The History of Consumer Culture

Curriculum Guideline

Effective Date:
Course Code
HIST 1190
The History of Consumer Culture
Humanities & Social Sciences
Start Date
End Term
Semester Length
Max Class Size
Contact Hours
Lecture: 2 hrs. per week / semester Seminar: 2 hrs. per week / semester
Method Of Instruction
Methods Of Instruction

The course will involve the use of a variety of instructional methods to achieve its objectives, including the following:

  • Lectures
  • Small group discussions
  • Seminar presentations by students
  • Guest speakers
  • Analysis and interpretation of audio-visual and online materials
  • MyDouglas “chats” and posting of writing/analysis exercises
Course Description
This course introduces students to the history of consumer culture within capitalism, from the introduction of mass consumption during the Industrial Revolution to the present day. The development of marketing will be traced within the broader processes of modernization, including industrialization, state building and democratization, urbanization, rationalization, and economic liberalism. Although focused on North America and Europe, the course will place such Western concerns into their larger world context. Highlighted topics include the growth of the advertising industry, expansion of product lines and distribution, and increasing commodification in society and culture.
Course Content
  1. Introduction to Capitalism:
    • Definition, historical evolution, varieties, and key theorists
      • e.g. Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Max Weber, Milton Friedman
  2. Introduction to Consumer Culture:
    • Definition/theories, historiography, and interdisciplinary approaches
  3. Introduction to Cultural History:
    • Development, focus, and place in historiography and academia
  4. Antecedents to Modern Capitalism and Consumerism
    • e.g. aristocratic luxury goods, bourgeois/Protestant work ethic
  5. The Industrial Revolution and Mass Production/Consumption
    • e.g. Fordism
  6. “Conspicuous Consumption” (Veblen) and Manufactured Necessity:
    • From 18th century fashion to 20th century “planned obsolescence”
  7. Establishing The Market and “Free Trade”:
    • From building the nation-state to Americanization-cum-Globalization
  8. Historical Evolution of Communications Media
    • e.g posters, newspapers, photography, radio, TV, internet
  9. Historical Development of the Advertising Industry
    • e.g. creation of agencies, specific ad campaigns, creative approaches
  10. Advertising Regulation: From fin-de-siecle “Truth in Advertising” to “Green”-labels
  11. History of Packaging and Retailing:
    • e.g. mail-order, self-service/department stores
  12. Trademarks, Branding, and Designer Labels:
    • From quality-control to status-projection
  13. Product Placement
    • “Hidden Persuaders” (subliminal ads) and Guerilla Marketing
  14. Consumer Rights Movements:
    • From Consumer Reports to Consumer Co-ops
  15. Public Relations, Political Propaganda, Photo-ops, and Public Service Announcements
  16. Critiques of Consumer Society and Corporate Capitalism
    • e.g. Frankfurt School, Feminist, Environmentalist, Post-modern
  17. Fascist and Communist “Alternative” Consumerism
  18. History of Consumer Credit
    • e.g. pawn-shops, installment plans, credit cards
  19. Post-war Suburban shopping
    • e.g. franchise-chains, strip-malls, and Wal-Mart
  20. Leisure as a Commodity:
    • History of Tourism, Recreation, and Sports
  21. Gender and Race Issues
    • e.g. labor roles, ideal body-types, sex trade
  22. Consuming Youth:
    • Toys, Teenagers, and the Commodification of Education
  23. Commodification of Social Rituals
    • e.g. holidays, weddings
  24. Fast Food World
    • e.g. Globalized Happy-Meals, Coca-Cola & Timbits
  25. “Hip” Consumerism:
    • Culture-jamming, Adbusters, and Slow Food
Learning Outcomes

At the conclusion of the course, successful students will be able to:


  1. Critically examine historical sources (reading history) – these sources will include survey texts (e.g., textbooks, encyclopedia articles), scholarly texts (e.g. journal articles) and primary documents (e.g., print advertisements, memoirs).
  2. Create and communicate personal interpretations of historical problems (writing history) – in addition to quizzes and exams, anticipated forms of written communication include article summaries, book reviews, short polemical essays, and longer research-based papers.
  3. Independently analyze and engage the ideas and data presented in course materials, lectures, and class discussions (discuss history) – in addition to participation with in-class discussions, students may be required to make oral presentations and engage in debates.


         The key historical topics that students will examine, interpret, and discuss include:

a)       Capitalism - and its development and varieties.
b)       Advertising and Marketing - and how their evolution has been shaped by developments in media technology, advancements in market research, and the expansion of products lines and distribution.
c)     Culture and Society - and how they have shaped, and been shaped by, economic development and changes in business values/practices.

Means of Assessment

Assessment will be in accord with Douglas College student evaluation policy. Specific components of evaluation will include some of he following:

  • Quizzes, Mid-term and Final exams (w/ short answer, identification, and essay questions)
  • Research paper
  • Short polemical essay
  • Interpretative writing exercises
  • Seminar Presentation
  • Class participation


Specific evaluation criteria will be provided by the instructor at the beginning of the semester and will vary according to the instructor’s assessment of appropriate evaluation methods. An example of one evaluation scheme:

Class participation  10%
Quizzes on readings  10%
Short essay assignment           15%
Seminar presentation  10%
Midterm exam  15%
Research paper  25%
Final exam  15%
Total 100%



Textbook Materials

Textbooks and Materials to be Purchased by Students:


Possible Textbooks and Materials:


Paul Bowles, Capitalism. Toronto: Pearson Education, 2007.


David Clarke, Marcus Doel, and Kate Housiaux, eds. The Consumption Reader.

          New York: Routledge, 2003.


Gary Cross. An All-Consuming Century: Why Commercialism Won In Modern America.

          New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.


Mary Cross, A Century of American Icons: 100 Products and Slogans from the 20th-Century Consumer Culture. Westport: Greenwood, 2002.


Steve Penold, The Donut: A Canadian History. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008.


Roberta Sassatelli. Consumer Culture: History, Theory and Politics. SAGE, 2007.


Juliet B Schor and Douglas B Holt, eds. The Consumer Society Reader.

          New York: New Press, 2000.


Peter Stearns, Consumerism in World History: The Global Transformation of Desire. Second Edition. New York: Routledge, 2006.


Susan Strasser, Satisfaction Guaranteed: The Making of the American Mass Market.

          New York: Pantheon, 1989 / Washington, DC: Smithsonian, 2004.


Course readings may be drawn from the following texts:


Thomas Frank, The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism.              Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.


Victoria de Grazia and Ellen Furlough, eds. The Sex of Things: Gender and Consumption in Historical Perspective. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.


Lisa Jacobson, ed. Children and Consumer Culture in American Society: A Historical Handbook and Guide.             Westport: Praeger, 2008.


Susan Strasser, Charles McGovern, and Matthias Judt, eds. Getting and Spending: European and American              Consumer Societies in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.


Pamela Swett, S. Jonathan Wiesen, and Jonathan Zatlin, eds. Selling Modernity: Advertising in 20th-Century           Germany. Duham: Duke University Press, 2007.