The 1920s was an important era in America. Various factors such as the Volstead Act, which inaugurated an era of Prohibition against alcohol that lasted more than a dozen years and the women’s right to vote changed American culture. However, a more crucial transformation to the structure of American culture during the 1920s, was the rise of consumerism and materialism. “By 1922 the country had recovered from a debilitating post-war depression and entered a period of stunning industrial activity, neatly symbolised by auto manufacturer Henry Ford, whose use of mechanisation and innovative management helped him churn out affordable cars at such a spectacular rate that his success earned the label “The Ford Miracle”. (Dumenil 10)
By the mid-1920s, automobiles, telephones, consumer appliances and electricity became a modern middle-class economy. A rapid increase in the availability of mass-produced commodities produced an increase in businesses that used advertisements to sell their products. New tabloid newspapers launched after the war, like the New York Daily News achieved large circulation by covering crime, sports and scandals. Advertisers, now reaching millions of consumers on a daily basis, hired movie stars and sports figures to persuade Americans to buy all types of products, from coffee to tobacco products. Business had become America’s secular religion, thanks to advertising.
Advertising and consumerism are therefore intertwined; where there is advertising for any types of goods, there will be a want to have it, whether it is needed or not. Advertising stimulates purchase and consumption and it creates product images and perceptions, which consumers find hard to ignore. Depending on the
advertising message and the type of product advertised, consumers hope to satisfy their needs for self-actualisation and self-esteem, their need to belong, and other symbolic meanings gained through the experience of consumer consumption. The greatest boom was in consumer goods such as cars, refrigerators, radios, cookers, telephones etc. Ordinary people were encouraged through advertising to buy these goods and many could now afford what had been luxuries before the war. One reason was that they earned slightly higher wages because of the boom. Another reason was that the growth of hire purchase meant that people could spread the cost over months and even years. Although “most Americans enjoyed a higher standard of living, not everyone shared in the fabled prosperity. Many sectors of the economy, especially farming, never truly recovered from the post-war depression, and African American and other minorities continued to live in poverty.” (Dumenil 6)
It was during this time that prolific writers and filmmakers such as Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald and King Vidor produced works that made a lasting mark, shaping a scenario of the twenties for generations to come. “While there is some truth to these images [in literature] - especially among the urban, white, prosperous middle and upper classes – they overshadow the average Americans who led far more quiet lives and ignore those excluded from the prosperity of the times.” (Dumenil 8)
Sinclair Lewis saw that America was changing in the 1920s. It was, in fact, well on its way to becoming the urban, industrial nation it is today. Americans were moving to cities, working in offices rather than farms, driving automobiles, going to the movies. They were proud of being modern. To Lewis, the new America was even more of a nightmare than the old one had been. When Lewis wrote Babbitt, he
succeeded in creating a caricature of success typifying the mind-set of the 1920s. Lewis’s insightful exposure and condemnation of American values and institutions in the 1920s is effective and compelling mainly because he is such an adept satirist. He understands the conventions of humour, mockery and social commentary and he is able to draw a full and compelling portrait of an insecure and doubtful businessman in order to draw his readers into his way of thinking. In this sardonic portrait of the upand-coming middle class during the prosperous 1920s, he perfectly captures the sound, the feel and the attitudes of the generation that created the cult of consumerism. F. Scott Fitzgerald echoed this opinion when he stated that “man was not a man until he had proven himself by owning the world.” (Scott Fitzgerald 5)
Lewis attempted to indict these “standard” symbols of American prosperity – popularity, hidden pleasures, money, shiny cars and self-obsession – by citing the weaknesses of both radical and conservative viewpoints. After Lewis had gained fame with Main Street, he wrote to his publisher that his next novel would be “the story of the Tired Businessman, the man in the Pullman smoker, of our American ruler, of the man playing golf at the country club, in Minneapolis, Omaha, Atlanta, Rochester.” His main character would be “all of us Americans at 46, prosperous but worried, wanting- passionately- to seize something more than motor cars and a house before it’s too late.” (Barron) George F. Babbitt is a reflection of the author’s image of the middle-American businessman of the age, a man constantly struggling with his identity in his society and eager always to live up to the image he believes society sees as most superior. This image is based on the developing consumer culture and Babbitt is a man who seeks to buy all the goods possible and to display them as trophies in his home in order to show the world that he is a success. “It was the best
of nationally advertised and quantitatively produced alarm-clocks, with all modern attachments, including cathedral chime, intermittent alarm, and a phosphorescent dial. Socially, it was almost as creditable as buying expensive cord tires.” (Lewis 11)
Babbitt’s religious faith is associated almost entirely with ‘things’ – gadgets, automatic and mechanical and efficient instruments of a busy man’s life. To maintain his morale he has to buy more things, whether he needs them or not. He believes that every man is different, and those in the high social rankings, like himself, are entitled to enjoy special privileges. He is willing to do anything that will elevate him to a higher level of liking and acceptance. His personality, his opinions, and his thought process are not really his; they are the product of listening and mimicking others. He is influenced by and gleans his opinions from newspapers or from business peers. “He felt that on the subject of Shakespeare he wasn’t really an authority. Neither the Advocate-Times, the Evening Advocate, nor the Bulletin of the Zenith Chamber of Commerce had ever had an editorial on the matter, and until one of them spoke he found it hard to form an original opinion.” (Lewis 77)
What Babbitt wants is to be accepted in the terms he believes society has set, in terms of business ability, the accumulation of money, the right social image and certain core American values. He never achieves the happiness and satisfaction he desires and instead is constantly disappointed in the things he buys to make himself happy. His home is decked out with the best furniture and the latest gadgets, furnished with the best of taste, the best of inexpensive rugs, a simple and laudable architecture and the latest conveniences. “Only one thing is found to be wrong with Babbitt and his house: it was not a home.” (Lewis 18)
The characters in Babbitt are caricatures of “middle-class types, a parody of middle-class habits, forms of speech, gestures and live in a fantasy world, derived from the real world but unreal in its actual effect.” (Hoffman 409)
It is interesting that Lewis chose to have Babbitt working as a realtor. A realtor, in a sense, sells a lifestyle, a way of living. This suggests that no matter how hard Babbitt will try, he will not be able to escape advertising and consumerism. Whether he is in the comfort of his stylish home, reading the advertisements or going to work, writing advertisements to entice customers, the effect that society has on him is constantly surrounding him. “Lewis’s greatest creation, however, has lived on. Today’s Babbitt might be selling computers rather than houses, and no doubt the automobile he now worships is sleeker than the 1920 model. But he still worries about keeping up with the neighbours, and he gets much of what he thinks from advertisements and newspaper headlines.” (Unsworth)
Authors were not the only people who raised some major issues of what was happening in America during the 1920s. Some films tackled important social and political issues in a forthright fashion. For example, although Modern Times was made in 1936, Charlie Chaplin brings up the issue of modern society, the machine age. In this film, Chaplin plays the part of a man who works a dehumanising position in a factory in which he is little more than a component of a machine and he is controlled like a pawn by the menacing boss. This can also been seen as Chaplin’s refusal to succumb to the sound era.
The films made during the mid-to-late 1920s depicted the wealthy as happy, frivolous and arty. King Vidor decided to go a different route with The Crowd. He dared to tell the life story of a man without much talent or drive, who thinks he can get to the top but still never achieve this. The American Dream is a delusion; the people John meets everyday are ruining their lives because of this fixation. It was after seeing an earlier film, Intolerance, directed by D.W. Griffith, that Vidor wanted to make a film which, like it, would tackle the human condition head on. “...I think MGM is making enough money that they can afford an experimental film every once in a while. It’ll do something for the studio, and it will do something for the whole industry.” (Brownlow 205)
In contrast to most popular film, advertising and journalism, The Crowd depicted the “indignities of scale” of modernisation. What is surprising when watching it, is not only how many advertisements there are in the film, but how much they influence the film’s protagonist, John. For example, whilst returning from his first date with Mary, he sees an advertisement for a furniture company on the subway. It reads: “You Furnish The Girl – We’ll Furnish The Home!” John immediately proposes to Mary without giving it a second’s thought. The use of the word “You” in this advertisement gives a more personal approach to the consumer and gives the impression that the company is concerned with the sole individual who is reading it. Like an obedient child, John does as he is told.
John Sims and George F. Babbitt are identical in the sense that they are equally influenced by what they read, although there is a major factor which separates them: wealth. Babbitt can afford to buy most goods and gadgets that are advertised,
but John simply can not afford to. In fact, even Eleanor Boardman, the leading actress in The Crowd, noticed the great difference between her character and her usual roles: “I thought when you went into movies that you wore pearls and beautiful hats, and gorgeous clothes...Suddenly I was cast in this downtrodden story, and I didn’t like to be so drab and unattractive.” (Brownlow 206)
It is interesting to watch John try desperately to make it in the world, for his “ship to come in”. His main attempt at making money is by inventing slogans, which is ironic as he is so easily influenced by them. At one point, he has in his hand a torn newspaper advertisement with an offer for “One Hundred Dollars Cash Prize” if he can win the product-naming contest for the Sylvanian Oil Company in New York: “Give Us A Name For Our New Motor Fuel.” A few of his ideas are ‘Petrol-Pep’ and ‘Jazz-o-lene’, although he never submits them.
The greatest irony in the film occurs after John submits a slogan to a company and wins $500. Finally, John and Mary are able to afford a few toys for the children and some household goods. In this scene, Mary is adding up the bill which includes a vacuum cleaner for $75. Little does she know that later, John will quit his office job and “he [will] resort to selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door.” However, that job only lasts a day.
The image of the clown appears three times during this film, which could possibly be how Vidor views these characters who ‘stupidly’ fall for every advertisement and fall into the trappings of consumerism. The first image of the
clown is seen when John and Mary go on their first date. In one of the first instances of advertising in this film, they pass a down-and-out juggling clown on the busy street, with a sandwich board sign plastered on his front: “Make Your Feet HappyBuy Your Shoes at Brockton’s”. John, a cocky show-off, mocks the job of the man a foreshadowing of his own decline. “The poor sap! And I bet his father thought he would be President”.
The second clown image is seen after John quits his job and has trouble finding – and keeping – a new job. He eventually gets a job at the Atlantic Employment Agency which is better suited to his talents. “Who can juggle balls…to attract attention to a sign?” John raises his hand and volunteers to juggle and wear a clown’s outfit and a sandwich-board sign on the streets of the city to advertise: “I Am Always Happy Because I Eat At Schnieder’s Grill – 52E. 14th St.” It is the same menial job that he mocked from the top of a double-decker bus.
The third and final image of the clown is at the end. John and Mary have reunited and gone to watch a vaudeville act with two men clowning on stage (a fourth image perhaps). Mary proudly notices John’s winning slogan advertisement in the show’s program for “Sleigh O’Hand – The Magic Cleaner”, picturing a juggling clown in a wispy cloud above the city.
“[The Crowd] not only highlights the way in which people turned to leisure and consumption to find satisfaction in life, but also suggests one important causal factor: the degradation of work and the erosion of individual autonomy in a mass, corporate culture.” (Dumenil 57) The story of John and Mary Sims perfectly captures
this sentiment. Any job that John finds is indeed degrading and, as he longs for a better life, he disappears further and further into the crowd.
The common theme running through Babbitt and The Crowd, other than the harsh effects of advertising and consumerism, is the shocking fact that these characters believe that their raison dâ€™etre is â€œI own, therefore I am.â€? A sentiment which can still be felt in this day and age.
Works Cite.d Barronâ€™s BookNotes for Babbitt. 2004. 29 Nov. 2005. http://pinkmonkey.com/booknotes/barrons/babbitt1.asp Brownlow, Kevin. Hollywood: The Pioneers. London: Collins. 1979. Dumenil, Lynn. Modern Temper: American Culture and Society in the 1920s. New York: Farrar 1995. Hoffman, Frederick J. The 20s: American Writing in the Postwar Decade. New York: The Viking Press. 1965. Lewis, Sinclair. Babbitt. New York: The Modern Library 2002. Scott Fitzgerald, F. The Great Gatsby. Penguin. 1994. Unsworth, John. 20th Century American Bestsellers. Course home page. Graduate School of Library and Information Science. U of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.