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Essay questions for the breadwinner

The historiography of the Post-World War II Era includes several social histories that attempt to grasp the lived experience of their subjects’ lives as well as works that focus on discursive processes looking deeply at how ideas in culture develop and shift over time. Lizabeth Cohen’s A Consumer’s Republic and Jessica Weiss’ To Have and To Hold are both seminal social histories of the post-War era, while in Homeward Bound and The Permissive Society. Elaine Tyler May and Alan Petigny have concerned themselves with cultural process. All of these works deal with the rise of mass consumption in the 1950s, and (some better than others) the issues of gender and race that are tied up in this rise. Each author, though focusing on the same period, had their uses of sources and analysis significantly colored by their decision to use a social or cultural analysis.

Elaine Tyler May and Alan Petigny use cultural sources to discern the effects of consumer culture on wider American society in the 1950s. In her book, May concerns herself with cultural discourse and argues that images of the middle-class family within consumer culture, especially advertising, saturated society with ideas about such a family with a male breadwinner and a sexually attractive consumer housewife with children.[1] This cultural discourse of the “normative” middle-class family became the dominant discourse within post-World War II America making it difficult to construct identities outside of this paradigm. Petigny, on the other hand, uses cultural sources to show how, instead of becoming more focused on domesticity, the immediate post-War period, which has been generally glossed over by historians, actually began the permissiveness that was evidenced in the 1950s and 1960s.

Lizabeth Cohen deals with post-war consumption in a way that utilizes social, material sources to consider consumption patterns rather than the discursive constructions that Weiss, Petigny and May are interested in. Cohen uses a number of sources including magazines, newspapers, television commercials, and more traditional sources from government and labor organizations to weave a story of consumption and the public sphere in the twentieth-century. This focus on what people bought, and how people related to the government through their purchasing habits allowed Cohen to describe the lives of consumers in the United States.

Jessica Weiss, similarly, has produced a social history of the post-World War II period. Her study is far more focused than any of the others as she only considers data dealing with one hundred families gathered from the Institute of Human Development (IHD) studies in Berkley and Oakland California.[2] This narrow focus helps Weiss, like Cohen’s material study, to develop an analysis of change in the everyday lives of people.

The different ways in which these authors approached their studies theoretically, between a discursive or material analysis, profoundly shaped the ways in which they considered consumption in the late 1940s and 1950s. In her consideration of cultural discourse, May used consumer habits and artifacts of consumerism such as television commercials, magazine articles, and television programming to argue that these artifacts helped create an ideology that held up consumerism as a way to achieve individuality, leisure, and upward mobility.[3] Furthermore, these consumerist artifacts helped forge suburbia as a safe-haven and bulwark against the threat of a Communist enemy overseas.[4] In this way, argued May, consumerism became an important cultural value in itself that defined lifestyles and authenticated the value and necessity of social mobility.[5] With a post-War society informed and, in many ways, created by consumer culture, commodities became a central battle in the larger battle over political ideology. May used the example of the kitchen debates between Khrushchev and Nixon to frame this larger battle over commodities suggesting that the gap between Soviet and American commodity production may have been as important, if not more so, than the missile gap.[6]

Likewise, Petigny considered cultural discourse in his analysis of the post-World War II era by considering the consumption and growing popularity of psychological and social scientific theory. He suggested that Freud’s increasing popularity in the years immediately following the war moved men and women of the pre-baby boomer era toward a psychological paradigm in which they sought help from medical professionals rather than absolution from religious moralists as they had in the past.[7] This confidence in new social theories continued as Americans put their trust in social experts like Dr. Benjamin Spock. Petigny went on to argue that as American’s put their faith in the more forgiving ideology of psychology, and increasingly left behind the world of hardline, traditional religion, society became more accepting, or permissive, of those things which would have once stained one with guilt or dishonor. This permissive society did not necessarily accept improper actions of its members; instead, the rising discourse of popular psychology emphasized healing and treatment.[8] While Petigny argued that consumerism was partially responsible for this shift, the ideology of permissive psychology not only affected consumer habits, it also transformed the ways in which individuals organized their lives and conceived of existence.[9]

Unlike May and Petigny who considered consumer society as part of a larger cultural discourse that reshaped the ways in which people conceptualized their lives, Cohen and Weiss delved into the lives of their subjects in order to discern the ways in which they participated within that society. Like May, Cohen suggested that suburbia became a symbol of middle-class consumerism, but, unlike May, Cohen viewed the creation of suburban symbolism as part of a larger political strategy of national recovery consciously put in place through an economic planning strategy of privatized mass consumption.[10] This economic plan, argued Cohen, grew out of fears that big business, liberal politicians, and labor leaders had about a deep and lasting post-war depression.[11] With these fears in mind, government endorsed the economic policies of John Maynard Keynes using government money to fund companies like General Electric and Westinghouse in order to support full employment, and, therefore, greater consumption.[12] This greater consumption, Cohen argued, was not separated from the average workers identity as a laborer; instead, workers saw their lives earning a living existing as an interconnected whole with their lives as citizen consumers.[13] This interconnectedness created a 1950s in which workers who happily purchased the latest consumer goods, also believed they could use their powers of consumption to gain leverage over their employers through boycotts and strikes.[14] In this way, Cohen paints a picture of consumer-producers who were conscious of how their roles as consumers played into their larger political surroundings.

Weiss, while she did not deal directly with the issue of consumerism, considered it tangentially through her study of the family while considering gender and sexuality within magazines. She used the work of 1950s sexologist Alfred Kinsey to suggest that there had been a loosening of sexual mores between World Wars One and Two.[15] Americans in the Post-World War II period also embraced “ideals of sexual pleasure, but were unable or unwilling to put accompanying prescriptions for emotional intimacy into practice.”[16] This lack of intimacy that translated into the inability to discuss sex caused women to seek sexual advice and cues from the rising consumer culture and, in particular, magazines. This segment of the consumer culture often occupied itself with explaining the differences between expectations for male and female sexual satisfaction.[17] To this end, “sexperts,” as Weiss called them, emphasized the female’s need to adjust in cases of sexual disappointment. This adjustment, argues Weiss, showed the prevailing double standard in marriage that suggested women’s sexual needs were fewer than their husbands.[18] However, many sexperts emphasized communication as well.[19] Overall, the entrance of sexpert opinions in the marketplace, rather than solving the problem of intimacy in marriage, made sex clinical rather than passionate, showing the limited ability of consumerism to solve societies problems.[20]

Cohen, Petigny, and May have all added to the historiography of consumerism in different ways while overlapping each other. While May and Petigny both saw a discursive transformation of American culture through the artifacts of the emerging consumer society, their transformations were very different. May saw the rise of consumerism usher in a renewal of feminine domesticity that created the home as a place of security and stability in a threatening world. May, writing in 1990, had her argument challenged by Alan Petigny in 2009. Petigny realized the general return to domesticity, but he argued that, instead of being overly concerned with security and traditional values, the 1950s were far more permissive than May realized. What’s more, Petigny suggested that there was an “oppositional discourse” that developed during the post-War period that approved of women’s work outside of the home.[21]

Cohen’s study seems to work within May’s paradigm. While Cohen did not explicitly suggest a return to domesticity for the sake of security, she did suggest that consumer society, as it encouraged movement out to suburbs, it also encouraged the privacy of domesticity by breaking down the public sphere of the city shops and streets.[22] Considering issues of gender within her larger discussion of consumption, Cohen argued that women in the post-World War II period returned to the pre-War pattern of shopping for their families; however, the added post-War component of large scale marketing helped to create suburban shopping centers that were both catered to women’s needs and were welcoming for family leisure time.[23] Also, Cohen suggested that credit cards expanded women’s control over family money while, at the same time, it limited that access because their husbands generally had to apply for the cards.[24] This concentration on how women interacted with consumer society is similar to Weiss’ treatment of women reading the work of sexperts and applying it to their own lives. Meanwhile, the more personal, ground-up nature of Cohen and Weiss’ studies, again, emphasize the differences between these social histories that are concerned with people and May and Petigny’s study that concentrate on discourse.

While May and Cohen combine to create a story that involves the return to domesticity within a larger story of local and international politics of consumption, Petigny’s reconsideration is convincing and should serve to nuance our understanding of the post-World War II period as a period of multiple possibilities outside the dominant paradigm of domesticity and traditional values.

Within their studies, May, Petigny, Weiss, and Cohen dealt with consumerism and gender in some way; however, the current place of race in the post-War historiography is puzzling. Cohen’s story is partially one of race segregation and hope to partake within the larger consumer society. She argued that as white, middle-class families moved to the suburbs, many of the programs that made it possible for such a move, like the GI Bill of Rights, favored white middle-class men over people of color. Furthermore, local real estate practices also created a discriminatory atmosphere that made the suburbs into a middle-class, and specifically white, space. [25] In particular, mortgage lenders deployed and withheld their funds in such a way that would encourage all-white neighborhoods and the decay of black neighborhoods.[26] Along with the real estate market, black consumers were left out of the more general marketplace but with decreasing ease.[27] After participating in World War II, black veterans began demanding access to both private and public spaces that had been previously denied to them. To this end, Cohen argued, the black community participated in boycotts to demand a more inclusive role within the 1950s consumer society.[28] This complicates the usual story of the 1950s civil rights organization. Generally, historians credit middle-class organizers and the NAACP for advocating on behalf of the black community during this era; however, Cohen’s story of boycotts adds nuance to the existing metanarrative insisting that organization had a broader base, with regards to class, than previously argued.[29] In the end, this battle for participation was largely won in the market as advertisers realized that “fringe markets” could serve as profitable realms in which to sell their goods which led to a fragmented market place with greater options for myriad groups.[30]

Oddly, May, Petigny, and Weiss largely left race out of their analysis. This is somewhat understandable in the case of May and Petigny. One could argue that May’s book, since it is largely concerned with cultural discourse, includes other races in its analysis as they were subject to the same consumerist discourse as the white population. However, this argument is dubious as this consumerist discourse, as suggested by Cohen’s analysis, was often restrictive to those who were not white. Furthermore, even without the restrictions to public and private services, patterns of racism would have no doubt shaped the way people of color responded to consumer discourse within a white dominated society. Similarly, Petigny talks extensively about religion and psychology, which no doubt would have affected the ways in which people of color conceived of the world around them; however, as was the case with May’s analysis, one would assume that people living in a society in which racial difference was important and access to services was often determined by this difference would likely consume psychology and religious doctrine differently than the wider society. Weiss, on the other hand, left out race because of her limited primary source material. Using only one hundred white families from California as her lens into wider American culture, Weiss could not even begin to discuss the different experiences of other racial groups. Furthermore, her study could have used a deeper discussion of why race was apparently not present within her IHD documents. In this case, Weiss could have used the absence of evidence as evidence to shed some light on how these Californians viewed or tried to ignore the issue of race and racism.

While May, Petigny, Weiss, and Cohen have created a helpful roadmap with which future historians can continue their journey into the post-War period, there is still work left to be done. In spite of their work that tried to get at the everyday lives of people, Weiss and Cohen largely failed to cultivate a lived feeling within their studies. Considering Cohen’s breadth of source material and her social methodology, one would fully expect her book to have such a lived feeling. However, Cohen decided to write a national story that includes race, gender, and class as areas of analysis and this wide range gave her little chance to include the stories of the many people who were involved in this history. So, instead of providing a reader with a lived feeling that is usually a major strength of a book which uses so many social sources, Cohen’s work evokes an unlived feeling that makes one wonder how individuals experienced the national phenomenon of consumer society. Similarly, Weiss’ book failed to produce a lived feeling, but in precisely the opposite way that Cohen failed. The one hundred cases that Weiss uses were part of a government study that makes one wonder how honest people were in their responses. Weiss herself admits that in questions of sex, her subjects’ answers were largely short or evasive.[31] Had Weiss broadened her source base a bit further and used more demographic evidence, she may have been able to better contextualize her study and give it the lived feeling it was missing. This said, both Cohen and Weiss emphasized the agency of their subjects which places those subjects into their stories as actors rather than the passive subjects who are seemingly dominated by cultural discourse as in Homeward Bound and The Permissive Society .

In considering the 1950s in the future, historians would do well to add space as a category of analysis. Looking at how spaces were practiced, imagined, and reimagined could both help analyze the dominant values of a culture and give a reader the feeling that he or she is on the ground with the subject making the overall work more enjoyable and persuasive. In some ways Cohen deals with issues of space in her consideration of private and public spaces, but this work needs to be expanded into the family household to try and decide what the “T.V. room” meant to a family or how the space of a kitchen was practiced during different hours of the day.

Elaine Tyler May, Alan Petigny, Jessica Weiss, and Lizabeth Cohen all have helped add to the richness of the post-World War II America historiography. Using cultural and social sources these historians have been able to consider and reconsider issues relating to consumerism and gender construction. While only Cohen deals with race in a convincing way, and the multiracial aspects of consumer society could use more consideration in the future, the major work left to be done lay in the spaces (big and small) that Americans in the 1950s occupied and practiced in varied ways. That said, these four works have provided the building blocks for any study that wishes to delve into those larger spatial constructions.

[1] Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era (New York: Basic Books Digital Edition, 2008) 37.

[2] Jessica Weiss, To Have and To Hold: Marriage the Baby-boom and Social Change (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000), 3.

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