Seminar: Consumer Culture

History 407/507                                                                                      Daniel Pope
Wednesday 3:00-5:50                                                                             331 McKenzie Hall
Winter 2012                                                                                                   541-346-4015                                                                                                

    As students of history, you have most of the time been consumers of historical scholarship.  This is a worthy form of consumption. To be a discerning consumer capable of analyzing what you read and synthesizing different ideas is a high accomplishment.  In this seminar, however, your main role is as producer of historical research. Your major task is to research and write a 15-20 page paper (roughly 4000-6000 words) on a topic related to consumer culture. Your paper must be based on primary sources. (What is a primary source? Here's a brief explanation and a website with links to a brief video that lists a few of the more prominent online collections of primary sources. Here’s a page from the University of Oregon’s own online catalogue.) Note that not all the collections mentioned are accessible to people at the U of O, but many are. (What is "consumer culture"? We've got all term to figure that out, but we'll start in the first class session.)

    The seminar will have three phases. In the first phase, we will meet as a to discuss common readings and approaches to the topic of "consumer culture" along with issues and methods in historical research.  During these weeks, you and I must confer and agree on your paper topic. There will be three brief assignments during these weeks. Each will be graded pass/no-pass/re-submit. During these weeks we will also be reading large portions of a collection of scholarly articles on consumer culture and most of two important recent books on the subject. In phase two, we’ll skip a week’s class session but you’ll be actively researching and writing your seminar paper and meeting with me for advice and feedback. In the third phase, we’ll reconvene for student presentations on their research.  After this, you’ll complete and submit your final paper.

    I've ordered three books at the University of Oregon Bookstore: Lawrence Glickman, ed., Consumer Society in American History: A Reader; Lizabeth Cohen, A Consumer’s Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America; and Regina Lee Blaszczyk, American Consumer Society, 1865-2005: From Hearth to HDTV. Please obtain them. We’ll be reading large portions of each during the term

Class Sessions

Jan. 11 (Week 1): Introduction
    We’ll talk about the nature of a historical research seminar, what’s expected of you, and what value (beyond fulfilling a requirement) the seminar might have.  I hope to focus on some or all of the following:
                        1. How to ask historical questions and how to choose a paper topic.
                        2. Primary and secondary sources—what they are and how to find them (and a word about Wikipedia)
                        3. When to read history books and articles slowly and carefully—and when to read them very quickly
                        4. Libraries and archives—real and cyber
            I also want to explore with you what your own conception of “consumer culture” might be and what has brought you to this course. 

Readings: Please read or watch the following items before the first class. Think about the conflicting perspectives in “Affluenza” and the Warren article.
            1. Watch the documentary “Affluenza” (1997). This is available streaming on Netflix, in a YouTube version at and on videotape (remember that?) in Knight Library. I’ll put one of the tapes on reserve for this course. There are two other copies which you can borrow.
            2. Read Elizabeth Warren, “The Over-Consumption Myth,”

            3. Some advice I've prepared on how to choose a research paper topic, on line here.
            4. Look through a handout with some research advice here.

Jan. 18 (Week 2): Consumption before and during the Industrial Revolution
    Among the most interesting developments in the study of consumer culture are studies that find consumerism to have taken hold in various places (in particular Western Europe and North America) before mass production.  Was there a "consumer revolution" in the early modern Western world?
    Regina Blaszcyzyk sees late nineteenth-century Victorian America as already a consumer society. What does this imply? How were consumer orientations shown in homes, in fashion, and in shopping activities?

Note: I’ve put a list of last year’s (2011) seminar paper topics online at 2011.htm

Note: I’ve added some information on online research tips: We’ll work through these in class today.

Assignment One: I’ve drawn up a “scavenger hunt” with some examples of the kinds of research problems you may have to solve in doing your paper. Here’s the link. For this week, try to find the answers. I’ll grade this and the other two short assignments on the syllabus “pass/fail/re-submit.” If you get a re-submit, you’ll have a week to revise it.

Readings:  1. Introduction (pp.1-19) and Part Two: "Roots of American Consumer Society", articles by Axtell and Breen (pp.85-129) in Glickman, Consumer Society in American History.
                   2. Blaszczyk, American Consumer Society, pp.1-27 and any two of the three chapters in Part One (“Home Sweet Home”, “Dress Codes”, “New Ways to Shop”).

Jan. 25 (Week 3) Consumerism, Capitalism and Mass Production
            Is a consumer society the inevitable consequence of a mass production economy? If a consumer society means that people's primary identities come from their consumption activities, how does consumerism relate to other identities we bear, notably those based on race, class and gender? What is the relationship between consumption and democracy? Could people retain (or create) a sense of their own power and agency through their choices as consumers?  These are some of the questions that emerge in this week's readings.

 Readings: 1. Chapters 11 and 12 (by Heinze and Swiencicki), pp.190-240 in Glickman.
                  2. Blaszczyk, pp.93-115 and any two of chapters 4, 5 and/or 6 (“Mr. Advertiser…”, “Sensing a Wider World”, “Designing the Auto Age”)

Feb. 1 (Week 4): Consumption in Contemporary America
    The vast changes not only in the United States but throughout the world in the last half-century or so have greatly affected the structures, processes and meanings of consumption.
Assignment Two: When we meet this week, bring a one-paragraph statement of your topic. Your statement should contain the historical question or questions you plan to answer in your research paper. Along with the paragraph, bring a short list of the major primary sources you intend to use in your research. Attach a photocopy of a page from one of the primary sources on your list or print out a page with a description or table of contents from a website containing the primary sources.

Readings: 1. Chapters 14 and 16 (Moorhouse and Weems), pp. 277-297 and 316-325 in Glickman.
                  2. Blaszczyk, pp. 179-197, any two of chapters 7, 8, and/or 9 (“Destination Suburbia”, “Casual Style”, “Electronics ‘R Us”) and pp.264-275.

Readings: Feb. 8 (Week 5): Consumerism in Contemporary History Part One
Regina Blaszczyk’s book focuses on consumers’ activity and the material worlds that consumption has created. Lizabeth Cohen’s A Consumers’ Republic is subtitled “The Politics of Mass Consumption.” For the next three weeks, we’ll be reading in this important book and discussing such questions as the relationship between Federal government budgetary policies and consumption; organized consumer activism; the physical design of a consumer society; and the politics of inclusion in and exclusion from “consumer citizenship.”
1. Cohen, A Consumers’ Republic, prologue and chapters 1-3 (pp.3-165)
                  2. Chapter 13 (Greenberg), pp.241-273 in Glickman.

Feb. 15 (Week 6): Research and Writing/Consumerism in Contemporary America Part Two
    In addition to continuing our discussion of the topics Lizabeth Cohen raises, we’ll devote time in class to strategies of moving from research to writing. By this point, you should have a good sense of the sources you’re going to be using in your paper and you should have examined at least a few of them. We’ll talk about how to study sources (especially primary sources) and then how to prepare to use the material you have examined to write a substantial paper.
Reading: Cohen, chapters 4-6 (pp.166-290)

Feb. 22 (Week 7): Consumerism in Contemporary America Part Three
Contemporary critics of consumer culture often suggest that it depoliticizes and privatizes people, diverting them from public concerns and pursuing the common good. Note, however, that Cohen’s concluding chapter is entitled, “Purchasers Politicized.” What are the current-day politics of consumption? How have they changed since the Great Depression? And is the current “Lesser Depression” bringing about new changes?

Assignment Three:
By Feb. 22, you should have refined your paper topic, conducted most of your research, organized your thoughts, and started to write. Submit (by email attachment or by hard copy to my office) a one-paragraph statement of your topic and an outline of your paper. The one-paragraph topic statement may be identical to the one you submitted during Week Three, but it is likely that your research will have modified it.

Reading: Cohen, chapters 7-8 and Epilogue (pp.291-410)

Feb. 29 (Week 8): No Class—Research and Writing

     We will have individual meetings during this week to discuss how your seminar paper is progressing.

March 7 (Week 9) and March 14 (Week 10): Seminar Presentations
               Seminars should be opportunities to share your research with your colleagues and to learn about their work. I will have more details about the format of the oral presentations later in the term, but plan on speaking about your work for approximately 15-20 minutes and having 5-10 minutes for questions and comments from your classmates. If you wish, you are welcome to use PowerPoint or some other audio-visual aids and/or prepare a hard copy handout to distribute, but this is not required.  Note: It is likely that we’ll need to schedule an extra session during Week 10 to have time for all the presentations. We’ll talk about that early in the term.

Your final paper is due by 5:00 Wednesday, March 21.


Your seminar paper: about 70% of your course grade.

Class participation and oral paper presentation: about 15% of the course grade.

Assignments: about 15% of the course grade.

Some General Advice

1. Attendance is required, except in cases of obvious hardships such as a health problem. If, for some reason, you cannot come to a session, I expect you to make a serious effort to notify me in advance.

2. The seminar should be a cooperative experience. You and your classmates owe it to each other to listen to contributions attentively and to share ideas and information with them. I expect people to participate.

3. The seminar demands a sustained commitment of your time. You should plan to devote a significant amount of time each week to it. Common reading assignments will be quite extensive, and I will expect people to come to class prepared.

4. Consult with me throughout the term. I will set aside times for appointments to discuss your research. Please keep these appointments and check in with me as your work progresses.

History 407
Winter 2012