A century ago many Americans condemned envy as a destructive emotion and a sin. Today few Americans expect criticism when they express envy, and some commentators maintain that the emotion drives the economy. This shift in attitude is Susan Matt’s central concern in “Keeping up with the Joneses: Envy in American Consumer Society, 1890-1930.”
A historian at Utah’s Weber State, Matt examines a key transition in the meaning of envy for the American middle class. She argues that the expansion of the consumer economy at the turn of the 20th century dramatically reshaped the social role of the emotion. The book traces how attitudes about envy changed as department stores, magazines, movies, and advertising became more prevalent, and the mass production of imitation luxury goods offered middle- and working-class individuals the opportunity to emulate upper-class life.
The expansion of the consumer economy fostered such institutions as department stores and advertising firms, but it also depended on a transformation in attitudes and emotional codes. Between 1890 and 1910 moralists sought to tame envy and emulation in order to uphold a moral economy and preserve social order. They criticized the liberal-capitalist preoccupation with personal striving and advancement and praised the virtue of contentment. After 1910 more secular commentators gained ground, repudiating the doctrine of contentment and rejecting the notion that there were divinely-ordained limits on what each class should possess. Envy was no longer a sin, but a valuable economic stimulant.
Bridging the history of emotions and the history of consumerism, Matt uncovers the connection between changing social norms and the growth of the consumer economy.
—University of Pennsylvania Press
Originally published on December 5, 2002