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POPULAR CULTURE AND CONSUMERISM IN THE 1920’S


Bridger Bishop, Eunice Jho, and Brenna Schrader

Industrialization during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries gave way to great technological advances that radically changed both popular culture and consumerism in the United States. Better technology led to increased production, communication, and transportation. These innovations, in turn, resulted in an expansion of economic relationships from local to national which connected communities across the nation to a greater degree than ever before. The standardization of modes of production led not only to a standardization of goods, but a standardization of customs, practices, and life in general as well. As society produced more goods it placed greater value on the consumption of those goods.[1]

Popular culture encouraged the wide-spread consumption of material goods via magazines and other media outlets that were able to reach a wider audience than ever before. Improvements in printing and transportation technology combined to enable the widespread distribution of periodicals across the nation, even to areas that had previously been considered remote or inaccessible. Furthermore, the ability to ship both periodicals and goods served to connect the regions of the nation to a greater degree than ever before. More and more products became available nationwide rather than being limited to a specific region. People from one side of the country could now receive the same consumer magazines as the other side, and because mass production of consumer goods also lowered costs, more people were able to participate in a consumer-driven popular culture. The rise of professional advertising during the same period combined with the widespread distribution of periodicals to encourage consumption as a part of popular culture on a nationwide scale.[2]

As a consequence of the increased availability of consumer goods, the lines of socio-economic status were blurred during this period, setting the stage for a more democratized national popular culture. Products that had once been only for the rich were now within reach for an ever increasing segment of the population. Advertisers claimed that working class people could purchase their way into the middle class and become integrated into a larger American society through their consumption.[3] Additionally, the increased regimentation of the work schedule that resulted from industrialization and factory work drew a clear line between work and leisure time that had not existed in a largely agricultural society. This was particularly the case for young women as they were increasingly drawn to factory and service jobs in urban centers.[4] With this leisure time, people could now indulge in pursuits when they previously had neither the time nor money necessary. The rise of dance halls, amusement parks, and movie theaters led to the further commercialization of leisure and a reinforcement of the role of consumption in people’s everyday lives.[5]

These new venues for leisure activities, which first appeared at the turn of the century, created an environment where young women and men mingled and where they could express their individuality, their autonomy, and their sense of style. This led to the rise of the “New Woman” of the 1920’s: a woman who was viewed as more independent and modern than her predecessors.[6] Choice was a key aspect of this independence and it manifested itself in a freedom to choose which products to consume. As popular culture embraced an evolving definition of what it meant to be a modern woman, consumption became a key component of that definition.

In conclusion, industrialization drew disparate American communities together while producing consumer goods in greater quantities than ever before. By the 1920’s popular culture was national rather than regional and this new national popular culture was driven by the consumption of readily available, mass-produced goods. This transformation altered the social landscape for women in particular and paved the way for the “New Woman” of the Prohibition Era.


[1] Samuel P. Hays, The Response to Industrialism, 1885-1914, Second Edition edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 7.

[2] Pamela Walker Laird, Advertising Progress: American Business and the Rise of Consumer Marketing (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), 32.

[3] Lizabeth Cohen, Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939, 2 edition (Cambridge University Press, 2014), 100.

[4] Kathy Peiss, Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York, Reprint edition (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986), 40.

[5] Ibid., 10.

[6] Ibid., 6.