The best books to explore American consumer culture

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m an author and former journalist with a fascination with design and consumer culture. I’ve been writing about design and pop culture since completing an assignment on Jack Telnack’s Ford Taurus and Thunderbird designs for a national news magazine. My interest deepened when I moved to daily journalism and wrote about Raymond Loewy’s design for the S-1 Pennsylvania Railroad locomotive. When the newspaper industry began cratering in a blizzard of mergers, buyouts, and bad management, I spent 25 years working in media relations at Penn State and Juniata College. I looked for an involving side project as a respite from writing professorial profiles and found safe haven with the life and legacy of Raymond Loewy. 


I wrote...

Streamliner: Raymond Loewy and Image-making in the Age of American Industrial Design

By John Wall,

Book cover of Streamliner: Raymond Loewy and Image-making in the Age of American Industrial Design

What is my book about?

Raymond Loewy revolutionized twentieth-century American industrial design. Combining salesmanship and media savvy, he founded an international design firm and created logos for major corporations such as Greyhound, Exxon, and International Harvester. His designs for Studebaker automobiles, Sears Coldspot refrigerators, Lucky Strike, and Pennsylvania Railroad locomotives are iconic. Beyond the timeless designs, Loewy carefully constructed a witty, outspoken, and memorable “designer persona” by cultivating journalists and tastemakers. Thus he becomes the face of both a new profession and a consumer-driven visionary of the American dream.

In Streamliner, I sought to understand how Loewy built a business while transforming himself into a national brand a half-century before “branding” became relevant. I also wanted to show Loewy’s considerable impact on the consumer culture of the latter half of the 20th century.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Populuxe

John Wall Why did I love this book?

Populuxe was the first book I read that connected art, consumerism, and industrial design in clear, pointed, and witty language. Hine, an author as well as a critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer, covers what he calls “America’s spending spree” decade (1954-1964), by showing the connections revealed by shoppers’ choice of cars, homes, furniture, and appliances. Populuxe resonated for me because Hine wielded the tools of the critic and the historian and explained the art and design influences to be found in dishwashers, tailfins, and Naughyde. My curiosity about why people buy certain products was piqued by Hine’s analysis and showed readers that not all essays on art and design need to drip with impenetrable prose or obtuse insights.

By Thomas Hine,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Populuxe as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The decade from 1954 to 1964 was one of America's great shopping sprees. Never before were there so many people able to acquire so many things, and never before was there such a choice. Thomas Hine calls it Populuxe--populism and popularity and luxury, plus a totally unnecessary "e" to give it a little class; the word itself is as synthetic as the world it denotes. With the help of more than 250 amazing and amusing pictures in black and white and color (and what colors!), Thomas Hine explores, recaptures and explains this glorious, vanished world of hopes and dreams and…


Book cover of Where the Suckers Moon: The Life and Death of an Advertising Campaign

John Wall Why did I love this book?

Randall Rothenberg, an advertising industry reporter for The New York Times, applied the Tracy Kidder Method of journalistic immersion in a process or profession to a single advertising campaign from start to finish. He chose wisely, focusing on the then up-and-coming Weiden + Kennedy—an ad agency riding the success of Nike’s “Bo Knows” commercials. His choice of product? Subaru of America, which, at the time, was the cellar-dweller of Japanese imports. Rothenberg effortlessly captures the high-stakes tension of the ad industry while not neglecting aspects of the industry that are more smoke and mirrors than research-grounded truths.

Rothenberg is exceptional at providing windows into advertising history as his story unfolds. Throughout the span of the campaign, he unsparingly documents inspiration, idiocy (W+K assigns a creative director who hates cars), and an intimate look at how advertising works.

By Randall Rothenberg,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Where the Suckers Moon as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"For all the right reasons." "Cars that can." "What to Drive." "The perfect Car for an Imperfect World." Only one of these slogans would be chosen by Subaru of America to sell its cars in the recession year of 1991. 

As six advertising agencies scrambled for the account and the winner tried to churn out the Big Idea that would install Subaru in the collective national unconscious, Randall Rothenberg was there, observing every nuance of the chaos, comedy, creativity, and egotism that made up an ad campaign.

One can read Rothenberg's book as the behind-the-scenes chronicle of the brief and…


Book cover of Engines of Change: A History of the American Dream in Fifteen Cars

John Wall Why did I love this book?

Examining automobiles people buy offers, if not a window into their soul, then a peek into their personal values. Ingrassia, a Wall Street Journal automotive reporter, guides us down a freeway of history and consumerism that “begat the middle class, the suburbs, shopping malls, McDonald's, Taco Bell, drive-through banking and other things.” He traces our romance with tires, horsepower, and wood-trimmed interiors through 15 models ranging from the Model T to the Prius. As stories of the Corvette, Jeep, GTO, VW Beetle and VWMicrobus, the unfairly maligned Chevy Corvair, and others roll by, Ingrassia integrates how each successive model forever changed customer desires and the often-cramped minds of auto executives. His cruise-control writing style rewards us with a smooth journey among the cars of our dreams.

By Paul Ingrassia,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Engines of Change as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Paul Ingrassia comes a narrative of America like no other: a cultural history that explores how cars have both propelled and reflected the national experience—from the Model T to the Prius.

A narrative like no other: a cultural history that explores how cars have both propelled and reflected the American experience— from the Model T to the Prius.

From the assembly lines of Henry Ford to the open roads of Route 66, from the lore of Jack Kerouac to the sex appeal of the Hot Rod, America’s history is a vehicular history—an idea brought brilliantly to…


Book cover of The Fifties

John Wall Why did I love this book?

Halberstam, known for big, thick books centered around big American themes, treads the same ground as Thomas Hine’s Populuxe. Instead of concentrating on refrigerators and roadsters, Halberstam tackles the political, social, economic, and cultural change in America during the 1950s—essentially, he examined the rivets in the launching pad for the American Century. Halberstam’s great gift of teasing out stories of long-overlooked contributors is put to effortless use here as we meet Kemmons Wilson, founder of the Holiday Inn hotels, the McDonald brothers, auto designer Harley Earl, ad man Rosser Reeves and Goody Pincus, developer of the birth control pill. Other, more famous connectors are duly noted—Elvis, McCarthy, MacArthur, Ozzie Nelson, Uncle Miltie—but in the end, Halberstam’s book is an inspiration (and a template) for writers of cultural history.

By David Halberstam,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Fifties as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Fifties is a sweeping social, political, economic, and cultural history of the ten years that Halberstam regards as seminal in determining what our nation is today. Halberstam offers portraits of not only the titans of the age: Eisenhower Dulles, Oppenheimer, MacArthur, Hoover, and Nixon, but also of Harley Earl, who put fins on cars; Dick and Mac McDonald and Ray Kroc, who mass-produced the American hamburger; Kemmons Wilson, who placed his Holiday Inns along the nation's roadsides; U-2 pilot Gary Francis Powers; Grace Metalious, who wrote Peyton Place; and "Goody" Pincus, who led the team that invented the Pill.…


Book cover of In Good Shape: Style in Industrial Products, 1900 to 1960

John Wall Why did I love this book?

Bayley’s mastery of the language of design is apparent from his opening introduction to this collection of essays on American and European products. Bayley’s overview is not only essential for understanding design; it’s also a must-read for those who want to write about design. Bayley’s opinions are the gold standard, cemented by the certainty of judgment that comes so easily to British writers. He writes with reverence as well as an incisive point of view about the Eames chair, a Studebaker coupe, and dozens of other milestone products. Among the designer biographies: Wells Coates, Mies van der Rohe, and, yes, Raymond Loewy. It is the pre-eminent introduction to the field of industrial design. Once read, finding his other works (“Harley Earl,” “Ugly,” “Taste,” “Cars,” “Design A-Z,” “Sex,” “Woman as Design,” and other titles) becomes mandatory.

By Stephen Bayley,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked In Good Shape as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Industrial design from the first six decades of this century is explored in an anthology of essays on design, hundreds of photographs of consumer products ranging from pens to aircraft, and biographies of leading designers


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The Boldly Inclusive Leader: Transform Your Workplace (and the World) by Valuing the Differences Within

By Minette Norman,

Book cover of The Boldly Inclusive Leader: Transform Your Workplace (and the World) by Valuing the Differences Within

Minette Norman Author Of The Boldly Inclusive Leader: Transform Your Workplace (and the World) by Valuing the Differences Within

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I spent 20 years leading global teams in Silicon Valley, and I had few role models for empathetic, human, and inclusive leadership. I was committed to being the leader I wished I’d had all those years. I had a lot of success, a big VP-level job, and I loved my work. Then, I got a new manager who bullied, undermined, and silenced me. I decided I wanted to help leaders do better. I became an author, speaker, and consultant focused on inspiring leaders to create an environment where everyone is heard, seen, and respected.

Minette's book list on amazing leader, listener, and human being

What is my book about?

To create innovative, collaborative, and high-performing organizations, we need a new leadership model.

Speaker, consultant, and former Silicon Valley executive Minette Norman is committed to inspiring leaders by sharing some of the most important things she learned over the decades she spent in the corporate world, such as: every human being needs to feel they belong; teams thrive when everyone can share their unique ideas and experiences; innovation is a group activity; empathy and compassion are leadership superpowers; and, leaders set the tone by what they say, do, reward, and tolerate.

This is not a book about quick fixes or…

The Boldly Inclusive Leader: Transform Your Workplace (and the World) by Valuing the Differences Within

By Minette Norman,


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