Posted by: Lily DeBenedictis | November 6, 2018

Exploring the Transformation of Consumer Culture

The 1850s sparked a transformation in commercialism and commodity towards the today’s modern consumer market. Starting in 1851 at the Great Exhibition in London hosted by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, the exhibition put on displays to show off the newest technology, fashions and international cultures. Even the building itself ignited new architectural trends. The Crystal Palace capitalized on the use of modern materials to maximize natural light and floor space. These exhibits became the center for commodity. It provided a space where the people came to see, feel and touch of expensive luxury goods, technology and clothing. It was a monument dedicated to consumption. This seems to have been the primitive start of shopping and commodity as a spectacle.


These ideas continued to pervade society at the Chicago Exposition in 1893. Here the desire for luxury goods became almost a trend. Many attendees went specifically to look at international and local products. The exterior design of these buildings also demonstrates the turn towards grandeur. Turning back to classical architecture, many of the buildings in the main center reflected the styles found in Italian Villas, Palazzos and the Duomo. These ornately designed exteriors reflected the products found within. By viewing fashion, furniture and luxurious goods from all over the world, people began wanting these items for themselves.


A new commercial phenomenon occurred where the masses began to “desire” and “want” these items rather than need. Before, shopping occurred more out of necessity. People would only buy clothing or shoes when they began to fall apart, food for the day of and one set of dishes until they broke. Instead of buying items for their utilitarian purposes, people began to desire items for the status and luxury of having them.

One of the first department stores to emerge was Selfridges in London. In 1906 Selfridges & Co. was born and only three years later, the Grand Opening of the store opened Selfridge’s doors to the public. Using commodity as a spectacle, Harry Selfridge placed the first plane that went over water in the windows of his store. People flocked to the store to not only see the plane, but also see what kinds of items were available for purchase. This created a female space in an era when women were not allowed out without an escort. They were allowed to indulge in fashion, furniture and products that were imported from Europe without having to travel there. It was the ultimate luxury experience.

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Store advertisements targeted the middle-class woman. It gives women a semblance of control over their lives to be able to shop and desire items that their husbands could buy them (Loeb). Posters, magazine and newspapers held ads for new fashions, makeup or other products that promised to enhance the body in very appealing ways. This is evident by the Pears Soap Ads which promised to enhance complexion or wash away all impurities (Loeb).

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Who knew that the first World’s Fair under the reign of Queen Victoria in the mid-1800s would transform the evolution of commodity? The second half of the 19th century completely changed the way that the public thought about commerce and the effect that it has on society. The public changed from one of shopping out of necessity to one that was wooed into consumerism through advertisements. This rapid transformation of the consumer and commodity would come to influence today’s markets and the consumer culture that we experience today.

Works Cited:

Leonard, Garry. Reviewed Work(s): The Commodity Culture of Victorian England: Advertising and Spectacle, 1851-1914 by Thomas Karr Richards. James Joyce Quarterly 28 no. 4 (1990): 1001-1008.
Rydell, Robert W. World’s Columbian Exposition. Encyclopedia of Chicago. Published 2005. Date accessed 11.4.18.
Selfridges & Co. Our History. Selfridges.

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