The Commodification of Childhood

The Children’s Clothing Industry and the Rise of the Child Consumer

The Commodification of Childhood

Book Pages: 224 Illustrations: 9 illus., 2 tables Published: April 2004

American Studies, Cultural Studies, Sociology

In this revealing social history, Daniel Thomas Cook explores the roots of children’s consumer culture—and the commodification of childhood itself—by looking at the rise, growth, and segmentation of the children’s clothing industry. Cook describes how in the early twentieth century merchants, manufacturers, and advertisers of children’s clothing began to aim commercial messages at the child rather than the mother. Cook situates this fundamental shift in perspective within the broader transformation of the child into a legitimate, individualized, self-contained consumer.

The Commodification of Childhood begins with the publication of the children’s wear industry’s first trade journal, The Infants’ Department, in 1917 and extends into the early 1960s, by which time the changes Cook chronicles were largely complete. Analyzing trade journals and other documentary sources, Cook shows how the industry created a market by developing and promulgating new understandings of the “nature,” needs, and motivations of the child consumer. He discusses various ways that discursive constructions of the consuming child were made material: in the creation of separate children’s clothing departments, in their segmentation and layout by age and gender gradations (such as infant, toddler, boys, girls, tweens, and teens), in merchants’ treatment of children as individuals on the retail floor, and in displays designed to appeal directly to children. Ultimately, The Commodification of Childhood provides a compelling argument that any consideration of “the child” must necessarily take into account how childhood came to be understood through, and structured by, a market idiom.


“All those with an interest in the history of childhood—and anyone with a resident child consumer—should read this short and accessible study.” — Jacqueline K. Dirks , Technology and Culture

“Cook has a rare gift for explaining complex theoretical issues, and for integrating secondary literature and detailed primary sources to support his overarching claims. The book is well organized, well documented, and well written. It is a must-read for those interested in children and consumer culture, and it has general significance for the history of childhood.” — Patrick J. Ryan , H-Net Reviews

“Cook's observations about the marketing of children's clothing provide a clear perspective on the ways in which larger trends in consumer culture played out in a single industry. . . .” — Julia L. Mickenberg , American Quarterly

“I agree with the blurb on the book’s back cover that it is a ‘must read for all scholars of consumer society.’” — Ian Gordon, Australasian Journal of American Studies

“This brief but important book exemplifies how historians and other social scientists can learn from each other.” — Howard P. Chudacoff , American Historical Review

“This is a fascinating book which makes a critical intervention into debates about childhood and consumer culture. It is beautifully written and engaging from the first word.” — Dale Southerton , British Journal of Sociology

“This well-researched, eloquent book is a valuable contribution to the literature on the development of consumer culture, shopping, commodification, and department stores in the 20th century. It will prove instructive to scholars in sociology, history, cultural studies, and marketing.” — Tally Katz-Gerro , American Journal of Sociology

“To learn more about how the marketplace has paid attention to our children, read The Commodification of Childhood.” — Daniel Gross , US Airways Magazine

"[Daniel Cook] has crafted a deeply researched, wide-ranging exploration of twentieth-century American childhood, placing [him] squarely in the forefront of a growing interdisciplinary literature on the culture of childhood. . . . Often brilliant and usually provocative as well, Cook sets a high bar for interdisciplinary studies of children as culture-creators and the cultural construction of childhood as morally contested terrain." — Gail S. Murray, Reviews in American History

"[T]hought-provoking. . . . [A]n informative account of how children's wear merchandising became increasingly segmented and child-focused." — Lisa Jacobson, Journal of Social History

"[W]ell-researched. . . . Cook provides excellent reviews of the literature on the invention of childhood." — Catherine Hakim , TLS

"Cook's work will be of interest to scholars of retailing and marketing history and speaks more broadly to the social history of twentieth-century America. . . . Cook's analysis of the development of the children's clothing market in the United States is a valuable addition to the literature on twentieth-century American marketing and social history." — Evan Roberts , Enterprise & Society

"The story is fascinating and sheds light not only on an industry that takes in hundreds of billions of dollars a year, but also on the nature of childhood and the rise of a children's consumer culture. . . . It addresses an important area of children's culture in a substantive and illuminating way, and provides a welcome addition for those interested in both children and marketing." — Kathy Merlock Jackson , Journal of American Culture

"This study of the development of the children's clothing industry is a welcome addition to two burgeoning fields: the history of childhood and the history of American consumerism. . . . The argument is most persuasive when the author supplements the trade journal articles that form the bulk of the source material. . . . [T]he theoretical sophistication of the author illuminates more than it obscures." — William R. Scott , History: Reviews of New Books

“Blending the sociologist’s theoretical rigor with the historian’s attention to detail and change, Daniel Thomas Cook offers us a striking and original explanation of how twentieth-century notions of childhood together with new marketing practices led to the modern autonomous child.” — Gary Cross, author of The Cute and the Cool: Wondrous Innocence and Modern American Children’s Culture

“Daniel Thomas Cook’s The Commodification of Childhood is a pioneering and major contribution to our understanding of consumer culture. On the basis of his detailed and fascinating examination of children’s clothing marketing through the twentieth century, Cook constructs a larger template for understanding the complex and evolving relations between consumers and marketers. The theoretical discussions are a tour de force. A must-read for all scholars of consumer society.” — Juliet B. Schor, author of The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don’t Need


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Open Access

Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Daniel Thomas Cook is a sociologist in the Department of Advertising at University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. He is the editor of Symbolic Childhood.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments ix

1 Introduction

2 A Brief History of Childhood and Motherhood into the Twentieth Century

3 Merchandising, Motherhood, and Morality: Industry Origins and Child Welfare, 1917-1929 41

4 Pediocularity: From the Child’s Point of View 66

5 Reconfiguring Girlhood: Age Grading, Size Ranges, and Aspirational Merchandising in the 1930s

6 Baby Booms and Market Booms: Teen and Subteen Girls in the Postwar Marketplace 122

7 Concluding Remarks 144

Appendix: Figures and Tables 153

Notes 157

Bibliography 181

Index 201
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-3268-8 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-3279-4
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