Lesson 3: Consumer Culture and the 1920s

Most historians agree that personality gained societal importance over character in the 1920s, and they connect this transformation in values to the emergence of a consumer culture. This lesson plan offers suggestions about how you can use primary sources to illustrate the larger social and cultural changes of the era. Duke University's Ad*Access site is a primary resource for these activities.


  1. To introduce students to the importance of consumerism in the 1920s, when there was a shift from "inner-directed" to "outer-directed" ways of self-improvement.
  2. To have students recognize the connections between commodities and culture in the American past and present.
  3. To improve students' abilities to analyze and interpret historical documents and images.

Part 1: Outward or inward?

Warren Susman and Roland Marchand, among other historians, have argued that a significant shift in the methods of self-improvement occurred in the 1920s, and both historians use advertisements to illustrate this shift. The shift was from an inner-directed focus on character—"I will improve my lot in life by working harder, being more disciplined, and always doing the right thing"—to an outer-directed focus on personality—"I will improve my lot in life by being funny, wearing the right clothes, and being able to talk about the right things." This exercise should show how the shift occurred.

After showing an example of a typical advertisement of the early 1900s (for example, the 1914 Colgate's Shaving Stick ad), you should have students analyze advertisements from the 1920s and the 1930s available at Ad*Access or in magazines. For a good contrast with the Colgate advertisement, see the sex appeal evident in the 1944 "Kiss me again with your Barbasol face" ad.

Then have students, as individuals or in small groups, write short papers explaining the differences in advertising approaches, comparing and contrasting the use of images, length of text, and the types of appeals (factual? emotional? sexual?). Students can then discuss their discoveries. This type of exercise will almost invariably lead to a discussion of contemporary advertising strategies, and the use of sex appeal and the promise of popularity to sell things.

Part 2: Consume What?

One explanation for the triumph of the consumer culture is that manufacturers kept introducing more and more useful and enticing products, while at the same time, credit became available to more Americans. You will want to explain the importance of the car as a method of transportation and as a symbol of freedom and status. While Duke University's Ad*Access Project does not include car advertisements in its transportation category, it does offer access to hundreds of advertisements of the two other most significant consumer items of the 1920s–1950s, the radio and the television.

Have students examine the early ads for these items to see how they were sold, literally and figuratively, to the American public. Students should be able to explain whom the advertisements targeted as well as what attributes advertisers deemed most valuable: access to information, to entertainment, or to status.

In another comparative exercise students look at the same magazine during two different time periods, preferably at least 30 years apart—for example, 1895 and 1925, or 1925 and 1955. In a 3–5 page paper, students explain the differences in the magazines by comparing and contrasting the types and topics of stories, the goods advertised and the methods used to sell them, and the diversity of people represented in advertisements and in news stories.

Students can use this exercise to prepare for the document-based question (DBQ) by using their knowledge of the surrounding historical contexts to explain the differences and similarities. Given the difficulty many students might have obtaining copies of two magazines from the earlier decades of the last century, you might want to get issues from the local library and have students work in groups.

Part 3: Advertising Stereotypes

As part of a continuing discussion of stereotypes—racial, gender, and other—in American life, ask your students to prepare a short paper or report on the existence and persistence of these stereotypes in the advertisements presented in the Ad*Access website. Students can easily isolate a category by using the search features provided. Categories include sports, military personnel, African Americans, Asians, Middle-Easterners, children, and many more. Again, a comparison of the ads from the 1920s–1940s with more modern ads should interest and educate your students.