Thursday, September 22, 2011

Consumption in the 1890s

Prior to the 1890s, much of the United States’ population consisted of self-sufficient yeomen farmers or craftsmen who consumed only what they could produce. Excess was rare during this time, and family lifestyles were centered on the prosperity of the farm. The arrival of the 1890s, though, brought great innovations in business and industry. These changes, in turn, allowed Americans to live in excess, transforming the American lifestyle from conservative to consumptive. No longer were the immediate needs of a family paramount, but rather the glut of goods that many desired and only few could afford. Beginning in the 1890s, and still present in modern day, the consumptive ethos has become definitive of life in the United States.

The 1880s and 1890s saw a rapid development of industrial technology and influence of business on production and consumers. Formerly, craftsmen produced goods upon customer request. For example, a cobbler made shoes when commissioned by a customer to make them. As industrial production improved in the 1880s, large companies gained the ability to mass-produce items. This mass-production then allowed companies to create monopolies and sell their goods at a very low price. As the accessibility of items increased, and their prices decreased, the American economy transformed into one primarily driven by consumerism. Americans began consuming goods at a higher rate than in decades previous. This economic change generated social change, as the separation between the “haves” and the “have-nots” became increasingly obvious. The “haves” represented the upper-middle and elite members of society who had copious amounts of money, high-power jobs, and could enjoy leisure activities. These were the excess consumers of American society; the individuals who bought not because they needed, but because they wanted. The “have-nots” were working and lower class individuals who only purchased what they could afford. Although they were still consumers, they did not consume out of want, but rather out of need. Regardless of socio-economic status, the American economy of the 1890s became about over-production and over-consumption.

With the background of a historically consumptive era in mind, I chose an image that I feel represents the “haves” of society in the 1890s. This image, titled Boating on Lake Osceola, 1890s, depicts two women and a child in a canoe on Lake Osceola. As I have described before, one aspect of the “haves” in American society is their ability to do leisure activities. This requires that they possess both the time and the money to do activities with no purpose other than to entertain. To me, a relaxing boat ride would qualify as one of these activities. Furthermore, the formal attire of the woman on the left and the child in the center, compared to the more maid-like apron worn by the woman on the right, who also happens to be paddling, lead me to believe that the woman to the left and the child are representative of the “haves”, while the woman to the right is representative of the “have-nots”. While this image is not representative of literal consumption, it allows one to infer upon the quality of life and disparity between classes that occurred due to consumption during the 1890s.

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