The growth of the United States consumer culture in the 1920s is a direct result of the influence of many factors, not the least of which are the twin developments of the creation and dissemination of the automobile throughout society and the growing power of advertising. The mass production of the automobile meant that individuals and families alike could journey farther from home in considerably more comfort than trains and other methods of transportation. The growth of this newfound independent mode of transportation contributed to the boom in highway and road construction across the United States, binding the population together in unprecedented ways. Advertising, likewise, became solidified into one of the most prominent marketing industries of the time, allowing commercials and advertisements to spread across the country in various mediums. The growth of advertising, therefore, contributed greatly to the growing popularity of radios, which developed into an independent industry orientated towards marketing, advertising, music, and entertainment.
Few inventions have redefined the nature of American life as significantly as the automobile. Automobiles, following their mass production beginning in the 1920s, were promoted and sold by major automobile companies like General Motors and Ford. The decline of trains in the 1920s led to the creation of a massive market that General Motors, in particular, took the leading role in exploiting and expanding. Indeed, by the end of the 1920s, “23 million automobiles were crisscrossing America on 830,000 miles of paved highways” (Varrasi 39). Automobiles continued to grow and acquire more market territory, and the brilliance of Alfred P. Sloan of General Motors allowed the company to begin the unique market specialization that defined 1920s and 30s General Motors. Sloan marketed automobiles to everyone, not just those who truly needed them or had a specific need for a particular type of automobile. Instead, Sloan “created automobile division that offered a car for every purpose and catered to specific consumer markets”, enabling GM to slip inside the American household and become a clear and obvious need for any reasonably prosperous American family (39). By the end of the 1920s, automobiles were a quintessentially American possession, present in every household that could afford it.
The invention of the automobile clearly had revolutionized American society and cultural life in ways that few people anticipated. The lower class workers who, for example, “enjoyed vacations with pay had a greatly extended radius with which to conduct their trips and vacations (Hugill 347). Economic elites also expanded their horizons, favoring trips in their cars to locations across the United States in lieu of staying in more local and grand hotels. Motoring became “deeply implicated in the youth practices of the 1920s”, contributing substantially to the growing acceptance and popularity of pre-marital sex (Ling 24). The mobility afford by automobiles ensured individuals the ability to get away from their domestic constraints and go out on dates, alone, whereas in previous eras American sexuality was defined by a far more common preference of avoiding pre-marital sex. Indeed, the automobile can be said to have “hastened the transformation of courtship in America” by affording young couples “mobility, privacy, and freedom from parental supervision” (Ling 18). The automobile, moreover, spurred the creation of massive road systems paid in part by both federal and state governments. Regardless of which aspect of society one decides to look at, the clear fact remains that the invention and spread of the automobile contributed to physical mobility and unification of much of the country.
Advertising, too, is a dominant theme of the 1920s. For the first time in American history, advertising became something real and accessible to the general population, and it did so through the use of the radio. The radio came to define the era of 1920s advertising; in 1923, for example, “an estimated 400,000 households had a radio, a jump from 60,000 just the year before” (Lewis 26). Broadcasting and advertising became a hallmark of the ways in which consumers interacted with culture and society at large. Consumerism, too, began to surface as a defining characteristic of Americans with money to spend—the “popular press preached the gospel of consumerism through the news it chose to report and through the advertisements that made the news possible in the first place” (Patnode 289). Advertising generated the profits necessary for corporations and independent radio stations to take root in the growing industry, as the realization that advertisements really did work quickly acted to spur economic growth and development in the field of marketing.
Advertising, however, could only come about if there was money available to spur it to grow. The growth of advertising is linked directly with the growth of radio stations, in which “a commercial system of broadcasting developed in which privately owned stations, using government-licensed radio frequencies, sold airtime to advertisers” (Arceneaux 76). The Radio Act of 1927 gave the government the power and capacity to regulate and control the commercialization of the airwaves. The Act, moreover, allowed the government to license out radio frequencies that would go on to almost single-handedly define the nature of American advertising and the impact it would have on American society. However, while “the rise of radio [allowed] stores ways to extend virtual sales floors to remote consumers”, advertising itself was hardly a new occurrence and merely jumped in popularity, but also its broad appeal to a large swath of consumers (Arceneaux 87). The development of this new medium, then, can be argued to be not necessarily a revolution, but a vast enhancement and upgrade of existing advertising concepts. Lastly, by the end of the 1920s, “radio had grown to be a national phenomenon dominated by national networks”, networks in which nationally-based and universal advertising would impact society as a whole (Patnode 290). Though regional centers still existed, the presence of large national networks put a corporate spin on the influence of radio and advertising.
The social impact of advertising, then, heralded the significance of the radio and the development of new ways of life. By the end of the 1920s, it was clear that the “radio was changing the interior life of the4 country” (Lewis 28). The spread of advertising and radio news allowed the nation to come together as a whole, as for the first time it became apparent that citizens in every state in the country were listening to the same broadcasts in their home. Radio brought individuals together and created shared experiences with the broader community that simply was not possible before the invention of the radio and the proliferation of the device (Patnode 290). Much like the automobile, advertising impacted American society in ways that allowed the common individual to connect and relate with his fellow citizens—for the first time in history, large swaths of society were exposed to the same material and same products. Facilitated by the automobile and fueled by the influence of advertising, American society would never be the same. In fact, the fundamental recommendations for advertising in America are largely the same.
In the 1920s, the United States experienced a shift in the ways in which society physically transported itself, and a change in the development of mass advertising. The mass production of the automobile energized American society into physical mobility, enabling the common man to journey farther from home and experience the nation as a whole. Advertising, too, enabled the individual to expose himself to the same products in California as seen in New York—a truly national sense of consumerism developed as a result of the spread and power of mass advertising.
Arceneaux, Noah. "A Sales Floor in the Sky: Philadelphia Department Stores and the Radio Boom of the 1920s." Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 53.1 (2009): 76-89. Print.
Hughill, Peter J. "Good Roads and the Automobile in the United States, 1880-1929." Geographical Review 72.3 (1982): 327-49. Print.
Lewis, Tom. ""A Godlike Presence": The Impact of Radio on the 1920s and 1930s." OAH Magazine of History 6.4 (1992): 26-33. Print.
Ling, Peter. "Sex and the Automobile in the Jazz Age." History Today 39 (1989): 18-24. Print.
Varrasi, John. "Soaring Twenties." Mechanical Engineering 127.5 (2005): 39. Print.