Historian James Foner writes in The Story of American Freedom
while consumerism had existed even as long ago as the early part of the nineteenth
century, it was the turn of the last century's Progressive Era that marked
the emergence of the consumer society as a key American ideal. The changes
that heralded it included "the consolidation of the national market and
the advent of huge department stores in central cities, chain stores in urban
neighborhoods, and retail mail-order houses for farmers and small town residents."
The older ideal of economic autonomy -- and certainly Thomas Jefferson's vision
of a nation of gentleman farmers -- became supplanted by "the promise
of mass consumption" as Americans bought electric sewing machines, phonographs,
washing machines, vacuum cleaners, and automobiles. Foner writes that low
wages and income inequality limited this new order until after World War II,
when the American Way was exemplified by material abundance.