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Consumerism in the U.S. in the 1950s Video

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  • 0:01 Transforming Wartime Industry
  • 0:46 The Rest of the World
  • 1:47 Importance of Advertising
  • 2:47 The American Dream
  • 3:21 Credit Cards
  • 4:01 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

In the 1950s, the per capita income in the U.S. may have been thousands of dollars less than it is today, but advertising was already a multibillion dollar industry! Find out what they were selling in this lesson on consumerism.

Transforming Wartime Industry

During World War II, the whole country's industrial power had been focused on one thing and one thing only: destroying the Axis Powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan. That had required a massive outpouring of industrial production, true to Roosevelt's promise to make America an 'Arsenal for Democracy.' But as the end of the war approached, there was the very real question of what to do now. There was little use for massive bombers and armored tanks now that the country was, at least for the time being, at peace. However, the economic benefits of having so many people employed were obvious, and even more apparent as the first soldiers started to return from overseas and look for work.

Compared to the Rest of the World

At this time, the United States had one distinct advantage. Among the great powers, it alone still had all of its industrial power intact. Germany, France, Britain, and the Soviet Union had been devastated by war. And in fact, the Marshall Plan was passed to help rebuild many of these countries. Meanwhile, American industry just needed some retooling to switch from wartime industries to peaceful pursuits.

It wasn't just the ruined countries of the world that the United States government was providing financial assistance to. Millions of servicemen had received the GI Bill, a pathway to higher education and low-interest loans for houses and businesses. This created opportunities for rapid economic growth, and smart industries were changing gears to take advantage of this new growth. Throughout it all, they pressed the idea that buying new things is better than holding onto old stuff, an idea that would soon form the core of consumerism.

Importance of Advertising

American industry was able to produce massive quantities of consumer goods, but those goods only sat in warehouses until they were purchased. Luckily, one of the most desirable consumer goods was the television. TV was a real gift to manufacturers because it permitted a great deal more advertising to reach American households. A false reality was constructed that showed Americans living in the suburbs with two cars, a television, two or three kids, a live-in housekeeper, and all while the man was the only one to hold a job. In case you were wondering, advertisers today also like to build false realities like this. The effect today is the same as it was 70 years ago - people couldn't wait to go buy new things so they could be like the people on TV! This was all actually really shocking even to the advertising executives who were making money off of the new commercials. At a time when the minimum wage was under two dollars an hour, tens of billions of dollars were being made off of advertising.

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