How did consumerism and the "American way of life" in the 1920s influence people's understanding of American values and freedom?

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Consumerism and the idea of the "American way of life" affected people's understanding of values in the 1920s by equating freedom with the ownership of consumer goods. As the United States became more prosperous, many people enjoyed something they'd never had before: the freedom to own consumer products previously unavailable to them, such as automobiles and radios. A similar attitude can be observed today. People seem more concerned with the freedom to own things than with political freedom.

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The 1920s were a boom time for the American economy. The country became more prosperous than at any time in its history. The mass production of consumer goods drove down their cost, putting them in reach of millions of Americans who'd previously been unable to afford them. In the popular mind, freedom was no longer strictly a political concept; it was increasingly related to the acquisition of consumer goods, such as radios and automobiles.

In the age of consumerism, freedom meant the freedom to spend, to amass as much stuff as humanly possible, much of it on hire purchase. This didn't mean, of course, that people were no longer interested in freedom as a political concept. It's just that the focus changed towards a very different kind of freedom—one that reflected a much more materialistic value system.

The world of today is so different from that of the 1920s in many respects. But in one aspect there are remarkable similarities between then and now. Consumerism continues to shape our values no less than it did nearly a century ago. Despite the decline of the middle class in recent decades, many Americans still cleave to the idea of the American Dream, in which freedom is virtually synonymous with the acquisition of wealth and the vast quantity of consumer goods that it can bring.

This ongoing obsession with material wealth and consumerism is important, as it tends to move our focus away from what are arguably more important freedoms, such as the freedom to vote—increasingly suppressed in some parts of the United States—and the freedom to protest, which is not always protected, as seen in the recent Black Lives Matter protests in Washington.

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How did consumerism and the idea of the “American way of life” affect people’s understanding of American values, including the meaning of freedom, in the 1920s?

The prosperous decade known as the Roaring Twenties brought unprecedented wealth and prosperity to the United States. Amid this rising tide of wealth, a whole range of consumer goods that had previously been unavailable to most Americans suddenly because much cheaper, putting them within range of millions of people and their families. The development of mass-production techniques in industry was mainly responsible for the driving down of costs, thus ensuring that consumer goods like radios and automobiles were now mass-market rather than luxury items.

This process, though welcome in some respects, also had less admirable consequences. In the midst of such a sustained consumer boom, people’s values changed, and not exactly for the better. Freedom, which had previously been conceived of in political terms and which formed the bedrock of the American system of government, became associated with the acquisition of wealth and the consumer goods it could buy.

For millions of Americans, freedom now meant the freedom to get rich, the freedom to acquire and spend. As the country became richer and richer, it seemed that almost everyone wanted to get in on the act. Get-rich-quick schemes flourished during this decade, as well as the buying of stocks on margin, which to many was just another get-rich-quick scheme.

Many of the old American values, such as thrift, honesty, and living within one’s means, went by the board in this headlong dash for riches. In the process, American society became more selfish, less caring, more rampantly individualistic. In such an environment, freedom became not an end in itself but a means to an end, the end being the acquisition and consumption of consumer goods.

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