An Acquired Taste

An Acquired Taste

The story of the American products, producers and salesman that took over Europe in the last century.


“Relations between nations have become so easy and close through modern technology and the communication it makes possible,” wrote Adolf Hitler in 1928, “that the European, often without being conscious of it, applies American conditions as a standard for his own.” At one level, this was a fitting and straightforward tribute to a major revolution that is still working itself out. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, products and tastes developed in America have increasingly influenced lifestyles in Europe, whereas in previous centuries it was generally the other way around. The crucial determinants of this volte-face are well-known. Between the Civil War and 1914, the United States went from being the world’s fourth most industrially productive power to being the most effective wealth-generating machine in human history, with a clear lead in petrochemicals and electrical goods, and in a wide range of consumer products, including sewing machines, typewriters, razors and, of course, automobiles. This takeoff into self-sustained economic dominance can partly be explained by America’s huge size, vast resources and the ingenuity of its rapidly burgeoning population. But external forces were also at work. After 1914 the old Western European states twice tore themselves and their economies apart in major wars, and Russia and Japan were also devastated by conflict. The result was America’s century, which is not yet over more than 100 years on.

Victoria de Grazia’s concern in her important, richly detailed, sometimes eccentric book is not primarily with the economics or the political or military history of American dominance of Europe but, rather, with consumer culture. Her subject is “the rise of a great imperium with the outlook of a great emporium”: how America’s products, producers and salesmen, with the full cognizance and backing of its politicians, came after 1900 to transform not just the purchasing habits and desires of Europeans but also their ideas about society and themselves.

A professor of Italian history at Columbia University, de Grazia explores these processes through a succession of “exemplary cases.” She looks at how the Rotary Club movement, which began in Chicago, was taken up and subtly modified by business enthusiasts in towns and cities across Europe. By the 1920s the familiar Golden Wheel had become a symbol of prosperous male sociability in more than 370 places in Britain, with still more offshoots scattered throughout its empire. She shows how American chain stores, notably those started in Pennsylvania by Frank Woolworth, gradually infiltrated European cities, challenging the established duopoly of department stores for the wealthy and corner shops for the nonmobile poor. She explains how the bold visuals of European poster art receded before very different American styles of advertising. She demonstrates that the fiction of an “American standard of living” had come to be widely accepted by the 1930s, and makes clear how slow European nations were in catching up with this perceived ideal. As late as 1954, a survey found that less than a quarter of French households had running hot water and that more than 90 percent had no refrigerator. Conversely, America’s industrial pre-eminence and association with abundance meant that many of its brand names came to acquire the status of generics. Twentieth-century Europeans yearned for a Singer, not just a sewing machine; and they went out and purchased a Ford, not just a car, although in 1920s Britain a color was specially devised for that market, “Imperial Grey.”

Here, as elsewhere in this book, Roland Barthes’s ironic observation about consumer societies seems entirely appropriate: namely, that–in de Grazia’s paraphrase– “trends…that are not at all natural are regarded as ‘it goes without saying,’ such that nobody recalls whence they came into being.” In reality, as she underscores, a great deal of calculation went into this (partial) Americanization of Europe.

De Grazia begins Irresistible Empire with President Woodrow Wilson’s injunction to a salesmen’s congress in Detroit in 1916. America’s “democracy of business,” he told them, had to take the lead in “the struggle for the peaceful conquest of the world.” As had been true of Britain’s “informal empire” in the nineteenth century, American economic hegemony after 1900 was powered by governments and established elites, not just by private enterprise and individual entrepreneurs. Cadres of clever young men from Yale, Princeton and Dartmouth beavered away in the Bureau of Foreign and Domestic Commerce, or as commercial consular attachés overseas. A mixture of protectionist policies and flexible interpretations of antitrust legislation enormously assisted Hollywood’s takeover of the cinematic world. And then there was the Marshall Plan, which was more than a remarkable act of transatlantic generosity. Europe’s battered economies were retooled after 1945, de Grazia insists, both to insure that the continent remained a prime market for US goods and also in such a way as to instill among its people “new ways of thinking about producing affluence.” The Second World War, and American dominance, also speeded up the fall of Europe’s colonial empires. These had previously functioned as “ghost acreage” for small countries like France and Britain, giving them vicarious access to the sort of abundant territory, resources and customers that the United States took for granted within its own boundaries. But now these plundered supplements went, and Europe was reduced to political and cultural as well as economic clientage.

Or was it? De Grazia’s book is full of interesting detail and shrewd insights, but her methodology and scope leave one dissatisfied. She supplies abundant examples of how various Europeans have come to adopt US products and practices since 1900, but the wider significance of this transatlantic mimicry remains unclear. The scale of American takeovers of European companies and the influence of the dollar over European stock markets and currencies are manifestly important, and more hard economic information on these developments would have been useful. But the significance of consumer choices and conventions is far less straightforward than the author tends to suggest. As the historian T.H. Breen has shown, between 1750 and 1775, the American colonies eagerly imported British consumer goods in previously unprecedented amounts–the very era in which they also plotted their independence. So what exactly does the sort of American advance through Europe that de Grazia explores reveal about broader politics and attitudes?

This question is further complicated by the fact that “America” and “Europe” were and are very far from being homogenous entities. Throughout this book, America is predictably treated as the essence of economic modernity. Yet by some criteria–and even well into the twentieth century–parts of America were less developed and less sophisticated than parts of Europe, and arguably remain so even now. Already by the 1850s, more Britons lived in towns than in the countryside; in the United States, by contrast, the number of urban dwellers didn’t exceed country folk until the 1920s. Indeed, while conceding America’s unrivaled economic clout, it is worth considering the degree to which the past century witnessed several paths toward economic change, and not just one. The historian Sheldon Garon’s current work on thrift, for instance, is showing how, since Samuel Smiles’s bestseller Self Help (1859), different European countries have taken the lead in urging the virtues of saving rather than consumption, and have influenced various non-European countries, classically Japan, to do the same. In a more ecologically challenged world, it may well be that saving, and not just consuming, turns out to be the way of the future.

And as the continued cult of saving in countries like France suggests, while Europe has savored portions of the American dream, it has simultaneously gone its own way in other respects. Most Europeans love American films and kitchen equipment; they respond far less enthusiastically to advertisements (in whatever graphic style) promoting American-style privatized healthcare. Furthermore, there is no single monolithic entity called “Europe.” De Grazia takes the view that “nationality is an invention in the best of circumstances.” This may be so, but the differences in experience between the European states remain significant. Many of de Grazia’s examples are drawn from Germany, which she regards as the epitome of old bourgeois “European” culture and the only European power that might have contested US reach. But by focusing so much on a country that was defeated and invaded in two world wars, she inevitably offers a somewhat distorted view of relations between America and the rest of Europe. Thus, while her account of the devastation of Leipzig, formerly the site of a major international trade fair for more than seven centuries, is a wonderful set piece, it is also too extreme to serve as a general model.

Still, in some respects, this reminder of war’s destruction is salutary. For much of this book, war is the proverbial elephant in the room, omnipresent but never thoroughly acknowledged or investigated. She touches on the cold war in the context of the Marshall Plan; but–as with the other wars that transformed Europe–it is only mentioned in passing (unlike, say, the rise of Rotary Clubs). This is very much a work informed by current notions of cultural criticism and relatively unconcerned with the sort of questions of political, military and hard economic power that once preoccupied historians.

As a result, one is left wondering how much of Europe’s economic emulation of the United States after 1900 was due to the latter’s size, economies of scale and innovation, and how much to the former’s lethally competitive state system and multiplicity of nations. “In the United States, per capita income…nearly doubled again from 1909 to 1942,” de Grazia remarks at one point, but “France showed no visible gains at all in per capita income from 1913 to 1947. Nor did Germany or Italy.” Given what occurred between these dates in these last three countries, this scarcely seems surprising.

By the same token, one wonders how far Western Europe’s economic resurgence in the past couple of decades–something de Grazia touches on in her conclusion–is due not simply to the adoption of US business techniques and consumer tastes but to the US military bases that are dotted across the continent, the hard face of America’s soft power. By pouring so much money and so many men into Western Europe’s defense, the United States has buttressed its own hegemony. It has also allowed European governments to skimp on armaments and spend far more than they otherwise could on economic development at home. This would seem a suitably ironic conclusion to a deeply ironic book. Much has been published on American empire and on the transatlantic divide in recent years. The great virtue of this work is that it takes a provocative and unusual line. De Grazia illustrates how empires can seduce and not simply coerce. Unknowingly, perhaps, she also shows how an empire that sets out to dominate and exploit may in some respects also end up being exploited.

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