Date Awarded

Winter 2017

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


American Studies


Leisa D Meyer

Committee Member

Grey Gundaker

Committee Member

Elspeth H Brown


This dissertation posits that a new form of material literacy emerged in the United States between 1890 and 1925, in tandem with the modern advertising profession. A nation recalibrating the way it valued economic and cultural mass consumption demanded, among other things, new signage – new ways to announce, and through those announcements, to produce its commitment to consumer society. What I call material literacy emerged as a set of interpretive skills wielded by both the creators and audiences of advertising material, whose paths crossed via representations of goods. These historically situated ways of reading and writing not only invited Americans to interpret a world full of representations of products, but also to understand – to read – themselves within that context. Commercial texts became sites for posing questions about reading behavior more generally, and they connected members of various professions who stood to benefit from that knowledge. In this dissertation, I explore how reading and consumption converged for advertising experts, printers, typographers, and experimental psychologists. Despite their different occupational vantage points, their work intersected around efforts to understand how modern Americans decoded printed texts, and how this behavior might be known and guided. To establish their professional reputations, the authors I study positioned themselves as being uniquely capable of observing and interpreting the behavior of readers. The body served as a key site, and metaphor, for their inquiries – a means of making both literacy and legibility material.



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