As they opened their September 1929 issue, readers of the Ladies' Home Journal were treated
to an account of the care and feeding of young Livingston Ludlow Biddle III, scion of the
wealthy Biddles of Philadelphia, whose family coat-of-arms graced the upper right-hand corner
of the page. Young Master Biddle, mounted on his tricycle, fixed a serious, slightly pouting
gaze upon the reader, while the Cream of Wheat Corporation rapturously explained his constant
care, his carefully regulated play and exercise, and the diet prescribed for him by "famous
specialists." As master of Sunny Ridge Farm, the Biddles's winter estate in North Carolina,
young Livingston III had "enjoyed every luxury of social position and wealth, since the day he
was born." Yet, by the grace of a modern providence, it happened that Livingston's health was
protected by a "simple plan every mother can use." Mrs. Biddle gave Cream of Wheat to the
young heir for both breakfast and supper. The world's foremost child experts knew of no better
diet; great wealth could procure no finer nourishment. As Cream of Wheat's advertising agency
summarized the central point of the campaign that young Master Biddle initiated, "every mother
can give her youngsters the fun and benefits of a Cream of Wheat breakfast just as do the
parents of these boys and girls who have the best that wealth can command.''l
While enjoying this glimpse of childrearing among the socially distinguished, Ladies' Home
Journal readers found themselves schooled in one of the most pervasive of all advertising
tableaux of the 1920s--the parable of the Democracy of Goods. According to this parable, the
wonders of modern mass production and distribution enabled every person to enjoy the
society's most significant pleasure, convenience, or benefit. The definition of the particular
benefit fluctuated, of course, with each client who employed the parable. But the cumulative
effect of the constant reminders that "any woman can" and "every home can afford" was to
publicize an image of American society in which concentrated wealth at the top of a hierarchy
of social classes restricted no family's opportunity to acquire the most significant products.2 By
implicitly defining "democracy" in terms of equal access to consumer products, and then by
depicting the everyday functioning of that "democracy" with regard to one product at a time,
these tableaux offered Americans an inviting vision of their society as one of incontestable
In its most common advertising formula, the concept of the Democracy of Goods asserted
that although the rich enjoyed a great variety of luxuries, the acquisition of their one most
significant luxury would provide anyone with the ultimate in satisfaction. For instance, a Chase
and Sanborn's Coffee tableau, with an elegant butler serving a family in a dining room with a
sixteen-foot ceiling, reminded Chicago families that although "compared with the riches of the
more fortunate, your way of life may seem modest indeed," yet no one--"king, prince, states-
man, or capitalist"--could enjoy better coffee.3 The Association of Soap and Glycerine
Producers proclaimed that the charm of cleanliness was as readily available to the poor as to
the rich, and Ivory Soap reassuringly related how one young housewife, who couldn't afford
a $780-a-year maid like her neighbor, still maintained a significant equality in "nice hands" by
using Ivory.4 The C. F. Church Manufacturing Company epitomized this version of the parable
of the Democracy of Goods in an ad entitled "a bathroom luxury everyone can afford": "If you
lived in one of those palatial apartments on Park Avenue, in New York City, where you have
to pay $2,00~ to $7,500 a year rent, you still couldn't have a better toilet seat in your bathroom
than they have--the Church white Toilet Seat which you can afford to have right now'
Thus, according to the parable, no discrepancies in wealth could prevent the humblest
citizens, provided they chose their purchases wisely, from retiring to a setting in which they
could contemplate their essential equality, through possession of an identical product, with
the nation's millionaires. In 1929, Howard Dickinson, a contributor to Printers' Ink, concisely
expressed the social psychology behind Democracy of Goods advertisements: " 'With whom
do the mass of people think they want to foregather?' asks the psychologist in advertising.
'Why, with the wealthy and socially distinguished, of course!' If we can't get an invitation to
tea for our millions of customers, we can at least present the fellowship of using the same
brand of merchandise. And it works."6
Some advertisers found it more efficacious to employ the parable's negative counterpart--the
Democracy of Afflictions. Listerine contributed significantly to this approach. Most of the
unsuspecting victims of halitosis in the mid-1920s possessed wealth and high social position.
Other discoverers of new social afflictions soon took up the battle cry of"nobody's immune."
"Body Odor plays no favorites," warned Lifebuoy Soap. No one, "banker, baker, or society
woman," could count himself safe from B.0.7 The boss, as well as the employees, might find
himself "caught off guard" with dirty hands or cuffs, the Soap and Glycerine Producers assured
readers of True Story. By 1930, Absorbine Jr. was beginning to document the democratic
advance of"athlete's foot" into those rarefied social circles occupied by the "daintiest member
of the junior set" and the noted yachtsman who owned "a railroad or two
The central purpose of the Democracy of Afflictions tableaux was to remind careless or
unsuspecting readers of the universality of the threat from which the product offered protection
or relief Only occasionally did such ads address those of the upper classes who might think that
their status and "fastidious" attention to personal care made them immune from common social
offenses. In 1929 Listerine provided newspaper readers an opportunity to listen while a doctor,
whose clientele included those of"the better class," confided "what I know about nice
women."9 One might have thought that Listerine was warning complacent, upper-class women
that they were not immune from halitosis-- except that the ad appeared in the Los Angeles
Times, not Harper's Bazaar. Similarly, Forhan's toothpaste and the Soap Producers did not
place their Democracy of Afflictions ads in True Story in order to reach the social elite. Rather,
these tableaux provided enticing glimpses into the lives of the wealthy while suggesting an
equalizing "fellowship" in shared susceptibilities to debilitating ailments. The parable of the
Democracy of Goods always remained implicit in its negative counterpart. It assured readers
that they could be as healthy, as charming, as free from social offense as the very "nicest"
(richest) people, simply by using a product that anyone could afford.
Another variation of the parable of the Democracy of Goods employed historical comparisons
to celebrate even the humblest of contemporary Americans as "kings in cottages." "No monarch
in all history ever saw the day he could have half as much as you," proclaimed Paramount
Pictures. Even reigning sovereigns of the present, Paramount continued, would envy readers
for their "luxurious freedom and opportunity" to enter a magnificent, bedazzling "palace for a
night," be greeted with fawning bows by liveried attendants, and enjoy modern entertainment
or a modest price (Fig. 2). The Fisher Body Corporation coined the phrase "For Kings in
Cottages" to compliment ordinary Americans on their freedom from "hardships" that even kings
had been forced to endure in the past. Because of a lack of technology, monarchs who traveled
in the past had "never enjoyed luxury which even approached that of the present-day
automobile." The "American idea," epitomized by the Fisher Body Corporation, was destined
to carry the comforts and luxuries conducive to human happiness into "the life of even the hum-
Even so, many copywriters perceived that equality with past monarchs might not rival the
vision of joining the fabled "Four Hundred" that Ward McAllister had marked as America's
social elite at the end of the nineteenth century. Americans, in an ostensibly conformist age,
hungered for exclusivity. So advertising tableaux celebrated their ascension into this fabled and
exclusive American elite. Through mass production and the resulting lower prices, the tableaux
explained, the readers could purchase goods formerly available only to the rich--and thus gain
admission to a "400" that now numbered millions.
The Simmons Company confessed that inner-coil mattresses had once been a luxury
possessed only by the very wealthy. But now (in 1930) they were "priced so everybody in the
United States can have one at $19.95." Woodbury's Soap advised the "working girl" readers
of True Story of their arrival within a select circle. "Yesterday," it recalled, "the skin you love
to touch" had been "the privilege of one woman in 65," but today it had become "the beauty
right of every woman.'' ll If the Democracy of Goods could establish an equal consumer right
to beauty, then perhaps even the ancient religious promise of equality in death might be
realized, at least to the extent that material provisions sufficed. In 1927 the Clark Grave Vault
Company defined this unique promise: "Not so many years ago the use of a burial vault was
confined largely to the rich.... Now every family, regardless of its means, may provide absolute
protection against the elements of the ground.''l2 If it seemed that the residents of Clark vaults
had gained equality with the "400" too belatedly for maximum satisfaction, still their loving
survivors could now share the same sense of comfort in the "absolute protection" of former
loved ones as did the most privileged elites.
The social message of the parable of the Democracy of Goods was clear. Antagonistic envy
of the rich was unseemly; programs to redistribute wealth were unnecessary. The best things
in life were already available to all at reasonable prices. But the prevalence of the parable of
the Democracy of Goods in advertising tableaux did not necessarily betray a concerted
conspiracy on the part of advertisers and their agencies to impose a social ideology on the
American people. Most advertisers employed the parable of the Democracy of Goods primarily
as a narrow, nonideological merchandising tactic. Listerine and Lifebuoy found the parable an
obvious, attention-getting strategy for persuading readers that if even society women and
bankers were unconsciously guilty of social offenses, the readers themselves were not immune.
Simmons Mattresses, Chevrolet, and Clark Grave Vaults chose the parable in an at tempt to
broaden their market to include lower-income groups. The parable emphasized the affordability
of the product to families of modest income while attempting to maintain a "class" image of the
product as the preferred choice of their social betters.
Most advertisers found the social message of the parable of the Democracy of Goods a
congenial and unexceptionable truism. They also saw it, like the other parables prevalent in
advertising tableaux, as an epigrammatic statement of a conventional popular belief. Real
income was rising for nearly all Americans during the 1920s, except for some farmers and farm
workers and those in a few depressed industries. Citizens seemed eager for confirmation that
they were now driving the same make of car as the wealthy elites and serving their children the
same cereal enjoyed by Livingston Ludlow Biddle III. Advertisers did not have to impose the
parable of the Democracy of Goods on a contrary-minded public. Theirs was the easier task
of subtly substituting this vision of equality, which was certainly satisfying as a vision, for
broader and more traditional hopes and expectations of an equality of self-sufficiency, personal
independence, and social interaction.
Perhaps the most attractive aspect of this parable to advertisers was that it preached the
coming of an equalizing democracy without sacrificing those fascinating contrasts of social
condition that had long been the touchstone of high drama. Henry James, writing of Hawthorne,
had once lamented the obstacles facing the novelist who wrote of an America that lacked such
tradition-laden institutions as a sovereign, a court, an aristocracy, or even a class of country
gentlemen. Without castles, manors, and thatched cottages, America lacked those stark
juxtapositions of pomp and squalor, nobility and peasantry, wealth and poverty that made
Europe so rich a source of social drama.'3 But many versions of the parable of the Democracy
of Goods sought to offset that disadvantage without gaining James's desired "complexity of
manners." They dressed up America's wealthy as dazzling aristocrats, and then reassured
readers that they could easily enjoy an essential equality with such elites in the things that really
mattered. The rich were decorative and fun to look at, but in their access to those products most
important to comfort and satisfaction, as the magazine Delineator put it, "The Four Hundred"
had become "the four million.''l4 Advertisers left readers to assume that they could gain the
same satisfactions of exclusiveness from belonging to the four million as had once been savored
by the four hundred.
While parables of consumer democracy frequently used terms like 'everyone," "anyone," "any
home," or "every woman," these categories were mainly intended to comprise the audience
of"consumer-citizens envisioned by the advertising trade, or families economically among the
nation's top 50 percent. Thus the Delineator had more in mind than mere alliteration when it
chose to contrast the old "400" with the new "four million" rather than a new "one hundred and
twenty million." The standard antitheses of the Democracy of Goods parables were "mansion"
and "bungalow." Advertising writers rarely took notice of the many millions of Americans
whose standard of living fell below that of the cozy bungalow of the advertising tableaux.
These millions might overhear the promises of consumer democracy in the newspapers or
magazines, but advertising leaders felt no obligation to show how their promises to "everyone"
would bring equality to those who lived in the nation's apartment houses and farmhouses
without plumbing, let alone those who lived in rural shacks and urban tenements.
In the broadest sense, the parable of the Democracy of Goods may be interpreted as a
secularized version of the traditional Christian assurances of ultimate human equality. "Body
Odor plays no favorites" might be considered a secular translation of the idea that God "sends
rain on the just and on the unjust" (Matt. 5:45). Promises of the essential equality of those
possessing the advertised brand recalled the promise of equality of access to God's mercy. Thus
the parable recapitulated a familiar, cherished expectation. Far more significant, however, was
the parable's insinuation of the capacity of a Democracy of Goods to redeem the already
secularized American promise of political equality.
Incessantly and enticingly repeated, advertising visions of fellowship 15 in a Democracy of
Goods encouraged Americans to look to similarities in consumption styles rather than to
political power or control of wealth for evidence of significant equality. Francesco Nicosia and
Robert Mayer describe the result as a "deflection of the success ethic from the sphere of
production to that of consumption." Freedom of choice came to be perceived as a freedom more
significantly exercised in the marketplace than in the political arena. This process gained
momentum in the 1920s; it gained maturity during the 1950s as a sense of class differences was
nearly eclipsed by a fascination with the equalities suggested by shared consumption patterns
and "freely chosen" consumer ''lifestyles.''l5
The Parable of the Democracy of Goods
1. Ladies' Home Journal, Sept. 1929, second cover; JWTNews Letter, Oct. 1, 1929,
p. 1, J. Walter Thompson Company (JWT) Archives, New York City.
- 2. Saturday Evening Post, Apr. 3, 1926, pp. 182-83; Nov. 6, 1926, p. 104; Apr.
16, 1927, p. 199; Scrapbook 54 (Brunswick-Balke-Collender), Lord and Thomas
Archives, at Foote, Cone and Belding Communications, Inc., Chicago.
- 3. Chicago Tribune, Nov. 21, 1926, picture section, p. 2.
- 4. Los Angeles Times, July 14, 1929, part VI, p. 3; Tide, July 1928, p. 10; Photoplay
Magazine, Mar. 1930, p. 1.
- 5. American Magazine, Mar. 1926, p. 112.
- 6. Printers' Ink, Oct.10,1929, p.138.
- 7. Tide, Sept. 15, 1927, p. 5; American Magazine, Aug. 1929, p.93; The Story, June 1929,
p.133; Chicago Tribune, Jan. 11,1928, p. 16;Jan. 18,1928, p.15;Jan. 28,1928, p.7;
Photoplay Magazine, Feb.1929, p. l l l .
- 8. The Story, May 1928, p.83; June 1929, p.133; American Magazine, Feb.1930, p. 110;
Saturday Evening Post, Aug. 23,1930, p.124.
- 9. Los Angeles Times, July 6, 1929, p.3.
- 10. Saturday Evening Post, May 8, 1926, p. 59; American Magazine, May 1932, pp. 76-77. See
also Saturday Evening Post, July 18, 1931, pp. 36-37; Aug. 1, 1931, pp. 30-31; Better
Homes and Gardens, Mar. 1930, p. 77.
- 11. Saturday Evening Post, Nov. 10, 1928, p. 90; True Story, Aug. 1934, p. 57. See also
Chicago Tribune, Oct. 8, 1930, p. 17; American Magazine, Aug. 1930, p. 77; Woman's
Home Companion, May 1927, p. 96.
- 12. American Magazine, Feb. 1927, p. 130
- 13. Henry James, Hawthorne, rev. ed. (New York, 1967 [c. 1879]), p. 55.
- 14. Printers' Ink, Nov. 24, 1927, p. 52.
- 15. Francesco M. Nicosia and Robert N. Mayer, "Toward a
Sociology of Consumption," The Journal of Consumer Research 3(1976): 73; Roland
Marchand, "Visions of Classlessness; Quests for Dominion: American Popular Culture,
1945-1960," in Reshaping America: Society and Institutions, 1945-1960, ed. Robert H.
Bremner and Gary W. Reichard (Columbus, Ohio, 1982), pp. 165-70.