Collection: 20s

THE BIRTH OF MASS CULTURE

THE BIRTH OF MASS CULTURE

During the 1920s, many Americans had extra money to spend, and they spent it on consumer goods such as ready-to-wear clothes and home appliances like electric refrigerators. In particular, they bought radios. The first commercial radio station in the U.S., Pittsburgh’s KDKA, hit the airwaves in 1920; three years later there were more than 500 stations in the nation. By the end of the 1920s, there were radios in more than 12 million households. People also went to the movies: Historians estimate that, by the end of the decades, three-quarters of the American population visited a movie theater every week.

 

But the most important consumer product of the 1920s was the automobile. Low prices (the Ford Model T cost just $260 in 1924) and generous credit made cars affordable luxuries at the beginning of the decade; by the end, they were practically necessities. In 1929 there was one car on the road for every five Americans. Meanwhile, an economy of automobiles was born: Businesses like service stations and motels sprang up to meet drivers’ needs.

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The 1920s was a decade of increasing conveniences for the middle class. New products made household chores easier and led to more leisure time. Products previously too expensive became affordable. New forms of financing allowed every family to spend beyond their current meansADVERTISING capitalized on people's hopes and fears to sell more and more goods.

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Warren G. Harding's Pro-Business "Normalcy"


Harding's Treasury Secretary, financier Andrew Mellon, cut income tax rates for the wealthiest Americans from 73% to 25%. The capital thus liberated fueled the skyrocketing stock market and helped the Jay Gatsbys of the world to achieve an unprecedented level of material affluence, but it also exacerbated the maldistribution of wealth between rich and poor—by 1929, the richest one-tenth of one percent of Americans owned as much wealth as the bottom 42%9—and may have created an unsustainable financial bubble that led directly to the Great Depression.

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Demand for the multitude of new products that emerged in the 1920s was pumped up by a new industry, advertising, which developed new methods of enticing buyers to desire new products through new media like the radio. The minstrel-show radio sitcom, Amos n' Andy, became a smash nationwide hit... sponsored by Pepsodent toothpaste. Through such sponsorships, the advertising industry grew in perfect harmony with the emerging industries of mass culture—especially network radio and Hollywood cinema. The emergence of broadcast networks and proliferation of studio-linked movie theaters made possible the development of a robust nationwide mass culture. For the first time, a Detroit factory worker, a San Francisco longshoreman, and a Birmingham domestic could be expected to enjoy the same radio programs and watch the same films... and to smoke the same cigarettes and use the same tooth paste promoted on screen and on the radio.

Rural America: Left Behind by Modernity

However, the prosperity of the 1920s was not universal. In 1920, nearly half the nation's population still resided in rural areas, dependent upon agriculture for survival. And the Roaring Twenties were unkind to America's farmers. The decade began with the end of a period of great prosperity. World War I, by disrupting the agricultural production of much of Europe, had created enormous demand and high prices for farm products throughout the world. Farmers in America, like other areas that hadn't been turned into trench-lined battle zones, increased production accordingly and reaped great profits. However, the war's end allowed the resumption of normal European production, and suddenly the world faced a huge glut of agricultural products, with no market of buyers.

From 1920 to 1921, farm prices fell at a catastrophic rate. The price of wheat, the staple crop of the Great Plains, fell by almost half; the price of cotton, still the lifeblood of the South, fell by three-quarters. Farmers, many of whom had taken out loans to increase acreage and buy efficient new agricultural machines like tractors, suddenly could not make their payments; throughout the decade, farm foreclosures and ruralbank failures increased at an alarming rate. Agricultural incomes remained flat, with rural Americans' wealth falling far behind their urban counterparts. Rural electrificationincreased at a snail's pace, with more than 90 percent of American farms still lacking power into the 1930s. The proportion of farms with access to a telephone actually fell during the Roaring Twenties.

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