M.J. Rymsza-Pawlowska: Consuming History

Rymsza-Pawlowska, History Comes AliveToday, we welcome a guest post from M.J. Rymsza-Pawlowska, author of History Comes Alive:  Public History and Popular Culture in the 1970s, on throwback jerseys and limited edition cereal boxes.

During the 1976 Bicentennial celebration, millions of Americans engaged with the past in brand-new ways. They became absorbed by historical miniseries like Roots, visited museums with new exhibits that immersed them in the past, propelled works of historical fiction onto the bestseller list, and participated in living history events across the nation. While many of these activities were sparked by the Bicentennial, M. J. Rymsza-Pawlowska shows that, in fact, they were symptomatic of a fundamental shift in Americans’ relationship to history during the 1960s and 1970s.

History Comes Alive is available now in both print and e-book editions.


Consuming History

In the last several years, I’ve been struck by the relatively new phenomenon of what can be loosely described as “historicized consumer experiences.” Whether this means watching your favorite team play during a “throwback night,” buying commercial products with limited edition retro packaging, or riding a vintage subway train, it is clear that consumer culture is both reflecting and perhaps even helping to extend a cultural desire to engage with historical goods and experiences.

What drives this popularity? What does it mean that our most potent and vivid memories are now at least partially articulated through engagement with commercial goods and environments? Does it have something to do with the new availability of images of consumer goods of the past (for example the countless Buzzfeed lists)? Or is it another extension of capitalist culture, something that a thinker like Naomi Klein would view as the final bastion of the domination of brands (not only our present and our future, but also our past?)

As a matter of fact, throwback branding represents a significant shift in the history of consumption. Throughout the twentieth century, consumer goods and advertising were connected with modernity; with the improved living that commercial conveniences could bring you, and with fitting in the fast-paced modern world (see, for example, Roland Marchand’s brilliant book about this). And so, advertising, throughout the first half of the century was mostly focused on the present and future.

In the 1960s–as Thomas Frank has argued, this changed a bit—consumer goods and the way that they were packaged and advertised were not about helping you fit in (keep up with the Jonses, for example, or as Andy Warhol once quipped, having the access to the same Coca Cola as Elizabeth Taylor and the President), but about helping you stand out—be an individual. In the same way, that earlier advertising and consumption could be read as manifestations of larger cultural values of modernity and consensus, so thus can this turn—the personalized, the expressive is part and parcel of the shifts that came about in the 1960s.

The first time that the historical really found expression in advertising was in the late 1960s and early1970s, a time at which, many have argued, American culture stopped looking forward and started looking backwards. For the first time, we begin to see advertisements that referred to the heritage of the brand itself, or made connections between the past and the present. As ever, this reflected a larger cultural fascination with the past that came along during this period.

So what of now? If we can always read aspects of consumer culture as a kind of symptom of the “structure of feeling” of the present, what does this new wave of throwback products tell us?

I read them as a kind of logical extension of this turn: on one hand, we’re more interested in personal, individual pasts, and on the other, we are used to being surrounded by popular and consumer culture that supports this. Think of, for example, the popularity of programs like Mad Men, and even more interestingly, of the consumer tie-ins that came with the show. Part and parcel of being a fan of Mad Men was pretending to live in that extended world—somewhat a departure from other forms of television fandom. So, seeing a team playing wearing the jerseys you remember from your youth or buying a cereal with 1970s packaging, on one hand, evokes a personal past, and on the other, might help you—consciously or not—connect with and understand the experiences of individuals living in the past. It is difficult to live outside of consumer culture—commercial goods and experiences define every aspect of our lives; and so it makes sense that they also help us think about real and imagined pasts.


M. J. Rymsza-Pawlowska is assistant professor of history and associate director of the graduate program in public history at American University.  For more information, visit her website.