Émigrés and the Transformation of American Consumer Culture from the 1920s to the 1960s
The historiography of mass consumption has traditionally emphasized American influences on Europe since the interwar period. Especially the decades after the end of World War II appear as an era of “Americanization” of European consumption during which America’s “irresistible Empire” of goods (Victoria de Grazia) changed European societies and economies. This narrative not only downplays the continuity of “indigenous” developments, but also overlooks that many key figures in the development of American consumer culture since the 1930s were European immigrants and émigrés. The focus of this project will be on a diverse group of “consumption specialists” who found their way across the Atlantic since the interwar
period and succeeded in areas such as marketing and market research, advertising psychology and the sociology of consumption, commercial and graphic design as well as urban planning and management studies. They contributed in a variety of ways to the transformation and expansion of American consumer culture. While some studies on prominent individuals exist, these “consumption specialists” as a group have not yet received much scholarly attention and their lives and the impact of their work has not yet been systematically studied in this context.
French immigrant Raymond Loewy became an iconic figure of postwar American commercial design
The group includes such leading representatives of American consumption research as George Katona, Paul Lazarsfeld and Ernest Dichter. Graphic and industrial designers such as Lucian Bernhard, Herbert Bayer and, most prominently, Raymond Loewy contributed to new trends in advertising and industrial design during the 1930s and ‘40s while architects such as Pietro Belluschi and “the father of the Mall” Victor Gruen helped shape the postwar American landscape of retailing. Postwar American criticism of consumption, too, received important theoretical impulses from émigrés such as Theodor Adorno or Erich Fromm. The common fascination with American patterns of consumption and the American “standard of living” exhibited by this group is all the more remarkable for their varied professional and academic backgrounds and ideological persuasions.
Framed by a larger context of cultural, intellectual and business history, the study will use the lives of these European arrivals in America to explore transatlantic exchanges in a number of consumption-related disciplines. It will trace specific contributions in methodology, design, and business practices and the transnational networks in which they emerged. To study such European imports is not to deny the genuine “Americanness” of American consumer culture. It does, however, call for a more transnational understanding of modern mass consumption. Ultimately, the project will engage the question of when and how a truly transatlantic commercial culture emerged; it will trace transnational networks of exchange and transfer that spanned the interwar and postwar decades. European Imports will be part of an anticipated larger GHI research project (Der Transatlantische Blick: Das Europabild europäischer Einwanderer in den USA, 1940 – 1980 [Transatlantic Perspectives: Europe in the Eyes of European Immigrants to the United States, 1940-1980]) which engages the roles of European immigrants in postwar America and their perceptions.