Consumerism and Advertising: the 1920s and 1950s in comparison
By Jessica Hayward and Christine Cocce

Thesis: In the 1950s, advertising and consumerism in many ways emulated the industries in the 1920s; in both decades, as technology advanced consumers gravitated towards the cool new machines, the economic booms of the decades lead to increased standards of living and more individuals willing to spend their money, and the Jonses theory of "keeping up" with your neighbors created an atmosphere of competition in both decades.

The 1920s

In the 1920s, a majority of the United States population lived in the cities. This meant that more Americans had access to electricity than ever before. Increased usage of electricity led to more the use of more household appliances, such as washing machines and vacuums. These new, "cool", technologies were often targeted to Americans via advertisements. Another technology that suddenly became affordable for the average American was the automobile. Thanks to Henry Ford's assembly line, mass production was easily achieved, and thus, prices dropped for consumers.

Consumers were also ready to buy; for the majority of the 1920s, the United States economy was booming. The standard of living increased, and the average income increased as well. However, this prosperity did not occur among nearly all Americans. Poverty, especially in rural areas, was very prevalent. Many groups, such as the farmers, did not benefit from the economic boom of the time.

However, with the recognition that some individuals now had extra money thanks to the economic boom, the age of advertising was born. The introduction of purchasing products based on a credit system also led to increased spending.

Spreading the word about new technologies quickly led to advertisements that made one desire a particular item. Ads appealed to individuals, and each ad made one "want" the product! The number of ads quickly multiplied, and new forms of advertisements appeared with new technologies like radios.



*In the 1920s, movies were at their peak of popularity. Movie "theaters" were even upgraded to movie "palaces".

*Sound pictures emerged in 1927, leading to the largest spike in the industry.

*The most popular stars were seen as "glamorous" and were "idolized by millions"

*By the end of the century, over "80 million movie tickets were sold each week."

The Issue:


While many attended movies, drove around in their new cars, and sat as a family listening to their shining radios, a particular group of individuals were suffering. Farmers did not enjoy the prosperity of most businesses in the 1920s. After the war, the prices of many crops fell. In addition, new technologies made it easier to produce more crops. This led to severe overproduction, in which crop prices plummeted. The farmers in the 1920s struggled to provide for their family. This group rarely got to join in the festivities of the average 1920s consumer. Many farmers lacked cars, and radios. Most even lacked electricity. Therefore, as the cities and urban areas were experiencing rapid growth in the consumer industries, the rural farmers lacked even the fundamentals.

The 1950’s

-In the 1950’s the radio was placed by the increasingly popular television. They became the center of homes and by 1961 there was one in 3.3 Americans. The average person would spend 1/3 of their hours watching it.


- Brand names were aggressive in the media, using TV, radio, newspapers and magazines to promote common goods. McDonald’s golden arches being one of the most famous.

- Televisions, advertising and the middle class moving to the suburbs all lead to the homogeneity of America.

- Eisenhower’s focus on the people led to American self confidence. Wage increases resulted in stability which allowed for more spending.

-The postwar economy gave Americans the highest standard of living in the world.

-People wanted to “keep up with the Joneses”, always going out and buying the newest technology to keep up with their neighbor.

-Cars became cheaper and more people could afford them. They became the symbol of American life. They represented freedom.

-Suburban shopping centers and credit cards caused consumerism to increase.

- Americans were reading more than ever, by 1960 almost 1 million paperback books were sold a day. The purchasing of record albums became popular too.

Problem in the 1950’s:
During this time women’s place was thought to be at home. Taking care of the house and children was seen as a full time job, and this belief was reaffirmed in the media. Male employers saw female workers as wives and mothers. This resulted in women receiving lower wages.