A Distinguished Society: Consumption and Material Culture in San Juan, Puerto Rico, 1919–29

Sunday, January 5, 2020
3rd Floor West Promenade (New York Hilton)
Melixa Abad-Izquierdo, Farmingdale State College, State University of New York
The 1920s in Puerto Rico are characterized by the emergence of sugar cane as the most important industry. Puerto Rican growers dedicated one third of the arable land to the crop and most of the island’s infrastructure –railways, port facilities – developed to serve this particular sector. Puerto Rico’s colonial relationship to the United States centrally shaped the island’s economic development. Most investment capital came from the metropole and the mainland also served as the central market for exports. Consequently, most of the resulting wealth accrued to investors in the US. However, a small, local bourgeoisie enjoyed the emergence of a consumer culture. This poster analyzes the material culture and consumption patterns that developed in elite circles in San Juan during the interwar years. Drawing on import/export records, travelogues, and publications such as Puerto Rico Ilustrado and La Correspondencia, this poster fills a gap in the existing literature. Scholars have extensively documented the impact of the economic transformations of the 1920s on working-class Puerto Ricans. Less attention has been devoted to the way the emergence of sugar altered the material and internal worlds of more affluent Puerto Ricans. The sugar boom of the 1920s contributed to an increase in the consumption of imported, luxury goods and the expansion of retail. As the result of sugar related changes in the 1920s, colonial elites began to situate themselves in a broader, global consumer culture. In turn, affluent Puerto Ricans started to think of themselves outside of nationalist narratives as part of an emerging international, transnational business class.
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