Student Research Projects

Throwaway Society: Disposable Culture and Consumerism in America

Student Laura Nebuchadnezzar, '16
Faculty Mentor(s)
Department History
Course History 360: Junior Research Seminar

Abstract

Many products are crafted with a short lifespan, often sold and bought with the explicit knowledge that they are disposable. This “throwaway” culture is neither sustainable, nor satisfying to the customer interested in owning durable goods. This research project seeks the root of disposable culture, historically analyzing its development. It focuses on the decades directly after World War II and its scope includes both goods that are designed for one-time use, and cheap products that we buy expecting not to last. When a 1920’s society with an aversion to thrift was forced to restrict their consumption during the Great Depression and the Second World War, political influences assured the public that a lavish lifestyle would soon follow. Mass-consumption became synonymous with democracy as part of a plan to boost the economy through consumer purchasing power. The invention of cheap materials such as Styrofoam and certain plastics during World War II, and the shift to manufacturing these materials for the domestic market rather than for the military, made convenient, disposable products available to the public. These factors interacted with producers’ use of social psychology and planned obsolescence to shorten their consumers’ expectations for product lifespans, collectively resulting in the widespread use of disposable products, the acceptable deterioration of product quality, and largely increased consumption of non-durable goods.