Taylorism and Economic Efficiency in the 1920s


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The new prosperity was indebted, in part, to efficiency engineer Frederick "Speedy" Taylor (1856-1915), considered the founder of "the theory of scientific management." Many ideas about the scientific management of work and the work place current during the twenties had evolved in the three preceding decades under Taylor's leadership. In the 1920s, adaptations of Taylor's ideas supplied the motor driving the economy to fruition in production and distribution of goods on a mass scale.

Despite labor's abhorrence of the "speeding up" practices associated with Taylor's efficiency revolution in production and the keying of wages to measurable standards of efficiency as determined by time and motion studies, some version of these ideas gradually became standard and even generally accepted, even among workers. In a 1926 Encyclopedia Britannica entry for "Mass Production", the author, "HF," presumed to be Henry Ford, brilliantly analyzes the impact of the tenets of the early twentieth century "efficiency movement" on mass production on the assembly line in the automobile industry. Even workers cooperatives, such as those formed by farmers, were operated on Tayloresque assumptions. (DETAIL NOTE Cooperatives)

While initially Taylor's ideas had an impact primarily on the development of more scientific methods of industrial production, subsequently, a modified Taylorism helped shape the direction taken by both American business and government towards ever greater management efficiency, the gathering of exact information, and a "war" to eliminate waste. (INTRODUCTORY NOTE Herbert Hoover) Eventually, as the selections offered here fromThe Bulletin of the Taylor Society make clear, the principles of a modified Taylorism were applied widely throughout the economy, beyond the shop and the factory -- to offices in government and the private sector, department stores, automobile servicing stations, and in broader product-marketing efforts involving distribution, sales and advertising. (DETAIL NOTE Herman Hollerith)

Taylor's ideas also took root in the home -- in the realm of "domestic economy" -- where they bore fruit in such applications as "the science of household management." (INTRO NOTE The Home) The supposed goal of instituting efficiency science in the home was to help women cut down on the amount of time spent in housework and lessen the drudgery.

Christine Frederick, a consulting household editor of Ladies' Home Journal, was a major popularizer of Taylor's ideas in relation to the home. In 1912, she published The New Housekeeping: Efficiency Studies in Home Management (not included in this collection), whose second chapter is titled "Applying 'Standard Practice' and 'Motion Study' to Household Tasks." Then in 1915 came her correspondence course Household Engineering: Scientific Management in the Home (not in this collection), in the dedication to which she tips her hat to "the gospel of home efficiency," a phrase that hints at the age's tendency to see matters material and spiritual as interconnected. (INTRO NOTE Spirituality) Her magnum opus, Selling Mrs. Consumer (1929), included in our collection, is an indispensable source of information about consumers, what they cared about, and how they could be systematically appealed to. (DETAIL NOTE Christine Frederick)


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