Think and Feel Like A Child: Subjectivity and Pleasure as Authority in Early Children’s Consumer Culture

Daniel Cook, Rutgers University

Drawing on public discussion in national periodicals as well as discourses proffered the trade press, this paper outlines some ways in which “child” and “consumer” came to be put into cultural conversation with one another in the 1900-1930 period in the US context. During this time, a convergence is evident among children’s rights, consumer psychology and retail practice. Mirroring a general shift in parental governance away from punishment and toward reward, both the language of children’s rights and of the psychology of advertising at the turn of the 20th century embraced a demeanor of ingratiation. In this mounting worldview, gaining the favor of the child, the consumer or, as I argue, the child-consumer, required a tactical pursuit of the agreeable. Retail sales personnel were encouraged to study and know the child customers just mothers of an earlier era were encouraged to so. The impetus to ingratiate the child or otherwise defer to children’s interests and pleasures positioned the young ones as a kind of authority over these interests and pleasures, leaving parents ever in danger of sliding into indulgence and positioning market actors as key figures in child guidance.

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 Presented in Session 159. Contestations over Child Rights and Welfare