Consumer Marketplace, 1940s – 1970s

In the decades after World War II, production boomed and consumption became the primary engine of the American marketplace. Several factors fueled prosperity and opportunity at midcentury: diminished global competition, high rates of union membership, Cold War spending, and expanded consumer credit. American consumers who had curbed their desires for more than a decade, opened their wallets and made America the most robust economy in the world.

Culturally, consumerism became the “fifth freedom”; an essential component of American citizenship. Advertisers sold the idea that free enterprise and freedom to shop were the hallmarks of the American Dream; linking the “the good life” to consumer goods. Manufacturers and advertisers also expanded their vision of consumers to capture new markets, including teenager, African Americans, and Latinos.

Innovations in information technology and agriculture contributed to prosperity and fundamentally changed the nature of work and business. The development of robotics and computers reshaped manufacturing while a revolution in agriculture increased production of commodities. By the late 1970s, productivity waned,  American manufacturing began to move off shore and retail gained strength. As the service economy grew and union membership and wages declined, consumers became essential to the health of American business.

Westinghouse Refrigerator Point of Purchase Display, 1950s

This life size Westinghouse point of purchase display advertised the new found freedom provided by the automatic “frost- free” refrigerator in the kitchen.

Mary Kay Cosmetics, 1960s

American women found new opportunities in the business world by establishing cosmetic and hair care companies.

ENIAC, 1940s

The seeds of the modern computing industry were sewn in wartime by direct government investment in new technology.

Diner’s Club Card, 1955

What’s in your wallet? If the year was 1955, it might have contained a Diner’s Club card.