Democracy, Technology and Lifestyle

In 1919, science and technology in the service of business changed the American way of life. In 1911, Cyrus Curtis' Ladies Home Journal and Saturday Evening Post, two of the most popular magazines for the growing middle class, gave about 60% of its pages to advertising. Curtis hired Charles Parlin, a Wisconsin school teacher to conduct the first massive market research surveys of the American consumer. Parlin first wrote Department Store Lines in 1912 and then a five volume survey, Automobiles, in 1914. In 1916, the Chicago Tribune began a campaign of house to house interviews to ascertain the buying habits of Chicago consumers. This survey was intended to make the newspaper more responsive to the needs of specific groups of consumers. To this was added the developing science of statistics. The National Bureau of Economic Research in its pioneering study, Income in the United States: Its Amount and Distribution 1909-1919, announced that per capita income had risen slightly in real dollars during that period, but that those who had the highest incomes had slipped from 33 to 25%. The conclusion? The middle class was growing, as was its buying power. Sociology and mathematics in the service of business gave American advertising industry its marching orders and the key to those orders was the "woman shopper."

"Woman is a shopper. Out of that fact has come the modern department store. Partly by nature and partly by education woman is a comparer of values... (Parlin, 1912)

The new technologies of automation, time management and mass production made great numbers of products available. The new research, marketing ideas and distribution of products was often directed toward women and offered new employment opportunities, first in the great Sears catalogue house, and later in telephone sales. Minority women found job opportunity in sales at the catalogue houses, but they were still denied employment in the department stores.

Some people promoted the idea that American Democracy meant that the working class had the same opportunities as the capitalist class, at least the opportunity to be consumers. New products and new technologies were marketed to the working and middle classes. Henry Ford's campaign to make the Model T available to the average middle class American set an example for American business. His pricing and production policies were seen as patriotic, democratic contributions to America and, indeed, Ford campaigned for the Senate on this record. Ford introduced profit sharing or "Bonus" plans that tried to blur the distinction between the capitalist class, factory owners, and the working class employees. In 1919, the General Motors Acceptance Corporation was established to extend automobile ownership, credit, buying power, and the habit of consumer debt to the average American. In turn, consumer demand, driven by need, novelty, and status gave a start to dozens of automobile manufacturers. For those who could afford to "feel" rich there was the Maxwell. For those who were rich there was the Apperson.

The automobile was changing the American way of life. A few years after 1919 Robert and Helen Lynd conducted a minute sociological study of Muncie, Indiana and addressed the new habits of the automobile society.

"No one questions the use of the auto for transporting groceries, getting to one's place of work or to the golf course, or in place of the porch for cooling off after supper on a hot summer evening; however much the activities concerned with getting a living may be altered by the fact that a factory can draw from workers within a radius of forty five miles, or however much old labor union men resent this new alternate way of spending an evening, these things are hardly major issues. But when autoriding tends to replace the traditional call in the family parlor as a way of approach between the unmarried, the `home is endangered' and all day Sunday motor trips are a threat against the church; it is in the activities concerned with the home and religion that the automobile occasions the greatest emotional conflicts... ".

Complete List of Documents in this Section