1899 illustration from Puck magazine, reading "The greatest department store on Earth; —and every day a bargain day."

Counter Culture

A History of Shopping

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! Or is it? The holiday season is notorious for bringing out the beast in shoppers. On this episode of BackStory, the hosts plunge into the history of shopping in America—the glitz and glamour, the overflowing shelves, and the cheesy Muzak. They’ll consider the role that consumption played in the revolutionary politics of the colonies, look at the curious rash of shoplifting among well-heeled women in the country’s first department stores, and reveal the connection between the Wizard of Oz and window shopping.

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NOTE: The following transcript corresponds to an earlier version of this show. Some passages may not match the rebroadcast audio above.

PETER: This is BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf.




This was the scene on Black Friday at a Walmart in Texas, back at the start of this year’s holiday buying season. Here’s Houston’s KPRC reporting on the mayhem.


MALE SPEAKER: –video shows fists flying at a sale in Stafford. Shoppers brawled over a television early this morning. Things got so bad police officers had to intervene.


PETER: So how did Americans reach this level of obsession?


FEMALE SPEAKER: There are four people lying on top of a flatscreen TV box.


PETER: Today on BackStory, we’ll shop around for some answers. We’ll hear how big box retailers like Walmart came to be, and about the conflicted feelings of the man who helped conceive the modern shopping mall.


JEFF HARDWICK: In a 1978 speech in London he says, I refuse to pay alimony for those bastard developments.


PETER: America’s consumer culture, today on BackStory. We’ll be right back.


Major funding for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the University of Virginia, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.


ED: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory with the American Backstory hosts.


BRIAN: Welcome to the show. I’m Brian Balogh.


PETER: I’m Peter Onuf.


ED: And I’m Ed Ayers. Picture this, Macy’s, or any department store for that matter, at Christmas time. There’s the tinsel, the shining windows, maybe even a line of children waiting their turn to visit with Santa Claus. Well, in the 1890s, gleam and glitz were on display all year round in these establishments. Department stores then were only a few decades old. But in that span of time, men like Marshall Field and RH Macy had transformed their businesses into commercial palaces. They were opulent and plush with goods likely to appeal to their target customers.


ELAINE ABELSON: It’s mostly about women. The stores are for and about women.


BRIAN: This is Elaine Abelson, a historian at the New School in New York. She says this focus on women shaped the way the stores were laid out. Women’s sections dominated. On the other hand, men’s sections were and still are today hidden in basements or tucked off on the sides. And that’s not all.


ELAINE ABELSON: They have restaurants. They have writing rooms. They have travel agencies. They have beautiful ladies restrooms. They want to have people come and stay if they can.


ED: Now not all women would have been welcomed in these stores. They were interested in women from the middle and especially the upper classes. But if you were a woman who fit that profile, you would have been treated to a sensuous experience, unlike anything available to shoppers before.


ELAINE ABELSON: You are smelling perfume in the air. They keep the atomizer going, as they said. You are going to see a plethora of silks. They’re encouraged to touch, to feel, to smell.


BRIAN: Now, this overtly tactile experience was definitely good for business. But it didn’t take long before it started having a not so welcome effect.


ELAINE ABELSON: The first major case of shoplifting that I ran across was in Macy’s in the 1870s. And a very well known woman was picked up just around now, the Christmas season, for taking some sort of trinket. And what happens was the woman gets off and the sales clerks who identified her as a thief are roundly castigated for impugning the reputation of someone who was in the store doing exactly what she was supposed to be doing, which was shopping.


BRIAN: But shoplifting did not go away. To the contrary, says Abelson, it became something of an epidemic. Within a few years department stores were taking active measures to keep their goods from walking.


ELAINE ABELSON: The way they start putting goods behind glass and they have a detective force that comes into play in the stores and they have the clerks watching. They’re always telling them how not to turn their back on customers and don’t do this and don’t do that. This becomes a problem. And how are they going to understand this, which they really can’t understand?


ED: What so puzzled these store owners was why women who could clearly afford to pay for these items were choosing to steal them instead. Fortunately for them, the experts had an answer. And that’s that these women were suffering from a medical condition known as kleptomania. It was a condition, these experts announced, that the quote “weaker” sex was especially prone to.


Basically doctors believed that because women could not control their menstrual cycles, they were subjected to fits of mania. The catchall term for this disorder was pelvic disease. And one manifestation was kleptomania.


BRIAN: Locating the problem of shoplifting in the physiology of its perpetrators just seems ludicrous today. But is it possible that the department stores themselves deserve some of the blame for the epidemic of shoplifting? I put that question to Abelson.


Is this a lot like the gambling industry discovering that if you promote gambling among tens of millions of people, some of those people are going to develop a problem? By promoting and pushing women and insisting that this is what women should be doing, there will be a certain number of women that simply can’t control their impulses in the shopping rage?


ELAINE ABELSON: Well, I think the stores in a way have unleashed something that they weren’t actually prepared for. It becomes a catch-22 in many ways, that they are sort of ensnared in their own merchandising efforts. I mean, the stores really become this focus of a world for women.


They are supposed to go into the shops. They are supposed to buy things. kleptomania absolutely becomes an excuse. Merchants didn’t want to prosecute these women. These were their customer base.


BRIAN: It’s very hard to explain why women who didn’t need to steal chose to do so. But when you think about it, need itself is a slippery concept, because not only did these women not need to be stealing, they also probably didn’t really need the very things that they were stealing. And when you think about it that way, the whole consumer transaction begins to take on a sort of optional quality. Owning stuff is nice, but the true thrill is in the haunt, the get, or to put it bluntly, the steal. It’s acquiring the stuff that’s the real fun.


ED: Today on the show, we’re considering this profound truth about shopping in a historical light. How did shopping come to be such a popular pastime in America? And how was the experience of shopping changed along the way?


We’ve got stories about buying habits in the nation’s early days, and about the rise first of malls and then of big box stores. But first, we’re going to spend a few more minutes in the years when American department stores were coming in their own, the last few decades of the 19th century. It was then that shopping in many ways was being transformed from an errand to a leisure activity.


PETER: One person who played a central role in that transition was someone you’ve probably heard of before in a very different context, L. Frank Baum, the creator of the original Wizard of Oz. At the very same time Baum was composing that story, he was at the peak of a short but influential career in retail. Reporter Eli Wirtschafter brings us the story.


ELI WIRTSCHAFTER: It took a long time for Lyman Frank Baum to find the thing that he was good at.


PETER HANFF: He was very good for coming up with schemes.


ELI WIRTSCHAFTER: This is Peter Hanff, an expert on all things Baum.


PETER HANFF: But one after the other, the things didn’t work out so well.


ELI WIRTSCHAFTER: Theater was his first enthusiasm. He starred in plays he wrote himself and he toured them around the Northeast. For a while he sold axle grease.


PETER HANFF: Baum’s Castorine.


ELI WIRTSCHAFTER: Then he opened up a store in the Dakota Territory.


PETER HANFF: Baum’s Bazaar.


ELI WIRTSCHAFTER: And when that went bust, he took over a newspaper and ran it into the ground.


PETER HANFF: The problem in part was that he grew up with a very well to do family that went on hard times. And I think he had a taste for fine living, so I think he was constantly looking for new avenues of support.


ELI WIRTSCHAFTER: In 1891, he moved his family to Chicago and landed a job as a traveling salesman of glassware and crockery. Now, at that very moment, artists, designers, and architects were flooding to Chicago to create the 1893 World’s Fair. That Fair was one of the most dazzling events in history. And during the few months that it lasted, Baum visited again and again.


At its center was the White City, a plaza of white buildings glittering under a new technology, electrical light. On show were all the latest products of American industry. But it was the way that they were shown, not the products themselves, that made the biggest impression on Baum.


KATHLEEN MORAN: It was all about display.


ELI WIRTSCHAFTER: Here’s Kathleen Moran, a professor of American studies at UC Berkeley.


KATHLEEN MORAN: The goods were all put into beautiful array. And I think if anything gave him the idea that that should be not just a fair that’s only once in a lifetime but the way Americans live, it probably was that.


ELI WIRTSCHAFTER: It was around this time that Baum came up with his latest scheme to strike it rich, and it was all about display. In the 1890s, department stores were taking over Chicago, great big stores with great big windows. Some of these stores were trying to outdo each other with elaborate presentations. But Frank Baum thought that most of them still had no idea what to do with their windows.


KATHLEEN MORAN: They were just filled with jumbled-up stuff. People just piled whatever they had for sale in there. They didn’t have any sense really of decoration or design or display.


ELI WIRTSCHAFTER: Baum realized that he was the perfect person to bring showmanship to retail. He knew about theater, and he knew about sales. And the shopkeepers he talked to every day were constantly telling him about their new gimmicks to attract buyers.


PETER HANFF: And he thought, I’ve heard their ideas. I’m a good writer. I can probably describe to them what they ought to be doing. And I think that’s how it came about.


ELI WIRTSCHAFTER: So in 1897, Frank Baum launched a magazine called The Show Window. It was a trade journal for window designers, and it quickly became the most influential in its field. Within months, tens of thousands of retailers were reading it. The Show Window featured photographs of the best displays in the country, and detailed instructions on how to create mechanical butterflies, revolving electrical stars, and even magic tricks, like a disembodied head that would float out of the floor and smile and wink at people on the street. Baum wrote that people would find these tricks irresistible.


MALE SPEAKER: People are naturally curious. They will always stop to examine anything that moves and will enjoy studying out the mechanism or wondering how the effect has been obtained.


ELI WIRTSCHAFTER: One piece of advice he offered was to hire someone to stand and gawk from the street.


MALE SPEAKER: The window gazer must be a good actor. He comes down the street at a swinging pace, glances casually at the window, then abruptly stops to gaze eagerly at the goods displayed. Soon, a crowd accumulates.


ELI WIRTSCHAFTER: Now, a lot of this would have been shocking to Americans at the time, not just the techniques but the purpose behind them. Baum believed in creating desire. And for Protestants, desire was a sin.


KATHLEEN MORAN: He was very anti-Christian, because he believed that people should not deny themselves things. This is really important to the foundation of consumerism. He understood that it wasn’t just about changing the external windows and stores and streets, but about changing us internally.


ELI WIRTSCHAFTER: The Show Window was such a success that a year later Baum founded the first professional organization for window trimmers. It made the job more respectable, and it gave designers a way to share their ideas. Within a decade or two, every department store in America had fantastic windows. Thousands of people would flock to see the new displays unveiled.


KATHLEEN MORAN: They were wonderment. They were like going to a fair.


ELI WIRTSCHAFTER: So how do we explain the fact that the same person who wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz also changed the face of shopping? Well, for Baum, there was nothing strange about it. With the Oz books, he had set out to write what he called a modernized fairytale with optimistic, forward-thinking values, the same values that made The Show Window a success.


It’s the story of a little girl who gets transported from a life of poverty into an enchanted land where everything is bright and colorful and new. In the original Oz books, Dorothy brings her whole family back to live with her in the Emerald City. And when they get there, this is how Baum describes it.


MALE SPEAKER: Here, everything that was dear to a little girl’s heart was supplied in profusion, and nothing so rich and beautiful could ever have been found in the biggest department stores in America.


KATHLEEN MORAN: The Emerald City is a department store. It’s the greatest department store ever imagined.


ELI WIRTSCHAFTER: It’s also quite a bit like the White City back at the World’s Fair. In fact, it might actually be a white city. Peter Hanff reminds us that everyone in the Emerald City wears these glasses, which just make everything look green.


PETER HANFF: When Dorothy takes off the green spectacles that everybody in the city must wear and looks down at her gown, it’s no longer green, but white. So we have some clue that there’s a bit of humbuggery going on in the whole thing.


ELI WIRTSCHAFTER: The people of Oz could take off their glasses at any time, but they’d rather believe in this massive fraud. And The Wizard, of course, is the biggest humbug of them all.


FRANK MORGAN: Yes, it’s exactly so. I’m a humbug.


ELI WIRTSCHAFTER: There’s the famous line from the 1939 movie, taken straight out of the book.


FRANK MORGAN: No, my dear. I’m a very good man. I’m just a very bad wizard.


KATHLEEN MORAN: We all go, yeah. It’s OK. We want to be fooled. That is the foundation of cinema. It’s the foundation of theater. It’s the foundation of entertainment and video games. Please, I know it’s not true, but even so, I want to believe it.


ELI WIRTSCHAFTER: And maybe that’s the foundation of shopping too. When we stare into a window, we let ourselves believe, even though we know it’s not the things we want, but the hopes and dreams that go with them. Frank Baum knew that too.


KATHLEEN MORAN: This is a guy who understood that you don’t sell commodities. You sell fantasies. The American fairytale is about retail.


PETER: That story was brought to us by Eli Wirtschafter. We also heard from Kathleen Moran, a professor of American studies at UC Berkeley; and from Peter Hanff, deputy director of the Bancroft Library. You can read more about Frank Baum, department stores, and the rise of consumer culture in Land of Desire by William Leach.




ED: We’re going to take a short break. When we get back, the radical utopian vision that was the 1950s American mall.


PETER: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute.




We’re back with BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf.


ED: I’m Ed Ayers.


BRIAN: And I’m Brian Balogh. Today on the show we’re considering the history of the activity that might have you stuck in traffic at this very moment. What’s that activity? Well, of course, it’s shopping.


We just heard about the advent of the department store towards the end of the 19th century. Now we’re going to jump to the middle of the 20th century and consider the origins of another American innovation in buying and selling, the shopping mall.


ED: Consolidated shopping areas had been a feature of urban life as far back as the 1920s. But they weren’t pretty. They were congested and often poorly built open air strips or ribbons of stores. And when the suburbs started taking shape in the ’40s and ’50s, architects and planners were determined to not reproduce that kind of blight. This meant zoning against commercial space, which in turn meant towns that were almost exclusively residential. There was hardly anywhere for suburbanites to go for art or entertainment or commodities, except back to the city.


BRIAN: Into that scene stepped a man named Victor Gruen. He was a Socialist Jewish emigre who fled the Nazi annexation of Austria in 1938. And over the next two decades, he would become perhaps the most influential architect of American malls. Gruen wasn’t the only one planning suburban malls, but he was unique in his desire to make malls that were grand, public places, not just places to buy stuff, but places to see art, to mingle, and to have a social experience.


JEFF HARDWICK: So Gruen continually is writing about how what he calls these regional shopping centers are going to bring culture and amenities to the soulless suburbs.


BRIAN: This is Jeff Hardwick, a biographer of Gruen’s.


JEFF HARDWICK: He imagines that you’re going to have merchants essentially subsidize public culture in the suburbs, and they’re going to be able to enjoy this public art and plantings and concerts. I mean, he sees the shopping mall– and this is probably his most naive point– as the center of a mixed use community. He really pictures that you’re going to have offices and hospitals and medical centers and apartment buildings all connected to the shopping mall.


BRIAN: Bringing them all together, that sounds almost socialist.


JEFF HARDWICK: Right. You know, it’s funny, like drawing a straight line from his socialist beliefs in Vienna to work on the shopping malls to his eventual distaste for American shopping malls is kind of tough, because I feel like he makes so many compromises along the way.


BRIAN: Yeah.


JEFF HARDWICK: But he definitely tapped into an American tradition of the idea of if you plan the environment of the city or the suburbs and you control development, it will have a beneficial effect on both people and the environment.


BRIAN: And architecturally, how did this play out? What was different about the way Gruen designed malls compared to those ribbons or those strips?


JEFF HARDWICK: Yeah. It’s a good question. So in many ways, I think of Gruen as a middling architect. He’s not that innovative architecturally, but planning-wise he’s very innovative. So in his best example, Southdale in Edina, Minnesota, in 1956, it opens up and it’s got I think a three-story aviary. It’s got a goldfish pond. It’s got this massive court, which is called I think the Garden of Perpetual Spring.




JEFF HARDWICK: And that’s what Gruen latches onto. He keeps making the case to developers, you know, you invest in 300,000 tulips. You plant 5,000 trees. Hire an artist to design these sculptures that kids can play on.


And all of that is going to uplift middle class Americans. It’s going to make them have fun. And if they have fun, they’re going to stay longer. And if they stay longer, eventually they’re going to spend more money.


BRIAN: So Gruen, by the end of the 1960s, returns to Europe disgusted with some of the very malls that he built. What was he most upset about?


JEFF HARDWICK: Right. It’s a tricky question. You know, Gruen is nothing if not, ever since the beginning of his career in the States, very conscious about his image. And so I think you have to take it with a grain of salt. The classic comment is in a 1978 speech in London, he says, I refuse to pay alimony for those bastard developments. And what he means is they’ve ruined his fantastic idea, this idea that’s going to bring culture to the suburbs. And Americans, because of their crass commercialism, have destroyed that vision.


And you know, part of that’s true. Developers do realize that you put up a five-story poinsettia tree at Christmastime, people are going to stop and stare and think it’s just amazing. But a lot of those other pieces end up falling by the wayside, because they don’t directly produce profits.


And yet at the same time, Gruen, he makes his career on shopping malls. He continues building shopping malls from ’56 all the way through when he leaves his firm in ’68 and returns to Vienna. And so he imagines that the shopping mall is this gift to Americans that they have in his words bastardized in some way, yeah, by making it solely focused on the marketplace.


Jeff Hardwick is the author of Mall Maker, Victor Gruen, Architect of an American Dream. Hardwick’s also a program officer at the National Endowment for the Humanities, which we should point out is one of the funders of this program.




PETER: In some ways, the emergence of shopping malls transformed the experience of shopping in America. Where once people did their shopping on foot in the city center, they could now do it by car, far from crowded downtowns and all the headaches city life entailed. But in other ways, the change wasn’t really all that dramatic.


LOUIS HYMAN: In many ways, the suburban mall is a department store writ large.


PETER: This is historian Louis Hyman. He points out that like department stores, malls were designed to be one-stop shopping experiences, and actually facilitated the move of department stores like Macy’s into suburbia. But an arguably more profound revolution in American retail emerged in the 1960s. And it emerged literally in the shadow of those malls we just heard about.


LOUIS HYMAN: Right. It’s actually pretty hilarious. These malls, which are trying to cater to a more affluent clientele, and so they won’t let the discounters, they won’t let Kmart be in the same shopping center as a Macy’s. And so all they do is they say, fine, we’ll just look across the street and we’ll buy that land–


BRIAN: At half the price.


LOUIS HYMAN: –at half the price. And voila, the American big box store is invented.


BRIAN: Hyman wrote about the big box revolution in a recent book called Borrow, the American Way of Debt. In that book, he talks about how stores like Kmart and Target had faith that suburban shoppers would eventually choose them over both the mall and the department store. Why? Because they had deals.


LOUIS HYMAN: Today we are overwhelmed by sales year round.


BRIAN: Yeah.


LOUIS HYMAN: We are always going flitting from store to store and now online looking for great deals. And this wasn’t actually the way people shopped in the early postwar period. Today when we have manufacturer’s suggested retail price on things, we look at that and we scoff and we say, that’s not real. That’s just there to make us think we’re getting a good deal, which of course I fall for every single time.


BRIAN: Right. That’s like that thing on the hotel door where you look at the rate and say, oh my god, $1,200. Oh no. They don’t really mean that at Hampton Inn, do they?


LOUIS HYMAN: What do you mean? I totally pay $1,200 every time I– no. Exactly. Exactly. And so it makes you feel like you got a good deal. And you feel like you really know what you’re doing.


But those prices were real. Coming out of the 1930s, states passed fair trade laws to keep manufacturing going, to keep those jobs going, to keep prices high so that people would have a place to work. And then, after they had their wages, they could spend them on relatively high-priced goods. And so the system was a world where there wouldn’t really be that much difference in price between different stores. And so places like department stores competed instead on services, services like gift wrap, services like delivery, services like consumer credit.


And so this world was beginning to come undone by the 1960s, because state by state, starting in Louisiana, those laws were rolled back. As this is happening, there’s also a rise in stores that begin to sell– first they sell leftovers, because the manufacturing capacity of America was growing astronomically that there’s so much stuff that they can sell things that are only slightly damaged somewhere in a converted old factory and they–


BRIAN: Right. They’re called seconds. Seconds, is that what they’re called?


LOUIS HYMAN: Factory seconds. That’s exactly right. And at first, discounters were these kinds of stores, places with heaps of slightly off sweaters that working people would go and get a good deal on.


But then they become something different. And that’s when what we think of today as discounters, the great trifecta of Kmart, Walmart, and Target, all coming into being in 1962.


BRIAN: Isn’t that incredible that they all came into– I found that stunning in your book. Why 1962?


LOUIS HYMAN: They all come into being in 1962 because it’s a moment when retailers are beginning to realize the limit of their retail models in that exact moment. And so you have different kinds of stores, department stores, five and dimes, trying to reinvent themselves into a new form and take advantage of these lower prices.


BRIAN: But I don’t get it. What actually is so different about going into these stores?


LOUIS HYMAN: I think that it’s important to realize first what it is to go to a department store in 1960.


BRIAN: Great.


LOUIS HYMAN: And for your younger listeners, it’s impossible to imagine.


BRIAN: Sure.


LOUIS HYMAN: You dress up, or rather I dress up in basically my Sunday best, complete with gloves. I go downtown. And I spend the entire day shopping there.


And shopping before the big box store was an incredibly stressful situation, because you were never shopping alone. You were always shopping with a clerk. And the clerk kept you from the things you wanted to buy. And all of that went away with the rise of the discount store.


People were excited about the prices, for sure. But they were mostly excited about being able to do self-service, being able to wander the aisles, look at these new pipe-racked clothes, either– clothes hanging on racks like we have today. And they’re able to touch them, able to feel them, able to try them on.


They’re able to gather and spend their time. And nobody was harassing them. Nobody was telling them what to do. And at the same time, you could just wear jeans to go shopping.




LOUIS HYMAN: You didn’t have to wear a dress. And you could bring your kids. And your kids could actually misbehave a little and you could still buy your stuff.


BRIAN: Louis, are we supposed to conclude that the moral of this story is, you know, shoppers are in the driver’s seat, quite literally, and business is just responding to them?


LOUIS HYMAN: These changes are a response to shifts in the way in which we want to live, in terms of spending our time and how we do our shopping. But nobody is just a consumer. Nobody is just a worker. We’re all many things. And so sometimes parts of our social lives can benefit and other parts can fall apart.


So one of the things that economists talk about is the Walmart effect, and the way in which the cheapness of Walmart keeps down the price of goods for working people. At the same time, Walmart also keeps down the wages of working people and destroys traditional retail job opportunities. So part of what I think we need to think about is where we want the benefits to go. Maybe we would be comfortable paying higher prices for things if it meant that we also had better jobs and more security in other parts of our lives.




BRIAN: Louis Hyman is a historian at Cornell University. He’s the author of several books, Debtor Nation, and also Borrow, the American Way of Debt.


PETER: It’s time for another break. When we return, what the desire for stuff had to do with America’s war for independence.


BRIAN: You are listening to BackStory. We’ll be right back.


This is BackStory. I’m Brian Balogh.


ED: I’m Ed Ayers.


PETER: And I’m Peter Onuf. We’re marking the peak of the holiday shopping season with an hour on the history of shopping in America. So as you know, I’m the guy who covers America’s early years on this show. And I have been sitting here biting my lip for the past half hour listening to you guys go on and on and on about how shopping didn’t really become a thing until the last couple of decades of the 19th century. Well, now it’s my turn. And so I’m going to play for you a little conversation I recorded the other day with a friend of mine in Vermont.


Hey, Tim, you there?


TIM BREEN: Hey, Peter. Can you hear me?


PETER: Yeah, I can.


This is Tim Breen, who has studied consumerism in the colonial era. I called him to help me make the case to you two that a culture of shopping in America started much earlier.


TIM BREEN: Well, I’ll be glad to correct their erroneous thinking, Peter.


PETER: Good.


TIM BREEN: As far a robust consumer market open to ordinary people, in other words, a large market, that is clearly a mid-18th century phenomenon. In the middle of the 18th century, England was able, through greater efficiency of maybe traditional outsourcing, to create a huge amount of consumer goods, largely household goods. We’re talking here about metal goods, knives, ceramics, glassware, and most important, Peter, in this new, really vibrant consumer market of the mid-18th century, cloth. The statistics are basically that 50% of all English exports went to the North American colonies. And of that 50%, Peter, 50% of that was factory-made textiles.




TIM BREEN: And that was all new. There’s no question. And we’re talking about a mass market here.


PETER: So hold on for a minute here, Tim. My colleagues are going to say, is this hyperbole? Are we exaggerating just a little bit? I mean, OK, some high-end consumers are able to get fancy cloth from Britain.


TIM BREEN: Well, look, throughout recorded history the richest people, kings and queens and popes and whatnot, have been able to be consumers.


PETER: That’s what they’re there for, right?


TIM BREEN: Yeah, right. And so they want spices from the Indies, and all that sort of thing.


PETER: Yeah.


TIM BREEN: What’s the new trend, and there’s no question statistically that this happened, was the opening up of a market that was accessible to what I’m going to call ordinary people. And what England achieved was not only the capacity to make the goods that people wanted, they created patterns of distribution and credit that were new and extraordinarily effective.


You or a family member would go into a store and you’d say, man, oh, I really– oh, that cloth over there. It’s so beautiful. I don’t have so much money right now.


The storekeeper would say, well, fine. Take it home. And I’ll start charging you interest in, I don’t know, six months whatever.


PETER: So that’s one of the things to create the modern consumer, you have to have credit.


TIM BREEN: Absolutely because in early America, literally almost before World War I, there was always a scarcity of specie. And so without–


PETER: That is hard money, right?


TIM BREEN: Yeah, without circulating money, so without credit, this consumer market would have faltered at the beginning.


PETER: So Tim, before department stores or internet shopping, well, how did people do it? Could you describe the culture of shopping in Anglo-America, in the colonies before the Revolution?


TIM BREEN: Right. One of the elements stimulating this market, Peter, were a new rise in magazine and print communication. So someone like George Washington we know was reading the equivalent of Country Life and saying, oh wow, look at– I really need one of those. And merchants that I’ve studied, they advertised in the papers with their address, “come down to the sign of the anchor and you’ll see our new shipment of cottons” or whatever.


And increasingly they tried to find, especially in Philadelphia, ways to lure the shoppers in. One merchant anticipated Starbucks by about 250 years by offering customers coffee if they’d come into the shop and look around. And in the back country, you had a whole range of small stores that historians have begun to explore, and even a pattern of peddlers bringing goods to small towns that seemed– before any historians looked at, seemed inaccessible to this consumer market. But in fact, these guys in their little wagons or whatever were bringing the same stuff, glassware, crockery, and whatnot.


PETER: So Brian, Ed, we had advertising. We had a system of distribution. We had consumer desire. I think you’d agree that it’s pretty clear that Americans from all walks of life were shopping in the 1700s.


BRIAN: Peter, you’re doing better than I thought you’d be doing.


PETER: All right. Thanks, Brian.


BRIAN: Keep going.


PETER: Yeah?


BRIAN: Yeah.


PETER: OK. So I got another thing that I’m going to lay on to you. It’s not just that there was shopping. You’ve given me that much. But this shopping really mattered. Does your shopping matter?


Their shopping mattered. And I’ll tell you why. Tim argues that not only was there a consumer culture in the colonial era, but that that culture played a big part in bringing on the American Revolution. So let me set this up, all right?


The English knew that Americans loved to buy their stuff. So when the Crown found itself in need of revenue, naturally it ramped up taxes on the sale of its goods here. And it was at this point that the colonists took a stand as consumers.


TIM BREEN: The Americans came up with a totally new way of organizing, mobilizing political protest. And that is the consumer boycott. Consumers in America said, wait a minute. We’re really dependent on these British goods. But then the British manufacturers are really dependent on us.


And maybe if we can’t get attention of Parliament, maybe we can get attention of the corporate investors, capitalists in England, by cutting back in our own consumption. It would be a warning shot. It started in 1765 as a response to the Stamp Act. And it continued slowly over a decade, to become more efficient.


PETER: So in effect, Tim, you’re suggesting that consumers became politicized. And it was because they’re upset about disruptions in the market.


TIM BREEN: Right. But they also saw their own consumer decisions as possibly a way of achieving for middle– ordinary people achieving a political voice. The burden of non-consumption fell on the shoulders of ordinary men and women. And if you look at the newspapers in 1774, 1775, Peter, you see– it doesn’t matter where you start reading, in the middle colonies or in New England. They’re filled with stories of people somewhere else stopping consumption or organizing committees to police consumption.


And these news stories gave ordinary Americans a sense, well, look. You know, I don’t know these folks down in Carolina. But they seem to be doing what we’re doing. It created an imaginary–


PETER: Yeah. Sort of a collective identity through consumption.


TIM BREEN: Yeah. Yeah. Right. We’re not going to be left hanging out there alone.


PETER: So it’s not liberty and this kind of radical individualism that we associate with the ideas of the Revolution. It’s this collective action.


TIM BREEN: Yeah. You can’t have a revolution without collective action.


PETER: Yeah. And it’s through consumption, because consumers are aware of each other. They recognize each other as consumers, and their power as consumers.


TIM BREEN: Right. Now, it’s not the entire story, of course. I mean, did liberty and freedom and rights matter? Of course they did. And it wasn’t just window dressing. But within this ferment of people thinking about their own political futures and finding also a community of fellow protesters through the marketplace was a real key to our success.


PETER: Yeah. And I think, Tim, you’re saying that American revolutionaries were real people.


TIM BREEN: Absolutely. We’ve turned the Revolution into a kind of a sophisticated book club of some Harvard people.


PETER: Whoa. Harvard.


TIM BREEN: And you know, that was nice. They could write little treatises and pamphlets. But, you know, 10 pamphlets a revolution does not make.


PETER: Thanks a lot, Tim.


TIM BREEN: OK, Peter. Call if you have any more questions.


PETER: So that was Tim Breen, professor emeritus at Northwestern University, and he now teaches at the University of Vermont in Burlington. He’s the author of Marketplace of Revolution, How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence. So what do you think, guys? Do you buy this argument, that the United States was essentially born as a nation of shoppers?


BRIAN: Well, Peter, I’d consider renting it, short-term rental, by the way.


PETER: Oh, how about a 99-year lease? Come on.


BRIAN: Yeah. Look, I get it. We really created the infrastructure of a market, and even the infrastructure of credit. But what’s really different about things in the 20th century, what’s referred to as the consumer revolution, has very little to do with what people buy and a lot more with the amount of time that they have to buy things. It has to do with a reduction of work. It has to do with the rise of eventually the 40-hour work week and weekends free from labor. To have what we in the 20th century called a culture of consumption really required organizing one’s life and one’s identity around what you shop for. And I simply don’t believe that back in the 17th and 18th century the masses had the leisure time to do that.


PETER: Well, I’d say this, Brian. I think you have underscored the fact that these are different shopping cultures. And I think that’s very important. It’s the context of the late 18th century in which shopping really is a special activity for a lot of people. It is something new. And it’s something that they have become dependent on, that they cherish, that’s very special.


They don’t do it all the time. The shopping opportunities are not ubiquitous. And I think that’s precisely why fears that they’ll be driven out of the market politicize them.


ED: And that’s why shopping in the 19th century is something different than shopping in the 18th century, Peter. Picking on some of the themes that both you and Brian laid out, shopping by its very nature means that you are choosing among much. You are choosing among multiple sources, right? And the fact that there is some cloth from England in one shop in your town that you can buy and you go to a shop and get it is a kind of consumerism. It’s a kind of consumption.


But that’s not the same thing as going into these new department stores of the 19th century and having before you this profusion of choice. So I think the real question is, at what point does a difference in degree become a difference of kind? But it does strike me that when the velocity and the volume of these things increase to such an extent, it lays the conditions for what Brian’s talking about, in which you would actually decrease the amount of work you’re doing so that you could do more of the shopping. You specialize it more among the genders and so forth.


PETER: I think that’s right, Ed. I agree with that. And I think that’s a nice perspective. We’ve always been in a kind of market society and that accelerated before the Revolution and in some ways the Revolution is associated with consumption and market activity. But the culture of consumption is a work in progress. And now it’s something that we take so much for granted, it’s so much who we are, that it’s hard to understand the very excitement of the origins of shopping on a democratic scale.


BRIAN: Right. Right.


ED: We’re going to take a call now from one of our listeners. hosts, we have Michele with us from New Orleans. Michelle, welcome to BackStory.


MICHELLE: Hi. How are you all?


ED: Well, we’re great.


MICHELLE: So I was curious about Christmas shopping in particular, and about kind of when the moment would have happened where people might expect that children will buy gifts for their parents, rather than say make or find gifts for their parents. One of my earliest school memories is of essentially a fundraising event where the school set up something like the Santa’s workshop or something like that, where there were a bunch of little trinkets that kids could buy for their families. And when I thought about it, you know, I remembered buying my mother this hideous ceramic cat, very ugly cat.


ED: Which she kept for years, right?


MICHELLE: Oh, for years. Oh, we moved a ton, and she just kept it all the time. And also at the time, she was pregnant with my little sister. And I even bought my unborn little sister a toothbrush at this–


ED: Oh, you’re so thoughtful, Michelle.






MICHELLE: Oh, yeah.


ED: Yeah.


MICHELLE: But the more I thought about it, the more I thought, like, why would anyone expect a six-year-old to buy someone Christmas gifts? And so I was just kind of curious where that could have come from?


ED: Well, I think what we can agree is that this is a relatively recent phenomenon. You just don’t see examples in the 19th century even of people thinking this way, you know. I mean, it’s hard for me not to think of this as a 20th century thing, Brian.


BRIAN: Yeah. I think it is a 20th century thing. And I think if we’re talking specifically about Christmas, I would imagine drives to fund schools inadvertently led to a lot of gift giving. I mean, kids were encouraged to go out and sell things. And a lot of those things where things like Christmas wrap or fruit for Christmas, which ends up never being given to me, Michelle, but presumably to some parents.


The standard story about when kids began to enter the market is after World War II, we have the baby boom. And we have huge mass marketers noticing that kids are getting allowances, and wanting to tap into those allowances. But I’m going to turn to Peter, because he may have some thoughts, even though it’s the 20th century.


PETER: Yeah. No,I think you’re describing something very important, Brian. But it begins perhaps with the advertising industry itself, because I think advertisers– and this is early 20th century big time, though it does go back into the 19th century. Advertisers understand that they’re trying to create consumer patterns over lifetimes. And one of the reasons why you pitch towards kids is you want brand loyalty to begin then.


MICHELLE: That’s true. I think about like the film reels, like old film reels that you would see in schools that would be sponsored by industries and companies and all that.


PETER: Yeah. So I think– Brian, I think you’re right. You don’t have it on a mass scale until you have the modern allowance. That really doesn’t take hold until the inter-war period in the middle classes. That is, the kids would get a regular amount of money. And one of the reasons they did get–


ED: What wars are you talking about? Which wars?


PETER: Between World War I and II. And the reason they get allowances is to restrain consumption, because if you don’t have a regular allowance, then you’re always hitting on the old folks. And this is a form of family discipline. In other words, the default is that kids exercise so much power in American families that they can spend too much and actually endanger family finances.


BRIAN: And Peter, of course, has offered an explanation with such a nice soft glow to it as we approach the holiday season. But there’s another explanation. And that’s the inexorable expansion of markets as we make more and more stuff. And, you know, in the United States that started with exporting to foreign countries. At the beginning of the 20th century we all know how middle class women were targeted as shoppers with the rise of the department store.


And let’s face it, kids presented a new untapped market to lots of people. Someone was making those hideous ceramics cats, and said, who the heck is going to buy this? I know. An eight-year-old.


PETER: A six-year-old girl.


BRIAN: Exactly. Who’s being forced to buy something by her school teacher.


ED: God, you guys are such grinches.


BRIAN: Yeah, mainly you, Peter.


ED: Here’s the way that I would think of this, Michelle.


BRIAN: Sorry.


ED: Let’s think of it this way. What is this all about? Honey, we give you everything, all the time. It’s so touching that you would save up your little resources to give back to us. It’s a form of affective familial domestic citizenship.


PETER: Yeah. And you couldn’t put a price on it, could you, Ed? It’s priceless, like that hideous–


ED: Yeah. Exactly. The uglier it is, the more we’re supposed to love it, right?


PETER: Because we’re ugly and our parents love us.


ED: Well, exactly.


MICHELLE: Well, you know, it’s true, like those are the gifts that the family tells stories about, right? Like that’s what we– yeah.


ED: I think, you know, Michelle, your question can touch this kind of response I think to anybody who grew up in 20th century America. I mean, consuming is such as a part of defining who we are. Or when you come to realize that that was one ugly ceramic cat you gave to your mother, it’s a form of education in and of itself, right? And she loves you anyway.


MICHELLE: Absolutely.


ED: And we love you for giving us a call.


PETER: Yeah, wonderful call.


BRIAN: Thank you, Michelle.


PETER: Thanks a lot.


TIM BREEN: Thank you. You have a good one.


PETER: Bye bye.


ED: Bye bye.




BRIAN: Shoppers, we’ve reached the checkout counter, so that’s where we’re going to have to leave you today. But we’re eager to hear your best shopping stories. And we’ll be looking for them over at backstoryradio.org.


While you’re there, please help us shape our upcoming show on advertising. We’ll be picking up where the last call left off. What are your questions, your stories about advertising in the past?


PETER: We’re also collecting your ideas on our website for items to put in a BackStory time capsule. You can make suggestions in the Comments section, for our In the Work show about the history of the future. We’re also on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter at BackStory Radio. Whatever you do, don’t be a stranger.


ED: BackStory is produced by Tony Field, Nina Earnest, Andrew Parsons, Kelly Jones, and Robert Armengol. Our digital producer is Emily Gadek, and Jamal Millner is our engineer. We had help from [INAUDIBLE]. Special thanks this week to Richard Longstreth and Don Wood. BackStory’s executive producer is Andrew Wyndham.


BRIAN: Major support for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the University of Virginia, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations. Additional funding is provided by Weinstein Properties; by the Tomato Fund, cultivating fresh ideas in the arts, the humanities, and the environment; and by History Channel, history made every day.


MALE SPEAKER: Brian Balogh is professor of history at the University of Virginia. Peter Onuf is professor of history emeritus at UVA, and senior research fellow at Monticello. Ed Ayers is president and professor of history at the University of Richmond. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.


ED: BackStory is distributed by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.