The Business of America and the Consumer Economy of the 1920s

Thursday, March 7, 2013
7:00–8:30 p.m. (EST) Enter Classroom Enter Forum


Edward Balleisen
Associate Professor of History, Duke University
National Humanities Center Fellow

About the Seminar

“The chief business of the American people is business.” President Calvin Coolidge said those oft-quoted words in a speech to newspaper editors in 1925. Coolidge and many others went much further, claiming that business was nothing less than America’s religion. “Through business, properly conceived, managed, and conducted” wrote efficiency expert Edward E. Purinton in 1921, “the human race is finally to be redeemed.”

How did business acquire its cultural significance in the 1920s? What effect did the obsession with business have on American society? And what of the prosperity it bred? Was it anchored in sound economics, or was it sustained only by dreams and illusions?

Suggested Additional Resources

  1. Recommended Viewing
  2. Recommended Reading
    • Alfred Chandler, The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business. (Cambridge, Mass., 1977), Part IV
    • Ellis Hawley, “Herbert Hoover, the Commerce Secretariat, and the Vision of an ‘Associative State,’ 1921-1928,” Journal of American History 61 (1974): 116-40.
    • Pamela Laird, Advertising Progress: American Business and the Rise of Consumer Marketing. (Baltimore, 1998)
    • William Leach, Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture. (New York, 1993)
    • T. J. Litle, Jr. “Frequency of Change of Automobile Models,” Bulletin of the Taylor Society, Aug. 1925, 196-98.
    • Roland Marchand, Advertising the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity, 1920-1940. (Berkeley, 1985)
    • Thomas McCraw, American Business Since 1920: How It Worked. (2nd ed., 2009), ch. 1.
    • Alfred Sloan, My Years with General Motors. (New York, 1963)
    • Susan Strasser, Satisfaction Guaranteed: The Making of the American Mass Market. (Washington, 2004).
    • Andrea Tone, The Business of Benevolence: Industrial Paternalism in the Progressive Era. (Ithaca, 1997).

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Assigned Readings

  1. The Transformation of Productive Capacity
    1. “Enter the General of Science,” Valentine Karlyn, New York Times.
    2. “Details of the Unified Buick Assembly Line,” Automotive Manufacturer.
    3. American Telephone and Telegraph Corporation, 1929 Annual Report. (excerpt)
  2. The Creation of Mass Consumerism
    1. “Marketing Washers and Vacuum Cleaners in the Home,” E. L. Bennett, Electrical Review.
    2. “The Macy’s Second Home Electrical Show,” Dry Goods Economist. Image #s 124, 125, 135, and 136.
    3. “More Light on Instalment Selling,” Literary Digest.
  3. The Science of Selling
    1. “Putting the American Market under the Microscope,” Paul Cherington, Advertising and Selling Fortnightly.
    2. “The Psychology of Advertising,” American Jeweler.
    3. “Merchandising to Be Taught: New School at USC,” Los Angeles Times.
  4. The Invention of Modern Corporate Management – General Motors v. Ford
    1. “What I Have Learned about Management in the Past 25 Years,” Henry Ford, System.
    2. “The Great Automobile Duel of 1927,” J. George Frederick, The Independent.
    3. “Getting the Facts,” Alfred P. Sloan, Automotive Industries
  5. Laissez Faire and Its Limits
    1. “Oil – The Lure of Modern Adventure,” James Young, New York Times.
    2. “Substantial Progress in Co-Operation,” Franklin Snow, Railway Age.
    3. “Business and Ethics,” John Flynn, Forum.
    4. “The New Day,” Herbert Hoover, New York City Campaign Speech.
    5. General Electric Corporation, Annual Report, 1928. (excerpt)

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