Date of Award

Spring 1-1-2013

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Avella, Steven M.

Second Advisor

Foster, Kristen

Third Advisor

Jablonsky, Thomas J.


This study focuses on mass consumption's role in the development of the city of Milwaukee. This study's main focus is on the mid-twentieth century, though this case study will look at mass consumption's role in Milwaukee from its founding to the present. Mass consumption focuses on the actions of buying and selling and how consumer options reflected the city's general development. After studying the composition of Milwaukee's population and income levels, the story of mass consumption in Milwaukee will be told through studying how automobiles and food were bought and sold, as well as how other assorted shopping venues affected the city.

This dissertation illustrates that over the course of the twentieth century, mass consumption in Milwaukee was guided by assorted innovations. Automobiles gave consumers the ability to travel lengthy distances in a relatively short time while carrying large quantities of goods. At the start of the twentieth century, cars were an expensive novelty. By 1970, automobiles were ubiquitous. In 1920, most Milwaukeeans bought their food from small grocery stores in their neighborhoods. Fifty years later, large supermarkets catered to most of the city's consumers. Milwaukee's major shopping venues changed dramatically over the course of half a century. Early in the 1900's, Milwaukee's major shopping venues were mainly department stores located in the downtown business district. Late in the century, the most prominent consumption locations were massive shopping centers and malls spaced throughout the city.

This study also briefly points to the ways in which mass consumption affected the use of space in Milwaukee. As Milwaukee grew and expanded, retail operations followed. As in most American cities, Milwaukee's residential communities (which often included several small stores) as well as a once-bustling downtown business district, were gradually decentralized. As a result, new shopping venues were created to support consumer residential patterns. Changing patterns and venues of mass consumption re-sculpted the city and metropolitan area of Milwaukee. Between 1920 and 1970, Milwaukee's economic history can be divided into four main eras, which may be titled as follows: boom (the 1920's), bust (the Great Depression), war (WWII), and prosperity (the post-war era).