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Sowing the American Dream
How Consumer Culture Took Root in the Rural Midwest

Sowing the American Dream
How Consumer Culture Took Root in the Rural Midwest
by David Blanke
Ohio University Press, 2002

Historian David Blanke of Briar Cliff College in Iowa documents the rise and fall of the powerful purchasing cooperatives of Midwestern farmers from 1840 to 1900 as an attempt to use collective consumerism to maintain regional identity, community and independence.

This careful study shows how commercial farmers in the Midwest of more than a century ago helped foster changes in the marketing, distribution and purchasing of goods that transformed the nation's economy and gave rise to the forces of consumerism that drive it today.

Mail-order purchasing and much of e-commerce has its roots in the rich soil of America's heartland, where isolated farm families demanded consumer items from far-off producers and suppliers.

Blanke begins his work with the formations of a rural consumer ethos among farmers who shared common concerns about securing supplies and marketing their goods. He follows the formation of the Grange organization and its collective buying strategies, and the development of mail-order catalogs like Montgomery Wards and Sears.

While collective purchasing worked for a time, rewarding its members with significant discounts on the goods they wanted, it eventually fell beneath the combined weight of effective advertising and individualistic consumption. Cooperation and an "agrarian ideal" gave way to independent decision-making and the fulfillment of personal desires. 

"In the end, the waning of agrarian consumerism mirrored the fading distinctions between rural and urban, producer and consumer, or citizen and customer," Blank explains. "While sowing the seeds of their children's prosperity, Midwestern rural consumers also undermined much of their own regional identity, community and independence."

Notions of virtue and responsibility, which used to influence purchasing decisions, dissolved in the face of marketing aimed at individual self-interest. Like their urban counterparts, farm families found themselves working to obtain and spend money rather than to improve their community.

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Sowing the American Dream
How Consumer Culture Took Root in the Rural Midwest

"Long-range shopping is far from being a new phenomenon. Rural Midwesterners have been availing themselves of "sending away" since the arrivalk of modern mail-order catalogs in the late nineteenth century, and accounts of the hopes and frustrations of rural catalog customers are legion."


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