Distillations magazine

Unexpected Stories from Science’s Past
September 23, 2015 Arts & Culture

It’s a Mad, Mad World: Dow and the Age of Consumption

In the years following World War II, chemical companies sold not only products but a lifestyle.

magazine ad showing a family in a kitchen

After emerging from nearly two decades of economic depression and war, Americans in the late 1940s yearned for a “return to normalcy,” much as they had a generation earlier in the wake of World War I. Yet, after decades of upheaval that muddled gender, class, and racial lines, just what constituted “normalcy” was difficult to define. As men and women resumed civilian life, the legacy of their wartime experiences, particularly women’s work outside the home, raised the possibility of enduring change and led many to believe that American society would never return to its prewar state.

As Americans struggled to make sense of the postwar world, chemical companies like Dow, DuPont, and Hercules Powder also found themselves at a crossroads. The pressure to maintain relevance and market share as wartime production gave way to a peacetime economy spurred Dow and others to develop a wealth of products fit for mass consumption. From metals and plastics to varnishes and pesticides, these companies quickly diversified their product lines and developed marketing campaigns that placed their new consumer durables at the center of modern life.

Contemporary advertisements from the 1940s and 1950s, such as the following selections from CHF’s Dow Chemical Historical Collection, illustrate the American chemical industry’s efforts to refashion itself for a new era. These advertisements, although drawn solely from the records of one company, exemplify an industrywide approach that ultimately provided Americans with a visual embodiment of the normalcy they so craved: a comfortable suburban lifestyle defined by ease, convenience, and plenty.

Home and Hearth

Dowmetal ad
The efforts of Dow and other companies to diversify their business began in earnest after World War I with advertisements that emphasized peacetime uses for industrial products. One such material was Dowmetal, a lightweight alloy initially used in the aviation industry and later applied to machine parts and household appliances, such as the vacuum featured in this 1937 advertisement. By placing Dowmetal at the center of home and hearth, Dow emphasized the versatility of its brand and the company’s “ever broadening capacity” for meeting both industrial and domestic needs. While World War II shifted production away from consumer goods, Dow’s focus on the home front resumed and increased after the war.

A Fashionable Future

Molding a Bright Future in Plastics
In the late 1940s measures designed to increase consumer spending, such as the G.I. Bill of Rights, aligned with the chemical industry’s renewed focus on mass consumption. By easing access to capital and credit the G.I. Bill helped fuel not only a suburban housing boom but also demand for products associated with the suburban way of life. To capitalize on this thriving market, Dow and other companies emphasized their part in producing these goods and presented buyers with the American chemical industry’s vision for a bright future epitomized by serviceable yet fashionable materials, such as Dow Styron.

Mass Materialism

Mass Materialism
As Americans increasingly established small, self-contained households in the suburbs, the nuclear family emerged as the leader in consumer spending and became a popular focus of mass marketing. This pair of advertisements from 1946 captures that dynamic, showing father and son and mother and daughter each performing household chores made easier with magnesium. Dow’s promise of “better products, for a better life” emphasized the value of materials that made everyday tasks less time consuming and contributed to an ethos of mass consumption as the pinnacle of modernization.

A Way of Life

A place for everything with everything in its place!
In 1954 historian David Potter characterized the 20th century as the era when advertising “joined the charmed circle of institutions which fix the values and standards of society.” As consumer goods took center stage, Dow and its competitors enticed buyers with a way of life rather than with the products themselves. Known as “lifestyle branding,” this approach inspired advertisements celebrating comfortable, modern homes equipped with a great number of desirable products. Such branding, with its emphasis on vitality and functionality, became a touchstone for the middle-class lifestyle, aspired to by housewives in particular.

You Are What You Buy

Big family, no maid, tight budget!
The advent of lifestyle branding fueled new class identities based on what people bought rather than what they earned, as advertisers increasingly associated products with a particular way of life. This 1957 advertisement for Saran Wrap is a prime example of the trend, highlighting how Saran allows women with tight budgets to manage nonetheless “a happy home with a beautiful combination of joy and efficiency.” With Saran and other products, Dow implied that a middle-class lifestyle of ease and convenience was accessible to a broad class of consumers—and reinforced the notion that what money was spent for mattered more than how much was earned.

A Family of Products

The Chemistry of the Home
Throughout the postwar era the family was seen not only as the nucleus of consumption but also as a collection of unique individuals with specific desires and tastes. Marketers paid increasing attention to children as once and future consumers. Advertisements like this pair, which invoke images of home and hearth, aimed to lay the groundwork for a lifetime of consumption in the hopes that the child who played with a toy house today would buy and furnish a real one tomorrow. In this way Dow and other companies played on consumers’ desires for stability and constancy, ultimately cultivating a lifestyle brand designed to span generations.

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