Saturday, March 14, 2009

Consumer Culture

I found my copy of Andrew Hurley’s Diners, Bowling Alleys, and Trailer Parks at the town dump last October and almost listed it for sale on Amazon for five dollars before deciding that it might be worth keeping. Last week when I finally got around to reading it, I did not regret my decision.

Hurley traces these three American institutions from their origins as working-class benchmarks tied to inner-city immigration to their explosions into the new middle-class consumer market after World War II; where they epitomized America’s newfound obsessions with family values, excessive spending, and a mass migration to suburbia. American diners at the turn of the century, for instance, mostly operated in factory districts and were places where working men could get away from their wives over a cheap meal and a cup of coffee. By the 1950’s, diners were rapidly opening in the new suburbia where they catered to busy homemakers who craved a break from their meal preparation duties. The bowling alley and the trailer park experienced similar makeovers before they too were left behind in a changing consumer market. What I enjoyed most about this book was Hurley’s examples of just how many traditional American values were shaped by companies out to capture the massive amounts of money flowing through the middle-class in the ‘50s. Own your own home, buy your wife a new washing machine, join a bowling league: be an American.

The book is fairly easy reading (while never crossing into dense social science dissertation territory), and the subject matter is close enough to home that most readers should have no trouble getting through it. The pace drags at times when Hurley succumbs to the researcher’s temptation to insert every last oddball, offbeat, or even remotely interesting tidbit of information into his book (a vice I noticed because I fall victim to it quite often), but the overarching theme makes it worth getting through these sections.

I highly recommend this book if you can find a copy in your library, or decide to purchase one on Amazon for five dollars.

No comments: