Consumerism and Branding: A Case Study

magnifyingglassHistory tends to tell a generalized story, one of sweeping trends, big wars, shifting borders and heroic deeds. But some parts of American history and culture are better understood through a narrower lens, peering instead at one small facet of American identity and seeing what it can reveal about the larger cultural landscape. Heinz and tomato ketchup will be the object of our magnifying glass, so that when we look up from our study, the world, and the past, is hopefully clearer than before.

The 18th century was arguably the moment in which consumerism first reared its head from the cultural womb, but this is only a recent revelation. For a long time, the dawn of consumerism was thought to have begun with the boom following the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century—and in large part it did really take off then, as will be discussed later on. But the true beginnings of a consumerist mindset find their roots in the so-called “consumer revolution” of 1600-1750, predominantly centered in Britain, but also found across the Atlantic (McKendrick). Industrialization2This new starting point was identified in the early 1980s by Neil McKendrick, who would frame the new idea this way: “A consumer revolution occurred in England in the eighteenth century along with the Industrial Revolution….The consumer revolution was a turning point in the history of human experience” (McKendrick, 9). Across Europe and the colonies, consumers were demanding goods that were considered only luxury items previously.  “Consumption and display went well beyond basic human needs for a warm place to sleep and food on the table (Howell).” Whereas luxury goods had been a sign of status before, “Items that once were considered luxuries reserved for the highest ranks began Fry'scocoato ‘trickle down’ to common households in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (Howell).” Consumers began expecting certain products to be available whenever they desired them, without having to expend the effort of making the item at home.  It was about rising in social stature as someone who could afford the same material wealth as another person. Beyond simply furniture and household items, this consumerist ideal of immediate gratification and a wide range of options extended to food, as well. As the 18th century gave way to the 19th, demands from consumers were only heightened: “The theme was simple but profound: in virtually every conceivable way, consumerism accelerated and intensified on both sides of the Atlantic (Stearns, 47).” New trends in branding would accelerate a  consumer culture that was the immature version of our highly consumer-focused economy today. “The apparatus of consumerism changed, as shops and wordy advertisements were increasingly replaced by new retail outlets and a still-more Schweppesmanipulative advertising style (Stearns, 47).” At the Diamond Jubilee Celebration for Queen Victoria, Fry’s, which supplied cocoa for the Queen, and Schweppe’s, supplying royal soda water,  both debuted advertisements for the public (“Jubilee”). Advertisements, photography, visual art—all of these played a significant role in creating easily identifiable brands with provocative narratives for Americans to buy into (and simply buy).  The coming pages will tell the tale of one iconic American brand that owes its birth and success to this burgeoning new American consumer culture.

Sources

  • “Jubilee Food.” Historic Royal Palaces. Historical Royal Palaces Charity, n.d. Web. 05 Dec. 2014.
  • Mark Howell, Emma L. Powers, et al. Buying Respectability: The Consumer Revolution in Colonial Virginia (Staff Resource Manual developed by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Department of Historical Research, 2000), pp. A2–A6.
  • McKendrick, Neil. 1982. “The Consumer Revolution of Eighteenth-Century England.” In Neil McKendrick, John Brewer and J. H. Plumb (eds.), The Birth of a Consumer Society: The Commercialization of Eighteenth Century England. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 9-33.
  • Stearns, Peter N. Consumerism in World History: The Global Transformation of Desire. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.
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