From Bauhaus to Maxwell House: Continental Design and Social Science as Technologies of Consumer Engineering in Twentieth-Century America

My time as an NEH postdoctoral fellow at the Consortium for History of Science, Technology and Medicine during the 2015-16 academic year was devoted to the revision of my Ph.D. dissertation as a book manuscript; the research and writing of two journal articles and a book chapter relevant to that project; and further research on this topic, both in primary and secondary sources at the libraries of the University of Pennsylvania, where I had the privileges of a visiting scholar as a Consortium fellow, and in archival collections. Some of my research was conducted at Consortium member institutions—including the archives of the Smithsonian Institution, the Hagley Museum and Library, and Columbia University Libraries—and some was done at non-member institutions, including the Library of Congress and St. John’s University in Queens, New York.

While my Ph.D. is in American studies, a field which is concerned mainly with cultural history, my time as a fellow at the Consortium afforded me the opportunity to develop those aspects of my project which involve the history of technology and the social sciences, and to engage with expert scholars and explore specialized archives in those fields.  My project, “From Bauhaus to Maxwell House: Continental Design and Social Science as Technologies of Consumer Engineering in Twentieth-Century America,” concerns a cohort of émigré social scientists, industrial designers, and architects who came from Central Europe to the United States in the 1930s.  Through their professional work, these entrepreneurial immigrants transformed both the marketing strategies of American businesses and the material world of American consumers, helping to create the modern postwar economy with consumption as its foundation.  Among the figures I consider are the Austrian psychologist Ernest Dichter, whose personal papers and institutional archives are at the Hagley Library; Dichter’s mentor from Vienna, the sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld, whose papers are held by Columbia University; Walter Landor, a German designer whose manuscript collections are at the Smithsonian Institution; and Victor Gruen, a Viennese architect whose papers are at the Library of Congress and the American Heritage Center in Laramie, Wyoming.  I argue that Central European political ideologies and movements in design—such as the German Bauhaus and Viennese social democracy—were fundamental to these émigrés’ American work in form and function.  In some ways, their Continental heritage kept its essence, but in other ways it was transmogrified in the American context.  For example, Lazarsfeld’s study of social stratification—a key concern of the Austro-Marxists who were the intellectual leaders of the Social Democrats—became elemental to the science of consumer market segmentation when Lazarsfeld applied it in the American context.

In my research this past year I have attempted to situate these figures in the broader context of their professional fields, and vis-à-vis other émigrés whose work provides a meaningful contrast to theirs.  For example, I spent several weeks conducting archival research on Alfred Politz, a little-studied market researcher whose work was profoundly consequential.  Politz had studied theoretical physics under Max Planck at Humboldt University in Berlin, where he earned his Ph.D. in 1924, but he made a career shift to the advertising industry shortly thereafter.  After a stint in Sweden in the 1930s marketing a headache remedy—and looking to evade Hitler—Politz emigrated to the U.S. in 1937, where he eventually found work as a researcher for the pollster Elmo Roper.  He founded his own market research firm in 1947, where he soon became known in the field for his strident advocacy of random or “probability” sampling over the then-standard—but in Politz’s view inferior—method of “quota” sampling.  While quota sampling required interviewers to stratify their samples artificially, the probability method removed agency in sample selection from the interviewer, thus producing a more random and therefore accurate sample.  Politz’s method would become the new standard in the industry, despite protests from advocates of the cheaper method of quota sampling.

Politz’s main conflict, however, was with another market researcher, Ernest Dichter, over his practice of “motivation” research, which Politz believed to be both fraudulent and a threat to his own business interests.  While quantitative researchers like Politz used very large, probabilistic samples, motivation researchers like Dichter were content to use much smaller quota samples because, they claimed, their findings—which were based on a kind of psychoanalytic interview—exposed universal psychological tendencies that could tell marketers what consumers really desired.  Politz charged that the belief that market research existed to discover what the consumer wants was a fallacy; instead, he argued, it was the job of researchers to solve marketing problems through the intelligent design of surveys, which could draw conclusions mathematically from the “raw material” of consumers’ opinions and behaviors.  For Politz, the psychological basis of consumers’ motivations was immaterial: whether or not it actually affected their behavior, it did not constitute a true research finding or even provide useful information for business clients.  Much like the behaviorists, Politz contended that human behavior was a matter of stimulus and response, and that the job of the researcher was to understand and reasonably predict reactions, not to divine mysterious motivations.  In a paper which I presented at the annual meeting of the Economic and Business History Society in Montreal in May, I considered this conflict between Politz and Dichter—the “nose-counter” versus the “head shrinker”—as a paradigmatic debate over subjectivity.  It held profound implications for the possibility of individual autonomy, which was essential to the practice of democracy in the commercial society of Cold War America.

The Consortium’s office in Old City, Philadelphia—which it shares with the museum curators of the American Philosophical Society—was the ideal location from which to base my work, being in close proximity to the Penn libraries and only a short trip to many important archives located on the East Coast.  Additionally, the director and staff of the Consortium, along with the dissertation-writing fellows and fellows-in-residence, created a vibrant scholarly community which regularly met for lunch-hour talks from visiting researchers, public talks by Consortium fellows and visiting senior scholars, and for “working groups” which met in the evenings to discuss the new research of fellow scholars working on similar topics.  I regularly participated in the History of Technology working group, led by Heidi Voskuhl of the University of Pennsylvania and Martin Collins of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.  The regular events and community of the Consortium provided ample opportunities to share my work and ideas with interested scholars engaged in relevant research pursuits.  As I continue my research this summer at the University of Illinois in Chicago, and as an American Historical Association fellow at the Library of Congress this fall, I will build on the research I have done at the Consortium and incorporate the methods of the history of science and technology into my project.