Laboring to Prosper


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Although the Coolidge-Consumerism collection is not intended to be a history of labor in the 1920s, there probably can be no adequate discussion of consumerism that does not say something about the ultimate consumers -- those who collected and spent wages as workers in the economy. As the comprehensive 1926 Encyclopedia Britannica entry for "Mass Production", from the pen of "HF," presumed to be Henry Ford, indicates, mass production and mass consumption were two sides of the same equation, both of them dependent upon the worker.

While the increasing mechanization of industry meant that many established factory jobs were lost, and in some cases lost jobs were replaced by lower-paying service jobs, most people were able to maintain and many were able to raise their standard of living. Skilled and, particularly, semi-skilled workers in industry were among the chief working-class beneficiaries of the twenties prosperity and best able to take advantage of the availability and expansion of consumer credit. On the increase among middle-class workers were professional and white-collar, service-industry jobs. These workers, along with skilled and semi-skilled workers, were the base for mass consumption.

The twenties were a decade in which many of the defining characteristics of late twentieth century life were determined, particularly with regard to mass movements of society. Mass production, mass distribution, mass marketing, and mass consumption held sway, and the rise of a mass service industry followed, due in part to so-called "technological unemployment," the forced movement of workers out of blue-collar jobs as a result of the increased efficiency of new machinery and processes.

As a percentage of the employed population, white-collar and service employment grew, while other sectors shrank. When the decade began, the traditional working class, composed of manufacturing, mining, and agricultural workers, constituted a majority of employed persons, approximately 58 percent. By the end of the decade, they were still a large proportion of the working population, about 47 percent, but a minority and declining, as they have continued to do since then. This changing profile of the work force, a defining characteristic of the period, is discussed in "Shifting Occupational Patterns", one of the chapters selected for inclusion in this collection from the classic 2-volume period study Recent Social Trends in the United States (1933). (INTRO NOTE Social Sciences)

The rule of thumb, for 1922 to 1929, is that those of so-called "low income" earned less than $2,000 a year. In Our Master's Voice (not included in this collection), his 1934 study of advertising in the early early years of the Great Depression, which casts a backward eye into the 1920s, James Rorty places 77 percent of the population in 1925 at this level. Middle class families, who could afford comforts, earned between $2,000 and $5,000 a year. The well-off and wealthy had incomes of $5,000 a year and upwards. In Prosperity: Fact or Myth? (1929), Stuart Chase's figures (pp. 83-87) are more or less in line with Rorty's. America's Capacity to Consume (not included in this collection), a 1934 study by Maurice Leven, Harold G. Moulton and Clark Warburton funded by the Maurice and Laura Falk Foundation and published by the Brookings Institution, gives information, in terms of families, for the end of the decade.

The Brookings study notes regarding the so-called wage-earning part of the population that "Non-farm families with incomes under $3,000, which are predominantly the families of wage earners, numbered 16 millions in 1929, or 59 per cent of the total number of families in the nation" (p. 67). Furthermore, "In 1929 about 70 percent of the families of the nation had incomes in the range from zero to $2,500. . . . A family income of $2,500 was in 1929 . . . a very moderate one" (p. 119). About what it describes as "skilled workers and the lower middle class," the study notes that ". . . the non-farm families whose incomes range from $3,000 to $6,000 [numbered] 4 millions in 1929, or 14 per cent of all families of two or more persons. Within these limits are several groups of wage-earning families, notably skilled mechanics, machinists, typographers, steel workers, hosiery mill operatives, and families in which there were two or more full-time workers. However, the majority of the families within this range of incomes are the families of men engaged in business or professional pursuits" (p. 71).

Farm families in 1930 are described as constituting "23 per cent of all families of two or more persons. With very few exceptions their incomes were less than $6,000 and a large proportion of them had incomes of not more than $1,500. Their incomes therefore cover about the same range as that of wage earners, skilled workers, and the business and professional families discussed" (p. 75). (INTRO NOTE Farmers)

In Advertising the American Dream (1985), Roland Marchand estimates that despite the advertising trade's pretense that all citizens were included in a "Democracy of Goods" during the 1920s, the advertisers' pitch was essentially channelled to the "families economically among the nation's top 50 percent" (p. 222).

Yet union membership declined throughout the twenties, because -- in addition to the persecution of union activists as Socialists and Communists and the formation of many company unions (unions organized by companies to keep away outside organizers) -- many workers, for a variety of reasons, experienced a rising standard of living. (DETAIL NOTE American Federation of Labor) The new acceptability of buying on the installment plan was one big reason. And even Facts for Workers, published "from the point of view of organized labor" by The Labor Bureau, Inc., conceded, for example, in the April 1926 issue, that workers' wages were in relatively good shape. In another mark of improved standards of living, the work week grew shorter, down, for many wage earners in government and the private sector, from six days, to five and a half days, even, in some cases, five days, as the Coolidge Papers case file Saturday Half-Holiday illustrates.

Not only were Americans able to spend more, then; a shorter work week meant that they had more leisure time in which to spend it. The shortening of work hours was accomplished without a substantial decrease in salary and the extra hours off on Saturday provided workers with more time for shopping, an activity obviously supportive of the consumer economy. The additional time for leisure, however, also occasioned anxiety about how to spend it "wholesomely" (INTRO NOTE Leisure).

To protect rising living standards of American workers, immigration laws, with quotas based on national origin, became increasingly restrictive in the 1920s. (DETAIL NOTE Immigrants) In many cases, the beneficiaries of this restrictive immigration policy were black workers. In waves of internal migration that had begun in the teens and continued in the twenties, African-American workers traveled from the rural South to the industrial North, in search of a higher standard of living and a less discriminatory way of life. Many worked in the automobile factories of the North. (INTRO NOTE African Americans)

Another important feature of the labor picture in the 1920s was the popularity of cooperatives. "Associationalism" allowed workers in various trades and professions to band together to better secure their members' needs and gave them a sense of power in the national economy. Many of the cooperatives formed were consumer cooperatives. (DETAIL NOTE Cooperatives)

The collection features a large number of labor-related items in addition to those already mentioned. Coolidge Papers case files on the American Federation of Labor 1923-29, the Labor Department 1923-29, and Industrial Strikes 1923-28 are pertinent. Those interested in the subject of blacks, especially black women, in the employ of the federal government may wish to look at the Coolidge Papers case file on Mary Church Terrell 1924-25. (DETAIL NOTE Mary Church Terrell)

Women in the workplace are represented in the collection by Sophonisba Breckinridge's Women in the Twentieth Century (1933), which focuses on the 1920s. (DETAIL NOTE Recent Social Trends) The voices of farm women who labored to supplement the family income can be heard in Thrift for Women (1930). The April 2, 1926 issue of Justice. A Labor Weekly. Official Organ of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union carried an article on the A.F.L.'s effort to organize the "millions of women in industry still outside the fold of organized labor." The August 1927 issue of Southern Workman features an article on "Negro Women in Business."

The Consumers League of New York expose Behind the Scenes in Candy Factories (1928) and National Consumers League material about the Prosanis label for garments represent the effort to use consumer outrage and consumer purchasing power to reform abhorrent working conditions. (DIRECTORY NOTE National Consumers League) The Prosanis label on a garment was a kind of seal of approval; it signified that the garment had been made in a factory or shop where League inspectors had determined that working conditions were safe, sanitary and fair.

A number of monographs in the collection deal with the low end of the employment picture, including The Income and Standard of Living of Unskilled Laborers in Chicago (1927) and Case Studies of Unemployment (1931). The latter focuses on growing unemployment in the late 1920s, but well before the 1929 Stock Market "crash."

Other monographs, such as the National Industrial Conference Board's 1926 study, The Cost of Living in New York City, 1926, detail the standard of living of workers across a spectrum of the employed, from industrial workers to office workers, both those who are single and those who are married and have a family. The standard of living and consumer habits of semi-skilled workers are detailed in the Heller Committee for Research in Social Economics of the University of California's A Study of the Incomes and Expenditures of Ninety-eight Street-car Men's Families in the San Francisco East Bay Region, which though published in 1931 presents information garnered in 1925. Similar kinds of data for more prosperous professional workers in 1927 are supplied by the Heller Committee for Research in Social Economics of the University of California study Quantity and Cost Estimate of the Standard of Living of the Professional Class (1928).


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