Antebellum Economic Development and the Growth of Consumerism

Read this short overview of the emergence of consumerism in nineteenth-century America.

The antebellum period in United States history saw incredible technological and organizational developments that helped to provide the foundation for the country to become one of the greatest industrial powers by 1900. Economic historians have identified the antebellum decades (1840s and 1850s) as the period of economic takeoff, the leap forward that set the stage for the incredible boom of the post-war years. For good reasons, most historians have emphasized the growth and development in economic production and improvements in transportations and distribution of raw materials and manufactured goods in the nineteenth-century U. S. (see the other selection for this subunit for more on those areas). Great changes simultaneously took place in economic consumption, an area of great importance for the study of literature.

One of the founding ideals of American society was the notion of the self-sufficient yeoman farmer, celebrated most famously by Thomas Jefferson. While it would be incorrect to reduce the yeoman farmer to a myth, the reality tended to be more complex than the notion of independent farmers, sustaining themselves and their families through their labor in the land and remaining largely detached from the corrupting market forces of the cities and Europe. Even before the American Revolution, consumer goods became an important part of the economy, with everyday people on farms and in towns increasingly buying at least some manufactured or luxury goods. In fact, one of the most famous incidents leading up to the Revolution, the Boston Tea Party, centered on resistance to the imposition of new taxes on a global consumer good. Farmers as well as city residents had become accustomed to selling their wares or their superfluous productions to give them the money to participate in what had become over the course of the eighteenth century a global market of various kinds of goods, from fine pottery to sugar to tea and coffee. For most Americans, these goods remained largely in the realm of luxuries, items bought and saved as heirlooms or only purchased for special occasions, but they still represented an important part of their lives.

Over the course of the first half of the nineteenth century, production became increasingly detached from the home, as more Americans moved into the manufacturing sector and manufacturing more and more moved from piecework or artisanal work produced within the home or in a space adjacent to the home to large-scale manufacturing. At the same time, with the transportation revolution, the building of canals, the development of the railroad, and the use of steam-powered boats to move goods up and down the nation's rivers and canals, farming tended to become more market oriented. Fewer and fewer farms focused exclusively on subsistence, rather they centered their production on crops with the greatest market value. At the same time as more Americans became part of a complex national and global market in raw goods, through the first half of the nineteenth century, consumption tended to remain more local in focus. Small shops and merchants retailed some goods from far-off manufacturing centers in England and the developing industrial centers of the northeast, but most of their goods were locally produced and were often exchange using barter rather than money. Itinerant peddlers supplemented these offerings by providing a selection of goods – quite frequently including books – in their excursions into rural areas. By the end of the century, however, that would change as national labels, such as Nabisco, Proctor and Gamble, and Heinz, began to market to consumers across the country, and some of the major retails chains, such as A & P and Woolworth's, began to emerge. Shops specializing in specific kinds of goods had appeared in the 1820s in urban centers, and by the 1850s, the first department stores had opened. These stores appealed distinctly to women as consumers, plying their goods to the mothers and wives who were increasingly defined in terms of taking care of the home through the purchase of consumer goods. The stores attempted to create an atmosphere mirroring the safety of the home while accentuating the pleasures of being in public and indulging the senses through the display of what had previously been luxury items. It is important to recognize the increasing importance of consumption in the American economy and culture for many reasons. First, it helps to remind us that the United States' economic development of the nineteenth century involved not just the production of new goods and of old goods at faster rates and greater volumes but also the necessary sale and consumption of those goods – goods often marketed for making the home more comfortable. Second, it indicates that alongside the continuing emphasis on work ethic in American culture, a new leisure ethic began to emerge – a cultural defense of the importance of time away from work as a way of rejuvenating the self. The emergence of literature as a form of entertainment, as opposed to primarily a vehicle for disseminating information, offering moral instruction, or promoting specific political positions, was directly related to this new conceptualization of leisure as not merely defensible but in fact necessary. The leisure ethic helped to foster the development of a consumer culture that also opened a marketplace for imaginative literature, allowing writers the possibility of pursuing literary writing as a career. Most writers, including the most famous writers of the era felt torn by these developments as they desired their works to be more than mere escapist entertainment.

Many literary works of the period reveal a certain discomfort with leisure, even as they frequently questioned the changing dynamics of work as labor increasingly became defined in terms of capitalist market relations.

Source: Saylor Academy
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Last modified: Wednesday, November 20, 2019, 3:26 PM