Consuming America offers a data-driven, longitudinal analysis of the historical dynamics that have underpinned a long-term, layered cultural-historical process: the emergence of the United States as a dominant reference culture in Dutch public discourse on consumer goods between 1890 and 1990. The ideas, values, and practices associated with the United States in public discourse remained relatively steady over time, which might explain the country’s longevity as a reference culture and its power to shape sociocultural debates. This robust core of ideas, values, and practices was partly driven by events in the United States and the nation’s actions on the global stage, but for a large part it also resulted from the fact that newspapers, as part of public discourse, narrated a particular perception of the United States, effectively creating and upholding a stereotype.
By iteratively switching between distant and close reading of digitized text, this study has established that newspaper discourse on consumer goods, in particular Coca-Cola and cigarettes, offers instrumental insights into the ways in which Dutch consumers and producers depicted and perceived the United States and American consumer culture. The United States signified often-conflicted ideas such authenticity, quality, artificiality, superabundance, mechanization, modernity, civilization, and democracy. These ideas were transmitted via advertisements for consumer goods and reiterated in debates on the global economic, cultural, and technological position of the United States. The United States functioned as a point of reference in national debates on a range of issues related to the emergence of the modern consumer society, including the health risks associated with consumer products; the emancipation of female consumers; the business politics of multinationals; the effects of globalization; and the interplay between consumers, researchers, producers, and the government. These debates helped individuals to position themselves vis-à-vis the role of consumer goods in the United States and to come to terms with the effects of Americanization, and the transformation of the Netherlands into a modern consumer society.
This study concludes that despite periods of flagrant anti-Americanism in the Netherlands, for Dutch people the United States functioned as a persistent beacon of consumerism, modernization, and globalization throughout the twentieth century. This longitudinal study of the Dutch perception of the United States places existing studies, that often focus on the Dutch pro-American attitudes after the Second World War, in a larger timeframe. This research is supported by an extensive collection of digitized newspapers and relies on a more rigorous and more explicit methodology than previous studies. Moreover, it shows that computational techniques are an addition to the more traditional, hermeneutical methods of the cultural historian. Techniques such as full-text searching, topic modeling, co-occurrence networks, and visualizations allow for a systematic exploration and analysis of big data repositories that contain tens of millions of digitized sources