American Consumer Capitalism
History 367-010

David Suisman

University of Delaware
Office: Munroe 118
Tel. 831-2386
Office hours: Tuesdays, 4:00-6:00
and by appointment
Class meeting: Memorial 113, Tues. & Thurs. 2:00-3:15

Fall 2005
William Eggleston, from Dust Bells (1965-74)

Course Description
Policies: Email, Grading and Plagiarism
Schedule: August & September  -  October  -  November  -  December

Updated: Nov. 21, 2005
Photo credits for this web page: here

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers
-- Wordsworth

I can get no remedy against this consumption of the purse;
Borrowing only lingers and lingers it out, but the disease is incurable.
-- Shakespeare

Course Description

Today we are awash in an ocean of consumer goods, and the language of buying and selling informs nearly all aspects of our society, from education to elections, from healthcare to the allocation of natural resources. In this course we will explore the origins and development of this contemporary phenomenon, with
readings, lectures, and discussions designed to introduce you to the historical and theoretical foundations underpinning today's world. Our work will take us across a wide range of topics--from department stores and advertising agencies to television newsrooms and music recording studios--as a way to understand more abstract concepts like commodification, cultural capital, and globalization. We will also consider  the variety of ways that scholars, critics, and ordinary people have felt and thought about the expanding world of goods and desires.

Knowing that each of you already brings a wealth of opinions, insights, and experiences to this subject, I look forward to your creative engagement with this material. To do well in this course you will have to do more than merely complete the assignments. You will have to think about them--form opinions, make connections, and, especially, ask questions.


1. Reading and participation in discussion. (15%)

2. Reaction papers - due Sept. 8 and Oct. 27 (15%)

3. Short paper - 3-5 pages - due Sept. 29 (15%) - details here

Midterm exam - Oct. 13 (15%)

Longer paper - 6-8 pages - due Nov. 22 (20%) - details here

6. Take-home final exam - The exam will be given out in class on Dec. 6. You will have 72 hours to complete the exam. (20%)

* All papers must be handed in at the beginning of class on the day they are due. Late papers will be penalized according to when they are handed in.

Policies: Email, Grading, and Plagiarism


I will communicate--occasionally at least, perhaps often--via email. You will be responsible for reading and responding accordingly to these emails. If you have questions about them (or any other aspect of the course) it is your responsibility to ask.

(Some of you may prefer to use outside email accounts--hotmail or whatever--instead of your UD address. However, because I will be emailing the class only through the UD email addresses, you will need to insure that your UD email is forwarded to whatever account you use. Instructions for email forwarding can be found at


Written work will be graded according to the following scale.

A - Superb work: clear, focused thesis - thorough and persuasive use of evidence - lucid, polished writing (well-organized, with clear transitions - free of grammatical, syntactical and typographic errors) - thoughtful, original ideas - sophisticated appreciation of complexities and ambiguities in evidence and analysis

B - Good work: clear thesis, supported by appropriate evidence - solid writing skills, with clear transitions and few grammatical, syntactical or typographical errors - good research and relevant analysis

C - Acceptable but undistinguished work: lacking a clear argument - thesis inadequately supported by evidence - ideas are unclear, contradictory, inaccurate, obvious - quotations are left hanging without analysis or exposition - weak organization - awkward or nonexistent transitions - careless reading, superficial research - numerous stylistic errors (grammar, syntax, spelling; typos)

D / F - Unacceptable work: fails to fulfill the assignment in significant ways - no thesis at all - inadequate research, total absence of evidence - lacking analysis, includes only cursory summary of sources - serious reading problems or comprehension of sources - too short - poor organization - no transitions between ideas - severe problems with language skills (syntax, grammar, spelling) - sloppy, overrun with typographical errors


Plagiarism is the act of presenting someone else's work as your own. It is a form of dishonesty--a form of cheating, in fact--and will not be tolerated under any circumstances. Plagiarism is not limited to using another person's exact words; using someone else's ideas without attribution is also a form of plagiarism. The amount you plagiarize doesn't matter: cheating is cheating. The good news about plagiarism is that it is easily avoided by clearly citing your sources. If you do, you can safely avoid even the hint of improper usage of someone else's work. If you are found to have plagiarized on any assignment, you will not be permitted to pass the course. If you have any questions about plagiarism, do not hesitate to ask.


The following books have been ordered at the UD bookstore:

  • Alan Durning, How Much Is Enough?: The Consumer Society and the Future of the Earth (W. W. Norton, 1992)
  • Tom Frank, The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1997)
  • Richard Peterson, Creating Country Music: Fabricating Authenticity (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1999)
Other readings for the course will be available online below.


Course schedule

August 30 - Introduction

September 1 - The Early Modern Origins of Consumer Capitalism

Reading: none

September 6 - The Market Revolution

September 8 - Nineteenth-century Ideas about Consumption

Reading (memo): Henry David Thoreau, "Economy" in Walden - click here

Alexis de Tocqueville, vol. 2, chaps.  10-13 - here

Daniel Horowitz, The Morality of Spending: Attitudes Towards Consumer Society in America, 1875-1940 (Chicago, 1992), ch. 1 - here

Assignment: Reaction paper #1 due in class, Thurs., Sept. 8 - click here for details

Christenberry phto
William Christenberry, Wall Construction V (1985)

September 13 - Industry and Labor

September 15 - Corporate Reconstruction of America

Reading (memo): Alan Trachtenberg, The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age (New York, 1982), ch. 2-3 - click here

In class: Ungraded quiz (must be handed in)

Sept. 20 & 22 - Markets, Goods, Desires

Reading (memo): Neil Harris, "The Drama of Consumer Desire," in Cultural Excursions: Marketing Appetites and Cultural Tastes in Modern America (Chicago, 1990), 174-197 - click here

Sinclair Lewis, Babbitt (1922), ch. 5 and ch 6

Thorstein Veblen, "Conspicuous Consumption" originally published in The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions (1925), reprinted in The Consumer Socity Reader, ed. Martyn Lee (Blackwell, 2000), 31-47 - here

Sept. 27 & 29 - Women as Buyers and Sellers

Reading (memo): Annie McLean, "Two Weeks in a Department Store," and O. Henry, "The Trimmed Lamp," in Land of Contrasts, ed. Neil Harris - click here

Susan Porter Benson, Counter Cultures: Saleswomen, Managers, and Customers in American Department Stores (Urbana and Chicago, 1986), ch. 3 - here

Assignment: Short paper due Thurs., Sept. 29
- details here

October 4 & 6 - Strategies of Enticement

Reading (memo): Edward Bernays, Biography of an Idea: Memoirs of a Public Relations Counsel (New York, 1965), ch. 26 and 29 - click here

James Rorty, Our Master's Voice: Advertising (New York, 1934), ch. 3, 5, 9 - here

"Business succeeds rather better than the state in imposing its restraints upon individuals, because its imperatives are disguised as choices."

- Walton Hamilton
economist, educator, attorney

October 11 & 13 - National Markets, Local Cultures

(memo): Lizabeth Cohen, "Encountering Mass Culture at the Grassroots: The Experience of Chicago Workers in the 1920s" American Quarterly  41 (Mar. 1989), 6-33 - click here 

October 13: Midterm exam

October 18 & 20 - The Politics of Consumption and Vice Versa

Reading (memo): Charles McGovern, "Consumption and Citizenship, 1900-1940," in Getting and Spending: European and American Consumer Societies in the Twentieth Century (New York, 1998) - click here

Roland Marchand, Creating the Corporate Soul: The Rise of Public Relations and Corporate Imagery in American Big Business (Berkeley, 1998), ch. 6 - here

Richard Peterson, Creating Country Music: Fabricating Authenticity (Chicago, 1992) - chaps. 1-3

October 25 & 27 - The Production of Culture

Reading (memo): Peterson, Creating Country Music - chaps. 4-6, 8, 11, 12

Here are some examples of the music that Peterson writes about:

  • The Carter Family, "Hello Stranger" - here
  • Jimmie Rodgers, "Let Me Be Your Sidetrack" - here - a bluesy side of Rodgers, though it still features his signature yodel
  • Jimmie Rodgers, "Blue Yodel No. 9" - here - Rodgers's genre-defying collaboration with trumpeter Louis Armstrong
  • Hank Williams, "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry - here

Assignment: Reaction paper #2 due Thursday, Oct. 27

November 1 & 3 - Critical Reactions

Readings (memo): Gary Cross, An All-Consuming Century: Why Commercialism Won in Modern America (New York, 2002), ch. 4 - click here

Tom Frank, The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism (Chicago, 1997) - begin reading, emphasis on ch. 1 and 3

November 8 & 10 - Society of the Spectacle

Reading (
memo): Frank, Conquest of Cool - finish, emphasis on ch. 4, 6-8

Steve Czakalinski, Dupont employee, poses with family and year’s supply of food
Steve Czakalinski, Dupont employee, poses with family and year’s supply of food - click to enlarge

November 15 & 17 - What's News (Society of the Spectacle, continued)

Reading (memo): Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York, 1986), ch. 6-7 - click here

Mark Hertsgaard, On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency (New York, 1988)  - chap. 4-5 and chap. 7

In class (Nov. 15): film screening of Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media (1992), Pt. 1

November 22 & 24 (Thanksgiving) - Intellectual Property

Reading: none

In class: paper due in class, Tuesday, Nov. 22
- details here

November 29 & December 1 - Globalization

Reading (memo): Naomi Klein, No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies (New York, 2000), ch. 9 - click here

Alan Durning, How Much Is Enough?: The Consumer Society and the Future of the Earth (New York, 1992) - begin

December 6 - Consuming the Environment

Reading: Durning, How Much Is Enough? - finish

Take-home final exam handed out at the end of class

Photo Bill Owens, Ronald Reagan (1972)
 Bill Owens, Ronald Reagan (1972) - click to enlarge