Selling America as the Land of Commodities

By Bobby Buscher

“the night before Christmas put Packard-Bell all through your house,” [1956] Courtesy of Ad*Access, John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising, and Marketing History, Duke University.

This advisement for televisions and radios by Packard-Bell appeared in Sunset Magazine in 1956. The spread portrays the typical interior of a suburban home — a stair case leading to a second story, a carpeted floor, modern television and radio set — that is completed with a young son and daughter. During the postwar years, middle-class affluence became more accessible as did the comforts and leisure envisioned with a middle-class social status. The commodity-filled suburban home offered comfort and technological advancement that championed American free-market capitalism over communism.

With the end of the Second World War, America entered the Cold War against the Soviet Union. America’s concern with the spread of communism and radicalism lead former Vice President Richard Nixon to curate a 1959 exhibit of America’s technological advancements in Moscow. Dubbed the Kitchen Debate, Nixon showcased the ideal suburban home filled with the most modern appliances and consumer goods — a house, car, and a television (May, 155). The suburban home and displays of middle-class affluence became weapons against the spread of communism and radicalism. Advertisements and products of the World War years helped foster multiple aims simultaneously: one, the ads supported a free market enterprise; two, they supported suburban and middle-class affluence; three, advertisements associated with technological advancements reduced excreted energy and the amount of time it took to complete a task using the new device; and finally, these advertisements and devices operated as a largely implicit strategy for stigmatizing communism and bolstering American patriotism through offering images and mentalities of comfort and tranquility.

“”Eveready” Radio Batteries visit Eddie Cantor and the Mad Russian,” [1948] Courtesy of Ad*Access, John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising, and Marketing History, Duke University.

The U.S. involvement in World War II ended in 1945, but immediately after, the U.S. enter a second war–the Cold War with Soviet Russia. Analogously referred to as a race between the U.S. and Russia, the Cold War was a technological race between the two superpowers: an arms race and a commodity race. In the advertisement from Time Magazine, “’Eveready’ Radio Batteries visit Eddie Cantor and the Mad Russian,” the “Mad” Russian is satirized for resorting to conducting electricity through the friction between his boots and a rug to charge a radio. The technological and savvy American Eddie Carter advises the crazy Russian scientist about the long lasting sustainability of “Eveready” batteries. The Soviet Union’s quick industrialization and technological advances are still far away from America’s scientific and technological advancements in the ad. From the advertisement’s vantage point, Americans have master electricity, and made it portable through long lasting batteries while Russians apparently have yet to master the principles of electricity and must use friction to charge their portable radios. The American free market has produced technological advancements while the Soviet Union under communism is shuffling its feet to catch up in technological achievements and scientific research.

During the postwar years, popular images of the American family consisted of a nuclear family–mother, father, and a son or daughter. The popular images of the American family were a   middle-class suburban home with a green lawn. The appearance of the lawn was just as important as the appearance of the house or the interior and furniture and appliance found indoors. The lawn was a maker of social status as much as anything else found in the suburban home. The lawns of Levittown, an early suburban residence, were composed of Kentucky bluegrass, and became part of the growing commodity culture of the postwar years (Steinberg, 66).  Many suburbanites vigilantly watched over their lawn, fertilizing, seeding, and water it to maintain the rich and lush dark green appearance. Americans obsessed over the look of their lawns. Companies developed ways to care for lawns that heavily fertilized them to ensure the appearance of a healthy and green looking front lawn. Ted Steinberg quotes Antony Giordano that “People want their lawns to look good so their neighbors will see it. I’ve written $350 contracts in living rooms that didn’t even have furniture–people would rather have a good lawn than a couch” (Steinberg, 75). Americans’ front lawns were so important to the image of affluence and vision of domestic, suburban tranquility that large investments were made to upkeep an appearance of middle-class affluence even if the home was not furnished.

While the American lawn was an exterior beacon of the achievements under an American free-market enterprise, the interior of the home had to be equally dazzling with the latest time-saving devices. Many ideas were proposed to reduce the stress of laundry and cooking dinner. When people formed cooperative groups to ease the work involved in preparing meals and clean clothes, they were condemned as un-American practices. In the early twentieth century, such cooperative enterprises were accused of being “red,” or communist operations. This stigma on cooperative over commercialized work reinforced the “quintessentially American solution to the problem of housework [through] commercialization. Thus the commercialization moved in the home in the form of appliances. In the first five postwar years consumer spending increased 60 percent and home furniture and appliances increased 240 percent” (May, 157). The time and energy saving appliances had “tremendous propaganda value, for it was the affluent homes…that provided evidence of the superiority of the American way of life” (May, 159). The home appliance championed the American free market by offering the American family  their own autonomy and luxury in choosing appliances and domestic technological advancements simultaneously.

The postwar commodity culture offered labor saving appliances, images of tranquility, and a bulwark against the spread of communism and radicalism. America’s technological advancements offered a championing ring for the American free market. The 1959 Kitchen Debate positioned the suburban and middle class consumer culture of the postwar years as the weapon of America against Soviet Russia and communism while simultaneously championing the American free market.  The American suburban home was sold to fellow Americans as the American way and overall goal of Americans.

“American Kitchens,” [1951] Courtesy of Adflip.

At the exhibit in Moscow which showcased America’s technological advancements, Nixon chose to use the American kitchen as the case study for America’s technological superiority. Nixon touted that the modern kitchen with all of the newest appliances will save women and housewives time and energy from the drudgery of preparing and cooking meals as well as reduce the time and effort involved in cleaning. As the advertisement reads, turning one’s old, ugly kitchen in the new, modern kitchen will be “step-saving.” The markers of modern technological advancements are the appliances’ ability to cut down the quality of time and energy needed and exerted.

This post was completed as an assignment for the American Studies course, “The Concept of Home.”  A list of the readings that informed this assignment can be found here


One thought on “Selling America as the Land of Commodities

  1. That is very interesting that a product could be sold with a stigma of being American and another being deemed communist. I totally agree. I have never thought of it that way, but that is probably why the phrase “made in america or usa” is such a strong tool to sell a product. Its not really selling the product but the idea of being an american, a good american.

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