Subject Guide

Consumer Culture

The growth of a "culture of consumption" is one of the defining features of modern America. During the early years of the twentieth century, as consumerism transformed the U.S. business system, mass marketing, advertising, market research, product and package design became increasingly important. Advertisements identified the culture of abundance with the American Dream, selling visions of modernity, leisure, and family. These advertisements often were based on elaborate market research studies that identified the reasons why consumers bought the automobiles, radios, television sets, plastic toys, fashions, cosmetics, food, and drink that came to define American life.

View PDF version of the guide with images from our collections

ADVERTISING

Records from corporate advertising departments contain thousands of individual advertisements in print and video formats. They provide invaluable information concerning public attitudes, and about product sales and development. Correspondence between corporate executives and advertising agencies describes the evolution of corporate strategy and the use of mass media. Sales and marketing department records provide insight into the ideas behind particular advertising themes and campaigns. Market research studies show how consumption patterns changed over time and were influenced by society and culture. They disaggregate data on consumer response according to gender, social class, occupation, family size, race, ethnicity, geographic location, educational level, and marital status.

Hagley has more than a dozen corporate advertising collections. Avon Products advertisements for cosmetics, personal hygiene products, and fragrances indicate the firm's use of gender ideologies to support its direct selling strategy. Company records also document its post-1960s advertising campaign directed towards African Americans. The Seagram archive traces the ways in which its advertising managers linked company brands with the culture of consumption and ideas about the "good life" and upward mobility. Advertisements, package design records, hospitality guides, and bottle labels promoted Seagram as a symbol of craftsmanship, tradition, and prestige. Inter-Society Color Council and the Color Association of the United States records document the process by which the textile, fashion, and paint industries standardized colors and used color as a marketing tool.

PUBLIC RELATIONS

There always has been a close relationship between marketing, advertising, and corporate public relations. Promotion of individual products frequently evolved into campaigns designed to bolster a firm's image and that of the American business system. The DuPont Company's famous slogan, "Better things for better living through chemistry," was not only the cornerstone of an advertising campaign for nylon and plastics, but also represented an effort to impress consumers with the company's positive impact on their lives. Seagram's responsible drinking campaign that began shortly after the repeal of Prohibition was designed to help the company overcome the stigma associated with the beverage alcohol industry.

Since the Progressive era public relations initiatives also sought to legitimize big business in the face of criticism from anti-trust crusaders, consumer advocates, and labor movements. The new public relations professionals mobilized popular support for business' political agendas, and approaches to labor-management relations, and more recently its ideas about social responsibility and environmentalism. Trade associations such as the National Association of Manufacturers and the Chamber of Commerce of the United States played leading roles in shaping the attitudes of the American people towards big business.

Hagley has advertising and public relations records from the following companies and trade associations:

  • American Iron and Steel Institute (consumer durables)
  • Avon Products, Inc. (cosmetics, fragrances)
  • Chamber of Commerce of the United States
  • Color Association of the United States
  • E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Company (plastics, synthetic textiles, nylon, rayon)
  • General Motors (automobiles)
  • Gray & Rogers, Inc. (Philadelphia-area advertising agency)
  • International Housewares Association
  • Inter-Society Color Council
  • Joseph E. Seagram & Sons (beverage alcohol)
  • National Association of Manufacturers
  • Quaker Lace Company (lace curtains, tablecloths, napkins)
  • Raymond Loewy Papers
  • R.C.A. (radio, television, motion pictures)
  • Society for the Plastics Industry
  • Strawbridge & Clothier (Philadelphia department store)
  • Sunoco (gasoline service stations)

DESIGN

In the twentieth century product and package design became expressions of American consumer culture. Designers styled products to appeal to popular ideas about taste, modernity, sensuality, and sophistication. Packaging also was used as a selling tool as designers worked closely with advertising agencies and in-house advertising departments.

For many, Raymond Loewy's streamlining defined the modern world of the 1930s and 1940s. Hagley's collection of Raymond Loewy papers includes photographs, scrapbooks, drawings, advertising materials, and client correspondence. The Pennsylvania Railroad archive contains the Loewy firm's sketches of locomotives, passenger cars, and dining car menus as well as correspondence with company officers and technical personnel. After the second World War Loewy and his firm turned their attention to the suburban home, the supermarket, and the shopping mall. Files from the late 1940s through the 1970s describe Loewy's contribution to the making of mid-century modernism.

Records of E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Company and papers of independent designers that worked for the DuPont Company document the marketing and packaging of consumer product groups such as paints, car care, and lawn and garden. Records from RCA describe the design of early radio and television and show the ways in which technical, advertising, and design considerations became linked in the process of product development.

The papers of New York-based package designer Irv Koons (b. 1922) document work performed for the following companies: Clairol-Bristol Myers, Consolidated Cigar, Dixie Products, Gillette, Joseph E. Seagram & Sons, Nabisco, Procter & Gamble, and Revlon.

The Koons papers also contain an extensive collection of market research reports.

The papers of Thomas Lamb (1898-1990) describe the origins of what we now call Universal Design, the idea that design should accommodate those with special needs. Firms such as ALCOA applied Lamb's innovative approach to make handles for cutlery, housewares, sports equipment, luggage, and dental devices.

Marc Harrison (1936-1998) was a disciple of Thomas Lamb who taught at the Rhode Island School of Design for many years. Harrison was an early advocate of Universal Design and is best known for the design of the Cusinart food processor.

RETAIL MARKETING AND HOME ECONOMICS

Prescriptive depictions of household consumption and retail store design played important roles in defining consumer culture. Company magazines held by Hagley often contain idealized portrayals of modern families enjoying the American dream.

The Strawbridge & Clothier records include lists of products sold in the store, store plans, and photographs of store window displays promoting products and lifestyles. Avon Products records trace its direct selling methods, especially the role of Avon representatives from the 1890s through the 1970s.

Hagley's world's fair and international exposition collections depict displays of consumer products and show how industrial designers such as Walter Dorwin Teague and Norman Bel Geddes used their artistic visions to link consumer culture to corporate imagery, and to "the world of tomorrow."

PHOTOGRAPHS, FILM, AND VIDEO

Hagley's Pictorial Collections and Photographic Services Department contains more than 1,000,000 images. Still photography, films, and videotapes depict over a century of consumer products, public relations, and advertising initiatives. The pictorial archives house a growing body of television advertisements including materials from the famous "Avon Calling" campaign of the 1960s and 1970s, a collection of DuPont Company advertising from the 1950s through the 1980s, as well as promotional materials generated by the Society for the Plastics Industry and the American Iron and Steel Institute. Films from the National Association of Manufacturers (most notably Industry on Parade), the Chamber of Commerce of the United States, and radio scripts for the DuPont "Cavalcade of America" represent major milestones in the evolution of modern public relations.

TRADE CATALOGS

Trade catalogs have been a prominent feature in American life from the early nineteenth century to the present day. They provide evidence about the evolution of the modern distribution and communication systems linking manufacturers, wholesalers, retailers, and consumers.

Trade catalogs also are important sources of information about the history of marketing, technology, popular culture, material culture, and social attitudes.

Hagley has a distinguished collection of more than 25,000 trade catalogs. They describe products manufactured and distributed by the companies represented in the archival collections, as well from hundreds of other firms operating primarily in the Mid-Atlantic region. Business sectors represented include:

  • Automobiles
  • Building materials
  • Clothing
  • Department stores
  • Food and beverage products
  • Furniture and furnishings
  • Glass and ceramics
  • Hardware
  • Household appliances
  • Housing (mail order, plans)
  • Housewares
  • Leather goods
  • Lighting fixtures
  • Paints
  • Pharmaceuticals
  • Plastics
  • Plumbing supplies
  • Textiles

TRADE JOURNALS

Hagley has an important collection of trade journals from many of the consumer product industries. Of particular interest to students of consumer culture are: Modern Plastics, Quick Frozen Foods, Practical Home Economics, Textile Colorist, American Perfumier, Department Store Economist, American Fabrics, Food Industries, Manufacturing Clothier, American Glass Review, and Ceramic Industry.

TRADE CARDS

Trade cards are an early example of mass advertising. In the nineteenth century retailers and sales people distributed them widely to prospective customers. These small, colorful lithographs often depict consumer products in use, interior household views, and social mores. Hagley has more than 3,500 trade cards in its collections.

CONTACT

For general questions about using any of these materials, please use our Ask Hagley online form or call 302-658-2400 ext 227.

The Hagley Center for the History of Business, Technology and Society awards travel grants for visiting scholars. Some housing is available on the property. The Center also organizes conferences, research seminars, and academic programs. For more information email clockman@Hagley.org.