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"...it is well to remember in life, after all, we are most wholly controlled by desire..."
Theodore Dreiser's 1900 novel, "Sister Carrie", explores the desire driving the emerging consumer culture of turn of the century America. At the time of the novel's publication, a new, well-to-do, middle class had arisen in American society; a class that, as a result of the goods and jobs created by the industrial revolution, had both money and free time to spare. With this new class came a new value system, which prized material displays of wealth as a means of expressing social status. Desire for social acceptance became tied to desire for the material goods that signaled that acceptance.
The novel's title character, Carrie, is an archetypal turn of the century middle class American woman. Her desire for a better, more comfortable life is easily channeled into a desire for the material goods that represent such a life, and her natural taste gives her an appreciation for things of high quality.
With mass consumption came competition for consumer dollars. Goods producers began placing persuasive ads in newspapers and magazines and, as seen here, on public street cars.
Carrie’s understanding of what Dreiser calls the ‘moral significance’ of fine goods speaks of her place in the shifting landscape of social values. Carrie is a of a new generation, one which holds wealth and consumption, rather than the piety and purity advocated for women of the previous generation, as symbols of social uprightness. Her desire for the material goods that represent a better life overrides any moral misgivings Carrie has surrounding the personal choices she makes throughout the novel. That Carrie’s desire is rewarded with increased social success reinforces the connection between consumerism and acceptance, and raises the question of whether traditional morality holds any sway in a culture driven by consumption.
Shopping along New York's 'Ladies Mile': Known as 'the heart of the gilded age', Broadway was famous for its opulent department stores and the finely dressed women who shopped in them.
Women's magazines became popular at the turn of the century, hoping to tap into the most influential demographic of the new consumer culture.
old values vs. new values...