts,” says Cohen.
Market forces also created public spaces in suburbia – the regional shopping centers and strip malls that stood in for traditional town centers as suburbs sprang up from cornfields – that were not accessible to all. Because shopping centers were privately owned, says Cohen, they could control, subtly or overtly, who was welcome. Bus routes, for instance, were carefully designed to ferry carless housewives to shopping centers but not to carry residents – often poor and African-American – from nearby cities that were losing retail stores.
“Suburbia did not deliver the broad-based equality and social cohesion through mass consumption that postwar Americans had hoped for,” she says.
Citizen-consumers seize power
Cohen is quick to note that her account is not all grim.
“It was a double-edged sword,” she says. “The consumers’ republic actually contributed to the flourishing of some very progressive political action.”
Once citizenship and consumerism were fused, some groups saw new political possibilities. African Americans drew on a long history of wielding purchasing power for social and political gains to demand widespread access to public accommodations in the North right after World War II; Cohen describes this as seeds sown for the later full flowering of the Civil Rights Movement.
And in the 1960s and ’70s, a consumers’ movement arose to demand fair labeling and packaging, cleaner air and water, and protection against dangerous products.
Today’s consumers’ republic
On the Harvard faculty since 1997, Cohen credits a 2001-02 Radcliffe Fellowship with getting her to the finish line of this book. The fellowship provided not only precious time, she says, but also a space away from the distractions of her home or office to knit together the book’s chapters.
Amid media interviews and public events that will help launch “A Consumers’ Republic,” Cohen recalls the process of researching and writing with anguish – the burden of gaining permissions to use the book’s many photos and images – and delight.
“There were surprises around every turn,” she says. She offers as an example her previously unbridled celebration of the GI Bill as a progressive model of government largesse. As she researched her book, however, she discovered that the bill favored some veterans over others. Because the funds were distributed via established channels – banks provided mortgages monies, colleges administered scholarships – African Americans, women, or less-educated men who traditionally had less access to those institutions were less able to reap the Bill’s benefits.
With the Christmas holidays just gone and with the government exhorting us to spend to keep a recession at bay, Cohen’s consumers’ republic is still relevant. In 2001, Americans received tax rebate checks with encouragement to head to the mall. The Federal Reserve Bank has whittled away at interest rates until many of us can’t resist home ownership.
“Mass consumption is very deeply embedded in our economic system, in our landscape, in our political culture, in people’s relationships to government, in the dynamics of power in the family,” she says. “I think it’s unrealistic to think that we will disentangle citizenship and consumerism any time soon.”
Lizabeth Cohen will discuss her book, ‘A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America,’ at Harvard Bookstore Feb. 7 at 3 p.m. Visit Radcliffe’s multimedia presentation of Cohen’s work at http://www.radcliffe.edu/fellowships/profiles/cohen/