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 Mail Order Catalogs, Consumption, and the Construction of American Identity 

Project by
Prof. Dr. Anne Koenen

This (completed) project focuses on consumerism based on mass production and standardization that emerged in the US in the first decades of the 20th century. One of the effects of consumerism has been identified as homogenization in the social sphere. That process of homogenization contributed to nation-building and was perceived as both democratizing (levelling, for example, class markers in dress) and desirable. Mail order (especially the most successful company, Sears Roebuck) was the most important media of homogenization for the rural population: it provided the rural population with an access to consumerism (and thus prevented an already starting exodus from the country, as Postmaster General Wanamaker stated when reforming the postal service with the explicit aim to facilitate the mail-order companies’ business); it helped to "civilize" the still underdeveloped regions on the frontier, helping them join the rest of the US. In addition, it served as a primer and as a venue of buying for immigrants (who were consciously targeted as customers) who not only used to catalogs to learn to read and write, but also to achieve cultural literacy; and, as research has demonstrated, helped at least some African-Americans to be customers without having to suffer repression - mail order was color blind at a time when the US was mostly segregated. As a result, mail order served to "standardize" various groups into "Americans," enabling them join modernization. Consumption thus contributed in a major way to create a national identity in the US.

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