Consumerism in the 1920s: A Paradigm Shift in American Society

The 1920s marked a pivotal era in American history, characterized by significant economic growth, technological advancements, and a fundamental shift in consumer behavior. This decade witnessed the rise of consumerism, a phenomenon that would profoundly impact society and shape the trajectory of the American economy.

Key Facts

  1. Prosperity and new patterns of consumption: The prosperity of the 1920s led to new patterns of consumption, with people purchasing consumer goods like radios, cars, vacuums, beauty products, and clothing.
  2. Expansion of credit: The expansion of credit in the 1920s allowed for the sale of more consumer goods and put automobiles within reach of average Americans.
  3. Democratization of luxury: The 1920s saw the democratization of luxury on a scale previously unimagined, with television setting the stage for this phenomenon.
  4. Rise of consumer culture: The notion of human beings as consumers first took shape before World War I but became commonplace in America in the 1920s. Consumption is now frequently seen as our principal role in the world.
  5. Advertising and propaganda: Advertising played a significant role in promoting consumerism in the 1920s. Businesses learned the importance of the ultimate consumer and actively sought to create demand through advertising and propaganda.

The Roots of Consumerism

Prior to the 1920s, consumption was primarily driven by necessity, with individuals purchasing goods to meet basic needs. However, the post-World War I era ushered in an era of prosperity, leading to increased disposable income and a growing desire for luxury items. This newfound affluence, coupled with the introduction of innovative products and aggressive marketing techniques, fueled the rise of consumerism.

The Democratization of Luxury

One of the defining features of consumerism in the 1920s was the democratization of luxury. Previously unattainable items, such as automobiles, radios, and household appliances, became accessible to the average American consumer. This was largely facilitated by the expansion of credit, which allowed individuals to purchase goods beyond their immediate means.

The Role of Advertising

Advertising played a pivotal role in promoting consumerism during this period. Businesses recognized the importance of targeting the ultimate consumer and employed various strategies to create demand for their products. Advertising campaigns utilized psychological techniques to persuade consumers that they needed certain products to achieve happiness and social status. The advent of radio further amplified the reach of advertising, enabling businesses to connect with a broader audience.

The Impact of Consumerism

The rise of consumerism had a profound impact on American society. It stimulated economic growth, leading to increased production and job creation. However, it also contributed to a culture of debt and materialism, as individuals sought to acquire the latest and greatest products. Furthermore, the emphasis on consumption diverted attention away from social issues and contributed to a decline in civic engagement.


The 1920s marked a watershed moment in the history of American consumerism. The confluence of economic prosperity, technological innovation, and aggressive marketing tactics transformed consumption from a necessity-driven activity to a cultural phenomenon. While consumerism brought about economic growth and improved living standards, it also had unintended consequences, including the rise of debt, the erosion of traditional values, and the decline of civic engagement.


  1. Khan Academy, “1920s Consumption,”
  2. The MIT Press Reader, “A Brief History of Consumer Culture,”
  3., “A Consumer Economy,”


What is consumerism?

Consumerism is an economic model in which the primary goal is to increase consumption of goods and services. It is characterized by a focus on material possessions, economic growth, and the pursuit of happiness through consumption.

How did consumerism rise in the 1920s?

The rise of consumerism in the 1920s was fueled by a combination of factors, including economic prosperity, the introduction of new products and technologies, the expansion of credit, and aggressive advertising campaigns.

What were some of the key features of consumerism in the 1920s?

Some of the key features of consumerism in the 1920s included the democratization of luxury, the use of advertising to create demand, the rise of debt-based consumption, and the emergence of a culture of materialism.

What impact did consumerism have on American society in the 1920s?

Consumerism had a profound impact on American society in the 1920s. It stimulated economic growth, improved living standards, and transformed consumption from a necessity-driven activity to a cultural phenomenon. However, it also contributed to a culture of debt, materialism, and a decline in civic engagement.

What were some of the criticisms of consumerism in the 1920s?

Some critics of consumerism in the 1920s argued that it was leading to a decline in traditional values, such as thrift and hard work. They also expressed concerns about the environmental impact of mass production and consumption.

How did the Great Depression impact consumerism in the 1920s?

The Great Depression had a devastating impact on consumerism in the 1920s. The economic downturn led to widespread unemployment, poverty, and a sharp decline in consumer spending. This caused many businesses to fail and contributed to the end of the consumer boom of the 1920s.

What are some of the legacies of consumerism in the 1920s?

The legacy of consumerism in the 1920s is complex and multifaceted. On the one hand, it helped to create a more prosperous and affluent society. On the other hand, it also contributed to a culture of materialism and debt, and it diverted attention away from social issues and civic engagement.

How does consumerism in the 1920s compare to consumerism today?

Consumerism in the 1920s and today share some similarities, such as the emphasis on material possessions and economic growth. However, there are also some key differences. For example, consumerism today is more globalized and is driven by a wider range of factors, including social media and the internet.