The Boston Phoenix May 6 - 13, 1999
You are what you buy, says a BU professor -- and that's okay
by Michelle Chihara
Americans covet, and the economy thrives as a result. Our whole system is
driven by our apparently boundless desire for more cool stuff. This
materialism isn't normally considered one of our cultural strong points
-- critics tend to see it as evidence of unsavory characteristics such as
avarice, shallowness, or gullible faith in advertising.
Regina Blaszczyk disagrees. Blaszczyk, an assistant professor of history at Boston University, says that consumerism can be a natural, normal, even constructive part of our identity. In her work, Blaszczyk uses the manufacture and purchase of goods such as china, glassware, and clothing as a lens for examining American history. She finds that material goods have played a central role in "building individual identity and negotiating interpersonal relationships," and her work indicates that we infuse our goods -- from teapots to T-shirts -- with ritual and meaning. Those meanings influence our lives, which, in turn, influence our taste as much as, if not more than, the top-down system called advertising.
It's a strikingly populist interpretation of commercial culture: to say that consumers actually dictate how companies behave, that they tailor themselves to the values we bring to the marketplace. Blaszczyk takes issue with what she calls "radical scholars who see consumption as compromising political action." You are, of course, more than what you buy. But Blaszczyk says that what you buy can be a productive part of who you are.
This interview was conducted over the phone and by e-mail from Wilmington, Delaware, where Blaszczyk is on leave for a semester of research at the Hagley Museum and Library. She'll return to Boston next semester as a visiting professor at Harvard's Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History. She is also a Smithsonian Institution fellow and museum specialist. Her book, Imagining Consumers: Design and Innovation from Wedgwood to Corning, is due out next fall from Johns Hopkins University Press.
Q: Media critics often describe a consumer world of manipulative advertisers versus victimized consumers. You put forward a different model. What is it about the image of a coercive marketplace that you disagree with?
Now, historians do admit that advertising is a key institution in American life. But scholars who focus heavily on advertising overlook what's going on in other parts of the culture. What's missing in that model are the multiple voices in consumer culture. We don't hear, for example, the opinions of manufacturers in their front offices, retailers in their stockrooms, and people in their homes using the goods. Advertising scholars tell only part of the story, and it's sometimes a tale of coercion precisely because advertising is a medium that is designed to stimulate desire and to cajole people into buying goods.
But the story is more complex than that. Audiences are not uniformly susceptible to advertisements. Individuals can resist their messages or interpret the same images differently.
Q: You study particular goods in the early 20th century. When you got into that work, did you go in expecting to find that consumers kept manufacturers on their toes?
But the historical evidence -- thousands of hours in trade journals and in dusty corporate archives -- told me otherwise. I interviewed business executives whose careers dated from the 1930s to the 1990s. These men and women shared their frustrations with me. The job of figuring out what consumers wanted was their greatest challenge. And elderly female consumers, women who lived through the two world wars and the Great Depression, fondly remembered shopping in the nation's downtowns and decorating their homes with the goods they bought.
My discoveries were at odds with the co-optation thesis. Recently, emerging ethnographies by historian Joy Parr and anthropologist Daniel Miller suggest that the tale is similar for the postwar and contemporary eras. The moral of this story is that things aren't always what they appear to be.
Advertisers urge contemporary Americans to consume on a scale that was unimaginable during the early 20th century. But it's important to remember that we have always been a nation of consumers, and consumption is not the invention of 20th-century capitalism. Consumption -- the quest to own and take pleasure from useful, beautiful things, and the desire to keep up with the Joneses -- has always been a part of American life.
Q: What is your advice to today's consumers?
Color forecasting in America dates from World War I. It grew out of the textile industry's need to stabilize a highly volatile market rather than the industry's desire to reshape consumer tastes. By the post-World War II era, other industries jumped on the forecasting bandwagon, and cross-industry coordination began.
Color opens the door onto key questions about 20th-century American culture. I see tensions between the needs of business to streamline production and the desires of consumers to own goods that express individuality. It's an exciting project. I expect to find that fashion colorists spent a lot of time trying to imagine the wants, needs, and desires of their consumers.
Q: And you say that by imagining their consumers, manufacturers are actually influenced by taste that evolves from the bottom up. That's your empowered image of the consumer. In the politically correct view, shopping isn't a particularly empowering activity for a woman. How does your conception of the female consumer differ from the norm?
That image is still with us. Contemporary popular culture sometimes portrays women consumers as mindless and profligate. I am reminded of Absolutely Fabulous, the British sitcom that chronicles the shopping escapades of two middle-aged consumers, a chubby interior decorator and an anorexic ex-model. The quest for "gorgeous things" preoccupies these friends. These caricatures reinforce the image of the irrational consumer.
My research shows that women have long approached shopping with much greater care. Our mothers used clothing and household objects in multiple ways: as delineators of class status, to make statements about personal identity, as mementos of special occasions, as reminders of loved ones. Most women had to balance their budgets as they selected these goods. But, as one Woolworth's executive said, the market provided "good goods and plenty of them, at fair prices." Given the scope of the market basket, women had choices as consumers, and they exercised that power of choice as they shopped.
What's true for china and glass, which I've studied, is true for other types of products and industries. In Hope in a Jar (Owl Books), Kathy Peiss, a historian at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, shows that even the multimillion-dollar cosmetics industry did not evolve among male managers and chemists trying to foist a "beauty myth" on American women. Women entrepreneurs created the cosmetics industry in response to female consumers, who demanded beauty supplies that would make them look good. These women embraced making up as an act of empowerment.
Historically, then, many women acted as rational consumers. This insight has political ramifications, suggesting that women have found ways to resist the dominant culture while helping to reshape the material world. As smart consumers, women helped to change the designs of household objects and to redefine notions of feminine beauty. Producers paid attention to women's choices and changed product designs to meet women's expectations. Rather than infantilizing women, consumerism gave them a voice in the cultural realm. They were key actors in the fashion system. That's a politically charged discovery.
Michelle Chihara can be reached at email@example.com.
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