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The 1920s were a very important decade in the lives of consumer society in America. Many of those goods, from hoop skirts to candy bars to cereal, had been around for several decades by the 1920s. Some of them, like watches, calico hand-made men's shirts, even factory-made men's shirts, had been around for much longer. But they had not always been accessible to most people or to the majority of Americans. On the supply side, we see in the 1920s the continuation and the taking hold of a variety of technological and organizational transitions and innovations that had begun really in the decades after the Civil War. We most commonly think of those as mass production and mass distribution - from plow blades to belt buckles to electric hand-warmers and toothbrushes - coming out of American factories in greater numbers, at lower costs, and traveling much more efficiently across the country.

But also important on the supply side in understanding the burgeoning of consumption, the growth of Americans into modern consumers that's so obvious and so important to defining the 1920s, also important is a range of innovations in terms of marketing such as advertising. Advertising is a very old phenomenon [but] like mass production and distribution, it really gets moved into third or fourth gear by the 1920s, and we have the birth of companies like J. Walter Thompson [who] at the turn of the century that, by the 1920s, had figured out how to effectively reach millions of consumers.

A third important supply-side phenomenon, it seems to me, in terms of understanding the 1920s as a pivotal decade in American consumerism is the rise of installment credit. Now, credit has existed, again, for centuries, [but] beginning in the second decade of the twentieth century and taking hold with greater force in the 1920s is the rise of a range of mechanisms for issuing credit to consumers. The most important of which in terms of dollar figures is credit concerning automobile sales. The automobile in the 1920s becomes an extraordinarily important consumer good. Less than one in a quarter families had an automobile at the beginning of the decade. More than half, 60 percent, do at the end. So it becomes a permanent fixture, and it's almost an essential fixture for a majority of households.

Most of those cars, three out of four of those, are paid for on time, in an organized, administered way through companies like General Motors' credit arm. Pianos are also bought on credit. Radios are bought on credit. So to understand how Americans suddenly came to have a lot of things, some brand new, some established, that their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents didn't have in a single decade, we have to understand that the payment of those goods became easier and more affordable for millions of families through innovations in the financial markets through consumer credit or installment buying.

A fourth important supply-side phenomenon I think we have to also understand is the advent of market research, like advertising but separate from advertising, because market research is conducted not just by advertising companies like J. Walter Thompson. It's also conducted by producers, manufacturers. The advent, increasing, again, its sophistication and efficiency and spread of market research is critical to understanding why consumers and how consumers chose to buy a variety of goods from canned soup or Heinz ketchup to Singer sewing machines, and again, their grandmothers or grandfathers wouldn't necessarily have even thought about buying.

So market research, the rise of consumer credit, advertising, and, perhaps most importantly, the very mass production and mass distribution of all those goods and services, because of recreational goods like movie theaters or amusement parks, which grow in a large number in the 1920s, or Baseball games, are another important form of consumption that takes rise in this period. And all those goods and services and their acceptance and interest and use by consumers can't be understood without understanding the supply-side phenomenon.

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Economic prosperity, mass media and advertisements, and mass production led to the new consumer society of the 1920's. Also the advent of installment loans allowed many Americans to purchase things.

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Q: What was the consumer society like in the 1920?
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