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The Emergence of New Consumer Culture and Its Effect During the Turn-of-the-Century Essay

The Emergence of New Consumer Culture and Its Effect during the Turn-Of-The-Century Period People living in the period from the end of the nineteenth century to the beginning of the twentieth century witnessed a huge industrial change in American society. This change led to the “opening up of huge factories, the development of electricity in the 1880s which augmented factories more than ever, the revolution in mass communication, the invention of telephone, the construction of railroads, the incredible rise of population with the rushing of immigrants into this country” (Cassuto and Eby, 2004, p. -3).

More importantly, this turn-of-the-century period marked the emergence and the development of mass production and consumption, which was considered as a new kind of culture that bore fantasy to many people, especially women of all different classes, at that time. Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945), an American novelist, and Kathy Peiss, a history professor at University of Pennsylvania, are both interested in this aspect of change in the society. As a result, they both published works to depict the inner lives of Americans in response to this change.

Sister Carrie and Cheap Amusements are two best representations for their works. Interestingly, through reading those two novels, readers can easily tell that both Dreiser and Peiss pay more attention to young working class women when examining the new consumer culture. Sister Carrie is a novel written by Theodore Dreiser and published in 1900. Through this novel, he told readers a story about a girl named Carrie Meeber who was born into a poor family and came to Chicago to make her American dreams come true.

There, she stepped into a struggle in the society where people’s social statuses were recognized through the items they had on themselves. It can be said that consumerism developed and played an important key in each of the American life from the end of the nineteenth century to the beginning of the twentieth century. It cannot be denied that mass consumerism is a good indicator of the development of the industry of the country; however, consumerism indirectly makes the gap between the rich and the poor become much bigger. Production of goods definitely needs consumers. But not everybody can afford those goods.

Consequently, just by looking at these goods, people could distinguish the poor from the rich and vice versa. In other words, social classes at that time were categorized based on material things. Coming from a small rural town and a poor family, the young girl Carrie was totally fantasized by the mass consumerism world she was entering in. There, she got the chance that she never had before to experience what the modern American culture looked like. Specifically, she got the chance to see what were called “genuine” products such as “real” shoes, “real” bags, and “real” clothes.

Of course, she knew that these products were totally different from her outfit on her way to Chicago that “consisted of a small trunk, a cheap imitation alligator-skin satchel, a small lunch in a paper box, and a yellow leather snap purse” (Dreiser, 1982, p. 3). And just like any other young poor girls, Carrie could not resist the temptations coming from these “genuine” products. She felt jealous of higher class women who could afford enticing objects that she always dreamt of. Those kinds of feelings provoked her endless human desires.

When Carrie first came to Chicago and looked for a job in a department store, she was mesmerized by “the dainty slippers and stockings, the delicately frilled skirts and petticoats, the laces, ribbons, haircombs, purses” (Dreiser, 1982, p. 23). And even when her life got better, her obsession with clothing did not cease. Instead, it was built up: Fine clothes to her were a vast persuasion; they spoke tenderly and Jesuitically for themselves. When she came within earshot of their pleading, desire in her bent a willing ear.

The voice of the so-called inanimate! Who shall translate for us the language of the stones? My dear,” said the lace collar she secured from the Partridge’s, “I fit you beautifully; don’t give me up. ” “Ah, such little feet,” said the leather of the soft new shoes; “how effectively I cover them. What a pity they should ever want my aid. ” (Dreiser, 1982, p. 106) In other words, it is the consumer culture that led Carrie to ambition for a luxurious life. The more the consumer culture developed, the more ambitious Carrie got. Indeed, Carrie left her sister, the only person she knew in Chicago to move in with Drout, a stranger she talked to in the street.

The reason behind is that she got so tired of the life in which all the money she made was just merely enough to pay for the rent of her sister’s house. She could not even afford a pair of shoes for herself. She was unsatisfied with the life that suppressed her from good clothes and decided to challenge her fate. But Carrie refused to work hard; instead, she chose to use Drout as a tool for her to get things she wanted in life. Later, she was disappointed when she found out that Drout was not “genuinely” rich. She then got into an affair with Hurtswood, a married manager of a saloon in Chicago.

She had high hopes that this guy could bring her a wealthy and stable life because Hurtswood did not look as “fake” as Drout. Unfortunately, one day Hurtswood collapsed. Carrie recognized that Hurtswood was not a reliable source of wealth for her anymore. She left him and continued her path of chasing after luxury by becoming an actress. So it can be concluded that Carrie manipulated both Drout and Hurtswood to climb up her life ladder. Here, Dreiser attacked on the materialism, the key character of this turn-of-the-century period.

According to Dreiser, materialism destroyed what is called “humanity” at that time. Through the character Carrie, Dreiser indirectly criticized the society in which the mass production and consumption took control for bringing down the values of morality and ethics. He said, “not evil, but longing for that which is better, more often directs the steps of the erring. Not evil, but goodness often allures the feeling mind unused to reason” (Dreiser, 1982, p. 256). The “coldness” of the consumer culture is also represented through other characters in Sister Carrie.

The revolution in industry and technology put pressure on each of the individual so that they had no choice but lived coldly and heartlessly. In order to survive, the relationship between family members, friends, and strangers meant nothing. Carrie’s sister and her husband took away almost all of the money Carrie earned to pay for the rent of their house. They did not even care about their younger sister when she left them and lived with a stranger. Meanwhile, to Hurtswood, his wife Julia was nothing more than a means of creating the illusion of a happy marriage, which in some ways consolidated his social status in front of other people.

Another key feature of the consumer culture is that clothing was considered as an indispensable confidence booster. Carrie believed that material could bring her happiness. For an instance, Carrie assumed people living happily just by material things she saw: She imagined that across these richly carved entrance-ways, where the globed and crystalled lamps shone upon paneled doors set with stained and designed panes of glass, was neither care nor unsatisfied desire. She was perfectly certain that here was happiness. (Dreiser, 1982, p. 122)

It can be inferred that in Carrie’s eyes, people without good clothes were living miserable lives. This explains for the fact that Carrie did not show any reluctance when she left her sister to move in with Drout or when she got into the affair with Hurtswood. Impressed by their appearances, Carrie regarded them as her superiors. In the first chapters of the novel, Dreiser carefully portrayed Drout in the way through which readers can easily recognize the impact it would leave upon Carrie: His suit was of a striped and crossed pattern of brown wool, new at that time, but since become familiar as a business suit.

The low crotch of the vest revealed a stiff bosom of white and pink stripes… (Dreiser, 1982, p. 4) Without this outfit, Drout would be nothing. Apparently, human values during that period were all about material things, especially clothing. In the consumer culture, clothing is the sign for not only for happiness but also beauty and success as well. Kathy Peiss, in her book Cheap Amusements, illustrates different forms of leisure activities of young working class women in New York from the late nineteenth century to the early twentieth century.

Even though clothing and department stores are not as focused in this book as in Sister Carrie, Peiss is somehow still able to express her attitudes towards the rise of mass produced clothing. She shares Dreiser’s perspective in the sense that clothing characterizes identity, “It was in leisure that women played with identity, trying on new images and roles, appropriating the cultural forms around them – clothing, music, language – to push at the boundaries of immigrant, working-class life” (Peiss, p. 2). Just like Carrie, young working class women in Cheap Amusements believed that expensive clothes could really change their fates, at least making them feel like they belonged to a higher class and washing off the dirt coming from their poverty. Peiss wrote, “For newly arrived immigrants, changing one’s clothes was the first step in securing a new status in America” (Peiss, p. 63). Again, Peiss emphasizes on the strong correlation between the appearance and social status in the consumer culture.

In conclusion, both Dreiser and Peiss use their words to convey their disagreements about the American society during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Consumer culture, besides speeding up the development of the society at that time, caused people a lot of sufferings from their “unceasing voice of want” which dominated their “voice of conscience” in most cases. As a result, morality and ethics became overshadowed by materialism.


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