The growth of industrialization in the nineteenth century was stimulated by, and linked to, a rising population that created bigger markets. The establishment of modern capitalism grew in association with many of these developments. The innovations within technology and science were not driven only by “pure” experimentation but also by the desire to commercially develop the results. This culture of mass consumption was already advanced in Europe, Canada, and the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century and was initially enjoyed by the middle classes. The post-1945 increase in prosperity allowed more and more working people to purchase consumer durables.

Designers and manufacturers of the earlier twentieth-century domestic appliances were certainly aware of their potential markets insofar as they wanted their products to sell. Nevertheless, what market research that was carried out was largely unscientific and anecdotal. Initially they relied on the nineteenth-century premise that there were “natural” preexisting markets for a product. The role of promotion and advertising was to make sure that the potential customers were attracted to your particular product. Branding, the process of giving a product an identity, was beginning to develop and was accelerated during the Depression years of the 1930s. Economists and politicians looked to increased consumption as a way out of economic slumps. The late 1920s and 1930s saw the introduction of the marketing methods and psychological selling techniques familiar today. There was a change from “getting commodities to consumers” to “getting consumers to commodities.”

This was achieved by advertising techniques that, in the case of domestic appliances, were aimed specifically at women. Advertisements prompted purchase through a combination of guilt and desire. In the United Kingdom and the United States advertisements began to illustrate the housewife, not the servant, using the appliances and exploited rising standards of cleanliness and fears about “household germs.” The increasing use of labor-saving appliances may have saved time in some areas, but social and cultural pressures led to increasing standards and more time spent on other areas of housework. The desire to consume was stimulated by aspirational advertisements and planned obsolescence of products.

As Americans were encouraged to become patriotic consumers many of them felt that they needed to make informed choices about the increasing range of products. In 1926 Frederick Schlink, an engineer from White Plains, New York, organized a consumer club that distributed lists of products that were seen as good value and also those “one might well avoid, whether on account of inferior quality, unreasonable price, or of false and misleading advertising.” Schlink used these lists to produce a book, Your Money’s Worth, which led to the founding of Consumers’ Research and the Consumers’ Research Bulletin in 1928.

The Consumers Union was a splinter group from Consumers’ Research and was established in 1936, following acrimonious labor relations. Its founding group of professors, labor leaders, journalists, and engineers had a mission to “maintain decent living standards for ultimate consumers,” a rhetoric born of the Depression and the strike-breaking tactics of Schlink. It remains independent of both government and industry and depends on membership subscriptions. It first published its magazine Consumer Reports in the same year, establishing a tradition of testing and rating products and services. The initial circulation was around 4,000. Appliances were and continue to be tested for performance, energy efficiency, noise, convenience, and safety. Subscriptions had risen to 100,000 by 1946 and continued to grow, even during the McCarthy era when Consumer Reports was listed as a subversive magazine. The Consumers Union now has over 4.6 million subscribers, a children’s magazine (launched in 1980 as Penny Power, now known as Zillions) and a web site.

In the United Kingdom, the Good Housekeeping Magazine was established in 1922, largely aimed at the servantless middle-class woman. It founded the Good Housekeeping Institute in 1924 to test recipes and “submit all domestic appliances to exhaustive tests and bring those approved to the notice of all housewives,” which it continues to do today. The UK Consumers Association, based on the U.S. Consumers Union was founded in 1956 and first published Which?, a quarterly magazine of tests and reports in 1957. Which? became a monthly magazine in 1959. The UK Consumers Association currently has over a million members. The International Organization of Consumers Unions was established in 1960 and includes consumer associations from the United States, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Australia.

The marketing trends of the 1930s continued after 1945 and in-depth market research developed throughout corporate America in the 1950s. The British Market Research Association was established in 1957, the same year as Vance Packard’s critical study of advertising, The Hidden Persuaders, was published in the United States. The following quotation from Packard’s book illustrates how the advertising industry continued to use the twin themes of guilt and desire in the postwar boom years.

The cosmetic manufacturers are not selling lanolin, they are selling hope. . . . We no longer buy oranges, we buy vitality, we do not buy just an auto, we buy prestige.

If you tell the housewife that by using your washing machine, drier or dishwasher she can be free to play bridge, you’re dead! She is already feeling guilty about the fact that she is not working as hard as her mother. You are just rubbing her up the wrong way when you offer her more freedom. Instead you should emphasize that the appliances free her to have more time with her children and to be a better mother.

Advertisements of the period support this. A Hotpoint ad from Good Housekeeping of June 1951 carries the copy “Save 8 Hours Every Week with a Hotpoint All-Electric Kitchen—Gain Extra Time for All Your Extra Duties.” The time saved, the advertisement suggests, is “for your family as well as the many added duties you’re called on to shoulder these days.” Needless to say, the “you” in question was female.

These quotes reflect a set of cultural values that were already in the process of being challenged by the feminist, civil rights, and youth movements of the 1950s and 1960s. Unsafe at Any Speed, by the American lawyer and consumer advocate Ralph Nader, was published in 1965 and exposed the lack of safety in the General Motors Corvair automobile. Nader joined the Consumers Union in 1967. Congress passed twenty-five pieces of consumer legislation between 1966 and 1973.

The advertisers and manufacturers varied in their ability to respond to these social and cultural changes. The rise of the affluent teenager created a new market, one that clothing, publishing, and cosmetics companies responded to with vigor. The domestic appliance companies also had to change. By the late 1970s the impact of feminism had been such that the latter comment quoted in Packard was no longer tenable as an advertising concept, even though it was still a reality for many women. A mid-1960s ad for a Nevastik Teflon-coated frying pan from the UK Good Housekeeping Magazine had the copy, “Even a Man Can’t Go Wrong with Nevastik Pans.”

Market research had become more sophisticated, and markets were increasingly divided into socioeconomic groups that could become target markets. This analysis became more sophisticated during the 1980s and 1990s as markets were segmented by postal areas and lifestyles.

It has been assumed that manufacturers and consumers stood in opposition to each other, with the consumer organizations acting as monitors and protectors of the latter’s interests. Indeed, the efforts of consumer organizations have led to legislation to improve safety standards and consumers rights after a purchase has been made. But it would be wrong to believe that consumers have been passive recipients of what the producers have given them and that a docile and uncritical public leads to low standards of design. It has been argued that consumers’ desires and needs have been created by the producers and, with the aid of their advertisers, have been satisfied by those producers. This implies that consumption is a less authentic and satisfying activity than, for example, working. It also seems to imply that popular forms of culture and material culture are superficial. Given the sophisticated nature of advanced capitalist societies, this attitude can be contested: needs are often no longer natural, but cultural, informed by the many connections and discontinuities within those societies. Many modern objects do not simply—or, indeed, primarily—have “use or exchange” value but more importantly have “identity” value. This can clearly be seen in some of the more fashionable domestic appliances of the 1980s and 1990s. A Dyson vacuum cleaner or a Sony Walkman is a successful piece of technology, but each equally has become a purchase that reinforces its own brand identity and defines the identity of the consumer. The same can be said of older products such as the Aga cooker or the more self-knowing products from the Alessi stable.

The late twentieth century has produced a society where manufacturers, designers, and consumers are linked, knowingly or not. Companies continue to conduct market research but also are quicker to respond to and appropriate ideas that often bubble up from within popular or mass culture. This “circuit of culture” links the identity, production, consumption, regulation, and representation of a commodity within a circular relationship. This model has increasingly applied to domestic appliances over the last twenty years. Many domestic products that were once almost culturally invisible are now recognized as having a meaning. Consumers are now largely more sophisticated and are able to “read” the intended meanings of the manufacturers and to construct or appropriate their own, which will in turn influence the manufacturers and affect how that product is marketed or modified. Nevertheless, the findings of the 1960 UK Molony Report on consumer protection remain valid.

The business of making and selling is highly organized, often in large units, and calls to its aid at every step complex and highly expert skills. The business of buying is conducted by the smallest unit, the individual consumer, relying on the guidance afforded by experience, if he possesses it, and if not, on instinctive but not always rational thought processes.