The New Consumer

In The Travel Habit, WPA guidebooks by DennisLeave a Comment

The American Guides Series was published during the Great Depression as a work detailing major landmarks and attractions of each state of the country at the time. The initial reaction to these works is that they were simply guides to the country that were meant to promote tourism. However, recent scholars have identified these guides as problematic from a cultural and economic standpoint. Specifically, that these guides promoted what we now have dubbed as consumer culture as well as a consumer identity. When people are a part of a consumer culture, they are no longer buying products on a need or usefulness basis. The products are bought (in this case, tourism) because they have an identity associated with them (in this case the states). The problem is that these guides were basically selling out states and their unique cultural identities so that people would spend money on them.

The Roosevelt administration printed these guides “in order to reproduce patriotism as a form of brand name identification (The American Guide Series: Patriotism as Brand-Name Identification,Gross 2).” However, this was not the earliest case of aggressive advertising in the United States. In the years leading up to World War One and the roaring twenties, there was a change in the way American businesses functioned. The idea of apprenticeship was slowly being replaced by the idea of wage labor. This was one of many factors that contributed to the development of capitalist practices that are around even today. During this time, advertisement also took a new approach when attempting to appeal to potential buyers. They seemed to appeal to the wants and desires of the American people, an example being the automobile guidebooks.

These automobile guides advertised the innovative nature of the car and how useful it would be to get around. The guides used colorful language and stories to promote their message that an automobile was not only convenient but perhaps necessary. Though these guides promoted the message of using cars, Gross also notes their importance in the standardization of multiple corporate elements that most people don’t even think about. Assembly line production and highway structure were “all designed to accelerate the production, distribution and consumption of commodities (The American Guide Series: Patriotism as Brand-Name Identification, Gross 2).” These sort of advertisements are dangerous because they make it seem as though demand it higher than it really might be. This leads to oversupply and that means an over saturated market, which is what led to the Great Depression in the first place.

Even food was not safe. Of course as tourism became more commercialized, food became a big aspect of travel. The unique nature of each state was not only in its attraction sites but also in its culture. Food is a big part of culture in any unique geographic area, such as a state. What I mean to say is that food acts as a very defining part of people’s lifestyles. For example, the way families on the go and or who were more impoverished, favored the use of loaves. Loaves were relatively cheap and easy to make and above all they were filling. It was easy to make a loaf out of practically anything, even peanuts as unappetizing as that sounds.

Thus, it does seem that the American Guides Series can be viewed critically as works that promoted consumer culture. There is also the notion that the guide is assumed to be for a white reader. In a sense it was made for white people but also served to white wash those who weren’t white by making them view the United States through a white lens. Race is treated in a strange way. While cultures like the“Yankees are constantly developing, the guide tends to focus very heavily on the traditional aspects of the Native Americans even though they are a group of peoples who are developing as well. There are also parts of the guides that do tend to be rather racial. In the case of Native Americans and Latinos, Gross notes that they are seen  “as citizens and tourist attractions (The American Guide Series: Patriotism as Brand-Name Identification, Gross 5, ).” Apparently assimilated peoples are not very interesting for tourism because the guide then habitually will note racist qualities about these groups of peoples, supposedly to promote interest in seeing them.


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