A few years ago, I came across a Gilded Age quote that I've been turning over in my mind ever since.
It was the middle of the Industrial Revolution, and the auto industry was having a problem: demand for cars was slowing down. Most people who were going to buy cars had already bought them. So business folk like Engard came up with a series of solutions like planned obsolescence and annual model changes to get people who already have cars to buy more cars.
“We must keep Americans wanting," wrote Walter Engard, an Ohio automobile dealer, in an early 20th century trade publication. "To keep America growing, we must keep Americans working, and to keep Americans working we must keep them wanting, wanting more than the bare necessities, wanting the luxuries and frills.”
"You need to get people to want more things," explained Gary Cross, a history professor at Pennsylvania State University who studies consumerism. Industry executives had to make people "think about a car not just as a car, a transportation machine, but as an expression of your personality or your status or your desire for something new."And of course, there's always getting people to spend money they don't have to buy stuff they don't need.
"This launched the big idea of buying big things on credit, in installments," Cross told me. Before this point, people could buy large products, like pianos, on credit, but it wasn't commonplace. All of a sudden, making big purchases on credit went mainstream.
Cross says that the increased productivity of the time meant Americans faced a choice: more free time, or more stuff. America chose stuff. But this choice wasn’t necessarily automatic. Many looked at recessions around them and argued that "we need to reduce the workday in order to smooth out these boom and bust cycles," Cross explained. "Instead of producing more and more goods, there would be a reduction of work time, and people would spend more time with their families."
Nearly a century ago, prominent British economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that people would soon be working two or three hour days. It sounds extreme now, but it really could have happened if we created the kind of economy where you weren't supposed to buy a new car or phone every couple years.
"This whole idea has been lost to the general public," Cross said.
Labor organizations lobbied for shorter workdays and more vacation time. They won the 40 hour week (before that, some people were working 16 hour days without weekends) but they largely lost to business titans.
A lot of people complain about American consumerism, saying it’s a sign that Americans are spoiled and materialistic. But this trend may not have come organically out of American desire, but also as a result of a calculated plan to increase sales.
Cross points out that, even if most Americans have forgotten about this chapter of history, our lives are still shaped by it. We still live in a world of both high productivity and unemployment, one where unsustainable consumption is hurting the environment. Less work means less production, which means less waste. The choice between leisure and products is not just a decision we made decades ago. It's a decision we are still making today, and one we could make differently tomorrow.