Window Shopping

Conspicuous consumption plummeted during the Great Depression, but the fantasy of big spending remains a part of the American dream.

Then

Arthur Rothstein, Russell Lee, and Theodor Jung, 1936–39

Ohio, Mississippi, and Illinois

Then

Arthur Rothstein, Russell Lee, and Theodor Jung, 1936–39

Ohio, Mississippi, and Illinois

In 1936, an interviewer collecting oral histories for the Federal Writers’ Project—the WPA program that generated jobs for out-of-work writers—interviewed a longtime department store employee named Irving Fajans in New York City. Fajans listed off the kinds of shoppers he met in his store: “The customer who enters the store periodically to buy the same article at the same price—such as socks or handkerchiefs ... the type who tells you she has seen the same thing in another store at a much lower price—but buys from you just the same … the woman who buys some cheap article like washcloths, say, for 11 cents apiece, and then explains that she is choosing the inexpensive cloths because she is ‘buying for my maid’ ...”

Fajans had a front-row seat to the spending habits of Americans in the depths of the Great Depression. The woman buying the rags may really have been getting them for a maid—or she may have been buying them for herself, embarrassed to find herself a newly minted penny pincher. Unemployment peaked in 1933, with about 15 million people out of work, or nearly 25 percent of the workforce. By 1934, the national income was $10 billion less than it had been in 1931. As jobs vanished, earnings shrunk, and deep uncertainty about the future settled in.

Americans scrambled to readjust to this reality. Frugality became the new norm; consumer spending plummeted. After the stock-market crash of 1929, sales at department stores dipped immediately, and shopping at 10-cent stores increased.

During the 1930s, over half of families in the United States had an income between $500 and $1,500 annually, explains historian Susan Ware in her 1982 book Holding Their Own: American Women in the 1930s. (This would be between $10,000 and $27,000 today; the Federal Poverty Guideline in 2019 is $25,750 for a family of four.) When it came to household spending, women controlled most of the funds. Taking into account their husband’s often reduced wages, they bought less and recycled more, purchasing cheap cuts of meat and tailoring adult clothing to fit children. There was one kind of household item that did enjoy record sales: glass jars—women had turned to canning in an effort to maximize their groceries.

Newsboys admiring sporting goods, Jackson, Ohio, 1936. Theodor Jung / Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Spending on non-essentials varied. In his 2002 book An All-Consuming Century: Why Commercialism Won in Modern America, historian Gary Cross notes that new car sales dropped by 70 percent between 1929 and 1932; sales of men’s suits also dropped dramatically. Meanwhile, some luxuries, such as cigarettes, never suffered significant sales slumps during the Great Depression, and some even became more popular—especially radios. In 1929, about 12 million Americans owned at least one radio. By 1940, Cross observes, it was 86 percent. It’s likely that many of those radios were bought on installment plans: in 1932, 60 percent of furniture, cars, and home appliances were “bought on time,” an option commonly offered to Depression-era shoppers in an effort to enable purchases.

A woman examines dresses in front of a shop, Laurel, Mississippi, 1939. Russell Lee / Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The uptick in radio sales was due to a desire for cheap entertainment. If they owned a radio, consumers could opt to spend their evenings in, listening to dramas, instead of spending nights out on the town. People were also happy to spend their money on movies; after an initial downturn post-crash, movie attendance rebounded, peaking with weekly audiences that were 88 million strong in 1937 and 1938. The pictures provided a welcome respite from harsher realities. For the unemployed who could still afford them, the movie theater was also a great place to kill time.

The shopping landscape of the Great Depression shaped the future of American consumerism in important ways, with retailers realizing the power of rock-bottom prices to entice shoppers. The supermarket rose to prominence in the 1930s, as chain stores offering cheap, one-stop shopping—with meat, dairy, produce, and more—were able to outpace neighborhood meat markets and grocers. Many regarded the supermarket as a Depression-era fad and predicted that people would return to their local shops when the economy rebounded. They were wrong. “Increasingly, price, not service, quality, or status, became the key in American consumerism,” writes Cross. The economy would recover, and wages would rise, but the American shopping experience would be forever changed.

Then

Arthur Rothstein, Russell Lee, and Theodor Jung, 1936–39

Ohio, Mississippi, and Illinois

Now

Ken Solomon, 2019

New York City

Now

Ken Solomon, 2019

New York City

One of the main objectives of the WPA’s Federal Art Project, which was to empower artists to both pursue their craft and help them earn money during the Depression. The broad guidance for WPA artists was to document the “American scene”—art that was meant to fossilize the moment. Our current moment is one of conspicuous consumption.

One of my ongoing bodies of work uses Google image searches as muse. I search for a word or phrase, examine the outcome, and refine it into a painting. I like the repetition of constants that happen with a Google image search: how the search is always presented the same way, but the information within that form is different. An early Google “portrait” of mine was a rendering of the search for “Warhol”: the results were 19 recognizable works by Andy Warhol, with one image of a random man named Tom Warhol sitting on his tractor.

A lot of what drives my work is uniformity, and the variation within that uniformity. Conspicuous consumption consists of variations on a uniform idea of wealth: the same luxury brands, the same luxury objects. When I paint sneakers or bags, I don’t think about them as consumer products; I consider their shape and form. But in the context of this piece, I definitely wanted them to come across as consumer goods.

I knew I wanted to juggle several items in this piece: I wanted a bag, a sneaker, and a repetitive logo. Although the Google search in the painting is for “consumption,” I also curate from what I find online—the objects shown in my work aren’t always exactly what comes up in a search. (If you look closely, you’ll see that I also paint browser tabs. This painting includes searches for “conspicuous” and “WPA.”) The first search that came up for “consumption” was for an image by the artist Barbara Kruger, which was black, white, and red. I wanted to do a Louis Vuitton as well, and as I continued to search, I found one that was related to the brand Supreme, which also uses black, white, and red. I then found this red and black sneaker, a vintage, original Air Jordan, which costs about $2,000.

I’m not much of a shopper, but I do shop for ideas. Walking along Madison Avenue, I let things find me. I went into a Foot Locker store one afternoon where I saw these sneakers on the wall, all facing one direction, like a Google image search brought to life. Passing a Chanel bag in a window display on a different day, I thought, That would be so fun to paint. So I ran home and did a nine-foot Google portrait of Chanel items.

One of the strange things about being an artist is that your clientele often have a lot of money. The WPA art projects wanted to bring art back to the public, and I think it’s strange today that art is only available to the wealthy. I can’t afford the things that I paint, but I paint them anyway.

Ken Solomon was born in Washington, D.C., in 1971, and currently lives and works in Brooklyn. His work is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Jumex Collection in Mexico City. His work has been reviewed and featured in the New York Times, The New Yorker, and Artforum, among other publications.

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