Skip to main content

Future Perfect: Ernest Dichter and Consumer Society in Europe and North America

Final Report Summary - FUTUREPERFECT (Future Perfect: Ernest Dichter and Consumer Society in Europe and North America)

FuturePerfect (Project No. 631789) was a 4-year initiative funded by a Career Integration Grant (CIG) from the Marie Curie People Programme of the European Commission. It drew on research methods in business history, cultural history, and material culture studies to reconsider the transatlantic history of consumer society. The aim was to advance the historical understanding of consumer society in Europe and North America in the twentieth century, and to disseminate this new knowledge to an audience of academics, students, and the general public through lectures, conference papers, and publications.
The Researcher was Prof. Regina Lee Blaszczyk, Leadership Chair in the History of Business and Society at the University of Leeds. This CIG helped Blaszczyk, who moved to Europe from the USA in February 2013, to integrate her specialized expertise in the cultural history of business into the University of Leeds, the UK, and the EU. FuturePerfect centered on the historical study of advertising, marketing, and design practice from the 1930s to the 1990s. The career of Ernest Dichter (1907-1991), a business consultant who is sometimes called the “father of motivational research,” was a major focus of the project but not the only focus. The research expanded to explore a range of connections between Europe and America from the Great Depression through the Cold War, seeking to develop a better understanding of transatlantic business practices and their interactions with consumer culture.
In Phase I (1 March 2014 to 28 Feb. 2016), Blaszczyk advanced this agenda with significant research on Ernest Dichter and the twentieth-century transatlantic business environment. Her research focused on the large archive of Ernest Dichter Papers at the Hagley Museum and Library in the USA, and on additional primary historical research on business professionals who were Dichter’s contemporaries and sympathetic with his world view, drawing on materials in the USA and the UK. This work allowed Blaszczyk to develop a nuanced understanding of Dichter and his times, which will feed into the humanistic biography that will grow out of this project. The data-gathering activities of Phase I laid the foundation for additional research and writing in Phase II.
In Phase II of the FuturePerfect project (1 March 2016 to 28 Feb. 2018), Blaszczyk continued her work with archival research, lectures, conference papers, and publications. She delved further into the Dichter collection at Hagley while expanding the scope of the research to other archives in Europe and North America. Blaszczyk assembled a large body of primary sources, which she used for three major publications: 1) The Fashion Forecasters: A Hidden History of Color and Trend Prediction (London: Bloomsbury, 2018), co-edited with Professor Ben Wubs of Erasmus University in Rotterdam; 2) “Pink Predictions,” an essay for a exhibition catalogue on Pink: The History of a Punk, Pretty, Powerful Color (London: Thames and Hudson, in press for Sept. 2018) for the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (MFIT) in New York; and 3) an essay for an exhibition catalogue on the British fashion designer Mary Quant to be published in tandem with a major retrospective at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London in early 2019.
FuturePerfect generated 8 major outputs: 1) The Fashion Forecasters: A Hidden History of Color and Trend Prediction, a 275-page book; 2) collaborations with international museums in New York and in London on 2 major exhibition catalogues; 3) a smaller exhibition and series of public programs at the University of Leeds International Textile Archive (ULITA) on the Leeds campus; 4) a collaboration with the private corporate archive of the Marks and Spencer Company (also on the Leeds campus) on 4 public programs and in teaching; 5) significant original research nearly 30 archives and libraries in the UK, the USA, and Austria to advance the cultural biography of Ernest Dichter; 6) the presentation of 6 public lectures; 7) the presentation of 16 scientific conference papers and commentaries; and 8) the growth of a major international research network.
One major outcome of the research project was for Blaszczyk to develop a complex understanding of transatlantic consumer society from the Great Depression of the 1930s to the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s. Intensive research in archives and libraries in the UK, the USA, and Austria engendered Blaszczyk with a deeper appreciation for the history of retailing, merchandising, branding, and marketing. These themes were all central to the life and times of Ernest Dichter. Moving forward, Blaszczyk will be able to write a nuanced, archives-informed analysis of Dichter and other business consultants who helped European and American enterprise understand transatlantic consumer culture.

A second major outcome of FuturePerfect was the creation of educational materials that are interdisciplinary in scope. The major published output of the project was The Fashion Forecasters, a 14-chapter anthology that combines 9 research chapters by historians, cultural geographers, and anthropologists with 5 oral history chapters built around biographical oral histories of contemporary trend forecasters. Blaszczyk co-authored the historical introduction and conclusion, wrote 2 historical chapters, and created all 5 of the biographical oral history chapters. The objective was to link the past to the present as a heuristic device that might lead students and fashion practitioners to think critically about the origins of contemporary trend prediction and color forecasting.
A third distinctive feature of FuturePerfect was the effort to bring academic research to non-academic audiences, building on Blaszczyk’s experience in museums, heritage, and public history. On the Leeds campus, two public engagement efforts were developed: one with ULITA, and another with Marks and Spencer Company Archive. The ULITA collaboration produced an exhibition on The Synthetics Revolution: Man-Made Fibres and Everyday Fashion and a series of related public programs. The collaboration with the Marks and Spencer Company Archive resulted in 4 public programs on everyday fashion. Blaszczyk also developed partnerships with museums in New York and London that have an international reach. Her work with the MFIT led to her chapter in an exhibition catalogue on Pink. Her collaboration with the V&A resulted in Blaszczyk writing an essay on the international fashion business for an exhibition catalogue on the fashion designer Mary Quant. FuturePerfect came full circle with this project, as Mary Quant admired Ernest Dichter and praised his ideas about intuition and entrepreneurship in her autobiography.