Transcript: 1920s Consumer Culture

In the decade after World War one the spread of new technology increased American
engagement with the world. American business also became more international than
ever before. People around the globe bought American products and watched
American-made movies. At the same time many Americans tried to isolate the country
from the rest of the world. Hostility to outsiders led to harsh restrictions on immigration.

Parts of the American and the world economy thrived, but the widening gap between
rich and poor and the unhealthy economic legacy of the war eventually led to a long
depression. Modern advertising encouraged demand for newly available goods and
Americans borrowed billions of dollars to buy modern marvels such as cars radios and
electrical appliances all made available through mass production.

Many Americans reveled in this new consumer culture and were proud that people
around the globe sought to emulate it. Others however decried modern mass
consumption as boorish, hollow, and vapid.

Wireless Communication

Radio developed into one of the most popular modes of communications in the 1920s.
By the end of World War I the technology and corporate structure were in place for a
revolution in communication that would allow listeners easy access to information and
entertainment created halfway around the globe. Early radios were sold as kits
assembled at home and often modified and improved by builders. These radios quickly
captured the imagination of inventive Americans eager to tinker with the shoebox-sized

Commercial radio broadcasting started on the night of November 2, 1920. A small
audience of wireless enthusiasts in the Northeast tuned into hear East Pittsburgh’s
new station, KDKA, broadcast the Warren Harding/James Cox presidential election
returns. Two years later there were 500 radio stations around the country with radios, in
3 million American homes and President Harding’s office. The hobby of the few had
become a national obsession and a 60 million dollar a year business.

Radio broadcast quickly spread worldwide. Countries in the Western Hemisphere
heavily influenced by US stations established privately owned stations, while in Europe
government set up broadcasting operations.

American companies battled each other over patent rights engaged in a heated rivalry
with British allies over who would control the airwaves. Woodrow Wilson deemed
American supremacy and radio technology important enough to help convince

General Electric to reassign patent rights and established the Radio Corporation of
America. The rapidly evolving technology spawned a powerful communications industry,
and RCA emerged as the dominant company
By 1922, the radio was the most sought-after consumer product in the nation, and radio
broadcasts were the most significant form of mass culture. By the end of the
decade, the radio had profoundly altered patterns of daily life as families reorganized
their habits to catch favorite shows.

Radio changed the way people thought and bought. As radios became increasingly
elaborate and expensive, consumers often had to buy their sets on credit, and for rural
Americans the radio provided a vital link to the broader civic and cultural life of the
nation writ large, which helped justify the purchase.

Some traditionally minded critics disapproved of the open access of the airwaves
fearing that it fostered immorality. Like other popular media of the 1920s, radio openly
expressed the sexual desires of the age. Songs like “Burning Kisses,” “I Need Lovin’,”
and “Hot Lips” floated on the air easily accessible to young people who gravitated to the
new technology with a fervor that frightened many religious and community leaders.

For African Americans, radio perpetuated nationalized old stereotypes through wildly
popular shows like “Amos and Andy” in which white actors portrayed black characters
as good-natured, submissive fools. Radio also popularized jazz and other forms of
regional music created in their culture.

Car Culture

Along with the radio, the growth of the automobile industry had a profound effect on
American society in the 1920s. Henry Ford adopted mass production techniques with
the introduction of the moving assembly line in 1903. This method allowed Ford to
manufacture his Model T quickly, efficiently, and cheaply in his Highland Park Michigan
plant. With the Model T, automobiles for the first time became affordable, versatile, and
relatively reliable. Sales of Ford’s Tin Lizzie soared. Car purchases from General
Motors and the third of the big three, Chrysler, multiplied as well.

Vehicle registration more than doubled from three million in the early 1920s to 8.25
million by 1927. By 1930, Los Angeles, with a population of
under 2 million, contained more cars than did all of Asia with its more than 800
million population.

Cars changed the way Americans viewed consumption in fundamental ways. In the mid-
1920s, Alfred P. Sloan, chairman of GM, attacked Ford’s dominant market position by
introducing new GM models every year. Sloan’s notion of planned obsolescence
boosted sales, luring consumers into purchasing new cars before their old ones wore
out. GM also increased sales by offering installment purchasing and promoting the

idea of a product ladder with different grades of cars pegged to different incomes, and
by 1927 two-thirds of car buyers used the installment plan as they sometimes spent
above their means to participate in the car craze.

In late 1927, Ford responded to GM’s innovations. Their roll-out of the more comfortable
Model A to replace the Model T resulted in a frenzy of interest from the media
and the public.

Cars revolutionized mobility. Farmers and their families could now easily travel to town
to shop, eat, and enjoy other recreational opportunities. Urban families took leisurely
Sunday drives through the countryside. Some grabbed food at the new drive-in
restaurants. Closed cars served as mobile bedrooms for teens and young adults who
wished to escape their parents’ watchful eyes. Car owners embarked on long-distance
vacations on which they could stay at an auto camp or one of the new motels popping
up along the highways. Along the way, drivers could fill up at one of the new gas
stations or to stop at one of the tourist attractions that dotted the roads.

Cars and better roads also facilitated the rapid growth of suburban communities on the
outskirts of the nation’s major cities. The population of Grosse Pointe outside of Detroit
increased 724 percent throughout the 1920s. Shaker Heights near Cleveland grew a
thousand percent. In the Los Angeles suburb of Beverly Hills swelled by two

Open spaces and comfortable homes attracted middle-class families to the new
residential communities. By the mid-1920s, automobile manufacturing was the country’s
fastest growing industry and provided much of the decades’ labor growth and
prosperity. One out of every five dollars spent by consumers went towards automobiles.
By 192,9 the industry employed almost 13% of all manufacturers.

The financial health of other industries such as petroleum, steel, glass, and rubber
also relied heavily on the auto industry. Industrialists such as Ford branched out
globally in an ultimately futile effort to find a cheap and stable source of natural rubber
for tires. Ford carved out a vast plantation called “Fordlandia” in the Amazon rainforest
in Brazil. Tire manufacturer Harvey Firestone built more successful rubber plants in
Liberia. Automakers also sold their products abroad modifying their cars for foreign
tastes, establishing subsidiaries, and building plants outside the US

By 1928, American multinational firms in France and Germany outpaced production of
domestic auto industries in both countries. By the mid-1930s, Ford and GM had
manufacturing operations in nearly every major market worldwide. US production plants
popped up in Australia, Japan, and even in the Communist Soviet Union.

Advertising for Mass Consumption
In the 1920s, advertising took on new importance as mass consumption drove the
American economy. American business, perfecting methods to make people

believe that they needed new goods, created sophisticated campaigns in print
and on radio airwaves. Ads seem to show how a product could reshape a consumers’
image and even enhance their social standing. They frequently employed movie
stars and other popular personalities to endorse some mundane products. By
gargling the same brand of mouthwash as movie Idol Rudolph Valentino, consumers
were promised a new status and even happiness as the result of a simple purchase.
Cigarette makers encouraged women to “Reach for a Lucky instead
of a sweet.”

Ads also heightened demand for amazing new home appliances such as electric
washers, stoves, refrigerators, and vacuum cleaners. Ad men of the 1920s perfected
new methods that drawn insights from psychology and anthropology to shift Americans
away from traditional values of thrift toward borrowing and spending on non-essential
personal items.

Edward Bernays, a nephew of the newly popular psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud,
pushed for explicitly sexual appeals in ads. Ads in magazines and newspapers, on
roadside billboards, and on the radio raised awareness of personal health, hygiene, and
appearance. Dramatic ads warning Americans of the shame of bad breath and the
dangers of bad manners generated remarkable sales for products as different as
mouthwash and Elbert Hubbard’s Scrap Book: A Guide to Self-improvement.

By 1927 American corporations spent more than 1.5 billion dollars per year on