The maturation of the consumer economy gave rise to concepts—a “living wage” and an “American standard of living”—that offered a new language for criticizing the inequalities of wealth and power in Progressive America. Father John A. Ryan’s influential book A Living Wage (1906) described a decent standard of living (one that enabled a person to participate in the consumer economy) as a “natural and absolute” right of citizenship. Ryan had grown up in Minnesota in a family sympathetic to Henry George, the Knights of Labor, and the Populists. His book sought to translate into American terms Pope Leo XIII’s powerful statement of 1894, Rerum Novarum, which criticized the divorce of economic life from ethical considerations, endorsed the right of workers to organize unions, and repudiated competitive individualism in favor of a more cooperative vision of the good society. Ryan’s insistence that economic relationships should be governed by moral standards had a powerful influence on social thought among American Catholics.
One of the numerous advertisements of the early twentieth century that invoked the Statue of Liberty to market consumer goods, in this case a brand of crackers.
The popularity of the idea of an American standard of living reflected, in part, the emergence of a mass-consumption society during the Progressive era. For the first time in the nation’s history, mass consumption came to occupy a central place in descriptions of American society and its future. In the Gilded Age, social theorists like Henry George had wondered why economic progress produced both increased wealth and abject misery. The Progressive generation was strongly influenced by the more optimistic writings of Simon W. Patten, a prophet of prosperity. Patten announced the end of the “reign of want” and the advent of a society of abundance and leisure. In the dawning “new civilization,” he proclaimed, Americans would enjoy economic equality in a world in which “every one is independent and free.”
Picturesque America, a 1909 cartoon by Harry Grant Dart, offers a satirical comment on how advertising was threatening to overwhelm public life. Dart also includes a political comment— “He would rather advertise than be president”—on Senator Robert LaFollette of Wisconsin, pictured at the top right delivering a speech.