It is a material world that we humans live in. It may feel as though Americans
became more materialistic. The bold declaration by pop singer Madonna
(born Madonna Louise Ciccone, 1958–) that she was “just a material girl”
in 1984 seemingly epitomized a 20th-century American superficiality.
Humans have always lived in a material world—that is, a world made up of
human-made objects. The American 20th century was unique in several
ways: the mastery of mass production led to an escalation in the number of
things people owned and needed to have to conduct daily life, the develop-
ment of media and advertising fundamentally restructured daily life by
inundating people with images of material things, and the economic im-
provements in the lives of American residents meant that more and more,
citizenship equaled owning stuff. Despite all of these factors, though, life in
20th-century America was remarkably similar to life in the preceding two
centuries of Euro-American life, with material objects used to enable com-
munications, daily hygiene, and other consistent aspects of daily life.
The artifacts of daily life range from things used constantly until no lon-
ger usable to objects that represent major changes in the lives of residents of
the United States. A portable radio made in Japan can coexist in a 1950s
household that also owns the wholly American-made Fordson tractor. The
radio, built on technology developed by Italians, Americans, and others
around the world, fundamentally changed how Americans experienced
daily life. The Fordson tractor, developed and manufactured in the United
States and sometimes exported to other countries, changed farmers’ lives.
Its impact was enormous not only in economic growth and food production
but also in the approach to design that the Fordson tractor embodied.
Sometimes the artifacts selected for this volume were invented or first
manufactured in the later decades of the 19th century, sometimes objects
were made in other parts of the world, and some objects are deeply intimate
and personal, while others are symbolic and national in message. The 20th
century in the United States was shaped by institutionalized power such as
dominant corporations, the privileging of certain groups over others (such