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Economy & Business

How Buying Choices Define American Middle Class Living

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

What sets apart people in the middle class - income, homeownership, education? One big indicator of who's in the middle has to do with the stuff we buy. Middle-class people tend to purchase certain things, and those things have changed over time. This is our series The New Middle.

PETER LIEBHOLD: I'm Peter Liebhold, curator here at the National Museum of American History and one of the co-curators of the American Enterprise Exhibition.

SHAPIRO: The Smithsonian American History Museum holds artifacts stretching back to the country's founding - not only Old Glory - also mundane stuff that middle-class people have bought over the centuries. Curator Peter Liebhold began by showing me some of the markers of middle class status from 200 years ago.

LIEBHOLD: Bright ribbons, marbles, fancy goods like shoes and gloves. But part of this was the whole notion of creating gentility. Middle class is very much about consumption. Middle class usually has some variation of, if you're not scraping by, you actually can consume goods.

SHAPIRO: So if the story of middle-income people in the 1820s was being able to afford ribbons and marbles and other items that were leisure but not luxury, once we move forward in time, what are the next objects that come to define the middle class?

LIEBHOLD: Right in front of us we have the birth of the telephone. In 1876 when it's first demonstrated, it was thought of as a business device. Only rich people could afford to have a phone. It was a really complicated, big thing. You had to have a special room for it. These objects start to become inexpensive, and everyday folks can have them.

SHAPIRO: That seems to be one of the big themes of what we look at when we talk about the stuff that signifies being in the middle class changing over time. Is it things that begin as luxury items that only the very wealthy can have become everyday household necessities?

LIEBHOLD: Absolutely, and we tend to forget that there was a life without them.

SHAPIRO: So in the early 1900s, a phone, electricity might be signifiers of being in the middle class. And then how does that change as we move forward in time?

LIEBHOLD: One of the big things about middle class is taking on debt, so that what really starts to change things tremendously is that we move into a debt economy where you have buy now; pay later installment plans.

So a great example is the birth of modern shopping. You never think of shopping as something that's invented, but in fact shopping used to be kind of a chore. Palaces of consumption, these beautiful department stores - here we have a model of Marshall Field's - starts to take off and shopping becomes an experience. You go down. You look at the windows. You might have lunch. You meet your friends. You look at all these different goods. You don't haggle over price.

SHAPIRO: What things do they buy that they might not have 30 years earlier?

LIEBHOLD: Appliances are really a big item that - you can buy a toaster. So we have an early toaster. And there's a really nifty little piece in here. It looks small. You see that little brass...

SHAPIRO: Teeny, almost looks like a flattened coin. What does it say?

LIEBHOLD: Right. That's actually a charge card. So what department stores are now starting to do is, you can charge things. So the managing of debt is always important.

SHAPIRO: What happens as we move forward through the '20s, '30s, '40s?

LIEBHOLD: So now we're moving into our consumer period. And really in this period, 1940s to 1970s, people have figured out how to make stuff cheaply. And it's all about selling stuff. And part of citizenship is consumption.

In the United States, to be a good citizen, you buy stuff. It employs other people. Things are advertised on TV. You really - amping up this notion of having a lot of goods, starting to think about different demographics - that it's not just men that buy goods but it's men and women. It's people of color. It's kids. And so we have a whole case of teen market.

SHAPIRO: In this glass case along with all the other things teenagers might buy - records and so on - there's a sort of pink princess phone. And I would imagine that the family that has enough money to buy their teenage girl her own phone is different from the working-class family. Is that a middle-class signifier for this period?

LIEBHOLD: There are a lot of people that are earning decent money at this time, and they can consume a lot of stuff. And being able to have a pink phone for your daughter - obviously she must have her own room, so that in itself is something. But it certainly is about material wealth and exposing that.

SHAPIRO: I see that in this glass case you have a bunch of old credit cards, which is definitely a step up from the little chips that we were looking at from the early 1900s. I imagine these credit cards gave people more spending power which let them buy more bigger things that might've been out of reach for the middle class 30 years before.

LIEBHOLD: Yeah, exactly. Consumer debt takes off. This is largely unsecured debt, and people borrow money to buy appliances. They borrow money to buy furniture. By doing this, they're assuming that they're going to be able to pay it off, that they'll have income and that they'll probably be paid more in the future, which made taking that debt on actually advantageous.

Our whole notion of debt really changed. In the '70s, people really turned to - as wages stagnated, people turned to debt to maintain a style of living.

SHAPIRO: And that created problems. Smithsonian curator Peter Liebhold told me debt became more of a burden to people in the middle class. And the notion of stuff became less of a marker because in exchange for all that debt, Americans bought more stuff than ever before. For 200 years, things signified status, whether a telephone or a toaster. Now Liebhold says everyone has more stuff than they could ever use.

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SHAPIRO: We want to know what things mark your place in the middle class. Record a voice memo on your phone with your name and where you're from. Email it to us at nprcrowdsource@npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.