Today, consumer culture is practically synonymous with modern America, and consumer spending drives the economy. But did America's consumerism begin to emerge during the Gilded Age?
Your thought-provoking question on the Gilded Age and its "new consumer culture" poses a problem with chronology. In other words, we must define the beginning and end of the Gilded Age before attempting to answer this question.
We are certain that the Gilded Age started in the 1870s. In 1873, the book, The Gilded Age, A Tale of Today was published. Written by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, this book did not describe consumer culture because it did not exist yet.
When did the Gilded Age end? Answering this is problematic. Most historians would argue that it ended with Theodore Roosevelt's presidency, which began in 1901. It is widely thought that he was the first president of the Progressive Movement. Progressives were determined to redress the problems that emerged during the last quarter of the nineteenth century.
Let us assume that the Gilded Age was from the 1870s to Roosevelt's presidency. Indeed, there was an inchoate consumer culture during this time. It was limited because the average American worked sixty hours a week and had little disposable income. However, the modern bicycle was invented in 1885, and it had an impact on recreation, dating, and women's clothing styles. Modern-day spectator sports—baseball, basketball, and football—became popular. Also, more families went to shows: both the circus and vaudeville became prevalent.
Modern-day consumer culture really began in the 1920s. This period, known as the Roaring Twenties, saw the rise the the automobile, radio, and household appliances. By the Roaring Twenties, the average family had enough disposable income and free time to become consumers.