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Creating the modern man: American magazines and consumer culture 1900-1950. (Reviews).

Creating the Modem Man: American Magazines and Consumer Culture 1900-1950. By Tom Pendergast (Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press, 2000. x plus 289pp. $34.95).

Although men's history has grown over the past 15 years, much of this has focused on how men have interacted in conventionally masculine environments such as the workplace, pub, gang, fraternal organization, and athletics rather than on the energy men put into more personal activities such as relationships, parenting, and consumerism. Thus, Pendergast's study of the role that men's magazines played in encouraging men to think of themselves as consumers is an important addition to the growing history of men and popular culture.

Essentially, Pendergast documents how the articles, editorials and advertisements in middle-class men's magazines go from promoting an inner-directed masculinity centered around character, hard work and integrity (1900-1920s) to an outer-directed masculinity dedicated to improving one's appearance, personality, and personal life through enlightened consumerism (1920s-1940s). By intensively and then selectively reading the material in 22 magazines that were largely or entirely aimed at men, the first half of Pendergast's book explores how the (male) magazine editors' personal indebtedness to Victorian ideology led them to champion male character and professional success while advertisers were simultaneously undermining these values by encouraging men to value consumption over work.

The book's second half traces how magazines such as Colliers, the American and New Success evolved from advising men how to succeed in business to advising them how to succeed in their professional, personal and recreational lives by purchasing appearance and personality enhancing products. His analysis of how Esquire magazine paved the road to modernity by being the first men's magazine to explicitly and exclusively focus on men's personal and leisure lives is particularly insightful to students of gender, popular culture, and consumerism. Pendergast also explores how the attention to racial oppression in the early Negro "race journals" precluded them from receiving much advertising money, and how John Johnson's styling of Ebony as a magazine about middle-class black success helped it become the first commercially successful black magazine.

Although Pendergast's argument is generally well presented and supported, my own research into gender history, consumerism and advertising suggests that Pendergast's conclusions about both masculinity and the relationship between masculinity and consumerism are crippled a bit by his somewhat a-theoretical and a-historical approach; he erroneously dates the beginning of consuming masculinity to the 1920s, and treats masculinity as a monolithic and universal construct.

Concerning the first point, Pendergast labels consuming/modern masculinity a 1920s phenomenon by asserting that "modern men ... were made to be consuming men within the pages of the American magazine" (p. 18), and that the pro-consumer messages of the 1920s men's magazine "editors and contributors ... announced the emergence of modern masculinity" (pp. 111). This makes large scale male consumerism a twentieth-century phenomenon which had middleclass men's magazines and advertising as its parents. However, a good deal of social history indicates that American men of all classes in the large Northern cities were already highly engaged with consumerism from the 1880s on, and that such consuming began nearly a century earlier in London and Manchester. (1) Thus, consuming masculinity seems to have originally been cultivated by vibrant, commercially-driven urban culture rather than by men's magazines and advertising itself. The magazines that Pendergast studies appear to have helped promote consuming masculinity to non-urban men rather than create such a phenomenon in the first place.

Pendergast's a-theoretical approach to gender shows little recognition of how masculinities vary enormously by class and race, as recent gender theory and social history suggest. (2) His framework recognizes only two strands of masculinity: "Victorian masculinity" vs. "modern masculinity". Thus he overlooks what numerous historians have referred to as the middle-class "crisis of masculinity" which suggests that most of the masculinist denunciation of consumerism as "feminine" was done by middle-class intellectuals who saw their masculinity threatened as the corporate economy transformed middle-class men from independent proprietors to paper-pushing, white-collar workers. (3) This suggests that rather than concentrating on getting "men" to see them selves as consumers, advertisers focused their energies on getting middle-class male readers to accept consumerism as manly. This would explain why only middle-class magazines fit the pattern of his argument: the only upper-class men's magazine he surveys (Vanity Fa ir) was always staunchly pro-consumerist, and one of his two "working-class" men's magazines, True, appears to have been lower middle-class in orientation; its average audience consisted of white-collar workers and skilled laborers (p. 225) and most of its ads were for such bourgeois goods as cufflinks, revolving tie racks, watches and fancy fishing outfits (p. 222). His own evidence suggests that his only clearly working-class men's magazine, Argosy, remained neutral on the question of male consumerism. In sum, 1920s-50s men's magazines and advertising appeared to be addressing middle-class anxieties about male consumerism, not "men's" anxieties per se.

Pendergast's conflation of middle-class Victorian masculinity with the whole gamut of masculinities itself erroneously implies that working-class and African-American men must have felt disturbingly unmanly because they couldn't meet the norms of middle-class masculinity. For example, he states that: "modern masculinity ... unchained masculinity from its strict ties to property ownership, and it thus allowed many more men access to the cultural markers for success" (pp. 264-65). This is ironic because the evidence suggests that it was nor working-class men that felt unmanly during the corporatization of the U.S. economy (i.e. 1868-1930) but middle-class men. Overlooked is the fact that working-class men had alternate ways of establishing their masculinity, such as hard drinking, heavy brawling, and performing work that required great physical strength. Thus the "cult of strenuous masculinity" that sedentary middle-class white men instituted during this time (i.e., college sports, Boy Scouts, body building, et c.) can be read as a ritualistic imitation of working-class styles of masculinity (i.e., military service, bare-knuckle fighting, back breaking manual labor, etc.).

In closing, though, if one overlooks the limitations outlined about, Pendergast's book is worthy reading for the countless insights it offers into how and why gender ideologies change in the national media.


(1.) Mark A. Swiencicki, "Consuming Brotherhood: Men's Culture, Style and Recreation as Consumer Culture," Journal of Social History 31/4 (1998): 773-808; Ana Clark, The Struggle for the Breeches: Gender and the Making of the British Working Class (1995, Berkeley).

(2.) Robert W. Connell, Gender and Power: Society, the Person and Sexual Politics (Stanford, 1987); Kathy Peiss, Cheap Amusements: Working Class Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York (Philadelphia, 1986); Mary Anne Clawson, Constructing Brotherhood: Class, Gender, and Fraternalism (Princeton, 1989).

(3.) ElIiot J. Gom, The Manly Art: Bare-knuckle Prize Fighting in America (Ithaca, 1986); George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World 1890-1940 (New York, 1994).
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Author:Swiencicki, Mark A.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2001
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