As economic production shifted from capital goods (steel, railroad equipment, etc.) to consumer products, the new advertising industry perfected ways of increasing sales, often by linking goods with the idea of freedom. Numerous products took “liberty” as a brand name or used an image of the Statue of Liberty as a sales device. The department-store magnate Edward Filene called consumerism a “school of freedom,” since shoppers made individual choices on basic questions of living. Economic abundance would eventually come to define the “American way of life,” in which personal fulfillment was to be found through acquiring material goods.

One day’s output of Model T Fords, in a 1913 photograph. The assembly line made mass production like this possible.

The promise of abundance shifted the quest for freedom to the realm of private life, but it also inspired political activism. Exclusion from the world of mass consumption would come to seem almost as great a denial of the rights of citizenship as being barred from voting once had been. The desire for consumer goods led many workers to join unions and fight for higher wages. The argument that monopolistic corporations artificially raised prices at the expense of consumers became a weapon against the trusts. “Consumers’ consciousness,” wrote Walter Lippmann, who emerged in these years as one of the nation’s most influential social commentators, was growing rapidly, with the “high cost of living” as its rallying cry.

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