The new, the new!


John Sloan, New York City from Greenwich Village 1922

By 1918, the consumer society had started and technology governed the public sphere.

People took for granted motor cars, electricity (by 1929 2/3 of American households had it), electric lights, electric motors, piped water and gas, gas cookers in the home, soaps, vacuum cleaners (in 1919 one in four homes had one), washing machines, refrigerators, radios. As you know, mass manufacturing, the assembly line, standardization of parts, products, and consumer goods flowered; Henry Ford made the manufacture of consumers as well as cars a priority. “Sizes” were developed in the clothing industry to make standardized goods to be bought off the shelf by a population (including great immigrant diversity) to be thereby Americanized and standardized thanks to what they consumed.

By 1920, Americans had more than 9 million autos; by 1925, they had more than 20 million; by 1930, they owned 26.5 million

The communications revolution and modern mass media took off. Tabloid newspapers proliferated; by 1929, U.S. citizens placed over 64 million telephone calls a day; the first commercial radio broadcast came in 1920; by 1926 NBC had started, CBS following in 1927; 10 million households had radios in 1929; and Americans attended movies—40 million in 1922 and, by 1929, 90 million were going each week (out of a population of 120 million).

Lifestyles became modern: people talked of being modern, wearing modern clothing, acquiring modern appliances, having a new spirit of “pep” or “get up and go”: they became modern employees and consumers. Cultural mores also changed. 1920-1929 commenced the roaring 20’s; jazz and swing became popular; the “flapper” became the new lifestyle model; a revolution in sexual mores challenged the “purity” campaign of Victorian and progressive reformers (74% of U.S. women born between 1890 and 1920 remained chaste until marriage; of those born after 1910, only 32% did).

A fascinating side-note here is that electricity became a metaphor for this new kind of energy running through society, people’s psyches, and bodies. As Louis Nye, in Electrifying America, puts it, electricity became “a metaphor for mental power, psychological energy, and sexual attraction” and that it “merged with new therapeutic conceptions of the psyche and the self.” Electricity, Nye writes, “was a magical fluid, a nerve-tingling “juice,” a tonic. Such ideas still survive in figures of speech. Consider: “She really got a charge out of seeing you,” or “He’s gone on a vacation to recharge his batteries . . . . An “energetic” person was “a human dynamo,” a powerful performance was “electrifying” and an angry person might “blow a fuse” . . . . Americans reimagined themselves in electrical terms as beings “plugged in” and “juiced up” but liable to occasional “short circuits” in logic or “shocks.” Since they could be “electrified” with excitement, they could also “be turned on and off.”

Further, they could be “overloaded” “short circuited” and “burned out”; they could “go out like a light” and “get their wires crossed” or get “bright ideas.” Attracted to each other, they “felt the electricity.” In short, linguistically at least, Americans welcomed technology into their bodies, hearts and even psyches as the sign of the “new” flowing through them (“potentially”) individually as well as socially.

Contemporary social critics fretted about and enthusiasts celebrated this consumerism as the end of American self-discipline and the Puritan tradition (Puritans became identified as people who feared pleasure) and as undermining social order by blurring class distinctions.

Writers and artists often took eager part, however, in the experimentalism of the time, establishing a new bohemian/avant-garde culture in England and France, and even in America. Key to this development were the rise of a host of new “little magazines” and “little presses” and the invention of a series of artistic “movements” that usually centered about the discovery of new literary and painterly techniques (tools, tools! To be developed and used by specialists . . . ) to represent the new, modern world. These uniquely modernist technique-based movements included Imagism, Impressionism, Vorticism, Cubism, Objectivism, stream of consciousness writing, the mythic method, Surrealism, Primitivism, Dadism, and the variable foot. Though tied often to a specific technical innovation, they seemed nonetheless to their developers and audiences to promise (often in millennialist tones) much more, such as social renewal and even revolution in the face of deepening crisis.

But writers and artists also criticized the “new” as vigorously as they participated in its creation. They excoriated the rising tide of materialism, crass commercial mass culture, bourgeois self-satisfaction, the decline of the west from eras of imagined greatness and primacy, the mechanization and urbanization that uprooted people and led to the alienation of all but especially intellectuals and marginals, and the know-nothing vulgarity and provincialism that accompanied all this. (Sherwood Anderson, for example, walked out of his job in his family’s paint factory, saying “I teach anti-success.”)

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