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A consideration on early 20th century American culture


By Mike Mercer


The Montréal Review, May 2011


In this article I aim to explore what it may have felt like to live through the many changes of the early 20th century. It was unquestionably an age of progress for many Americans; if we take progress to mean change. Despite the fact that most people regard progress as positive improvement, change for the better, there are always a few who see the alterations in life as a mixed blessing. This should be kept in mind when reading my work; I believe that the age in question was one of great change, but not all change should be assumed to be improvement.

Imagine that you are 10 years old in 1900, living in a small rural American town. The nation's population is some 76 million people, with about 60 % of them living in rural townships just like yours. Everyone knows of the big cities, but few people in your town have ever been to one. Although the railway crosses the continent, making it possible to ride the train from sea to shining sea, you do not have a station in your town. It requires a two hour wagon ride to reach the nearest rail station. Of course you could make the trip faster if you were on horseback across country instead of sticking to the main road. Like almost everyone in town you know how to ride. Poor is the family that does not own at least a couple of horses.

Imagine that you have 3 brothers and 4 sisters. Most of the farming families have about 8 children, although the shopkeepers in town tend to have a few less. The idea that a family would have only 1 or 2 children seems mighty strange to you. Certainly a family like that would be the subject of gossip, until a more interesting subject came up. Indeed word of mouth is the main way information is conveyed in your community. It is nearly impossible to do anything without it being seen by a neighbour, who will inevitably talk about it. To find out what is going on in distant places, like other states or maybe overseas, you read the newspaper, if you know how to read. It is a mark of pride that your town has its own paper; every town of any significance had a printing press. But really if you want to know what is going on locally all you need to do is have a chat will "old Misses Emerson" who keeps up on all the gossip.

Now try to imagine that you have grown up for the first 10 years of your life with no electricity. Candles, lanterns, and other flickering flames are the normal sources of light when the sun goes down. Electric light is something you have heard about but never seen. Indeed it is quite normal to sleep soon after sunset and to get up with the dawn. The rhythm of nature is a guiding factor in life; you seldom pay much attention to the clock. Most houses do not even have a clock and only the important people in town have pocket watches. You don't need them, because the church bell always strikes the hour.

In many ways your early life is very much as it was for your grand-father. The wonderful progress of the 1800s that you have heard about is mostly confined to the big cities. Life in a small town has changed very little in ways that directly affect the average individual. For example, the telegraph is a great invention but most people seldom have reason to use it. The goods you have are locally made of wood, leather, linen and iron. Rubber is one of those new-fangled substances that are imported from trees in the South Seas. Plastic and all the petroleum products simply do not exist. The steam engine is the symbol of modernity. Iron and coal are the commodities of power.

Like most of the children in your community, you attended the one room school house and learned all you were forced to from the one teacher in town. The Bible was part of your education just as much as History or Mathematics. For you the Civil War was not ancient history it was an event in the living memory of the older folks. Likewise, talk of Indian raids out West were not distant debatable facts, they were just before your time. Several letters from your uncle, who had gone west, told exciting stories about his close calls with the Redskins. By 1900 the West as an open frontier was essentially at an end; it had been more or less tamed. However this did not mean that the men who had done the taming simply disappeared. For example, Buffalo Bill Cody ran a traveling Wild West Show, which toured America and even went over to Europe. He remained quite active until his death in 1917.

Imagine that the only music you know has always been live. If there is music in the air, somewhere near by is someone playing it. Anything else is simply inconceivable to a 10 year old living in 1900. Entertainment for you includes barn dances, listening to storytellers, and the occasional travelling theatre troop that comes to town. The key factor that is so basic you would not even be aware of it, is that all your entertainment is live and potentially, if not deliberately, interactive. You call for the band to play a certain song, you can ask the storyteller to elaborate on some detail, and you can hiss and boo or holler and applaud at the performers. They hear you and they react.

Having made an attempt to describe the frame of reference for an average small town American youth at the opening of the 20th century, I will now move along through the years and offer an analysis of the changes that he will face. To understand how dramatic some of these changes are we must try to ignore many of the aspects we in the 21 st century take for granted as being normal parts of life.

1900 to 1910

Although some inventors, like Edison and Marconi, had already established the basics of revolutionary technology, such as film and radio. These new culturally influential technologies did not become common overnight. The spread of electric power and the light-bulb was a necessary first step that began in big cities and only slowly spread to the rural areas. The shock of a country visitor to electrically lit central New York in the early 1900s should not be underestimated. Not a cultural creator in itself, the electrification of America was perhaps the most significant factor of change. It made almost every other form of progress possible. So we must tip our hats (most everyone wore hats at the time) to Edison, Westinghouse and Tesla. But first perhaps we should make a phone call. Thanks to Bell in the late 1800s we could do so in most of the big cities by 1900. However making a call at that time was quite different than it is today. The rotary dial and the automatic switch board would not be introduced for some time. Making a call meant talking to the operator and getting her (they were always women) to connect you to the address you wanted.

In the first decade of the 20th century there was something more important than technology at work in shaping America's mental landscape. One could call it a cultural factor, in that it defiantly helped to shape the way some people looked at the world. The rise of Social Darwinism took hold of the intellectuals in the late 1800s and spread to the general population in the early 1900s. It was taken as a scientific truth, never mind that it was a theory about civilization adapted from a theory about natural selection. "Survival of the fittest" could be used as an explanation for a great number of things. In its social form Darwinism explained that the better nation would survive life's difficulties and naturally triumph over the inferior nations. The fact the white colonial America had dominated black slaves and nearly exterminated red Indians was thus explained as a natural and even progressive feature. This was held not simply as an opinion by many people at the time, but as a scientific truth.

With an ideology like that in the background it is no surprise that America developed the Melting Pot model in 1908 to deal with the massive immigrant movement. People were welcome to America, so long as they became good Americans. But even then some people were not allowed to succeed. Those who stood out because of their color were considered inferior whatever they might do.

This attitude of white superiority was proven very well in the life of black boxer Jack Johnson, as Bederman explains in "Remaking Manhood". Johnson directly challenged the pride of the white man by claiming to be the best boxer alive. In light of the assumed superiority of the Anglo-Saxon male, this challenge could not be left to stand. So it was that Jeffries the best white boxer faced Johnson. White America expected Jefferies to win. It was shocked at his loss. Although Social Darwinism could explain one victorious black man as an abnormality to the general inferiority of the race, this was little comfort for the public. In many ways Johnson hade lived out the American dream, he was a self-made man, the best that he could be. But somehow he was still a second class citizen.

1910 to 1920

It was during this decade that the bulk of the population would shift from being rural countryside folk to urban city dwellers. By 1920 about 68% of Americans lived in cities. This move was in large part due to the combined economic push and pull factors at work. The money to be made in farming was not increasing as it was in the industrial and office jobs. Also the opportunities for advancement on the farm were just as limited as they had always been. By 1910 it was clear to many that small-scale capitalism was on the decline. A man could no longer expect to become the owner of his own shop; he had to face the prospect of working for some large entity. As Bederman points out in the "Remaking Manhood", this change caused many men to redefine themselves in terms of masculinity and measure of success. The average man had to reach for a goal that was reasonably possible to be achieved. So if the old measure was no longer attainable, a new standard of self worth had to be developed.

The shift in masculine values also was a key element that would lay the ground work for the modern age in a way that people at the time could hardly expect. I am referring here to the swing from seeing thrift as a virtue to seeing it as a limitation; in other words the dawn of the consumer society. With real wages actually going up, it was possible to spend money on items outside the realm of the necessary.

Entertainment was what Americans spent their money on, as well as the new technological products of the day. Thus we saw the rise of Hollywood starting in about 1912. Moviemakers who had been scattered all over the nation, making short films for the Nickelodeons began to gravitate towards the wide, open sunny land of California. Also in 1912 was the Radio Act which set up the regulating of the air waves. Although radio was of little cultural or commercial use at this time it held serious potential that would begin to be realized after the Great War. Until about 1915 radio was limited to being a wireless telegraph. Only after this date did actual voice broadcasting become regular.

Aside from the obvious effects the Great War had on America, we should consider the partnership it helped to form between Hollywood and the government. In the prewar period it seems clear that the film industry made no conscious effort to create culture. A few film makers did deliberately use the medium to deliver meaningful messages, but for most it was about making money, entertaining the audience so they would come back. With the creation of the Committee of Public Information in 1916, which was charged with overseeing government propaganda, an entertainment product became a valuable tool of influence. Americans were not merely united in seeing a show; they were united against an enemy. In my opinion this marks a critical point between the creation of culture as a sort of unconscious by-product in the quest for profits and the deliberate production of ideas aimed at shaping the public's mind.

Before we enter the Roaring Twenties, let us consider our average American, born and raised in a small town, now living and working in a big city. Try to imagine just how many things in his life are different from the way they were in his youth. If he was like most of his generation he embraced the changes as progress, not thinking that anything important was being lost.

1920 to 1930

For many people the decade was a marvellous time. There were Vaudeville shows, Theatre plays, Moving pictures, Dance halls, Jazz clubs, and the rise of radio networks. There was mass-production and mass-consumption. Ford led the way with his sensible capitalist idea that his workers should be able to afford to buy his products. The average American man could earn enough to support his family and entertain them, even if he did not own his own business. However the gap between the wealthiest and the poorest was increasing. Also many people still live beneath the poverty line, especially the blacks. They were faced with the status of being second class citizens. Social Darwinism would allow them a place but certainly not one equal to the white Anglo-Saxons. The assumed superiority of the "real Americans" was as yet unshaken.

But who were the real Americans? This question began to concern the scholars more and more. They became obsessed with digging up America's folk past, and putting an idealistic face on it. The Anti-modernist movement had begun. Everything back then was good and simple - they would claim. Somehow the backwoods hillbillies of the Appalachia Mountains became "the folk" who had avoided all the ills of modernity.

If we stop to consider this counter-culture phenomenon, we notice two very interesting things going on. First we see most of the people involved are well educated urban-dwellers; people who grew up with progress, not the people who grew up on the farms. The book "Passing of the Great Race" may have sparked the concern, but I think the film "Metropolis" best drives home the worries about modernity and its direction. Secondly when we reverse the basic question, we end up asking: Who are not real Americans? The answer to this seems to be anyone who clings to cultural traditions that are clearly from some other place, or anyone who visibly stands out as being of non-white ancestry. All are free to pursue the American dream, so long as they swim in the Melting Pot and are properly Americanized. Unfortunately for visible minorities, like the blacks, they cannot escape their assumed inferiority.

One very striking feature of the 1920s that I noticed in regards to race attitudes was the humour. You could tell all sorts of jokes that today would be scandalous because of their racial bigotry. At the time it was normal to make fun of other races, in mockery and with insults in front of a mixed audience including members of the victim group.

Although some artists worried about the future and the direction America was going in, offering images of a dystopia a dark endless city with grim oppressed inhabitants, other artists offered visions of utopia, a marvellous city with happy citizens and every convenience. Neither guess would turn out quite right. But it would be worth comparing the exhibition "Titan City - A Pictorial Prophesy of New York 1926 - 2026", that was put on by Wanamaker's Department store in 1925 with the way the New York looks when we do reach 2025.

By the late 1920s people, like our average American from a small town, had come to expect being able to own many products that simply had not existed back in 1900. The items introduced as luxury goods were now essentials of domestic life. People were willing and able to buy a seemingly endless amount of goods. This was (and is) at the heart of the consumer society: people have to buy goods and services in order to keep things rolling. This presented a clear problem when the stock market crash of 1929 started the Great Depression.

1930 to 1940

People like to buy things, they like to go out and be entertained, but when they have no confidence in the future they fall back on thrift, the old virtue that had been stuffed into the closet. As consumers hesitate to spend money, companies cut back on production and put people out of work. Thus the spiral effect went. Out-of-work people are even less likely to spend money on non-essentials than worried people. But companies need to sell to stay alive. Their answer in part was more aggressive advertising. The 1930s saw huge progress in the art of marketing. Advertisers used and refined the propaganda techniques that had been developed to rally Americans during the war. The consumer culture was not dead; it just had to be motivated properly. Specialized ads, with zing, did not merely offer products for sale; they offered dreams. "Buy our car and you are getting freedom."

The problem, from a business point of view, was that no fundamentally different items were being created. If every house had a radio set by 1933, how could radio makers stay in business? How could people be convinced to buy new radios? The answer was the additional "social value" of a new set. It looked more modern and anything new was assumed to be better than anything old - never mind that the performance improvements were small. It was the idea of modernity in its positive form, linked to other noble values like freedom that sold items.

The Depression did more than simply shake people's confidence in the economic future. It caused many to doubt the idea of progress and the assumptions of superiority. If America was so great, how could such a horrible thing happen to it? The cold scientific logic of Social Darwinism held no comfort now. If America had some weakness then it deserved to fall into ruin - the theory would say. While some people questioned the role that rapid progress may have played in bringing about disaster, others questioned America's moral stand point. "How could a nation of good Christian character (a long standing assumption that had not been shaken) treat some of its citizens so badly?" people asked in reference to the discrimination towards blacks in particular.

It was in this climate of questioning that Billie Holliday began to sing "Strange Fruit" in 1938. The timing, I believe, was important to the acceptance of the powerful message contained in the song. As the influence of the ideology that intellectually supported feelings of white superiority declined, along came a hauntingly beautiful, emotionally charged, song. This was very different from the confrontational challenge to the establishment offered by Jack Johnson back in 1910. The song said "look what your people did to my people, you should feel shame" while Johnson claimed "I'm the better man" then went out and proved it, every way he could. Holliday had the luck to sing the right song at the right time and the skill to do it so well that it became her song - never mind that it was written by a white Jewish guy.

In conclusion we should take a moment to imagine our average man born before the turn of the century in a small farming town, now age 50, as he sits in his New York brownstone apartment with his family after a hard day's work. Happy that he still has a job at all. Wanting to escape the worries of life in the Depression, he turns on the radio. What might he be thinking as he listens to the recorded music of the Benny Goodman Orchestra?



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