The Selling of Culture, and Our Souls: From Pears’ Soap to Bud-Weis-Er

Jack Weston

Selling Culture: Magazines, Markets, and Class at the Turn of the Century by Richard Ohmann (London, New York: Verso, 1996), 411 pp. $23.95 cloth.

WILLIAM MORRIS IN his own words “hated modern civilization,” and said so with increasing emphasis as he became convinced that a better society was practically possible. Now a century later, in a civilization grown much more alienating, deadly, and ugly, Richard Ohmann’s book here under review explains in convincing detail how the abomination of our modern world was produced for capital.

Through a historical materialist frame, Ohmann shows how North American capital in the 1890s used social tendencies and technologies to produce a mass culture encouraging the rapid growth of a serviceable middle class conditioned to hold the ideology, social values, and commodity preferences beneficial to the possessing class.

The mass producers, needing a steady and predictable market, hired advertising agencies and mass-circulation magazines to create that market and keep it growing. Capital in effect sold mass culture for profit to a class which emerged as capital’s creature.

From this beginning emerged the hegemonic culture that shapes us all, through the media after magazines of radio, then of television, soon of who knows what horror. Most of us are in various degrees products of this dreadful cultural world which serves our class enemies, and we should be grateful to Ohmann for giving us the history and theory which can help set us free.

The Coming of Advertising

Using the best theory (like Marx’s, Gramsci’s, Raymond Williams’), Ohmann knows what to look for in his hundreds of old magazines, and has seen so much and shapes it so reasonably that his narrative is convincing and important. His subject is “mass culture,” the experience of a national audience created for profit by specialists to produce predictable needs and desires (in desperately brief summary).

Capital required mass culture, not in the 1920s where previous historians had placed it, but in the 1890s because of depressions, business failures, a high rate of capital formation but lower rate of sales, strikes and other workplace actions, and radical popular resistance to the system.

Capital needed a reliable, growing market and social support for its system to protect its investment and growth. From another angle, capitalism had to follow its law of survival, to continue expanding itself and developing its productive forces.

Under the guidance of specialists, producers packaged products in new ways and marketed them with new adver¬tisements in the new mass-media magazines designed to appeal to a newly enlarged class which they formed through the mass culture they created.

Before the 1890s most products were manufactured, sold, and advertised locally. A few national products had brand names and logos, like Quaker Oats, but there were no organized skills and means of creating desire for them on a big scale. So: Bring on the experts to create desire for them, the advertising agencies developed for the purpose, and let them at the same time include in their pitch the desire to cherish and preserve the system providing these comforts and the cultural aura around them.

The medium grew: mass circulation magazines, which sold for a dime and made their profit through ads (Cosmopolitan, Munsey’s, McClure’s, Ladies’ Home Journal), in contrast to the old upper-class genteel magazines like Harper’s, Atlantic Monthly, Century.

Advertisements became larger and included more pictures, less text, more slogans and short verbal pitches.

They enticed their readers into an Anglo world of domestic leisure and plenty in separate homes with front lawns isolated from work and workers, stylish modern living among the right kind of people, freedom from both oldaristocratic codes and low-class vulgarity, house¬wives devoted to modern science managing their beaming-faced healthy families with effortless professional skill, men all married and on the frontier of progress invisibly providing the means for this luxury in off-stage jobs.

All these images were part of an expanding nation bringing the benefits of civilization to the globe and all accepting the status-quo ideology of patriotism, free enterprise, military imperialism, the work ethic, racism, and women’s essential domesticity.

The Adman’s Art: Distorted Desire

We all recognize this vile old world which, in its modern variant, shapes us even while we repudiate it. It isn’t the product of admen’ s invention but their selection and manipulation of useful middle class values at the time.

Mass culture doesn’t shape a neutral, malleable class but distorts a selection of biological needs and desires. Since Ohmann doesn’t make the ground of the change sufficiently clear, he seems hostile to consumers for buying the adman’s hype to seek individual ornament and possessions, social belonging, romance and court¬ship, dignity and autonomy, leisure and amusement, productive work, art.

People from drab state-socialist countries of the recent past climbed walls in the sadly mistaken hope that these benefits were generally available in capitalist neighboring countries. The socialism from below of the future will offer them systematically to heal our alienation and fulfill our species nature.

The admen at the turn of the century were special¬ists and experts who knew what people have always desired and how to twist and direct those desires into the monster world summarized above. Consumers are not to blame, but consumerism and capitalism.

Ohmann builds this world convincingly by reading thousands of ads and constructing the assumed values of the model society which they propose. Most simply project affluence, modernity, class identity, leisure–like the gentleman with linked cuffs slipping a folding camera into the pocket of his tweed jacket with the slogan “Put a Kodak in YOUR Pocket” (1900), or the bored young couple in expensive sporting attire walking away after golf (him) and tennis (her), captioned “After Exercise, Drink Coca-Cola” (1905).

Many show healthy, tasteful household management, like the uniformed maid near a window opening on a backyard preparing fried mush of Pillsbury’s VITS with a text about “unusual delicacy” and “ease of digestion” (1899).

Others are outrageously racist and imperialistic, like Admiral Perry washing his hands with Pears’ Soap aboard his gunboat surrounded by pictures showing “The White Man’s Burden” of “teaching the virtues of cleanliness” in the “dark corners of the earth” (1899); another ad of the same year shows a rich white girl in a park accosting a Black girl with, “Oh! why don’t you use Pears’ Soap?”

Lots of Blacks, in fact, appear in the ads but always as either faithful servants or cute pickaninnies. The modern woman also appears, as in the one dressed in knickers, vest, bow tie and bowler hat labelled “The New Woman,” because she cares for her gums with Rubiform Liquid Dentifrice (1896).

Woman’s emancipation stops with style and products and doesn’t get her out of the nursery and kitchen.

Class Tastes

The articles and fiction in the magazines internalize the social place or identity of the new middle class. Vice is always censored and associated–especially in the case of sex–with the lower orders. Sex is only acceptable if framed in high art, such as is shown and taught in museums.

Certain topics are just not admitted: work, strikes, labor unions, immigrants, industrial workers, poor people, race, socialism, anarchism, consumer culture.

After 1902, when muckraking came in to expose greed and corruption in high places, the predominant tendency became patriotic, reformist, progressive. Progress, modernity, new technology are favorite subjects.

With no class conflict this is a nation of an upwardly mobile people with no problems middle-class rationality can’t solve. The new class is like the old aristocrats but free from their restrictive codes and hangups.

Particularly impressive is Ohmann’s reading of nearly two hundred stories from the four mass cir¬culation magazines, 1895-1902, and his use of more than fifty of them to document the ideology and social values of their main types: courtship-marriage and Westerns.

These all celebrate or at least assume the doctrine of progress and a new economic order and more specifically “the project and prospects of an emergent class.”

The PMC’s Volunteered Slavery

The class that this mass culture took over, and shaped and which purchased the magazines and the products offered in them–that is, bought its own slavery–Ohmann labels with the hotly contested name “professionalªmanagerial class.”

The huge group or bloc or social class is historical and “PMC” is a convenient noun for a long narrative about it. But readers should keep in mind that the PMC, whatever its name, is dead wrong about its relation of production, that its consciousness is imposed from above not from its shared life of exploitation, that there are lots of nurses and teachers and other professionals and managers who don’t buy the bosses or their spouses’ or the TV’s shit, that the term invites both reification and the postmodern fallacy of identity politics.

What Can We Do Now?

Reading Ohmann’s book is painful because it’s about the creation not only of a world which we loathe, but of its supporting middle class which we have repudiated but which has formed most of us. Ohmann kicks up all those wrenching memories. But we have a responsibility to know the historical dynamics of our original creation and being, which Ohmann offers here, in order to resist, to reform, and to hasten and prepare for eventual revolution.

With fifteen years of brilliant work, Ohmann demonstrates that capital makes the world it needs to stay alive, including the consciousness of a good portion of its human creatures, not by choice but ontologically by its being. How to counter such a self-sustaining, self-amending, engulfing, faceless juggernaut? At the very end Ohmann poses Lenin’s famous question, “What is to be done?” but doesn’t await an answer.

I don’t have one either, but I have some thoughts. The book proves capital’s agency, that capital makes history. But people too can make history (although as Marx said, of course, not under conditions of their own choosing). Many peoples’ cultures exist, even in this country, which create or can help to create class consciousness; and many of the middle class, like me and Ohmann and lots of comrades in struggle, not just intellectuals, have rejected the urgings of mass culture and identify with workers and the poor.

Further, the book shows that capital does what its laws require to expand and live but not to resolve its internal contradictions and live forever. The more human misery and ecological devastation capitalism must create by the laws of its nature, the closer it is to destruction.

Finally, by showing that capital necessarily kills, the book demonstrates the impossibility of modifying it so as to nurture human and other life and nature, in short, demon¬strates the logical and moral death of reformist liberalism or social democracy.

We need to socialize the means of production to bring a democratic, free, liberated society. Which leaves us with the only revolutionary resource available since recorded history–class struggle.

Jack Weston was active in the International Socialists in the 1970s. A former teacher of the literature of the dispossessed at U. Mass/Amherst, he is the author of the still-in-print worst-seller The Real American Cowboy (Schocken, 1984; New Amsterdam Books, 1988).

ATC 75, July-August 1998