Salinger and Consumer Culture

Contributed by Tim Towslee. Many thanks Tim!

Ed. note: This is great background for examining the cultural shifts that Salinger was reacting against. More information is forthcoming about Salinger’s relationship to post-war consumer culture.

Consumer Culture: 1945-1960

A Very Short History of Consumerism in Prewar America:

  • Consumerism has its roots on American soil in the seventeenth century. The puritans believed that there were two types of consumption: that which was directed at satisfying needs, and that which purposed to satisfy wants. They considered the former legitimate and condemned the latter (Campbell 19).
  • As America developed as a nation, consumerism played a great role. In the eighteenth and nineteenth century, Americans were producers. In the mid- to late- nineteenth century, with the emergence of the middle class, a shift occurred and more people took part in consumption of goods rather than production. At the end of the nineteenth century, middle-class Americans left their blue-collar production jobs for white-collar careers in sales, advertising, banking, etc. These jobs afforded them more money and more leisure time in which to spend it. Thorsetein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) addresses this phenomenon. His book is still uncannily prescient today.
  • American culture transformed from a more text and language based society to a more audiovisual culture in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Warren Susman identifies this period as the origin of “the comics, the poster, the photograph, the phonograph, the telephone, the radio, moving pictures, advertising, pulp magazines and with them certain genres of fiction and nonfiction, and, perhaps most centrally, the automobile” (xxvi). Susman argues that these media define our culture and its ideology.
  • In his book Keywords (1985), consumer culture historian Raymond Williams lists “personality” as one of the words that entered the middle class vocabulary in the early twentieth century as advertisers catered to the individual and the development of self through consumerism.
  • Veblen’s model assumes that consumption is a form of communication in which the ‘signals’ concerning wealth (and thus, it is argued, the social status) of the consumer are telegraphed to others. In addition, it is assumed that individuals seek to use such ‘conspicuous consumption’ as a way of improving their social standing, aiming ultimately to ‘emulate’ that ‘leisure class’ which, it is claimed, stands at the pinnacle of the class system. This view of the class system links it directly with an ethically dubious activity, social climbing. In assuming that consumers’ main interest in goods is as symbols of status, Veblen asserts that consumers are motivated by a mixture of anxiety (over how others may view them) and envy (of those in a superior position). (Campbell 21)
  • The seeds of mass consumption were planted in America in the 1920s and 1930s, but the Great Depression and World War II kept it from flourishing until 1945. There were, however, visible sprouts present in wealthy metropolitan areas that were unfazed by both depression and war.
  • In his 1941 State of the Union Address, Franklin D. Roosevelt “laid out ‘Four Freedoms,’ one of which was ‘freedom from want,’ calling for ‘the enjoyment of the fruits of scientific progress in a wider and constantly rising standard of living’” (Glickman 5).

Postwar Economy in a Nutshell:

  • After World War II, America experienced an economic boom attributed to, among other things, lower gas prices, more women in the workforce, the baby boom, and a vast suburban migration. More than anything else Americans cast aside their penny pinching thrift, a habit necessitated by twenty years of depression and war, and replaced it with a new level of consumption. Answering F.D.R.’s call, middle-class Americans were now “denoted by their skills in ‘the art of living’ – defining their social status and sense of cultural identity through distinctive, consumption-driven lifestyles, their values and codes of behavior laying an accent on stylistic self-expression, self-conscious display, and [using Pierre Bourdieu’s ‘new petite bourgeoisie’ terminology] an ‘ethic of fun.’ …[They] embraced “hedonistic consumption as an acceptable – indeed, highly desirable – focal point to their values, aspirations, and social practices” (Osgerby 12).
  • America proved the biggest single consumer of [its own outpouring of wartime production]. Denied many goods during the austere war years, their pockets lined with unspent money, citizens rushed to buy everything that appeared on the new peacetime market. The orgy of self-indulgence created a level of prosperity unseen since the heady days just before the stock market crash of 1929 (Young 3).
  • Between 1950 and 1960, the gross national product grew from $285 billion to $500 billion.
  • The U.S. population grew from 132 million in 1940 to 150 million in 1950, and to 179 million in 1960.
  • The median family income rose from $3,083 per year in 1950 to $5,976 per year in 1960. This surge in disposable income manifested itself in increased sales of “new cars (as opposed to used ones), televisions, high-fidelity units, improved telephones, alcoholic beverages, and endless entertainment” (Young 6).

Easy Credit:

  • Credit card companies, like Diner’s Club and BankAmericard (which later became Visa), gave people little reason to deny themselves any pleasures, and “a new extravagance replaced the frugality of the past, one that touted ‘buy now, pay later.’ … Private debt increased sharply, going from $73 billion in 1950 to $196 billion in 1960” (Young 6).
  • “With all the emphasis on gratifying desires immediately, installment buying and the use of credit replaced the old American trait of paying in full for goods. “No money down, attractive terms!” lured buyers to live beyond their means. But with incomes rising and the economy booming, it seemed a reasonable way to accumulate goods. …Even the old dream of owning a home free and clear lost its luster as eager consumers sold their mortgaged houses to acquire new ones with even larger mortgages. A cultural groundswell had occurred, and the old maxims about thriftiness and restraint were discarded in a rush to keep up with the neighbors” (Young 45).
  • Postwar America saw the return of millions of veterans, who after sixteen years of depression, recession, and war, now had money in their pockets and a pent-up desire to buy stuff. “As industry turned back to civilian needs, builders and developers could barely meet the demand for new housing; everyone, it seemed, wanted a part of this postwar version of the American Dream. The result was mass production of standardized middle-class dwellings in huge suburban tracts” (Young 61).
  • In 1945, “about 40 percent of Americans owned homes. That year saw six million men and women discharged from the armed forces; in 1946, another four million left the services. Over 50 percent of the new homes sold during most of the [1950s] received financing through VA or FHA mortgages. …By 1960, 60 percent of Americans owned their own homes, a testament to the impacts of government largesse in this area” (Young 66).

Suburban Growth:

  • Postwar America saw the return of millions of veterans, who after sixteen years of depression, recession, and war, now had money in their pockets and a pent-up desire to buy stuff. “As industry turned back to civilian needs, builders and developers could barely meet the demand for new housing; everyone, it seemed, wanted a part of this postwar version of the American Dream. The result was mass production of standardized middle-class dwellings in huge suburban tracts” (Young 61).
  • In 1945, “about 40 percent of Americans owned homes. That year saw six million men and women discharged from the armed forces; in 1946, another four million left the services. Over 50 percent of the new homes sold during most of the [1950s] received financing through VA or FHA mortgages. …By 1960, 60 percent of Americans owned their own homes, a testament to the impacts of government largesse in this area” (Young 66).

Innovation, Novelty, and Planned Obsolescence:

  • Characteristic of the modern era, postwar American desired the newest and most innovative products and services. Manufacturers and advertisers marketed products with planned obsolescence in order to keep consumption levels high. This also created “consumers’ almost magical ability to produce new wants immediately after old ones are satisfied. No sooner is one want satisfied than another appears, and subsequently another, in an apparently endless series. …[this feature] distinguishes the modern from the traditional consumer” (Campbell 22).
  • Car manufacturers and the fashion industry had used planned obsolescence in production and advertising since the 1920s, but in the postwar era, producers and promoters of a wide range of consumer goods borrowed the device with astounding success.
  • A product might not really need replacement, but the new model had to be an improvement over the old version. Or, if not an improvement, it possessed more style, more pizzazz. Watch makers recommended having a “wardrobe” of timepieces, one for every occasion. Appliance manufacturers began to make their previously all-white washers and dryers in a rainbow of fashionable colors – they might not wash or dry any better, but they fit more into the modern home than plain old white. With their wallets bulging with discretionary cash, consumers accepted the implicit promise that this year’s yellow range surpassed last year’s pink model. …Ads promoted trading old furniture for new, along with carpeting, appliances, and a host of other products. They modeled their appeals on the concept of the automobile trade-in. “Why be tied down to old, out-of-style furniture [or anything else]? …Trade-in now and get the latest styles.” Even real-estate agents trumpeted moving every four years, with the idea that each move would be to a bigger, better dwelling (Young 45)

Family Life, Togetherness, Church, and Conformity:

  • The family dynamic changed from the usual mom, dad, and usually two children to more and more couples opting for three and four children. The number of births rose from 3.2 million in 1945 to 3.6 million in 1950 and again to 4.3 million by 1960. In 1958, almost a third of all Americans were under the age of fifteen (Young 7).
  • After WWII, American media promoted a sense of “togetherness” among families where parents and children worked together and played together. As families moved from the city into the suburbs, the sense of togetherness moved with them, thus neighbors worked and played with neighbors in efforts to strengthen communities.
  • Life in suburban communities, coupled with greater leisure time provided by a shorter working week, provided new forms of social activities and an increase in church-going. …The resurgence of practicing Christianity in this period is a good example of the intermeshing of politics and social change: government was keen to encourage church-going because, as FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover contended, ‘Communists are anti-God’, referring to the Soviet Union’s political principle of atheism. President Eisenhower affirmed this: ‘Recognition of the Supreme Being is the first, most basic, expression of Americanism. Without God, there could be no American form of government, nor American way of life.’ So, a Sunday morning at church became a pro-American act, as was capitalism, in which ordinary Americans participated through work and consumerism. It is no coincidence that the motto ‘In God We Trust,’ which had been stamped on American coins since the Civil War was added to American paper currency in 1957” (Graham 12)
  • Three years earlier, the words “under God” were added to the Pledge of Allegiance (Young 8).
  • Movies, radio, print media, and especially television served as the voices of conformity, encouraging a common experience, fostering “conspicuous consumption” and the “idea of keeping up with your neighbors” (Young 21). The for-us-or-against-us mentality of the McCarthy era also certainly contributed to this conformity as well.

Youth Culture:

  • The teenager was, in fact, first identified as a recognized developmental period and a social phenomenon in the 1950s. Increased affluence, wider inclusion in high-school education, even the greater mobility afforded by the boom in car ownership, combined to create a ‘peer culture’ (that is, one in which young people refer to each other for a sense of belonging and shared values, rather than to the older generation) such as had never been seen before. As young people spent a significant amount of time – both in and out of school – with each other rather than within the family unit, so leisure products and services created with teenagers specifically in mind became a growth industry. In order to express their sense of difference from the world created by their parents, adolescents required films, music, clothing, books, and innumerable other products that were designed especially for them (Graham 16).
  • Even though teenagers established themselves as an emerging culture, “in interviews and sampling, most American adolescents espoused adult values, even if their behaviors at times suggested they participated in some form of revolt against traditional mores. Girls wanted marriage and family; boys wanted jobs and financial security. And just like their parents, they defined success and security with materials goods. The more you had, the happier you were; materialism ruled the day for all ages (Young 25).


Advertising in the postwar era had as much to do with shaping the culture as it did with selling products. Annual U.S. spending for advertising rose from $5.7 billion in 1950 to almost $12 billion at the end of the decade (Young 44).

  • Regardless of the medium carrying the message [print, radio, or television], American advertising during the 1950s presented endless images of the good life. An ad for floor wax might be staged in a kitchen that most consumers only dreamed of; but the imagery came across clearly: use this product and your kitchen will resemble the one in the ad. Fantasy, social values, and the hard sell came together unlike they had in any previous era (Young 45).
  • For most of the twentieth century, women did the overwhelming bulk of shopping and spending – around 80-90 percent by most estimates. The idea was that men produced and women consumed. “Taking advantage of this truism, many ads of the 1950s targeted women. Most advertising agencies consisted of men, a discrepancy that led to copy written by males but meant for women. American advertising exhibited rampant stereotyping and gender bias throughout the decade, and the idea that a woman should live for her husband and family became a dominant image. It all fit with the outward conservatism and conformity that many felt characterized the period” (Young 47).
  • Advertisers appealed to women as house workers, touting products with catchwords like “comfortable,” “easy to use,” and “time saving” in attempts to make chores like cooking and cleaning part of a happy lifestyle. The idea was that if a woman’s work was made easier through innovation, she’d have more leisure time to fill with other pleasures.
  • Next to women (and often posed with them), children occupied an important niche in 1950s advertising. The ages of consumers made little difference, and children were seen as especially vulnerable to persuasive messages. Many products enticed children with giveaways tied in to radio and TV programs, and the advertisements themselves stared new characters with the sole purpose of selling cereal, soft drinks, toothpaste, etc.
  • Although women in the world portrayed in advertising excel as housekeepers, shoppers, or consumers, they somehow seemed at a loss when it comes to comprehending how complex things work. It still takes male expertise – traditional male authority – to conquer the inner workings of mechanical devices or to explain complex topics, like current events or finances. …Males served as agents of authority, knowledgeable about a certain range of non-household things (such as life insurance and the technical specifications of cars), who then gave their stamp of approval to the purchases made by women (Young 50).
  • Women, if present at all in ads geared toward men, usually appear subservient. They look on, but they seldom participate. On the other hand, when 1950s advertising deals with domestic themes and deigns to include men, the situation reverses: it is the man who becomes the nonparticipant. He loafs on a chaise lounge while his wife gardens, or he is ensconced in an easy chair, inactive, while household activities occur around him. For whatever reasons, advertisers seemed reluctant to portray men as assisting in the duties of the home.

Works Cited:

Campbell, Colin. “Consuming Goods and the Good of Consuming.” Consumer Society in American History: A Reader. Ed. Lawrence

B. Glickman. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1999. Print.

Glickman, Lawrence B. Consumer Society in American History: A Reader. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1999. Print.

Graham, Sarah. Routledge Guide to Literature: J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. New York: Routledge, 2007. Print.

Osgerby, Bill. Playboys in Paradise: Masculinity, Youth, and Leisure-Style in Modern America. Oxford: Berg, 2001. Print.

Susman, Warren. Culture as History: The Transformation of American Society in the Twentieth Century. New York: Pantheon, 1973. Print.

Veblen, Thorstein. Theory of the Leisure Class. 1899. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2000. Print.

Williams, Raymond. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society Rev. ed. New York: Oxford UP, 1985. Print.

Young, William H. and Nancy K. Young. American Popular Culture Through History: The 1950s. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press,

2004. Print.

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