“It is hard to think of an idea more immediate,” says Amartya Sen, than that of “the living standard. . . . It figures a good deal in everyday thought. It is, in fact, one of the few economic concepts that is not commonly greeted with the uncommon skepticism reserved for the other concepts of economics.”Amartya Sen and John Muellbauer, The Standard of Living (New York, 1987), 1. At the turn of our century, however, this was certainly not the case. A “standard of living” was neither “immediate” nor “everyday.” The term itself rarely appeared before the 1920s. Even then, observed one economist surveying her contemporaries' vocabulary and assumptions, “all the meaning, and the exact meaning, that is bound up in it” was far from clear. Hazel Kyrk, A Theory of Consumption (New York, 1923), 174. On different meanings, see also Carle Zimmerman, Consumption and Standards of Living (New York, 1936), 4–10; and Lawrence Glickman, A Living Wage: Workers and the Making of American Consumer Society (Ithaca, 1997), which is reviewed in International Labor and Working-Class History 56 (forthcoming, Fall 1999). It could variously signify a technical measure of purchasing power, an aspiration, or an entitlement—although whether to a minimum subsistence or a more expansive notion of comfort would be bitterly disputed. For many European intellectuals of the 1920s, the term, almost solely used as “American standard,” captured in one phrase the threat or the promise of the increased economic clout of the United States, Fordism as an economic strategy, and a new politics of material abundance. On both sides of the Atlantic, all of these meanings were hotly contested by economists, reform sociologists, political leaders, and the labor movement. In short, some historical scrutiny seems in order. What did the concept mean and when? What light would a genealogy of the “standard of living” shed on the prehistory of “mass consumption” or the transition to new consumer regimes of the twentieth century?