Introduction: "Coffee for Every Purse and Purpose"
There was no saving her coffee maker. It had given up the ghost.
Perhaps it was leaving it running 18 hours a day, every day, since the day she unpacked it. Perhaps it was occasionally using old coffee, instead of fresh water, to rebrew a new pot. Perhaps it was years of brewing coffee the strength of industrial solvents. We may never know.
For my Cuban mother, now in her 70s, this was a crisis of biblical proportions. Coffee is like a parallel religion for the Havana set, and better than a half-century away from the island hadn’t tempered her caffeine addiction. It required immediate attention. She wanted a new coffee maker now. Not tomorrow. Not after breakfast. Now.
The good news: As a relief to drivers, pedestrians, and urban critters within a five-mile radius, my mother no longer drove. The bad news: Saving a hapless bunny from an untimely demise beneath my mother’s Corolla meant that her coffee maker problem was now my coffee maker problem.
Luckily, there’s a Target store along the way, and I didn’t waste any time scooping her up and getting there. And even more luckily, the “Super” version of the store carried a full aisle’s worth of choices in the kitchen section. We couldn’t miss it. As we approached, the end cap display featured an interactive instructional demo for a new espresso maker. If she couldn’t quite afford her best choice? No worries, reassured nearby pop-up signage. Target had her covered with several immediate financing options available at the check lanes.
She could choose a basic drip coffee maker. It came in one color (black), featured one capacity (10 cups), and precisely one feature (an on/off switch). Next to the base model on the shelf, Mr. Coffee offered three additional (vaguely patriotic) color choices – maroon, cream, or periwinkle – all featuring a delay timer, so she could set up her morning joe to brew the night before. That version cost about 50 percent more. Next to those, the manufacturer sold a version she could program to deliver different coffee intensities. (Though, sadly, “industrial strength” wasn’t an option.) And finally, for nearly $120, she could splurge on the 4-in-1 deluxe model that brewed coffee, made hot chocolate for the grandkids, and crafted a variety of espresso drinks.
That scene repeated, with variations, among a handful of brands – from old-fashioned drip-style carafes, pod-using coffee machines, newer espresso models, and even a couple of French press options. Only five brands dominated the shelves, each appealing to different needs, customer preferences, and price points.
With an entire career in consumer product development under my belt, I knew what I was seeing. In fact, I knew it wasn’t Target’s idea. This strategy was the brainchild of Alfred Sloan at General Motors, who created the original product ladder with makes and models of cars – affordable Chevrolets to luxury Cadillacs – in the 1920s. He called it a “car for every purse and purpose,” using the appeal of consumer choice to unseat Ford and its iconic Model T as the best-selling car make in the world for the next 60 years.
The instructional end cap wasn’t a new idea, either. Advertising agency J. Walter Thompson’s Helen Lansdowne pioneered the “instructional story” approach at about the same time Sloan was dethroning Ford. It made sense. If consumers didn’t understand how to use new-fangled coffee filters (invented by Melitta Bentz in Germany before World War I and just making their way to the United States in the 1920s), why would they buy a pour-over coffee maker? The 1920s saw hundreds of entirely new products hit the shelves – from radios to automobiles to washing machines to electric razors. If Lansdowne wanted to help her clients sell more widgets, she had better show consumers how to use them first.
What about in-store retail credit? You guessed it. Consumer financing came into its own during the same decade. Nearly every retail store offered some form of payment plan. But more than that, the 1920s were the first time the average person could make a major purchase – like a car or a home – without paying cash. To help teach people how to handle the deluge of credit offers, credit unions emerged as a consumer-centric alternative to traditional banks, focusing on financial education.
Even the store shopping experience itself was nearly a century old. In 1925, Robert Wood transformed the iconic Sears catalog business into the first “big box” store in the Chicago suburbs. But it wasn’t just a larger copy of the high-service boutiques downtown. This store had ample parking, thousands of square feet of showroom space, products on display you could feel and touch, and salespeople available only when you wanted them.
What was a radically new shopping experience in the 1920s is the norm today. But that isn’t what most people think of when they envision the Roaring 20s.
When asked, what images come to mind? It might be Prohibition, speakeasies, gangsters, rum-runners, and shootouts with Tommy Guns. Maybe it’s the loose morals and excesses of the Great Gatsby – all snappy dressing and easy sex. Or what about the one-of-a-kind architectural style of the decade? Art deco might be fun and stylish in small doses, but if it weren’t for the Chrysler Building and Miami Beach, we might forget the look of the times ever existed.
But those of us who understand consumer culture see something more. Consumers appreciate the right amount and the right variety of choices. Consumers like to be taught how they can enjoy a new product. Consumers need flexible payment terms. And consumers love shopping when, where, and how they please. Before the 1920s, none of that would have been possible.
My mother and I spent more than an hour looking at coffee makers that morning. She loved it. It took her a few minutes to orient to what she was seeing; she hadn’t bought a new machine in nearly two decades. Where I saw a symphony of choices, she saw a cacophony. But it didn’t take her long for her to start trying out the demonstration models, comparing features, and scrutinizing prices. She was in her element, reminding me of the ruthlessly efficient shopper I remembered as a child.
She ended up with an upgraded version of her prior drip model in maroon (she loves the color red) that came with one important addition over her prior model: an automatic safety feature that would prevent her from burning down her assisted living community. (The center’s director pulled me aside and thanked me when we brought it home.) To her, shopping was pure joy, and she seemed 10 years younger.
This book tells the story of the modern shopping experience and the innovators who created it, but it dives deeper than that. It shows how the consumer experience revolutionized American culture.
. . .
Despite my mom’s “joyful” experience, consumer culture also has a dark side.
You don’t need to look far to see it. If you believe the pundits and academics, buying my mom’s coffee maker amounts to “a social and economic order that encourages the acquisition of goods and services in ever-increasing amounts,” where Mr. Coffee designed her equipment to fail on purpose to “manipulate consumer spending,” so that she could show her “conspicuous and vicarious consumption and waste” as a “display of status and not functionality or usefulness.” And lest we miss the coffee shrub for the bean, our economic system would collapse without this vicious cycle of overproduction and overconsumption.
The 1920s, by extension, was an era of unrestrained excess and debauchery. Predictably, the stock market collapse ended the consumptive orgy with the decade-long hangover of the Great Depression. Of the Gatsby Era’s most irredeemable features was the birth of the modern shopping experience – a drug that’s addicted the American public for the past century. We’re all trapped in a destructive cycle robbing us of our humanity and dooming our planet.
Is there some truth to those characterizations? Yes, certainly. We’ve all been horrified by videos of Black Friday shoppers trampling their way to (a purposefully limited number of) $99 big-screen televisions. We’ve all driven by mountains of obsolete electronics and dumpsters full of discarded food while many people go hungry. Like any culture, consumerism is prone to excesses. But it’s hardly fair to judge its whole by the worst of its parts.
Is the 1920s only worthy of study only as a cautionary tale? No, certainly not. This decade gave us more than art deco and flappers; it gave the average person more freedom of choice – in more places than just the store – than they ever had before. Ever. In human history. That fact alone is worthy of a closer look.
To better understand both consumer culture and the Roaring 20s that created it, I’m proposing that we shift our language. Instead of taking the word “consumer” literally – the consumption of goods and services – let’s redefine consumer figuratively – as a choice-maker. With that definition in mind, consumer culture is better understood as choice culture and the 1920s as the creation of mass choice in the American economy.
The Roaring 20s gave consumers true power over many aspects of their lives for the first time. The choices we enjoy today often are taken for granted. However, it’s only been the past 100 years since Americans could choose where they wanted to live, travel when and where they wanted to travel, have the number of children they wanted to have, eat any type of food they liked, entertain themselves how they saw fit, dress themselves in a way they wished, and in fact, truly choose who they wanted to be. Yes, the privileged in society often had those freedoms and choices. And yes, we’ve had waves of migration – from the rest of the world and into the vast continental interior. But to most of the population, choice was an abstract concept. Until the 1920s, only the truly wealthy had any significant level of decision-making ability.
This book will present a new way to look at the 1920s – not as the art deco era, but as the choice era. It’s a perspective I can promise you’ve never seen before. I know. I’ve checked. You can read Only Yesterday or New World Coming to get the shorthand version of the decade, but they skim the surface, never going deep enough to show how deep the water really is. And yes, you can find authors and filmmakers who narrow their focus so they can dive deeper. Ken Burns’ 2011 documentary series Prohibition is an excellent example, as is the book, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition by Daniel Okrent, on which the documentary draws much of its material. You can find excellent biographies of Al Capone, Coco Chanel, and Calvin Coolidge. And while each provides a greater depth of perspective into its subject – and, by extension, the era in which they lived – they’re like the parable of the blindfolded men touching the elephant. To the man touching the trunk, the elephant is a snake. To the man touching the ear, the elephant is a fan. The belly is a wall. The tail is a rope. The tusk is a spear. But no one sees the elephant in the room.
Perhaps the only author who begins to see the elephant for what it is might be Thaddeus Russell. He invests a chapter in his 2010 counterculture book, A Renegade History of the United States, reminding readers that it was consumers who delivered most of the freedoms we enjoy in our daily lives – the kind that matter in the day-to-day lives of most people. “Self-evident truths” don’t mean as much to the average family as a new home, a car in the driveway, and a gas range. Russell goes so far as to christen the 1920s the Second American Revolution. Albeit a brief chapter in his book, it marks the beginning of a more apt description of the age.
Ultimately, consumer culture is so difficult to understand paradoxically because it’s so familiar – millions of people making individual (and mostly inconsequential) decisions. That doesn’t mean the decisions are always correct or we aren’t fooled on occasion. And yes, sometimes consumers willingly trade some of their freedom of choice because the consequences of failure are too great. But on the whole, that’s rare. American consumers resist having their choices made for them by technocrats – to the tune of 70 percent of all economic output. Consumers aren’t the tail that wags the economic dog. They are the dog. Or, more appropriately, they are the elephant. Because you can tell the dog where to sit. The elephant sits wherever it wants to.
. . .
When you take the perspective of a nation learning how to make an unprecedented number of choices for the first time, it gives us a new way to look at choice culture in general and the decade that birthed it. We’ll see that choice is so much more than consumption and that the skills Americans learned during the 1920s transformed more than our market economy.
This book features 26 origin stories of our day-to-day lives: what you buy, how you buy it, what price you pay, and why you decide to buy it. And it’s so much more than buying products. Americans in the 1920s became savvier consumers of entertainment, information, politicians, advertising, and even their own identities. You’ll learn about the incredible power you’ve been gifted to change the world – or at least, your little part of it. It’s empowering, delightful, and deeply satisfying.
We’ll dance the night away at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, sign up for the first subscription media service, get caught up in the Trial of the Century, pack our bags for the first all-American road trip, have a little fun in the sun, leave a review for that roadside motel, afford it all with five easy payments, learn how babies are made (and not) in the back seat of our car, get the resulting kink in our back worked out, shop for a new crib in the first big box store, watch our children learn to be savvier consumers than their parents, and pick up a new type of magazine to help us make sense of it all. And, of course, we’ll learn about the gangsters of Prohibition (“Booze”), how sports became more product than athletics (“Babe” as in Babe Ruth), and the democratization of fashion by the indomitable Coco Chanel (the “Little Black Dress”).
We’ll use stories of outstanding innovators to help bring the Roaring 20s to life in a new light, but never forget that this is a personal story. It’s our story. When innovators failed to meet our needs, they failed. When they humbled themselves, they succeeded. It’s that simple. We chose its characters, its storyline, and its ending.
It’s challenging to think of an area of our lives that consumer culture does not influence: the home we live in, the car we drive, the family we choose to create (or not), the food we eat, the places we entertain ourselves, the person we try to become, how we create social change, and even who we vote for. That’s why it’s vital to better understand how we got here and where we might go from here.
As consumers, the choice is ours. For the past 100 years, it always has been.