"Soap and Hope": Direct Sales and the Culture of Work and Capitalism in Postwar America
Burch, Jessica Kay
“‘Soap and Hope’: Direct Sales and the Culture of Work and Capitalism in Postwar America,” reinterprets the history of direct selling by placing it at the center, rather than on the margins, of narratives about advanced capitalism. Drawing on corporate literature, cultural texts, statistical data, and legal sources, I link the male-dominated commercial traveling of the nineteenth century, the rise of Avon and Amway in the immediate postwar period, and the resurgence of direct sales work after 1970, to demonstrate not only the persistence of direct sales across the twentieth century, but also the ways that this sector prefigured the temporary, supplemental work many consider the dominant mode of labor in late capitalism. In so doing, I expose direct sales as a key site for understanding some of the most salient developments in post-1945 economy and society, among them: deindustrialization, the rise of the service sector, the casualization and feminization of work, the ascendency of conservative free-market ideology, and the erosion of New Deal labor protections and social welfare. A cultural history as well as an economic one, I probe direct sales for what it can reveal about capitalism as a cultural and intellectual construct for twentieth-century Americans. Analyzing direct sellers’ understandings of themselves and their work, I offer new insights into the ways citizens in the second half of the twentieth century invoked and amended longstanding tropes about opportunity, independence, and success. In particular, I demonstrate how the late-capitalist economy reconfigured the boundaries between work and class identity – once understood as mutually constituted – by collapsing work, sociability, and personality into a conception of modern selfhood. Through the example of direct sales, I thus offer a textured, historical account of the making of postmodern labor, as well as a concrete case through which to explore the changing relationship between capitalism and identity across the last century.
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