Renegade History of the United States: Chapter Nine

Shopping: The Real American Revolution

 

If you were a typical American living in the early part of the nineteenth century, you had to plant, tend, harvest, slaughter, and process your own food. You had to make your own clothing, and all of it had to be strictly utilitarian: no decorations, unnecessary colors, or “style.” You worked from before dawn until late at night. Your only source of entertainment was books, and most that were available were moral parables. You spent your entire life within a fifty-mile radius of your home. You believed that leisure was bad. There was no weekend.

By the end of the nineteenth century, you as a typical American bought most of your clothing from stores. You owned clothes whose sole function was to make you attractive. You ate food that had come from all over the country. You drank cold beer and ate ice cream. If you lived in a city, you went shopping at Montgomery Ward, Sears, Roebuck, Macy’s, Abraham & Straus, Jordan Marsh, Filene’s, or Wanamaker’s. If you lived in the country, you shopped from the same stores by mail order. You read dime novels whose sole purpose was to provide you with fun. If you lived in a city, you went to amusement parks, movie theaters, and vaudeville shows. You went dancing. You rode on trains. You worked fewer hours than your parents and many fewer hours than your grandparents. You believed that leisure was good.

Who was responsible for this revolution in everyday American life? Scholars have attributed it to the vast natural resources of the North American land mass; the lack of trade barriers among the states; the building of mass, integrated industries such as railroads, steel, oil, wheat, lumber, and meat; the early development of the modern corporation in the United States; technological advances in production such as rubber vulcanization, the sewing machine, refrigeration, the Bessemer and open-hearth steel processes, the assembly line, and electric light and power; as well as the assistance of the federal government to economic development in the form of protective incorporation laws, land grants, the authorization of stocks and the backing of bonds, protective tariff s to shield American companies from foreign competition, and armed intervention against labor strikes.

And yet not a single consumer good would have been produced if people did not want them or did not allow themselves to seek them. Without desire there would have been no demand. Without demand there would have been no production. What was necessary for the consumer revolution to take place was a radical change in the way Americans thought about desire, pleasure, leisure, and spending. Without renegades, we'd all still be farmers.

 

The “Amusement Problem”

Looking back from the twenty-first century, it may be hard to imagine that most Americans in the nineteenth century believed that materialism was evil, thrift was virtuous, and the pursuit of pleasure was dangerous at best.

But American politicians, clergy, intellectuals, business leaders, and labor leaders were virtually unanimous in condemning “indulgence.” Francis Wayland, a prominent theologian, antislavery activist, and longtime president of Brown University in the decades before the Civil War, spoke for many of the cloth when he warned that “thoughtless caprice,” “sensual self-indulgence,” and “reckless expense” were not only sinful but also socially ruinous. “We consume values in the lower gratifications of sense when we expend money for shows, for mere delicacies of the table, and for any thing which the only result is, the gratification of a physical appetite.” The first markets for consumer goods were merely “new avenues to temptation” that undermined the virtue on which the republic depended. To Wayland, “objects which yield no other utility than the mere gratification of the senses, or, which are rendered necessary by command of fashion, or the love of ostentation” were worthless. Henry Ward Beecher, another major religious thinker and social reformer, argued in his widely read Lectures to Young Men (1848) that “satisfaction is not the product of excess, or of indolence, or of riches; but of industry, temperance, and usefulness.” Secular thinkers were no less hostile to the buying of things for pleasure. The great writer Henry David Thoreau represented an entire generation of American intellectuals who denounced “games and amusements” and embraced “Spartan simplicity” as the only condition for happiness. These and other spokesmen for the American way of life agreed that the people should resist food that exceeded what one needed to function, clothing that was fashionable not functional, homes that provided more than just adequate shelter, and goods that were mere playthings.

The first study of the spending habits of ordinary Americans, authored in 1875 by Carroll D. Wright for the Massachusetts Bureau of Statistics of Labor, found an increasing and alarming amount of purely pleasurable items in American homes. Most troubling was the quantity of alcohol being consumed, its effects on general spending habits, and the resulting aggressiveness of workers for higher wages. Wright argued that temperance “induces frugal habits, and frugal habits prevent strikes.” What was needed was the creation of the “sober, industrious, and thrift y” worker who rejected “riotous living,” “the display of enervating luxury,” and “the insane attempt to keep up appearances which are not legitimate.”

Even the wealthy attacked spending. Andrew Carnegie amassed one of the largest fortunes in history but renounced the pleasures it could bring. Carnegie’s family emigrated from Scotland and settled in Pittsburgh in 1848, when he was thirteen. To help support the family, young Andrew worked as a steam engine tender, a messenger, and a telegraph operator. A Pennsylvania Railroad official noticed his talent and drive and offered him a job with the railroad. Carnegie quickly worked his way up the company hierarchy, earning enough money to invest in his own businesses. After the Civil War, he decided that steel was the future of America, and in 1873 he invested all of his assets into developing the first steel mills in the United States. Over the next twenty years, as the chief of the global steel industry, Carnegie made himself into one of the wealthiest men in the world. And yet he worked nearly every day of the year, normally beginning before first light and finishing near midnight, and rarely indulged in luxury. By the end of his life, he had given away almost all of his fortune to charities. In 1889 Carnegie wrote an article that supported the system of industrial capitalism but attacked the pleasures it produced. “The Gospel of Wealth” preached a fundamental tenet of what some have called “bourgeois” culture: that one must accumulate wealth but not enjoy it. The only “proper use” of one’s money was “for public ends” that “would work good to the community.” Rather than spend money for his own pleasure, the rich man should “attend to the administration of wealth during his life, which is the end that society should always have in view, as being that by far most fruitful for the people.” To ensure that “the selfish millionaire’s unworthy life” would be redeemed, Carnegie proposed massive estate taxes on the wealthy so that they would be forced to “have enormous sums paid over to the state from their fortunes.” Rich men should be self-sacrificing patriarchs:

This, then, is held to be the duty of the man of wealth: first, to set an example of modest, unostentatious living, shunning display or extravagance; to provide moderately for the legitimate wants of those dependent upon him; and after doing so to consider all surplus revenues which come to him simply as trust funds which he is called upon to administer, and strictly bound as a matter of duty to administer in the manner which, in his judgment, is best calculated to produce the most beneficial results for the community—the man of wealth thus becoming the mere agent and trustee for his poorer brethren, bringing to their service his superior wisdom, experience, and ability to administer, doing for them better than they would or could do for themselves . . . The only man wealthier than Carnegie was John D. Rockefeller, the “titan” who during his career from 1870 to 1897 as head of Standard Oil Company owned most of the world’s petroleum supply. Rockefeller never smoked, drank, or traveled for pleasure. He neither attended nor gave parties. He taught his four children to abstain from candy, forced them to share a single bicycle, and dressed them in hand-me-downs. His son, John Jr., was the youngest and the only boy, and so until the age of eight he wore only dresses. Rockefeller’s biographer Ron Chernow calls him “a prisoner to the Protestant work ethic” who “attacked recreational interests with the same intensity that he had brought to business,” “engaged in strenuous rituals of austerity,” and “grimly sought to simplify his life and reduce his wants.” Curious that men with such great wealth refused to en- joy it, the German social scientist Max Weber concluded that they became capitalists not so that they could enrich themselves, but because they felt a responsibility to manage society—to be super-patriarchs. To them, this was a religious “calling” that, if fulfilled, would grant them redemption and grace.

Ordinary Americans who preferred leisure over work had no spokesmen. All the major American labor organizations in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were as deeply committed to the work ethic as were the first Puritan settlers. In 1866 William H. Sylvis founded the National Labor Union, the first federation of trade unions in the United States, not only to protect the economic interests of its members but also to “elevate the moral, social, and intellectual condition” of all workers. This meant, above all, instructing them that to labor was to “carry out God’s wise purposes.” The Knights of Labor replaced the National Labor Union as the major national labor organization in the 1870s and 1880s but carried forward the commitment to work over leisure. In 1879, when Terrence Powderly, a Pennsylvania machinist, took over the Knights, he opened its ranks to women, blacks, immigrants, and unskilled workers. This was a radical step in a period when most craft unions would admit none of them. But Powderly’s intention was to spread a conservative message to the uninitiated. All new members of the organization were required to recite a “Ritual of Initiation” that declared, “In the beginning, God ordained that man should labor, not as a curse, but as a blessing.” The purpose of the organization was “to glorify God in [labor’s] exercise.” Powderly and the Knights advocated reducing the number of labor hours but only because they believed excessive work undermined the work ethic—men became machines unable to appreciate the glory of labor.

The American Federation of Labor, which dominated the labor movement from its founding in 1886 to the 1930s, was no less committed to the work ethic. The AFL’s longtime president, Samuel Gompers, derided “unmanly, dishonorable, puerile” avoidance of work. Like the Knights, the AFL campaigned for shorter hours not to increase the leisure and freedom of workers but to keep them from hating work. Even radicals loved work and hated leisure. Eugene Debs, the principal leader of the Socialist Party at the turn of the century, declared it his mission to “plant benevolence in the heart of stone, instill the love of sobriety into the putrid mind of debauchery, and create industry out of idleness.”

This ascetic ideal was one of the criteria of respectability in nineteenth-century America. Indulgence in luxury was seen by both the wealthy and large portions of the working class as un-American.

The generation of “progressive” intellectuals—the founders of what is now called liberalism—differed with business, religious, and labor leaders on many issues but shared the belief in the evils of leisure and consumption. Writing at the turn of the twentieth century, during the first great thrust of industrial production, these thinkers hoped to find a way to keep a society newly awash in pleasure from sinking into chaos. They faced what the historian Daniel Horowitz calls “the dilemma materialism posed to the values of hard work, saving, and self-discipline.” Simon Patten, one of the most influential economists of the early twentieth century, argued for an increase in the material wealth of ordinary Americans, but only so that they would not seek solace from their poverty by succumbing to “debasing appeals to pent-up passions.” With stomachs full and heads adequately instructed, workers would be able to resist the temptations of the nickelodeon, the burlesque show, and the amusement park. “Raised above grinding necessity,” as Horowitz describes Patten’s argument, “immigrants and the poor would become willing puritans.” Thorstein Veblen produced the most influential progressive critique of consumption in a series of books and articles, most notably the scholarly classic The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899). Like Patten, Veblen feared that the impoverishment of workers was leading them to lives of undisciplined pleasure-seeking. He found “a substantial ground of truth in the indictment” of working-class Americans as “improvident and apparently incompetent to take care of the pecuniary details of their own life.” The miserable conditions of workers produced a “growing lack of deference of and affection for” the “conventional features of social structure.” Untrained in the art of restraint, when workers did gain more than subsistence wages, they spent it on useless fun. What others had “euphemistically spoken of as a rising standard of living,” Veblen saw as simply the “cumulative growth of wasteful expenditures.” A host of progressive studies of working-class spending habits aimed to determine the exact degree of material wealth—and not one dollar more—that would provide “the power to ensure one’s primary faculties, supply one’s essential needs, and develop one’s personality.” The conclusion of most of these studies was that to avoid socially harmful “excesses,” the “minimum amount of goods and opportunities” should also be the maxi- mum amount. Typical was Robert Chapin’s The Standard of Living Among Workingmen’s Families in New York City (1909), which labeled “visits to cafes, ale houses,” tobacco, gambling and lotteries, “ornaments (personal),” “theater and public festivities,” and even candy, soda water, and ice cream for children as “luxuries” and “extravagances.” Progressive investigators such as Mary Kingsbury Simkhovitch called for a reduction in working hours so that workers would have less fun, not more. “The hotter the pace at which work is set, the more recreation will sink to the sensual and the exciting,” she concluded.

The longer and the intenser the hours of labour, the more debasing the forms of recreation become . . . the saloon will exist as long as there is overwork. . . . Dancing is another of the pleasures of the senses, innocent and delightful in itself but oft en debased to the most vicious uses, and, when accompanied by drinking, as is oft en the case with the public dance halls, is frequently provocative of sensuality. Dancing oft en is loved as drink is loved. It is the element of abandon, of relief from the absolute deadness that comes from overwork that can find pleasure only in the most highly stimulating forms of amusement.

According to the progressive economist Frank Streightoff , low wages, irregular employment, and “the physical and nervous strain of his work” debauched the working man and caused him to spend his money wildly: In his intellectual and moral life the workman is by no means all that could be desired. He thinks and talks impurely, his home life is largely a matter of convenience, there is oft en little or no spiritual comradeship between husband and wife. The saloon exacts a terrible tribute, both directly in money, and indirectly in physical and mental suffering. Amusement tends strongly to the sensual, dancing leads frequently to gross immorality . . .

The solution to what Streightoff called “the amusement problem” was “social and literary functions similar to those so much enjoyed in the settlements, and by instruction public lectures upon subjects of real educational value.” Similarly, in her study of working women in Boston, Louise Marion Bosworth found spending on “innumerable forms of amusement and indulgence” and blamed it on overwork. “Long hours and low wages do not supply the surplus vitality demanded for the proper enjoyment of these evening privileges” such as lectures, classical music concerts, and classes at settlement houses, where immigrants were taught to be American. “If the wages were sufficient to provide nourishing food and generally comfortable living conditions, and if the working day were short enough to allow more time for recuperation, the working girl might make good use of these chances for intellectual, physical, and social development.” As Horowitz puts it, “In numerous unexamined ways, the budget studies” undertaken by progressives “attacked immigrant and working-class culture, hoping to replace it with the bourgeois emphasis on self-help and personal discipline.” Opposition to shopping grew especially severe during World War I, when bourgeois disgust over the new working-class culture took the form of well-organized campaigns against drinking, prostitution, and venereal disease, and in the moral condemnation of working-class spending habits. Shortly after the United States entered the war in 1917, Senator Porter McCumber issued a warning about the “moral dangers resulting from our orgy of opulence.” He said that “this revelry in extravagant habits, this unquenchable demand for amusements, for continuous mental intoxicants” threatened to bring the nation to its knees. A number of government officials and intellectuals saw the war as an opportunity for America to redeem itself by renouncing its desire for more stuff . When the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the National War Labor Board reported in 1918 that on average, “wage earners and the low or medium salaried families” had more than doubled the percentage of their spending on items other than food, shelter, and clothing since 1875, government policymakers and intellectuals set out to establish a “minimum comfort” budget for working-class families that would be frugal and thus patriotic. Leading progressive economist Stuart Chase, who in 1917 joined the Federal Trade Commission and publicized an ascetic “War Budget for the Household,” wrote that it was “not only a personal necessity but a patriotic duty to eliminate waste and extravagance” by cutting back on luxuries and that to be a good American was to eliminate spending on “baubles, surfeits, and poisons that serve no rational human need, and only succeed in polluting and perverting our national life and character.” Chase hoped that Americans would embrace a new frugality “in peace no less than in war.”

 

The Highest of Heels

Had the ascetic ideals of nineteenth-century America remained dominant, there would be no movie theaters, no shopping, and no weekend. But those ideals were eroded by a generation of young Americans who simply chose to live differently. This is the story of a revolution, but a revolution without leaders or manifestoes or militias. It was driven by hundreds of thousands of obscure working-class women—women such as the Jewish garment workers on the Lower East Side who went uptown to shop for flowered hats and to Coney Island to shop for boys; packinghouse workers from the Polish section of Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago who went to the movies several times per week; and Italian sausage makers in South Philadelphia who shopped at Wanamaker’s “every chance we got.”

Agnes M. was one such revolutionary. Born in 1883 in Treves, a German city on the border with France, Agnes was raised by nuns at a Catholic reform school, where she lived for most of her childhood, and by a mother who was “very stern” and “was almost a stranger to me.” In a memoir she wrote for a magazine in 1903, Agnes told of how at the age of fi ft een she began work as an unpaid apprentice for a milliner, laboring from eight o’clock in the morning until six o’clock and sometimes as late as nine o’clock in the evening. Despite a life filled with restraints, Agnes was “used to plenty of play.” She flirted with boys, danced, “had a good voice for singing,” and had “plenty to say for myself.” Though the boys and girls at her school were kept separate, she “found means of conversing” and fell in love with “a tall, slim, thoughtful, dark-haired boy named Fritz.” The couple carried out their illicit relationship through the bars of the fence that divided the playground. When they were caught laughing at one of the nuns, Agnes was whipped on the hands with a rod.

While working for the milliner, she began to think of leaving her life: “I grew more and more tired of all work and no play, and more and more anxious to go to America.” Her mother, who “could not understand that I wanted amusement,” finally surrendered to her wish for freedom and sent her to live with her sister in New York City. For the first time, Agnes made her own money and could spend it as she pleased. “I wanted more pleasure,” she remembered. She took a job as a baby nurse for a wealthy family, in part because it gave her more free time. Agnes seized her days off . She traveled with friends to the beaches of Long Island and Brooklyn. “If we go on a boat, we dance all the way there and all the way back, and we dance nearly all the time we are there.” But the place that moral reformers called “Sodom by the Sea” was her favorite destination. “I like Coney Island best of all,” she said. “It is a wonderful and beautiful place.”

What Agnes most liked to do was dance. Most remarkably, like the slaves who pitied the awkward moves of their masters, Agnes looked down upon the elite and the moral reformers who believed that Coney Island and dance halls were beneath them. “The trouble is that these high people don’t know how to dance,” she said. “I have to laugh when I see them at their balls and parties. If only I could get out on the floor and show them how—they would be astonished.”

Like many in this generation of renegade young women, Agnes threw off the cultural expectation that she should marry immediately. “I don’t want to get married yet, because when a girl marries, she can’t have so much fun—or rather, she can’t go about with more than one young man.” In New York she found a “tall, dark” man and was impressed that he was an assistant in a large grocery store “and soon will go into business himself.” But she thought that she might marry him for a more important reason. “I like him, because I think he’s the best dancer I ever saw.”

Agnes M. was part of a massive movement of women into the streets. In the early nineteen hundreds, nearly 60 percent of all women in New York City aged sixteen to twenty worked outside the home, most were single, and a substantial number lived alone. These were dangerous, renegade “women adrift .” According to historian Kathy Peiss, they “pushed at the boundaries of constrained lives” by refusing to limit themselves to the obligations of daughters, wives, and mothers. They were the first generation of American women who lived to a great degree for their own pleasures and freedom. Taking jobs freed them from their fathers’ homes and reduced their economic dependency on men. Though they oft en hated their work, they loved the liberties it brought them. By bringing them out of the confines of the home and away from the regulation of parents and police and priests and rabbis, the world of work gave a generation of women the kind of freedoms that previously had been enjoyed only by very “bad” ladies. For the first time in American history, great numbers of women made their own wages, spent their own money, lived much of the day on their own, walked the streets unescorted, and established their own liaisons with men. Ironically, many saw work as an avenue to pleasure. “Far from inculcating good business habits, discipline, and a desire for quiet evenings at home,” says Peiss, “the workplace reinforced the wage earner’s interest in having a good time.”

Moral reformers and vice investigators noticed greater numbers of women in previously male domains. By the 1910s, according to Peiss, “women increasingly frequented saloons.” A Committee of Fourteen investigator took note of this tendency in 1917 when he observed that not all the women in a West Side saloon were prostitutes: “2 of the women that were here seemed to be respectable, they had been out marketing and had their market bags with them.” Working-class women also opened the door to gambling. Historians have found evidence that women in large cities during this period were avid players of daily lottery games known as “policy” or “numbers.” One newspaper reported that “many of the players are women who live in the tenement districts and spend almost every cent they earn in playing ‘gigs,’ ‘horses,’ and ‘saddles.’ ”

These women typically worked ten to twelve hours a day at taxing, menial labor but shocked many with the energy they still had for fun. The manager of a dressmaking factory noted with amazement that her employees “all took Sunday for a gala day and not as a day of rest. They worked so hard having a good time all day, and late into the evening, that they were ‘worn to a frazzle’ when Monday morning came.” This ferocious love of pleasure was perhaps best articulated by a New York saleswoman who helped many of these women prepare for nights out: “You see some of those who have complained about standing spend most of the evening in dancing.” This was of no small concern to employers, such as the training supervisor at Macy’s. “We see that all the time in New York,” he said, “many of the employees having recreation at night that unfits them for work the next day.”

Another Committee of Fourteen investigator in 1914 observed the loose behavior of women workers in a restaurant: “They were putting on their aprons, combing their hair, powdering their noses, . . . all the while tossing back and forth to each other, apparently in a spirit of good-natured comradeship, the most vile epithets that I had ever heard emerge from the lips of a human being.” Even at Macy’s, where managers worked to enforce the highest standards of respectability among the female employees, one investigator found “salacious cards, poems, etc., copied with avidity and passed from one to another, not only between girls and girls, but from girls to men.” Though not all the workers behaved with such wanton disregard for proper behavior, there was “more smutty talk in one particular department than in a dance hall.” Many working-class women formed social clubs in which, according to Peiss, “young women’s desire for social freedom and its identification with leisure activities spilled over into behavior unsanctioned by parents and neighbors, as well as middle-class reformers.” Female mail-order clerks at Siegel-Cooper Dry Goods Store formed the Bachelor Girls Social Club as a place where “we enjoy our independence and freedom.” In many clubs, independence and freedom meant shattering conventional notions of womanhood. One club member reported to a moral reform group that “in all [clubs] ‘they have kissing all through pleasure time, and use slang language,’ while in some they ‘don’t behave nice between young ladies.’ ”

Like nineteenth-century slaves who dressed above their station, working- class women of the early twentieth century crashed through the limits placed on their bodies. Middle-class author Bertha Richardson remarked in 1904, Did you ever go down to one of our city settlements full of the desire to help and lift up the poor shop girl? Do you remember the chill that came over you[?] . . . There must be some mistake, you thought. These could not be poor girls, earning five or six dollars a week. They looked better dressed than you did! Plumes on their hats, a rustle of silk petticoats, everything about them in the latest style.

Even female factory workers dressed far above where they were expected to be. During a 1909 strike of shirtwaist makers in New York City, a reporter for Collier’s Weekly magazine was stunned to see the high fashion on display:

Lingerie waists were elaborate, puff s towered; there were picture turbans and di’mont pendants. . . . This was a scene of gaiety and flirtation. My preconceived idea of a strike was a somber meeting where somber resolutions were made, . . . “But they don’t look as if they had any grievance,” I objected. It is always painful to renounce a preconceived picture.

Newspaper reports of the strike similarly noted that the picketing women, none of whom earned above a poverty wage, were “in their best gowns, were picturesque enough, and looked far from starving or downtrodden” and “all looked prosperous.” Mary Augusta LaSelle, author of The Joy in Work and other moral lessons for young women, reported in 1914 that: comparatively few girl wage-earners dress in a proper manner when at their work. The hat is usually freakish, either in size, shape, or color . . . the wide collar is of cheap and gaudy lace; the suit is of inappropriate material and color; the much embroidered and oftentimes unclean lingerie waist is too low in the neck and too short in the sleeves, and many times insecurely fastened in the back . . . the feet even in January are enclosed in gauze stockings and pumps with the highest of heels . . . the girl who wears the fresh tailored waist with its clean white collar and tidy little jabot or tie presents a far more attractive appearance than does the flashily-dressed girl in her attempts at finery; and in any store or office the girls who are most quietly and tidily dressed are, as a rule, the ones who are of greatest service to their employer . . . Just as nineteenth-century whites attacked slaves for “foolishly” imitating aristocrats in their dress, LaSelle called the high aspirations of working class women stupid:

The unsuitable dressing of the working girl is also due to the fact that she lacks sufficient judgment to discriminate concerning a style of dress suitable to a woman of wealth who rides down the avenue in her limousine, who walks in her thin silk stockings and tiny slippers only upon thickly-carpeted floors, and whose gorgeous hat may not be out of place when it adorns the head of a wearer in a private equipage. The working girl’s hat, shoes, dress, and general attire are in too many cases a fantastic imitation of the costly costumes of women of large incomes. It seems difficult for our girls to discriminate between a style of dressing suitable to a wealthy woman of leisure and that suited to a girl in an office on a salary of possibly $12 per week; or to distinguish between really valuable clothing and pinchbeck imitations.

Women such as these were also the vanguard of a new sexual revolution. When researchers surveyed one thousand public school children in New York in 1910, nearly 90 percent of the girls but only one-third of the boys reported they knew how to dance. According to Peiss, in the large public dance halls “promiscuous interaction of strangers was normative behavior.” A vice investigator in 1917 described the scene in one of the city’s more reputable dance halls:

I saw one of the women smoking cigarettes, most of the younger couples were hugging and kissing, there was a general mingling of men and women at the different tables, almost every one seemed to know one another and spoke to each other across the room, also saw both men and women leave their tables and join couples at different tables, they were all singing and carrying on, they kept running around the room and acted like a mob of lunatics let lo[o]se. Moral reformer Julia Schoenfeld reported that in New York dance halls “vulgar dancing exists everywhere, and the ‘spiel,’ a form of dancing requiring much twirling and twisting, . . . is popular in all.” The kind of social dance called “spieling,” in which a couple spun around seemingly out of control, “particularly cause[d] sexual excitement” because of “the easy familiarity in the dance practiced by nearly all the men in the way they handle the girls.” One investigator who observed this new culture reported that “most of the girls are working girls, not prostitutes, they smoke cigarettes, drink liquors, and dance [dis]orderly dances, stay out late and stay with any man, that pick them up first.”

Dancing, which became massively popular in the 1920s, was central to the sexual revolution. In 1924, in New York City alone, six million women and men attended dance halls. Over 10 percent of the women and men between the ages of seventeen and forty in New York went dancing at least once a week, and the numbers were almost certainly comparable in other large cities. This was a trend among whites and blacks, immigrants and native born, and virtually every ethnicity. For the first time in American history, women and men socializing, dancing, and displaying their sexuality in public was both commonly accepted and practiced by the majority. More than sixty city governments attempted to regulate the styles of dancing in the dance halls to make it less sexual and “safer” for young women, but the dance craze grew only stronger through the 1920s and into the 1930s and 1940s.

 

Women Against Girls

When feminists spoke of “freedom” for women, they did not mean the freedom of desire. Bertha Richardson spoke for her fellow feminist reformers when she reported that after seeing well-dressed working girls, “you went home thoughtful about those girls who wasted their hard-earned money on cheap imitation, who dressed beyond their station, and you failed to see what enjoyment they got out of it.” The mission of women’s leaders was clear: “to those who have little and try to look as if they had more, we teach morals and standards.” The feminist social worker Lillian Wald, who founded the Henry Street Settlement on the Lower East Side of New York City, recalled her failure to change one young woman’s love of material pleasure. “A girl leading an immoral life was once sent to me for possible help,” Wald remembered in her memoir. Raised in poverty, the girl had worked demonstrating products in a department store, where the display of expensive finery on the counters and its easy purchase by luxurious women had evidently played a part in her moral deterioration. Her most conscious desire was for silk underwear; at least it was the only one she seemed able to formulate! And this trivial desire, infinitely pathetic in its disclosure, told her story.

This reaching beyond one’s social status was what Bertha Richardson called the “vulgar vanity” of the girls who were forced to work but lived to play. Leaders of the labor union that organized the shirtwaist strike were so disturbed by the finery of the strikers that they attempted to impose a limit on the amount of money that each member of the union could spend on clothes.

Feminists were almost universally opposed to the new culture of young, working-class women. One feminist group, the New York Association of Working Girl’s Societies, counseled women to avoid lowbrow popular entertainment so “that the tone of womanhood be raised.” Th e group’s journal warned that young girls not “be anxious to acquire personal popularity in the work room, if the price of it be the sacrifice of purity of thought.” Some members of the NYAWG nonetheless complained of the group’s rejection of fun. One working woman noted in the journal that the group’s membership had declined and asked, “Is it not because, as our name implies, we are working girls and though desirous of mental, physical, and spiritual culture, we most need pleasant recreation?”

At the center of the culture of leisure and pleasure were movies, amusement parks, and dance halls, three phenomena widely considered to be causes and exemplars of social disorder. The Reverend John J. Phelan of Toledo, Ohio, was one of many moral reformers who set out to study the dangers of the new fun. In 1919 Phelan conducted a survey of amusements in his city and was shocked to learn that in the downtown area alone there were “fifty-four rooms used for dancing purposes” and that they were all located “in the neighborhood of the picture houses.” The close proximity of the two types of venues was no coincidence, Phelan concluded: “From personal observation, it was noted that a hasty and promiscuous acquaintance is oft en made at the picture shows which later develops in patronage of these dances.” This slippery slope from movies to dance halls to sex was frequently noted by progressive and religious authorities concerned with the great numbers of young people who moved into the cities—either from rural areas or overseas—during the Industrial Revolution and especially during the military buildup of World War I. These people had left “the restraining and refining influences of the established home” and were “outside the fold.” Phelan found that because the cities lacked sufficient moral regulations, “ ‘cheap’ popular shows—in all that the name implies—and the many unsupervised and commercialized forms of amusement are greatly patronized.” The sheer numbers of potential renegades were overwhelming. In Toledo, a medium-sized city of just over 243,000 at the time, Phelan estimated “that at least 20,000 young persons live in the 300 rooming houses which are located within walking distance of the picture houses.” Most disturbing to Phelan was the report of “an authority in the business” that despite their relative poverty, “the larger part of these persons attend two or three times a week, and a considerable number, nearly every night in the week and Sundays.” Historians have found similar rates of movie-going in Chicago and New York at the time.

Reverend Phelan outlined an awesome number of “general dangers” at the movies, including “promiscuous mingling with undesirables,” “physical contact with the unclean,” “laxity of home-control,” “promiscuous mingling with feebleminded,” “incapacity of sustained mental application,” “creation of adult standards for immature youth,” “exaggerated viewpoints of life,” “awakening of morbid curiosity,” “lack of discrimination of what constitutes travesty and serious,” “false conceptions of sin,” “development of an abnormal imagination,” “creation of sickly sentimentalism,” “vivid portrayal of loose ethics as affecting home-ties, relation to state and society,” and “false delineation of what constitutes true Americanism.” Th =e dangers for girls were especially acute: “It is estimated that two-thirds of the girls who appear before the Court charged with immorality owe their misfortune to influences derived directly from the movies, either from the pictures themselves or in the ‘picking up’ of male acquaintances at the theatre!”

 

A Revolution of Desire

In 1919, the year after the war in Europe ended, four million American workers—a staggering 22 percent of the country’s workforce—went on strike, the most ever in a single year in the United States. The immediate cause of the strikes was the government’s repeal of wartime price controls, which caused skyrocketing inflation. The strikes were so large that they shut down telephone service in New England, the police force in Boston, the fire department in Cleveland, and nearly the entire city government in Chicago. They halted almost all the railroads in the country, almost all the coal mines, the entire steel industry, and the whole city of Seattle. Many in the government believed that the strikes were led by radicals acting in concert with the Bolsheviks—the communist revolutionaries who had taken control of Russia. This belief provided the basis for what came to be called the Red Scare. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer initiated a series of mass arrests of immigrants who were suspected of being subversives. Several thousand people were detained during the Palmer raids, and some six hundred were deported back to their countries of origin. While most historians now condemn the Red Scare as an unwarranted attack on civil liberties, there is nonetheless wide agreement that most of the strikes of 1919 were, in fact, led by radicals. Some scholars even argue that the great strike wave was a moment of revolutionary, anticapitalist potential in the United States. Yet there is far more evidence that the strikes of 1919 were part of the emerging mass consumer culture than they were a move against capitalism. 

Though many labor leaders were radical anticapitalists, only a tiny fraction of the rank and file was associated with a left -wing organization. Virtually all the strikes of 1919, even the few that were led by radical labor leaders, were carried out to demand higher wages, shorter hours, better working conditions, or union recognition—and nothing else. Not one significant strike was carried out by workers with the goal of taking control of their industry. In fact, one would be hard pressed to identify a strike in 1919—or any strike in the United States in the twentieth century—that was not for the so-called bread-and-butter objectives of more money and less work. In other words, the so-called Red strikes were more likely an effort by millions of ordinary people to improve their material lives—to make more money so they could spend more money, and to work less so they could enjoy, among other things, the new pleasures available with that money.

Indeed, several magazines and newspapers specifically blamed working- class consumption for the labor upheavals that were taking place. A writer for Harper’s argued that because of the scarcity of labor during the war, workers had become “so pampered, so flattered, so kow-towed to,” and that after the war they were “demanding money, not for the necessities of life, but for the luxuries . . . [They want] motor-cars and the delicacies of the table, the jewels and the joy rides.” Albert Atwood, a writer for the Saturday Evening Post, announced that workers “are today gratifying wants long felt and never before possible of realization.” He criticized working-class people, but especially women and African Americans, for their attempts to live above their station. Atwood mocked factory girls and black workers who bought fancy clothes without asking about the price. Ordinary laborers refused to invest in worthwhile things, he said, and instead put their money “into mere show, into clothes, diamonds, and the like.” Many commentators after the war, including Attorney General Palmer, argued that instilling frugality into the minds of working people would stop the strikes and social unrest that threatened the nation’s security.

 

The Customer Is Queen

Most historians of the “consumer revolution” argue that it came from above, directed from the offices of advertising agencies. The standard story is that advertisers created desires and invented false needs in the minds of consumers. They seized consumers’ minds, established “cultural hegemony,” and were nothing less than the “captains of consciousness,” according to the title of one of the leading histories of the advertising industry. However, in the eighteenth century, the first mass marketers of consumer goods understood that to be successful meant to treat the “consumer as king”—or, more precisely, as queen. Josiah Wedgwood and Thomas Bentley, the first manufacturers of pottery and among the first capitalists to seek broader markets for consumer products, acknowledged to each other that they could not allow their own tastes to determine what they produced. When Wedgwood found that a particular vase which he thought unattractive was widely popular, he did not hesitate to mass produce it. “I do not see any beauty in it but will make something of it,” he told Bentley. To guide their production, Wedgwood and Bentley spent as much time as possible in their London shop, observing what customers purchased and asking them their opinions. According to business historian Regina Lee Blaszczyk, the partners “acknowledged consumer sovereignty and crafted a strategy aimed at meeting demand, rather than shaping it.” They “perfected techniques that registered the nuances of consumer taste and channeled this information into the factory’s design shops.” At first responding only to the preferences of the London elite, Wedgwood and Bentley found that the principle of consumer sovereignty applied to the lower classes as well. Rather than seeking to dictate taste to “the Middling Class of People,” the pair acknowledged that “Their character is established” and would only “buy quantitys” of products that they already knew they liked. By the end of the eighteenth century, this strategy made Wedgwood the best-selling pottery line on both sides of the Atlantic. Similarly, Frederick Hurten Rhead, one of the leading Anglo-American potters of the early twentieth century, learned that only consumers, and not style experts, could “tell the manufacturer what to make.”

In the 1920s, what Nation’s Business called the “economic necessity” of “fact finding” compelled the creation of the audience survey. Procter & Gamble pioneered the method by sending questioners door-to-door in neighborhoods across the country, keeping track of the number of items returned, and interviewing shoppers about their likes and dislikes. The company would not launch a product that had not gone through rigorous vetting with consumers. Paul T. Cherington, research director of the J. Walter Thompson advertising fi rm, said in 1931, “the consuming public imposes its will on the business enterprise.” The company promised to get “the facts from the real consumer.” The central problem for any business, according to Cherington, was to understand the “fussy and troublesome ideas” that consumers had about particular products. The most successful enterprise would attempt not to manipulate but “to please and satisfy the public.” To Cherington, the consumer held “the balance of power” in the marketplace, and “the measure of the manufacturer’s or merchant’s skill” was the extent to which it knew and satisfied the consumer’s desires. By the end of the nineteenth century, every major business that catered to consumers was conducting market research surveys to find out what they wanted, then producing it as soon as they could. Ordinary Americans with new, extraordinary desires were voting with their feet and their hard-earned money every day, electing new lives for themselves and a new way of life for everyone.

Anyone who believes that advertisers control consumers need only be told a few names: Tucker, Henry J., Ford, Edsel, Mercury Park Lane, Studebaker, Wagonaire, Lincoln Blackwood, AMC Marlin, Buick Reatta, and Eagle Premier. These were among many automobiles that were marketed strenuously by their manufacturers but quickly discontinued due to weak sales. Moreover, of the 30,000 new products introduced in grocery stores aft er 1960, more than 80 percent were pulled from the shelves by 1980. In the 1980s, consumers rejected even more products. Of the 84,933 grocery store products introduced after 1980, fully 86 percent did not survive to 1990. And ask any Hollywood executive how easy it is to please the customer. Th ere have been thousands of big-budget, highly advertised fi lms that lost millions for studios. Indeed, it has been estimated that at least 80 percent of Hollywood productions have lost money, while many have lost fortunes.

No less an authority than Carl Laemmle, founder of Universal Film Manufacturing Company, spoke to the inability of Hollywood to control its audience. Testifying before a congressional committee in 1916 on the moral content of his films, Laemmle reported that he had sent a survey to twenty-two thousand theater owners titled “What Do You Want?” The studio chief said that he expected 95 percent of the respondents to ask for clean and wholesome films, but “instead of finding 95 percent favoring clean pictures, I discovered that at least one-half, or possibly 60 percent, want pictures to be risqué, the French for smutty. . . . They found their patrons were more willing to pay money to see an off -color than a decent one.” Because “one after another [theater owner] said that it would be wise to listen to the public demand for vampire pictures,” Laemmle argued that fi lm producers could not be the “guardian of public morals.”

From early in the history of American marketing, producers understood that, in the words of the advertising trade journal Printers’ Ink in 1929, “The proper study of mankind is man, but the proper study of markets is woman.” This was especially true in the burgeoning markets for fun. Several historians have shown that the early motion picture industry was driven largely by female consumption. According to historian Nan Enstad, “during the same years that working women went on strike in unprecedented numbers, they were creating a motion picture ‘craze’ ” when “neighborhood theaters, called nickelodeons, boomed after 1905.” Though women possessed far less money and had far fewer opportunities for leisure than men, they comprised nearly half of movie audiences in the early years of the motion picture industry. Consequently, producers increasingly geared their films to female audiences, including “a long line of motion picture serials featuring female heroines” such as the long-running and enormously popular series What Happened to Mary and Hazards of Helen. Working-class women flocked to amusement parks as well and helped make them the living symbols of the end of the Victorian age. “Coney Island in effect declared a moral holiday for all who entered its gates,” the historian John Kasson has written. “Against the values of thrift , sobriety, industry, and ambition, it encouraged extravagance, gaiety, abandon, revelry.”

At first catering to a “sporting” male subculture in the 1870s—with venues for horse racing, prizefighting, and prostitution—by the end of the nineteenth century, newly liberated working-class women made Coney Island their own. To cater to what was becoming the resort’s most ardent patrons, proprietors built dancing pavilions up and down the boardwalk. These open-air dance halls became the scene of “thousands of girls who are seized with such madness for dancing that they spend every night in the dance halls and the picnic parks,” as one observer put it.

The mostly female crowds that flocked to the dancing pavilions drove the rapid growth of Coney Island at the turn of the century, spurring the construction of amusement parks to lure in the throngs. Three parks— Dreamland Park, Luna Park, and Steeplechase Park—catered to the new sexual culture of New York’s working girls. Rides at the amusement parks “encouraged closeness and romance” by deliberately jostling patrons so as to cause patrons to bump into one another. The Barrel of Love, a revolving drum at Steeplechase Park, went even further by tumbling riders on top of one another. Other rides, such as the Canals of Venice and the Tunnel of Love, simply sent patrons into dark passageways. Without a population of women wishing for such encounters and willing to experience them in public, Coney Island and American amusement parks as we know them would not have existed. As Kathy Peiss puts it, “the desires of such working women as Agnes M., who loved to dance, see the men, and have a good time, shaped the emergent mass culture.”

The generation of working-class women who drove the American revolution of leisure and pleasure overcame the opposition of protective parents who didn’t want them to work outside the home or have their own money. They broke through the common belief that women seeking pleasure in public spaces were immoral and degenerate. And they simply ignored the Puritan and Victorian proscriptions against “indolence,” “extravagance,” and “dissipating luxury.” They created the weekend, and for this alone, they should be considered national heroes. But they accomplished something even more phenomenal. Against all odds, they created American fun.

Add New Comment

0 Comments