State Historic Site
A Whole-House Exhibit at the Trail End State Historic Site
March 2007 - December 2007
FOR CENTURIES, HOMEOWNERS were limited in the products they could hope to use in their homes. Local craftsmen created needed woodwork, stonework, metalwork or other building materials; regional farms and ranches provided meats, produce and dairy products – all of which had to be used immediately or preserved by canning, drying or curing; furnishings were created by small industry, for sale almost exclusively to local markets.
After the Industrial Revolution, the pace of production picked up considerably. Factories, farmers and craftsmen were able to create larger quantities of goods, and markets began to expand. Improved transportation such as railroads allowed for products manufactured in one part of the country to be sold to consumers in another part. Successful businesses gradually became larger, buying out or pricing out smaller competitors.
The 1910s and '20s saw the rise of many of the national appliance brands we know today: Bissell, Black & Decker, Carrier, Electrolux, Eveready, Frigidaire, General Electric, Hamilton Beach, Hoover, Hotpoint, Kelvinator, KitchenAid, Maytag, Proctor-Silex, Schick, Singer, Sunbeam, Tappan, West Bend and Westinghouse.
Some of these companies had been around for years – Maytag since 1893, for example, and General Electric since 1890. But it was the combined impact of four post-war developments that truly made mass marketing on a national basis both practical and economical:
These developments made delivery of goods on a national basis much more practical, economical and profitable.
CONSPICUOUS CONSUMPTION/CONSPICUOUS LEISURE
Dramatically increased sales came with national distribution. General Electric, for example, introduced its Monitor Top refrigerator to American consumers in 1927. By June 1929, the company had sold over a quarter of a million units. Just two years later, in 1931, it sold its one millionth Monitor Top. (Actually, it wasn't sold – it was ceremoniously presented to the reigning king of assembly line manufacturing, Henry Ford.) GE was far behind Frigidaire, however. By 1929, the latter had already sold three-quarters of a million units, more than all other refrigerator manufacturers combined.
While some companies profited from national distribution, others couldn't quite make the leap. In 1920, consumers could choose from over 200 different models of refrigerators made by dozens of companies. By the end of the 1930s, many of these small manufacturers – especially the ones limited to regional distribution – were priced out of the marketplace by the cheaper national brands.
For a variety of reasons – post-war enthusiasm, availability of product, the rise of installment plan credit programs, etc. – the 1920s were a time of rampant consumerism. If it was made, someone – several someones, more likely – wanted to buy it. In an attempt to explain this sudden interest in acquisition, economist Thorstein Veblen noted that Americans wanted to impress each other with both their possessions (conspicuous consumption) and their ability to enjoy spare time (conspicuous leisure). Many of the newspaper and magazine advertisements in the first third of the 20th Century – including those used in this exhibit – are based upon Veblen's theories.
MARKETING TO THE MIDDLE CLASS
Competition between these national companies was fierce, as evidenced by these refrigerator advertisements, placed in national magazines – Ladies' Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, Better Homes & Gardens – between 1926 and 1930:
Most popular magazines - if they weren't aimed at a specific market, such as The Country Gentleman (agriculturalists) or Needlecraft (needleworkers) - were targeted towards female members of the middle class or those who aspired to join the middle class. To inspire a "keep-up-with-the-Jones's" attitude, advertisers nearly always presented an image of class just higher than the one to which the reader belonged. According to historian Sarah White of the University of Virginia,
This involved defining that class, that is, creating a middle class agenda that involved the proper way to entertain, the proper way to clean, and the proper roles for a civilized woman, man and family. Many advertisements for food and household products played on anxieties about being a good wife and mother. Others targeted a product's time saving qualities and scientifically proven health benefits. Guilt was (and is) an effective tool: guilty if the sink was dirty, guilty if the children wore dirty clothes, guilty if they didn't eat right.
General Electric became particularly adept at playing the guilt card. Consider this refrigerator advertisement from a 1929 issue of Better Homes & Gardens:
A cut finger, brought tearfully to you for first-aid. The busy sound of small feet clumping down the stairs. A tousled head and one bright eye peeping at you from the bed clothes. He seems so little now – but the years hurry by. What will he be like when he grows up? Will he be tall and strong? Will he be kind and brave? Will he be – happy? So much of his future depends upon the food he eats. For, good food builds good health – and health is the foundation of a successful life. Nothing can give you greater assurance that his food will be wholesome and healthful than a General Electric Refrigerator.
(SCHS & Trail End collections, TESHS)
Detail from drawing of custom-made foyer chandelier, 1911 (Trail End Collection)