The Rise of Advertisement and American Consumer Culture

Maryland State Archives
350 Rowe Boulevard
Annapolis, MD 21401

1521 Boardwalk- Between Kentucky Avenue and New York Avenue


During the middle of the nineteenth century, the nature of the American business market began to change in dramatic ways. Earlier in the century, the steady rise of industry and the formulation of a market economy – fueled by wage labor instead of the traditional system of apprenticeship – as well as the formulation of national banking standards created a sound, firm base for modern, capitalist economics.  From the increasingly industrialized and urbanized American landscape, a unique phenomenon in marketing was born, and sometime around the 1840s, the concept of modern advertising emerged in American society.

Predominately appealing to American women – who were seen as the bedrock of American families, and thus, those most likely to make use of consumer goods – companies began to advertise in newspapers, on broadsides, and billboards. The reality of this new form of advertisement is seen in this document packet’s photograph of a boardwalk, where product names literally cover the entire streetscape. Of course, the custom of placing advertisements in newspapers held a tradition in American society; however, the advertising techniques and strategies that formed in the middle to latter part of the nineteenth century acquired a different character.  Traditionally, businesses would post brief assessments of their wares in the advertising sections of newspapers, merely providing a list of their goods to inform the public of what was available for purchase.  The new advertisements, by contrast, focused on creating unique slogans that customers would remember and that cast products in an optimistic light.  The Industrial Revolution saw a slew of innovations in technology and medicine, and these innovations fueled a growing advertising industry.  Products of similar designs began to compete against one another – a particular model of steam engine would feature unique instruments and features, for example, and these differences would be emphasized in the product advertisement.  Perhaps the most famous examples of these type of advertisements can be found in the now-famous Sears and Roebuck catalogue.

By the 1880s, advertisement seemed to take on a driving aspect of its own, and focused on the creation of “wants” and “needs” in the growing consumer population.  In order to create a market for certain items, clever businessmen would advertise products in careful language, designed to influence potential buyers into seeing the necessity of owning particular products.  Evidence of this is seen in the growing number of appliances such as cooking stoves, washing machines, and sewing machines produced at this time, and found within “modern” households.  Advertisements appealed to women especially, detailing how the possession of a cooking stove, for instance, was guaranteed to reduce the toil and labor of the kitchen, and thus free time for “nurturing” the family according to the values and standards of the day.  Women were intended, in a sense, to be the principle consumers of the new market economy.  In creating wants and needs in a population of consumers, advertisement was instrumental in paving the way for successful capitalism in America.

The place of women in the new economy was even more firmly cemented in the early decades of the twentieth century, with the rise of Progressivism and supply and demand economics.  Progressive reformers and businessmen alike appealed to and propagated the idea of virtuous households, carrying a theme from the culture of sentimentalism in the 1850s that stressed the value of nuclear families with morally upright – if submissive – mothers.  Many of the advertisements seen in this collection are clearly directed at women.  The “Fleischmann’s Recipes” cookbook celebrates the wholesome properties of the yeast, but in addition to this, it also promises women that the use of the yeast will ensure a happy household and family life.  Domestic economy – the science of good housewifery – is usually attributed to post World War II years, at least in the minds of the American public.  In fact, the foundations of household economy were raised in the early twentieth century and during the World War I era.  Home economy, in theory, allowed the housewife to make the most of finances, so that her family could purchase current technological innovations like automobiles, radios, and refrigerators.  The logic here was that, with these new technologies, life would be made easier for both the housewife (for whom societal values provided a labor-intensive schedule of household “duties”) and her family, as well as provide capital for the growing economy.  An excellent example of this household economy – produced by a woman, the famous home economist Christine Frederick – is found in the form of a lengthy pamphlet included in this document packet.

President Calvin Coolidge and other conservative political leaders and economists of the day – such as Herbert Hoover – placed an undue emphasis on consumerism in a false sense of security that the monopolized market for new technologies would carry Americans through to unrivaled wealth and prosperity.  In reality, many historians find that consumerism in the early twentieth century probably had a negative as well as a positive affect on American society; although advances in technology and home economics doubtlessly improved the quality of life for some Americans, consumerism spurred by advertisement created an illusion of demand that likewise created an overabundance of supply in automobiles and similar products.  The existence of a saturated market is held as one of the heralds or causes of the Great Depression, which led many Americans to experience some of the greatest poverty and economic suffering in American history.  The foundations of capitalism and modern economics – although influenced by many factors – were in large part, strengthened by the rise of advertisement and its creation of an American consumer culture.

National History Standards

Materials compiled in this document can be used by educators to fulfill the following National History Standards for Grades 5-12:

Era 7: The Emergence of Modern America (1890-1930)

   Standard 3: How the United States changed from the end of World War I to the eve of the Great Depression.

Standard 3C: The student understands how new cultural movements reflected and changed American society.

5-12: Analyze how radio, movies, newspapers, and popular magazines created mass culture. [Examine the influence of ideas]

Primary Resources

  1. DESCRIPTION: Changing Picture Puzzle, “This man is up to date…”
    NOTES:  This puzzle illustrates changing attitudes of the public towards modern advertisement, and those who resisted its development. For related materials, see American Memory’s Advertising Ephemera Collection.
    REPRODUCTIONS: Availability of Reproductions
    COPYRIGHT: Copyright and Other Restrictions
    SOURCE:  Emergence of Advertising in America, 1850-1920: Selections from the Collections of Duke University
    REPOSITORY:  Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke University.
  2. DESCRIPTION:  Pamphlet, “Fleischmann’s Recipes”
    NOTES: For related materials, see American Memory’s Nicole Di Bona Peterson Collection of Advertising Cookbooks.
    REPRODUCTIONS: Availability of Reproductions
    COPYRIGHT: Copyright and Other Restrictions
    SOURCE:  Emergence of Advertising in America, 1850-1920: Selections from the Collections of Duke University
    REPOSITORY:  Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke University.
  3. DESCRIPTION:  Advertisement, “Your skin needs different kinds of care at different times”
    NOTES: This advertisement for women’s cosmetic soap includes a coupon offer – another unique development in advertisement designed to stimulate a culture of consumption. For related materials, see American Memory’s Pond’s Advertisements collection.
    REPRODUCTIONS: Availability of Reproductions
    COPYRIGHT: Copyright and Other Restrictions
    SOURCE:  Emergence of Advertising in America, 1850-1920: Selections from the Collections of Duke University
    REPOSITORY:  Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke University.
  4. DESCRIPTION:  “Selling Mrs. Consumer,” by Mrs. Christine Frederick
    NOTES: A well-known home economist, Christine Frederick was responsible for a number of publications advertising the virtues of household economy to women across the United States.
    REPRODUCTIONS: How to Order Copies of Photographs
    COPYRIGHT: Copyright and Other Restrictions
    SOURCE:  Prosperity and Thrift: The Coolidge Era and the Consumer Economy, 1921-1929
    REPOSITORY: Library of Congress.
  5. DESCRIPTION:  Photograph, 1521 Boardwalk- Between Kentucky Avenue and New York Avenue
     July 1922
    NOTES: For related materials, see American Memory’s R. C. Maxwell Company Collection.
    REPRODUCTIONS: Availability of Reproductions
    COPYRIGHT: Copyright and Other Restrictions
    SOURCE:  Emergence of Advertising in America, 1850-1920: Selections from the Collections of Duke University
    REPOSITORY:  Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke University.

See also: I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke: Advertising in America

Additional Media Resources

From Domesticity to Modernity: What Was Home Economics?

Additional Instructional Resources

The Learning Page: Collections Connections; Prosperity and Thrift: The Coolidge Era and the Consumer Economy, 1921-1929

Secondary Resources

Hawley, Ellis W. The Great War and the Search for a Modern Order: A History of the American People and their Institutions, 1917-1933. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992.

Garvey, Ellen Gruber. The Adman in the Parlor: Magazines and the Gendering of Consumer Culture, 1880s to 1910s. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Leach, William. Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture. New York: Pantheon Books, 1993.

Lears, Jackson. Fables of Abundance: A Cultural History of Advertising in America. New York: Basic Books, 1994.

Leuchtenberg, William E. The Perils of Prosperity, 1914-1932. 2nd ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Lewis, Sinclair. Babbit. New York: Signet Classic, Penguin Putnam Inc., 1998.

Ribuffo, Leo P. “Jesus Christ as Business Statesman: Bruce Barton and the Selling of Corporate Capitalism.” American Quarterly, Vol. 33, No. 2 (Summer, 1981), pp. 206-231.

Roberts, Mary Louise. “Gender, Consumption, and Commodity Culture.” The American Historical Review, Vol. 103, No. 3 (January, 1998), pp. 817-884.

Sherman, Sidney A. “Advertising in the United States.” Publications of the American Statistical Association, Vol. 7, No. 52 (December, 1900), pp. 1-44.

Wooster, Harvey A. “A Forgotten Factor in American Industrial History.” The American Economic Review, Vol. 16, No. 1 (March, 1926), pp. 14-27.

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Teaching American History in Maryland is a collaborative partnership of the Maryland State Archives and the Center for History Education (CHE), University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), and the following sponsoring school systems: Anne Arundel County Public Schools, Baltimore City Public School System, Baltimore County Public Schools, and Howard County Public Schools.

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This document packet was researched and developed by Kevin Allor.