Why has consumerism become such an integral part of our lives and psyche? And where did it all began? According to Peter Stearns, consumerism could be described as “a society in which many people formulate their goals in life partly through acquiring goods that they clearly do not need for subsistence or for traditional display.”
So when and where did this obsession with buying begin? Historiography places the emergence of a modern consumer society at the beginning of the 20th century as a response to the Industrial Revolution and the changing means of capitalist production. In this sense, 19th-century Europe and the Industrial Revolution prepared the setting for the rise of consumer culture, when a particular set of goods became accessible to certain groups, who used them for displaying a higher status in society. In contrast, during the 20th century, the Western world offered a greater variety of consumer goods to be purchased by the wider public. From this moment on, the possession of consumer goods changed its meaning dramatically. From markers of higher or privileged status in society, consumer goods became tools of self-representation and objects of desire.As consumer practices evolved, consumerism became one of the most defining features of the modern West. Going to the department store to buy something you’ve seen in the ads or driving a luxury car became symbolic for the consumer practices in the early 20th century.
As early as 1878, Macy’s department store opened doors and invited buyers with a tempting headline in the New York Times: “The Great Sixth-Avenue Bazaar; Opening Day at Macy and Co’s – A Place Where Almost Anything May Be Bought”. The article promoted the “universality of the stock, almost every article of dress and household furniture being on sale there, and at the most reasonable prices.” By the end of the 1920s, Macy’s had already established itself as America’s largest department store and it is nowadays considered as a cultural landmark and an essential part of the American cultural life.
Over time, buying turned into a ritual. It was a sign of self-respect and a way to express your individuality. And what department stores like Macy’s offered was a place where consumers could have a direct contact with their objects of desire and thus helped create a special connection between buyers and consumer goods through advertisement, beautiful shop windows, holiday parades, etc., earning a significant place in consumers’ everyday life.