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Why Americans buy so much stuff: A short history

People shop in The Galleria mall during on Black Friday in Houston, Texas.
Brandon Bell
Getty Images
People shop in The Galleria mall during on Black Friday in Houston, Texas.

Updated December 1, 2021 at 9:01 AM ET

Cyber Monday and Black Friday are behind us for the year, but the holiday shopping season isn't over just yet. It's always been a time when Americans buy more, but nearly two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, and Americans are spending way more — outsize amounts of money on things.

But why do Americans buy so much stuff and how did we become champion consumers? Lizabeth Cohen is an American history professor at Harvard and the author of A Consumer's Republic: The Politics Of Mass Consumption In Postwar America.

Cohen says since World War II, the U.S. government has presented consumerism as a way out of crisis or decline.

"Consuming has been a way of demonstrating that the economy and the society are continuing to be vital and viable," Cohen says. "This is a real dilemma, I would say, today, where 70% of GDP is dependent on consumption ... which really does lead to a great dilemma around our growing awareness of environmental degradation that comes with these high level of private consumption."

Cohen spoke with NPR's All Things Considered about how the end of World War II ushered in an era of mass consumerism, the role of the government in that push and whether Americans might ever buy less.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Interview Highlights

On when the change in spending habits shifted in America and what prompted it

It really happens during the 1930s that there is a recognition that the way to get us out of the Depression most effectively would be to prime the pump, to actually put money in people's pockets. And, of course, the war comes. And most historians agree that it was the war that got us out of the Great Depression. People are earning money, but they can't spend it in the ways that they might have because of the price controls of World War II. And so during the war itself, there is a consensus that emerges that the solution to the postwar economy would be to create an economy that is based on mass consumption. So prosperity will be achieved through people purchasing lots of goods.

On the role of the government in the economic shift

It's the government. And it's also manufacturers and corporations who'd been making munitions and airplanes and tanks who are thinking about what are we going to be doing when peace time comes. And so even during the war, you start to see advertising that promises people that when victory comes, you will have a home equipped with full appliances. And so that appetite gets fed.

On how the culture of consumption changed from saving to spending

The nature of that culture around consumption does change over the postwar period. It starts off as a promotion of mass consumption, mass marketing. We're just going to get lots of people to buy the same things. By the late 1950s, however, retailers, manufacturers, advertisers come to recognize that, despite the planned obsolescence that's built into that which encourages people to buy new things because the old things are out of fashion or they're going to break down — that there would be a market saturation. There's a limit to what people are going to buy. And so what happens is that the market shifts to market segmentation and a targeting of goods to very specific segments of the market.

On if we'll ever buy less and the inequality in American consumerism

Well, that is a huge dilemma. I think that many people would like to imagine a United States that is less materialistic and less consumed with consuming. And yet we have the problem of, what will fuel this economy? But we also should remember that not everybody can consume equally, that there's a lot of inequality that has been built into this what I call the consumers' republic, where there's a promise that democracy and equality will be delivered through mass consumption. We know that in the real estate market, for example, that homeownership, which is often the most prized consumer item, is not available to everybody. So, you know, there's a lot of imperfection in the consumer's republic, and yet we're kind of tied to it.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.