“ ‘Cause everybody’s living in a material world / And I am a material girl,” Madonna sang in 1984.
It’s a common refrain, that we are materialistic – obsessed with wealth and goods and consuming – in ways unheard of an earlier eras. But it was heard of in earlier eras.
Clearly, Americans of the 21st century have more and consume more than Americans 100 or 200 years ago did. That the closets of old Victorian homes hardly begin to store the stuff that today’s middle-class family owns testifies to that. Yet, because more Americans can afford more things than their ancestors could does not necessarily mean that they are more obsessed with things. (Indeed, one stream of social science research talks about modern people as being “post-materialist” – e.g., here.)
For those concerned with a too material world, there are social movements and web sites devoted to pursing the simple life, seeking “freedom from stuff and over-consumption” (e.g., here). This, too, has precedent: some people looked for the simple life in the 19th century. 
In the early nineteenth century, Thoreau and the utopian romantics declaimed possessions and proclaimed the virtue of simplicity. He wrote, “I see young men . . . whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle, and farming tools. . . . Better if they had been born in the open pasture and suckled by a wolf. . . . Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are . . . hindrances to the elevation of mankind.” 
How might we really tell whether people in one era or another, in Thoreau’s or our own, were more or less obsessed with material goods? One strategy historians use to roughly track such themes as people’s level of “materialism” is to look for signs in the cultural expressions of the period, such as the arts.
Take painting. If you look at commissioned portraits of colonial Americans, you see people in those pictures blatantly proclaiming their wealth and possessions in terms modern Americans would find shameless. The sitters wear finery, pose next to brocades, and point to tokens of their success. In the early 1770s, for example, the Reverend Ebenezer Devotion of Windham, Connecticut, commissioned family portraits of himself and his family. He poses in front of his library of expensive books, most imported from England. The Mrs. Reverend Devotion is shown in an expensive chair, self-assuredly displaying a book to the viewer. Devotion’s merchant son, Ebenezer Jr., stands at an elegant slant-top desk, pen poised above his account book. Devotion’s daughter-in-law sits on a Chippendale side chair in a formal dress, ribboned cap, and black gloves. Possessions defined character in these sorts of portraits. Art historian Wayne Craven wrote, “It would be difficult to look upon the typical examples of mid-eighteenth-century American portraiture without sensing the power of materialism in them.” 
Commissioned portraits today, in contrast, understate their subjects’ wealth and emphasize other signs of the sitters’ character. Professional photographers today are probably a good comparison to eighteenth-century oil-and-canvas portraitists. I did a mini-study of their work and it is clear that personal portraits today emphasize the informality, intimacy, and happiness of their subjects, only rarely their wealth. Indeed, the dress code in these pictures seems to be denim. 
Or take novels. Late-nineteenth-century editor William Dean Howells once wrote, “novelists . . . really have charge of people’s thinking these days.” Many, if not most, novels of his era dealt with money concerns, often portraying people pursuing wealth and then succumbing to its corruption (as in Howells’s own The Rise of Silas Lapham). Should we take that to mean that middle-class readers of the Gilded Age were especially materialistic—or maybe the opposite, that they were horrified by greed? Either way, concerns about getting wealth and showing wealth were in the air. 
Bringing it Home
Perhaps the popular art of home decoration better reveals popular values. Victorian-era middle-class women crammed their homes with decorative chairs and sofas, an abundance of paintings and statuary, and showcases full of glassware, souvenirs, and other tchotchkes—all designed at least in part to signal the taste of the residents. This decorating style, argues historian Lori Merish, celebrated “the ‘civilizing influence’ of luxury and tasteful surroundings.” The right objects could elevate residents’ sensibilities and thus improve character. By the early decades of the twentieth century, however, this fashion was passé. Simplicity, naturalness, and understatement became the dominant themes in increasingly popular bungalows with spare Arts and Crafts furniture and low-profile ranch houses open to the outdoors.  Today, it appears, that for the most part, wealth goes with a display of spareness rather than of accumulation.
Americans of today have an historically unprecedented amount of material goods. Maybe, as popular impressions have it, they are particularly obsessed with the getting of those goods. But perhaps, instead, the relative ease with which we get the goods actually means there is less need to obsess about or to flaunt them.
 Much of what follows is drawn from Ch. 3 of Made in America.
 See, e.g., Shi, The Simple Life.
 Devotion: . Craven, in Colonial American Portraiture, 1986.
 I sampled the portfolios professional photographers in ten different cities posted on their web pages. Occasionally a family posed in front of a marble staircase or on a yacht, but overwhelmingly the subjects posed in nature scenes or in front of studio backdrops. They dressed casually and were shown smiling or laughing. The message is: we are a loving and fun-loving family. Halle, “The Family Photograph,” Art Journal, 1987, draws similar conclusions.
 See Bronner, “Reading Consumption,” in Consuming Visions, 1989; Griswold, “American Character,” Amer. J. of Sociology, 1981.
 Merish: “‘The Hand’,” Amer. Quart. 1993 ; “Sentimental Consumption,” Amer. Literary Hist., 1996.