Theme: An Industrious People: American Economic History
Topic: Consumer Culture & Consumption Landscapes in Post-War America
Date: Summer 2005
Scholar: Steven Corey, Ph.D., Professor of Urban Studies, Worcester State College
Overview | Required Reading | Reading Questions
Materials selected and syllabus compiled by Steven Corey, Ph.D., Professor of Urban Studies, Worcester State College, firstname.lastname@example.org
America’s unprecedented economic and suburban growth following the Second World War is one of the most celebrated and romanticized periods of modern history. Often presented by the mass media, politicians, and civic leaders alike as the ultimate fulfillment of the “American dream,” the rise of tract housing, shopping malls, and interstate highways brought a new physical and cultural landscape based on the privatization of public space, social and economic segmentation, and the systematic dismantling of once vibrant urban centers. This session will critically examine the development of so-called “Levittowns” and the impact of a mass consumer culture on the daily lives of people living in burgeoning suburbs and traditional urban neighborhoods. Central to understanding the impact of new commercial forms of social and economic organization will be an examination of how the media, government officials, corporate interests, and public intellectuals promoted their vision of urban and suburban life. Using primary sources from the 1930s through 1960s, session participants will explore leading theories that advocated the harnessing of technological and industrial innovation with consumerism to rearrange physical space and social relations to achieve a more democratic society. In addition, prominent critiques of post-war suburbanization and urban renewal will be analyzed along with recent scholarship on the larger impact of mass consumption on the American landscape.
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Cohen, Lizabeth. A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003. (Chapters 5, 6, 7, & 8.)
Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Random House, 1961. (Chapters 1, 2, 7, 8, & 9.)
“Suburbia-Exurbia-Urbia: The New Breed.” Newsweek, 1 April, 1957, 35-42.
Browne, Lynn Elaine and Steven Sass. “The Transition from a Mill-Based to a Knowledge-Based Economy: New England, 1940-2000. In Peter Temin ed. Engines of Enterprise: An Economic History of New England. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2000.
May, Elaine Tyler. Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era. New York: Basic Books Inc., 1988. (Chapter 7 “The Commodity Gap: Consumerism and the Modern Home”)
Rosenbloom, Joshua L. “The Challenges of Economic Maturity: New England, 1880-1940.” In Peter Temin ed. Engines of Enterprise: An Economic History of New England. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2000.
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1. How did the nature of suburbanization after WW II create a social landscape where the majority of Americans shared less and less common physical space and public culture? How did residential inequality in suburbia represent a challenge to the democratic promise of a Consumer’s Republic from unbounded mass consumption?
2. How did the new landscape of mass consumption, represented by shopping malls, forge a metropolitan society segmented by class, race, and gender? In what ways were the responses of city leaders to the loss of community marketplaces a replication of the exclusiveness and inherent social and economic inequality of suburbia?
3. Why does Jane Jacobs consider city planning a paternalistic “pseudoscience” akin to bloodletting? How does Jane Jacobs present the most influential ideas of orthodox modern city planning and architectural design? In what ways does her walking tour of Boston’s North End deflate the assumptions of planners and other urban experts?
4. How are cities natural generators of diversity and incubators of new enterprises and ideas? What are the conditions that generate city diversity? Do you agree with Jane Jacobs’ assessment of cities and the inherently dynamic nature of urban life?
5. In what ways is your day-to-day life influenced by the post-war trends in consumerism, suburbanization, and urban renewal examined by Lizbeth Cohen and Jane Jacobs?
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