Mass Consumption

cash register

America had industrialized at a remarkable rate after 1870 when it was a third-rate power well below the industrial output of Germany, France and Great Britain. By 1890 our factories exceeded the combined output of those three nations. But what happened after World War I was even more amazing. Industrial output doubled during the 1920s due to increased use of electricity, new advertising, mass consumption and better machines. Automobile tycoon Henry Ford stated that “Machinery was the new messiah.” And how could one argue with him – in 1913 the assembly line struggled to produce one new Ford auto every 14 hours. By 1925 that same plant sped a car out its doors every 10 seconds!

Electrical use, especially in factories, multiplied more than 20 times between1900 and 1929. Manufacturing was up 264% during the same time period. Telephone use increased 1500%; 12,000 pairs of silk stockings sold in 1900 – 300 million were purchased in 1929. And while there were 4,000 automobiles in America in 1900, by 1929 there were 26 million – one for every five people. Patents registered in the 1920s equaled the total number for the previous 25 years. Americans had embraced machinery, innovation, and consumerism to reach dizzying heights of change and growth.

Pierre du Pont's desk set

 
view of "Mass Consumption" area of exhibit

Consumerism was the name of the game as the installment plan allowed everyone to borrow against the future for the present. Advertising whetted everyone's appetite for a new car or radio, now! Advertising pushed them to buy the latest fad such as Mah Jongg, or go to the bigger, newer stores to buy their groceries. Newspapers were filled with ads, and radio broadcasts were replete with promotions of products.

Corporate profits were up 62% between 1923-29, and the number of those who paid taxes on personal incomes of over $1 million a year rose from 75 in 1924 to 283 in 1927. Money was to be had, but at the other end of the spectrum 71% of all families had incomes under $2,500 (considered the minimum standard for a decent living) and workers’ wages only increased 11% over the last seven years of the decade.