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  • 10.19.10

Renegade History of the United States: Chapter Nine

Shopping: The Real American Revolution  

Shopping: The Real American Revolution

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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

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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 &

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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.

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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

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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

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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”

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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

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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

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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

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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.

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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

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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.

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