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Consumerism (Living the Twenties #AtoZChallenge 2020)

We think to the 1920s as a time of great prosperity. Yet, poverty was still very present in many parts of the Western World. For most of the countryside dwellers and entire sections of the city dwellers – unskilled urban workers and recent immigrants, for example – poverty was a fact of life. 

What was uncommon and so attracted the attention of both the contemporaries and later the historians, was that an entire, quite large section of society, the middle-class, knew an unprecedented growth in prosperity. 

The rise of consumerism

Between 1919 and 1929, the results of industrialisation started to become apparent. Machines, the introduction of the chain line and other innovations in term of shifts and work organisation, allowed workers to work less and still produce more than their fathers and grandfathers. The workweek went from seven to six days in many countries. In some instances (for example for a time in the Weimar Republic) it even went down to five days. The hourly wages increase slightly, and some family could rely on two providers, as women working outside the home started to become a socially acceptable occurrence. 

At the same time, many inventions that in the 1800s were just curiosities and generally too expensive to be marketable were employed to mass-produce items for everyday life at approachable costs. 

1920s couple

In a moment when at least the middle-class had more money and more free time on their hands than ever before, more goods were produced at more affordable prices. And in the time after the trials of WWI, people wanted to treat themselves and have fun. 

With all these favourable circumstances in place, the market started to respond and give people what they wanted. In abundance. 

Market strategies changed dramatically. Consumers’ attitude changed drastically. The way people spent their money changed forever.

The Rise of Advertisement

Advertisements weren’t new in the 1920s. The practice had already started in the late 1800s. But the 1920s produced a new way to use it. 

Rowntrees York Chocolate advertisement 1929

Advertisement had previously be used just to give info about the characteristics and the availability of a certain item. In the 1920s, the purpose of advertisement change. It ceased to be just information and became an enticement, a call to action. It started to create the need for a product. Appealing to how a product could make a person more elegant, more attractive, or make their jobs easier and faster, the new forms of advertisements tried to move the customer to buy. 

Many of the new products were not essential, but they could make life easier and more comfortable. Advertisements created the need to buy, so to appear modern and prosperous. 

1920s orange crush advertisement

Prosperity was the secret desire of the middle-class. At the moment when they were rising from a state of semi-poverty to a state of almost-prosperity, the middle-class was eager to look prosperous even when they really were not. Appearing to be prosperous was almost as important as being prosperous. Advertisement continuously appealed to this need, which the mass-market had itself created. 

Contrary to the past, advertisements, especially in magazines, now addressed women. This was a new section of the market that didn’t previously exist because before WWI, very few middle-class women had worked and so disposed of their own money. Magazines and their advertisement proposed a new role for women. No more mere housewives, but managers of the house, even when men still earned all the money. Women would then manage it, at least in regard to day-to-day life. Appealing to women’s sense of advancement was one of the most winning advertisement strategies of the era.


History Crunch – History of Consumerism
American Historama – American Consumerism 1920s

Kyvig, David E., Daily Life in the United States 1920-1940. How Americans Lived Through the ‘Roaring Twenties’ and the Great Depression. Ivan R. Dee Publisher, Chicago, 2002

Perrish, Michael E., Anxious Decades: America in Prosperity and Depression, 1920-1941. W.W. Norton & Co. Inc., New York, 1992


  • Birgit
    Posted April 3, 2020 at 02:59

    The 20s were a real step forward and I think the film world had a real hand in advertisements especially for things like perfume. Women were sure able to start coming into their own

    • Post Author
      Posted April 3, 2020 at 08:33

      That’s true. There were so many new things happening in the 1920s.

  • Kristin
    Posted April 3, 2020 at 04:21

    Looking through newspapers of this time there are ads for clothing, for furniture, for medical remedies. And pianos. I will have to look carefully next time. I always wonder what kinds of things my grandparents bought.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 3, 2020 at 08:35

      1920s advertisements are so fascinating. Not only because we can see what people wanted and buy and what was available, but also because they are so different from the ads of today. They give a sense of what was inside the minds – a bit also of what in the hearts – of people.

  • Roshan Radhakrishnan
    Posted April 3, 2020 at 07:25

    I love your theme, both this year and in the past. I have to ask – how do you know so much about these unique topics?

    • Post Author
      Posted April 3, 2020 at 08:36

      LOL! I fell in love with the 1920s ten years ago, as I research my first 1920s writing project. I learn something new every day.

  • Tarkabarka
    Posted April 3, 2020 at 09:05

    It is fascinating to think about how events in history set off a chain reaction of unexpected consequences. I wonder what this current pandemic is gonna set off…

    • Post Author
      Posted April 4, 2020 at 11:19

      Me too. And I’m sure that life will hardly be the same. In many ways.

  • Tasha Duncan-Drake
    Posted April 3, 2020 at 10:40

    So we have the 20s to blame for the rise of ad executives do we? It is a shame that everyone did not enjoy the benefits of consumerism the way the middle classes did.
    Virginia’s Parlour – The Manor (Adult concepts – nothing explicit in posts)
    Tasha’s Thinkings – Vampire Drabbles

    • Post Author
      Posted April 4, 2020 at 11:22

      Consumerism and all its charm started then, for sure. LOL!

  • Keith's Ramblings
    Posted April 3, 2020 at 12:03

    Fascinating times. I’d happily have those posters framed and hanging on my wall!

    My A-Z tale!

    • Post Author
      Posted April 4, 2020 at 11:28

      Me too! That was a time when real artists created ad posters.

  • Nilanjana Bose
    Posted April 3, 2020 at 15:47

    I think the first radio news broadcast also happened in the 20’s. Films transitioned from silent to ‘talkies.’ The way we spent our leisure and the way we were entertained changed drastically .

    • Post Author
      Posted April 5, 2020 at 08:46

      Yes, radio basically started in the 1920s. I had a section on that too, but the post would be too long and I cut it. But I’m thinking about making an ebook of the challenge, once it’s over, including all the material I edited out from the bog posts.
      Let’s see.

  • Anagha Yatin
    Posted April 3, 2020 at 18:18

    I wish I was there to witness the buoyant and prosperous surroundings after the WWI! Lucky were they to have witnessed this positive change in their lifetime. Who wouldn’t love to live in a period of well being and growth?
    As for the advertisement, I can see the need to create the demand in the minds of consumers has root deep down in 1920’s.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 5, 2020 at 09:03

      It is said that after a terrible event, there is a great growth. I’ve never hope that’s true as strong as in this moment.
      The rise of advertisement is a surprisingly intersting thing to research.

  • Frédérique
    Posted April 3, 2020 at 20:38

    Those pictures are so beautiful, I’m like Keith, would love to hang them in my home ;)

    • Post Author
      Posted April 5, 2020 at 09:15

      LOL! There’s little I don’t like about the 1920s ;-)

  • msjadeli
    Posted April 4, 2020 at 00:27

    And advertisers have been honing that appetite ever since! Good post.

  • Josna Rege
    Posted April 4, 2020 at 01:16

    Fascinating topic and post. Looking at the ads from a certain era is always so telling. In the early 1960s when I first encountered television advertising at age 9, I looked at the adverts in that old way you describe, that is, as simply giving me useful information about the product, akin to a public service announcement. Little did I realize that they were planting an unquenchable desire in me akin to an addiction. I still salivate when the jingle for Opal Fruits (now Starburst) comes to mind.
    Isn’t the cult of celebrity, Hollywood itself, part of the production of the desire for prosperity — or rather, the look and feel of prosperity–that you describe?

    • Post Author
      Posted April 5, 2020 at 09:18

      Indeed it is. The start system arose in the 1920s and had a great part in shaping the society, both inside and outside the US.
      I’ll touch on that in later posts :-)

  • Ronel Janse van Vuuren
    Posted April 5, 2020 at 15:36

    Sounds like the start of a century- (and onward!)-long trend.

    An A-Z of Faerie: Cù Sìth

  • Carrie-Anne
    Posted April 7, 2020 at 01:56

    I love collecting vintage advertisements, though a lot of them would never be approved today (like the soap ads claiming to turn dark skin white, or sexist messages shaming women about body odor). For the last few centuries, my ancestors have been solidly poor and proletarian, so they couldn’t take part in the consumer revolution of the 1920s.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 7, 2020 at 09:00

      LOL! That’s so true. Ads of the past are often cringing for our modern sensibility. But it’s interesting to study them. Advertisement often reveil the soul of an era more than anything else.

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