The Shaping of America: Consumer Culture, Suburbanization and Automobile
The trends that have been most instrumental in the shaping of America over the past sixty years have been suburbanization and the development of our consumer culture. These two phenomena have changed not only the face of America, but also the fabric of our society, our values and aspirations. Suburbanization and consumer culture are broad, sweeping terms that encompass many different catalysts of change. However, the automobile is an important product and tool of both of these institutions. This paper examines the inundation of American society by the automobile during the post war era as a key catalyst for the rise of consumer culture, its role in facilitating suburbanization and some of the negative impacts the automobile has had on America. Over the past sixty years America has changed greatly to become what it is today, and these changes have largely been driven by our national love affair with the automobile.
Starting in the 1920’s America began its shift towards a consumer culture as the economic growth of the nation began to depend more on the proliferation of consumer goods than of capital goods. Even at the outset of this trend, the automobile held a significant place in the new consumer economy. The automobile, which was once thought of as a rare luxury, was being sold by the millions. Assembly lines were becoming more efficient, thus allowing cars to be made more cheaply allowing the price of automobiles to drop. The growth of the automobile helped stimulate the economy through its dependence on other industries such as glass, rubber and steel, which were connected to the production of cars. These automobile related industries created new jobs, greater affluence and more spending power for millions of American consumers. Even at the beginning of America’s transformation into the consumer culture of today the automobile was at the forefront this conversion.
The automobile, besides being a product of the new consumer culture in America, also quickly became a major tool to increase this trend’s influence. The automobile, and its cousin the truck, were increasingly used by corporations and businesses to market and distribute their products. Corporations could transport products further and faster for less money to reach the consumer. This, in turn, allowed for wider market areas in commerce, selling more products to more people and generating greater revenue. The automobile also worked to the benefit of consumerism because the increase in privately owned automobiles gave more people the ability to travel. They could now quickly go to different urban centers to buy goods and services to which they previously did not have access. Thus the automobile has always been both an important product and tool of the consumer culture in America.
After a slump in automobile sales due to the depression and the halting of all automobile production because of WWII, the car gained increased prominence in American society in the post war era. During this time of government subsidies, economic prosperity and general good feeling the automobile began to transform the face of America. In 1949 the automobile industry returned to full peacetime capacity. At this point the public once again began to buy cars by the millions and to use them more. The average American family in the 1950’s owned 2.1 cars. Buying new and better cars became a key symbol of affluence and status. In response to this proliferation of cars the U.S. government set out on ambitious car based public works projects. The Highway Act of 1956 provided the funds for the construction of a national system of limited-access high-speed expressways, which became the interstate highway system. This was touted as the largest single public works project in history. By the mid fifties the automobile had transformed the United States into a network of paved roads linking towns and cities.
The consumer culture is basically a social arrangement that is mediated through markets. The market then is responsible for linking the social and material resources on which culture depends. The automobile, was not only a symbol of the consumer culture, but also served as a vehicle for the proliferation of it. The automobile provides a means of reaching desired goods, thus facilitation consumerism. In order to go and buy a television or any other goods one typically uses a car to get to the store. Increasingly large shopping malls were built as magnets for mobile consumers. Other aspects of the consumer culture specifically designed for the automobile were drive-in movie theaters and roadside motels. All of these businesses specifically targeted motorist and made the car part of the consumer culture as both a product and a tool.
Consumerism has drastically changed America. No matter where one drives stores and malls line the streets and are at the center of most towns, which add to the problem of urban sprawl. Instead of the old fashioned general store there are a myriad of outlets and chains of specialized stores for particular interests. Also today the entire American economy is fueled by the purchase of goods. Companies spend millions of dollars a year in order to advertise products to entice consumers into spending. No matter where one goes they are inundated with advertising. Advertising is seen through all types of media from television to newspapers to radio and it even litters the roadways in the form of billboards and signs. Because of the American culture and economy now relying on consumption for success advertising and shopping centers dominate the landscape.
The automobile also changed the way that the average American lived during the post war era. The population began to shift from urban centers to the outlying suburbs because of better roads and government-sponsored housing developments such as Levittown, New York. Since the end of WWII these suburbs have been considered the ideal setting for the American household. The GI Bill gave returning veterans the ability to make this dream possible. It provided a low-cost, thirty-year mortgage, which allowed many to purchase homes and stimulate the post-war economy. These government subsidies sparked massive road building projects and community planning designed around the automobile. Some of these suburban developments covered several square miles. Levittown, created in 1947, by 1950 consisted of 10,000 homes and over 40,000 residents. Because of this shift away from the major urban centers to the previously uninhabited surrounding area the average worker now had to commute to work and the automobile was the preferred means of transportation. The car was now no longer a luxury, owning one became a necessity for commuting and firmly established it as a staple of American life.
Subanization caused many changes in the fabric of American life. Because of the cost of homeowner ship as well as the almost necessary cost of car ownership as well the American dream of suburban life was not tangible to everyone. The suburbs that were created tended to be lower and upper middle class families with very few minorities represented. Thus, the suburbs created a form of financial segregation of races. Another result of suburbanization is the problem of urban sprawl. Suburbs and large developments such as Levittown require a great deal of land. So huge patches of forest and open land need to be cleared and developed for suburbs to exist. Then roads, schools and shopping malls are needed to provide the inhabitants with the basic amenities they need to live. This takes up a huge portion of land and drastically reshaped the look of America. Also due to the commute needed to get from the suburbs to ones place of work traffic has been greatly increased. This leads to air pollution and global warming, which are huge problems that we are still contending with today. Another change associated with suburbanization and commuting to work is that children see their parents less. This has lead to the phenomenon of generations raised by television. Through suburbanization the agrarian tightly knit family and community of old America is all but gone.
The automobile as a product and tool of consumerism and suburbanization has played a pivotal role in changing America into the web of roads, towns and shopping malls that it is today. With out the car these two far reaching trends that have forever changed America would not have gotten of the ground and created the landscape and society we live in. More so than any other trend or event that has happened over the past sixty years these two have most deeply integrated American society and changed it.