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The History of Shopping

CAS class studies the modern American consumer

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Class by class, lecture by lecture, question asked by question answered, an education is built. This is one of a series of visits to one class, on one day, in search of those building blocks at BU.

They paved childhood and put up a Toys “R” Us.

With apologies to Joni Mitchell, that pretty much sums up the topic this early April day in historian Marilyn Halter’s class The Modern American Consumer: the commodification of boys and girls. Halter (GRS’86) devotes her course to that overlooked mover and shaker—the shopper. For centuries before the Gilded Age, she tells her students, “kids were seen simply as little adults.” They wore clothes similar to their parents’ (a point she illustrates by screening medieval family paintings), played adult games, and in agrarian families, worked the farm.

The urbanized, industrialized United States of the early 20th century changed all that. Converging cultural currents—including mass production and the rise of advertising to help sell that production—made one’s age, especially one’s childhood, an important marker. Mandatory public education divided students into grades, birthday cards became popular, and child psychology and pediatrics arose as distinctive fields, says Halter, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of history and American studies and a research associate with the Institute on Culture, Religion, and World Affairs.

The result: “As children went from helping on the farm to being the focus of relentless cossetting and coddling, they shifted, as one commentator put it, from being our employees to being our bosses,” she says, noting that today, you can buy invitations to a simple playdate—“$60 for 50 cards.”

Whether or not she’s frightening her students into lifelong childlessness, she’s certainly capturing their attention. Before class, history major Andy Ho (CAS’16) says that the course illuminates topics “that you’ve all either recognized before or in some way have had ideas about, but maybe not as tangibly as presented in this class. In the landscape of 21st-century America now, it’s inarguable that American consumer society is a big part. To ignore that would be to marginalize a huge aspect of American culture.”

The course has been invaluable to senior Karina Reddy’s honors thesis about Jazz Age shopping and fashion in London. “I’ve used some of the history on department stores that we read about,” says Reddy (CAS’14). “That was really, really interesting.” Ditto for Karlie Fitzgerald (COM’16), who is studying public relations and advertising. She is taking Halter’s history class “to see where I can avoid mistakes that they’ve made in the past with my own profession.”

What’s an immigration scholar like Halter doing in a consumerism class like this? Her interest in the topic, she says in an interview, stems from having written a book (Shopping for Identity: The Marketing of Ethnicity, Random House, 2000) on how business catered to ethnic groups as newcomers rushed into the United States in recent decades. (Students share her enthusiasm for the subject: having capped enrollment at 40 and faced with a waiting list, Halter lifted the ceiling to 60, only to have the seats fill up again.) “This is fundamentally a history course,” she says, “an attempt to take the study of the history of shopping from the margins of our historical inquiry towards the center.” What you find from that inquiry is easily captured, she says: you are what you buy.

“I’m eager to have the students interrogate their own relationships to objects and possessions,” Halter says. “All human beings have a relationship to objects, to things, to stuff. It’s not difficult for anybody to relate to the topic. We’re all shoppers.…We just do it without this kind of consciousness of what we’re doing, and most of us without any sense of how these behaviors evolved. What has changed, and why, is what I hope the students can articulate.”

Especially today’s students, who in her view harbor little skepticism about mass consumerism, an opinion borne out during her lecture about childhood, when she has to give a reminder: “I have to ask you not to use your electronic devices during class.”

Of course, critiques of consumerism predate the internet; sociologist Thorstein Veblen condemned “conspicuous consumption,” a phrase he coined, in 1899. Which leads to the ultimate question Halter wants students to ponder: do we control our consumption or vice versa?

“I don’t think it’s just one way or the other,” says Halter, a self-described one-time hippie who rejected materialism. She believes people have some free will in what they buy. “But I think we are much more controlled by consumerism than we like to think we are. It’s the way that we’re meant to feel that if we only purchased certain things…it’s the key to happiness. In modern, corporate America, it’s almost impossible to live a life that isn’t more and more branded.”

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Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

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