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article number 231
article date 05-02-2013
copyright 2013 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
New Print Media Influences Your Life … the Roaring 1920’s
by Preston William Slosson

From the 1930 book, The Great Crusade and After. 1914-1928.

IN the first rank of American educational agencies must be placed the news items in daily papers and periodicals and the advertising pages of both. These were true continuation schools which influenced the adult perhaps more profoundly than school textbooks did the child. One notes, it is true, a certain growing skepticism, a “sales resistance” to news page, editorial and advertisement alike, a tendency to say “You can’t believe all you read in the papers,” but, after all, even an incredulous generation must acquire information and ideas from some source, and journalism was by far the most convenient.

From colonial times the American public, more than any other in the world, had been an omnivorous devourer of news, any sort of news about any part of the world, provided only that it were fresh and written so that it could be quickly read. The World War quickened this interest, and the vast expansion of advertising in the subsequent business boom enabled the press to be more lavish with space than ever before. The domestic production of newsprint was not much greater in 1927 than in 1914, but imports from Canada were more than six times as great, and more than twice as much was consumed. The index price of newsprint tripled from 1913 to 1920, though it eventually became stable at about a seventy-per-cent increase over the former year. The bulk of newspaper and periodical advertising approximately doubled.

Several tendencies in the newspaper world were dominant after 1914: consolidation of ownership, an expansion in size and the addition of novel special features, and a standardization and syndication of material. In all these respects journalism merely followed the general trend of American business to consolidate into larger, more efficient and more impersonal units. The World War sadly clipped the wings of the war correspondent; at best he could add only a few descriptive touches to the official bulletins of the warring governments. The personality of the editor was merged in his paper, though this phenomenon was not new to American life.

Only a few of the old type of personal journalists remained, and most of them lived in the small towns. No editor in New York, for instance, had the individual quality of William Allen White of the Emporia Gazette. Though journalism was a bigger business than ever, it was also more strictly a business than ever.

Except in the magazine field, this concentration was not of the European type, that is, concentration in a single city. New York newspapers did not dominate the United States as Parisian newspapers did France. They circulated widely outside the metropolis, especially in their (half-magazine) Sunday editions, but did not in any way displace the local papers of Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston or other large cities.

The size of the nation and the reluctance of the American reader to wait a day or two, or even a few hours, for the latest news guaranteed a local group of papers to each considerable city. With periodicals, where timeliness of news was less important, New York was almost another London or Paris to the nation. Except for the Curtis publications in Philadelphia and certain magazines of scholarly appeal in Boston, few periodicals of national importance were printed elsewhere. True even in 1914, it was still truer in 1928. In the former year, for example, Springfield Ohio was the publishing center for the American Magazine, for Farm and Fireside, and for several other periodicals of very wide circulation; in the latter year both of these publications were dated from New York and some others had either gone to the metropolis or pushed farther west out of its immediate radius.

But, in the main, concentration was economic rather than geographic and took place in two ways: reduction in the number of competing papers in each city, and the development of chains of newspapers under a common ownership in several cities, an interesting parallel to the chain hotels and chain groceries which multiplied so rapidly at the same period.


There were nearly two thousand fewer publications in the United States in 1929 than in 1914. This falling off did not imply a decrease in readers. The aggregate circulation of daily newspapers in the United States and Canada by 1929 reached over forty million, divided between evening and morning papers in the proportion of two to one, and Sunday papers sold over twenty-six million copies.

The aggregate subscription lists for all types of newspaper and periodical including the weekly and monthly magazines increased by more than a quarter in the decade after 1914. The weekly barely held its own in circulation and greatly decreased in number of publications; the semi-weekly and tri-weekly, mostly rural or small-town types, tended towards extinction. The daily, on the other hand—the Sunday edition of the daily in particular—fiourished. The greatest gain of all was that of the monthly magazines which grew from seventy-nine million subscribers in 1914 to one hundred and eleven million in 1925.

In the small towns, consolidation meant that a single newspaper rather than several served the county seat and the country districts around it. The New York World estimated in 1928 that there were a thousand American cities in which the press was monopolized in the hands of a single paper or a group of papers with a single ownership.

“A generation ago nearly every considerable city had its Democratic and Republican organ. . . . The largest cities had four, six or eight newspapers, nearly all with decisive political convictions; and no school of thought lacked its expression. But today real discussion is being submerged. . . . A great and growing section of our population has no choice but to take a newspaper that is either colorlessly neutral or wholly one-sided.

The new consolidated organ, having to please the whole community, was usually content to reprint syndicated editorials on national affairs and comment on local matters in a way to make the fewest possible enemies. To select one typical instance from a thousand, the Democratic Laramie Boomerang (Laramie, Wyoming), whose quaint name dates back to Bill Nye, was merged with its Republican rival, the Laramie Republican, and thus a party duel which had existed for more than a generation ended in a placid unity.

In the cities consolidation eliminated some of the historic mammoths of American journalism. New York City furnished the most striking series of mergers. From 1914 to 1924 New York was reduced from seventeen to eleven general newspapers (not counting suburban or foreign-language dailies). Frank A. Munsey, a rather colorless capitalist of journalism, owned the Telegram and the Sun. In a few months’ space he merged the Mail with the Telegram, extinguished the well-edited and liberal Globe in the rays of the Sun, and acquired the historic Herald and sold it to Mr. Ogden Reid of the Tribune. The Evening Post, a paper of high literary traditions, sold out to a Philadelphia company, and the Socialist Call became silent. In fifteen years Chicago lost five out of seven morning papers. Detroit cut its morning papers from three to one while growing fivefold in population.


Chains of newspapers, already formed before the war, continued to grow and new ones made their appearance. The Hearst chain was perhaps the best known. In more than twenty cities William Randolph Hearst was represented by a personal organ to further his political and economic ideas and interests. Once purveying to the public a sort of urbanized Bryanism, the Hearst papers after 1914 became increasingly conservative, giving general support to the Coolidge administration and upholding the financial policy of the most conservative wing of the Republican Party. In foreign affairs they advocated an aggressive attitude towards Mexico, where Hearst had important investments, abstention from the League of Nations, and a watchful suspicion of Japan and, until 1928, of the British Empire.

The Scripps-Howard group closely rivaled the Hearst papers in distribution across the face of the nation, differing chiefly in locating by preference in cities of moderate size. They were, on the whole, creditably independent and outspoken in their policy and did much to clear up local abuses in several cities where they became established. There was also the Munsey chain, the group owned by James M. Cox of Ohio, Democratic presidential candidate in 1920, the Lee group, the Shaffer group and several others. From 1923 to 1927 the number of chains doubled and the number of newspapers which they controlled increased by half. The chain newspapers enjoyed much the same advantages as chain enterprises in other industries: the ability to buy raw material (chiefly newsprint paper in this case) at quantity prices, the ability to furnish all their units with standardized features at a single cost, and the ability to maintain high-salaried managers.

The fundamental reason why a newspaper of moderate circulation could not prosper, especially in a large city, was the high cost of paper. Deforestation, the war, the rise of wages and the increase of demand for wood pulp had all contributed to this increase. Printers, typesetters and other employees who represented the mechanical side of journalism had doubled and trebled their wages, adding again to the overhead cost. The popular demand for attractive “features,” and for sufficient reading matter to carry the necessary advertising without turning the paper into a mere department-store catalogue, compelled the newspapers to increase their bulk to three or four times what it had been before the war.

The Detroit News, one of the most prosperous of all evening papers, apologized in 1928 for raising its daily price to three cents a copy on the ground that “the cost of the white paper alone on which it is printed is in excess of a million and a half dollars per year more than the total revenue from its circulation.” Such a magazine as the weekly Saturday Evening Post, often running to over two hundred pages in a single issue, gave the reader several times as much money value in sheer weight of paper as the nickel it demanded in exchange. Only copious advertising could meet the situation, and only very wide circulation could attract the advertising.

The proportion of newspaper costs paid from subscriptions fell from four tenths to three tenths in the decade after 1914, in spite of the fact that the “penny paper” had almost vanished, and newspapers of general circulation usually cost two, three or five cents a copy, and often ten cents on Sunday. Don C. Seitz of the New York World declared that he would not undertake to establish a regular daily in a large city for less than ten million dollars, and Will Irwin, a veteran of both the old and the new journalism, declared that no metropolitan daily could prosper unless assured of a circulation of at least one hundred thousand.


Of course, the reader got more for his money in this era of newspaper trusts, in news as well as in newsprint. “In 1900, fourteen pages was a good run for the New York Times,” wrote Charles Merz in 1926; “now four times fourteen pages is not unheard of in Saint Louis.”

When the Republican national convention met at Cleveland in 1924, one hundred and fifty news circuits handled fifty words a minute. “When Washington played Pittsburgh in the first game of the 1925 World Series a circuit of 46,500 miles was hooked into a single telegraphic system never behind the news two seconds. When Bryan and Darrow fought over John T. Scopes at Dayton, Tennessee, that small village was actually the shipping point for two million words of telegraphic news within ten days.”

All European journals, with the exception of the London Times, looked meager to the American reader accustomed to his acres of print and, without even that exception, they seemed needlessly dull and badly arranged. The technical improvements made possible by better presses, better means of photographic reproduction, and the great volume of advertising revenues to bear the cost, kept more than pace with the better means of gathering and conveying information afforded by huge news syndicates and press bureaus.

Many new kinds of service to the public were added, such as radio broadcasting, initiated by the WWJ station of the Detroit News. Such feats as the transmission of the radio photograph of Einstein’s pamphlet on new mathematical theory, published in the New York Evening Post in February, 1929, testify to the amazing technical progress and the even more amazing catholicity of interest of the American press.

The side shows threatened to swallow the main tent. In one hundred and ten daily newspapers in sixty-three cities in 1924, forty-five per cent of all the space was occupied by advertising, either of commercial goods or classified personal “want ads,” a great increase over the one third so allotted twenty-five years before.

Illustrations and special features encroached heavily on the news columns; general news, in fact, averaged only twenty-two per cent of the contents. Editorials were much subordinated, covering hardly more than two percent of the space, and public opinion, as voiced by letters to the editor, amounted to but half of one per cent. News columns rather than editorials or letters made opinion.

Newspapers had, indeed, become departmentalized to the last degree. The journal had to cater to all tastes; to omit even the most trivial column would offend some special group of subscribers. Among the expected features in an average city paper were: a sporting section, rivaling in length the whole news section; a real-estate section, sometimes (as in Florida or Detroit) the largest part of the paper; moving-picture announcements and programs; radio announcements and programs; medical advice by some popularizer of hygiene; a column of advice to investors, with answers to questions; two or three columns of advice to the “lovelorn” by Dorothy Dix, Beatrice Fairfax or other accredited experts on domestic relations; puzzles and all sorts of engaging brain-teasers; comic strips, cartoons and columns of jest.


In the Sunday edition one might also find: two sections of rotogravure pictures; from eight to ten pages of colored comics; a collection of short stories, humorous or sentimental; syndicated essays and editorials of an inspirational sort, such as those by Frank Crane and Bruce Barton; a section or two for women’s and children’s interest; some pages of “wonders of science”; and, in the “yellow journals,” a section of “society scandals” about the English aristocracy, the Hollywood colony of actresses, or some other fashionable group.

The amount of space devoted to sport, scandals and humor alarmed many critics. Most newspapers deplored the emphasis on sensationalism, but to very few did any thought of personal responsibility occur. Former President Charles W. Eliot of Harvard, generally considered the leader of American education, died on August 22, 1926, and Rudolph Valentino, the moving-picture actor, the following day. Though many newspapers printed editorials solemnly deploring that so much more interest was taken in the death of Valentino, the same papers in their news columns devoted a page to the actor for every column they gave to the educator.

In the same way many a newspaper would condemn gambling on its editorial page and print the odds on the horse races on its sporting page, or write a sermon-editorial on the American ideal of the purity of the home while devoting a whole section of the same issue to realistic descriptions and illustrations of the most sordid divorce scandals. This inconsistency was too open to be called hypocrisy; it meant merely that the newspaper was a business enterprise devoted to selling what the market was believed to demand, not what the editor might sincerely wish the public to prefer. The Christian Science Monitor of Boston continued to be almost the only nationally important daily which refused to print the details of sensational and scandalous events. A single murder case boosted the total circulation of the New York papers a million copies in a single day.

One mushroom growth of American journalism made scandal its specialty and deliberately appealed to a type of reader who cared for nothing but headlines and illustrations. This was the “tabloid,” first popularized in England by Lord Northcliffe and imported into the United States after the war for a new and more tropical flowering. The Daily News, fathered by the Chicago Tribune immediately after the war, was the first of the New York tabloids and the most successful. Hearst’s Mirror and Bernarr Macfadden’s Evening Graphic followed in close imitation.

Journalism at its worst.

As very little paper was required to print a tabloid—a small magazine-sized newspaper which could readily be held in his hand while the reader was standing in a trolley car on his way home from work—the financial problems which beset the standard newspaper did not exist for it. All that was necessary for success was to pile sensation on sensation till the news-stand circulation would mount into the hundreds of thousands. Many of these enterprises failed; a few had the kind of success they desired. The tabloids contained practically no general news, as their scant space was crowded with pictures of fair criminals or bathing beauties, sporting and theater gossip and the like.

Humor, or well-meant attempts at it, occupied an unwonted share of newspaper space. Formerly the humorous part of a newspaper had usually consisted of one political cartoon, a column of jokes and, on Sundays only, four pages of colored pictures for the children. But in postwar journalism there were often from eight to twelve pages of colored comics on Sunday and anywhere from two to ten daily “comic strips,” which were the same sort of thing without the color, quite apart from joke columns or cartoons or the pleasant facetiousness of the “column.”

Some column editors, such as F. P. A. (Franklin P. Adams), Don Marquis and Heywood Broun, were worthy to rank with the Mr. Dooley (Finley P. Dunne) who had amused the earlier years of the century or even with Mark Twain on his more journalistic side: true satirists and ironists posing as fools at the court of King Demos. “Yesterday the ‘personal journalism’ of those old giants, Greeley, the Bennetts, Dana, Watterson, and their like ruled the circus ring of journalism,” wrote C. L. Edson. “Today we see the grand entry of the clowns. . .
The names of the newspaper clowns obscure the fame of the editor and the owner. And thus we find that personal journalism is still with us.”

Almost as much might be claimed on behalf of the better comic-strip artists, some of whom were skilled draftsmen worthy of comparison with the classic caricaturists of Punch, and other satirists who could point a moral as effectively as Hogarth. Fontaine Fox’s sketches of Toonerville were a more genial and therefore more effective satire on American small-town life than Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street or its hundred imitators. C. A. Briggs’s “Mr. and Mrs.” was a more searchingly realistic depiction of average married life than any novelist of the period was able to portray.

When Andy Gump ran for Congress in 1922, the election-night crowds cheered him more than they did any of the real flesh-and-blood candidates. Some comic-strip artists even attempted, with less success, to be deliberately educational, and pictures of the “story of mankind,” “the story of the Bible” and even “the story of philosophy” appeared on the same pages with “Mutt and Jeff” or “Our Boarding House.” On the other hand, purely political cartooning was never, since the days of Nast, so little regarded by the public.


Though the influence of the press had largely passed from editorial to news columns, many newspapers still made history as well as recorded it. By giving publicity to local crime or municipal scandals on every day’s front page, a paper could convince the voters that there was a “crime wave” or graft epidemic even if they disbelieved what the editorials might say about the administration.

The influence of the press, however, was more effective in special crusades than in general politics. The political bias of a newspaper is always more or less discounted by its readers, but an appeal for clean streets or shade trees on the avenue enlists at once the civic patriotism of both Republican and Democrat. The establishment of the “safe and sane Fourth of July” by ordinances limiting the sale of fireworks was the result of a newspaper and periodical campaign which is estimated to have saved several hundred lives each year. Similar crusades against the public sale of firearms, needless fire risks, reckless driving and unsanitary housing were among the most important factors in making the nation safe for its citizens.

A very good idea of the range and variety of these civic services can be obtained from the prizes annually given since 1917 in honor of Joseph Pulitzer for the most meritorious service rendered during the year by any American newspaper (in addition to other prizes under the same will for various literary and journalistic achievements). Thus in 1921 the Boston Post was rewarded for exposing the financial swindles of Get-rich-quick Ponzi, in 1923 the Memphis Commercial Appeal got the prize for articles on the Ku Klux Klan, and in 1924 the New York World, Pulitzer’s own paper, was honored for exposing the Florida peonage system.


This last instance may be taken as typical of a very rapid and successful newspaper crusade. In February 1923, the state attorney of Cavalier County, North Dakota, asked the aid of the press in an investigation of the death of Martin Tabert, a Dakota boy flogged to death the previous year in a Florida prison camp. The World sent a staff reporter to the spot; within ten days a series of articles, syndicated among the newspapers of thirty-eight cities, began to appear and, in forty-seven days from their first publication in the World, Florida had abolished the existing system of convict leasing and the lash as a means of discipline, the judge and sheriff involved in the Tabert case were removed from office, and the whipping boss who killed him was brought to trial for murder.*

* “The Tabert case is unique in the history of newspaper crusades in the swiftness with which public opinion was aroused.” Radder, Newspapers. 159.

Nearly every great newspaper regularly performed some special public-welfare service which made it stand out from the rest, such as the annual collection of charity for “the hundred neediest cases” by the New York Times, the New York Tribune’s “fresh-air fund” for vacations for slum children, the campaigns of the Chicago Tribune against accidents and crime, the city-beautifying activities of the Kansas City Star and the Dallas Morning News, and the good-roads agitation of the Milwaukee Journal, the Minneapolis Tribune and the Atlanta Constitution.

But with all due credit to the publicity activities of the daily newspaper, it must be conceded that its task of influencing opinion by direct discussion had been largely taken over by the weekly magazines. The ten and fifteen-cent monthlies, which had directed reform movements in the time of Roosevelt and Taft, had now changed the character of their appeal and raised their prices. The American Magazine, though perhaps more prosperous than ever before, specialized in the biographies of successful men rather than in the exposure of civic evils.

Everybody’s and McClure’s joined the ranks of the many fiction magazines. Among the weeklies, the Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s, with greatly improved make-up and wider popular appeal, very largely abandoned their radical crusades to become pillars of “Coolidge prosperity,” but the Nation, under the editorship of Oswald Garrison Villard (separated from its union with the New York Evening Post in 1918), the New Republic, founded in 1914, and the Freeman, which ran a brief career for a few years after the war, were in some respects even more insurgent than the muckraking monthlies of the Roosevelt era. H. L. Mencken’s American Mercury, a monthly established in 1924, followed a path of its own, specializing in acid criticism of all American life and institutions but having no positive gospel to present.*

* Another interesting magazine enterprise of the time, Henry Holt’s Unpopular Review, founded in 1914 and rechristened Unpartizan Review in 1919, was a quarterly of opinion, similar in general character to the older Yale Review, but having the unique feature of not printing the names of its authors until the next issue. It ceased publication in 1921.

Two weeklies of historic background dropped from the list of publications. Harper’s Weekly, founded in 1857, merged with the Independent in 1916. The Independent, dating from 1848, had prospered during the war years under the editorship of Hamilton Holt, but the rising price of paper and a slump in advertising forced it in 1921 to sell out to the Weekly Review, a much more conservative publication started mainly to counteract the influence of the Nation and New Republic. After another change of ownership in 1924, the Independent lost its identity entirely four years later by being absorbed by its old friendly rival, the Outlook. The latter was now almost the sole surviving example of its type, the weekly which maintained a summary of current events and emphasized editorial comment as well.

Many periodicals were really newspapers issued at various intervals. The growing interest in convenient summaries of current events is indicated not only by the success of some established periodicals in the field, the circulation of the Literary Digest expanding from a quarter of a million in 1914 to over a million and a half in 1928, but also by the launching of many new variants of the news-summary type, such as Current History, a monthly founded by the New York Times in 1914; Time, a Chicago weekly dating from 1923; the United States Daily, an accurate account without any comment of the official acts of the national government, published since 1926; and Foreign Affairs, a scholarly quarterly devoted to contemporary history outside the United States, started in 1922. The American of 1928 who read the right periodicals could far more accurately keep abreast of the really significant happenings of the day than the American of any previous period.


Ably edited as were the aesthetic Dial, the critical Mercury, the pacifist Nation, the liberal New Republic, the radical Freeman and the revolutionary New Masses, they failed somehow to make the contact with the liberal middle classes that the muckraking monthlies had done before the war, and still more failed to reach the workingman. If one were to judge by mass circulation the American mind was best represented and most influenced by the Curtis publications, such as the Saturday Evening Post and the Ladies’ Home Journal, and by similar “home magazines” like Collier’s, the American, Woman’s Home Companion, Pictorial Review, McCall’s, Good Housekeeping, Delineator, Farm and Fireside, Liberty (a Chicago Tribune enterprise) and the Literary Digest.

These periodicals were as a class admirably printed and edited and often beautifully illustrated, but tended towards colorlessness in opinion, giving to the critic’s litmus paper a neutral reaction, neither radical nor conservative. Their articles and stories were often very good, for they could afford the highest prices in the market, but they suffered a tendency towards standardization.

The all-fiction magazines also flourished, but rarely attained the circulation heights of the family periodicals. The most interesting tendency among the fiction magazines was towards extreme specialization. From a single news-stand one could pick up such differentiated fiction as Sport Stories (wholly devoted to athletic tales), Amazing Stories (all having a “scientific” motive), Love Stories, Ranch Romances, Spy Stories, Sea Stories, Detective Stories, Far West Stories, Flying Stories, Fire Fighters and at least a dozen periodicals given over entirely to moving-picture novelizations.

One group of these, devoted to the exploitation of sex, corresponded to the tabloids among the newspapers. They were of three kinds. Two require little comment: the jest book, such as has always dwelt in the journalistic slums, and the “art magazine,” which confined itself to more or less undraped “studies” of the female form and circulated among all classes except artists. More novel was the “true-story” type, which owed its origin to a venture of Bernarr Macfadden, long editor of Physical Culture, a somewhat faddy but reputable health magazine. In 1919 he started True Story, a magazine of narratives of betrayed virgins, unhappy wives and narrowly averted sex tragedies, said to be based on the actual experiences of the contributors.

In 1923 he followed this venture with True Romances. Many other publishers imitated him, and the magazine stands blossomed—or blushed—with I Confess, True Confessions, Secrets and the like. The common characteristic of nearly all the sex magazines was to pretend to much greater daring in title and cover than the contents ventured to live up to; a European student of bookstalls would have been more bored than shocked by them. One may venture to doubt also if their “truth” were not as much a sham as their naughtiness.


One thing may be said of all the magazine world: from the aristocracy of the self-styled “quality group”—Atlantic, Harper’s, Scribner’s, Century, Review of Reviews, World’s Work, Golden Book—through the middle class of the Red Book, Cosmopolitan and Collier’s down to the mental bottoms of the “true-story” type, all strove to win attention by attractive presentation of material and economy of the reader’s time.

It was an age when few had leisure to read without running, and it is significant that Liberty, a weekly very much in the spirit of the period, put above each story or article an estimate of “reading time” required, so as to warn away those too busy to take twenty-two minutes or attract those who might spare eighteen! Equally typical was the experiment of Collier’s with the “short short-story,” a dramatic narrative that reached its point within a single page. Articles, too, however abstruse their topic, followed the example of the newspapers by summarizing their conclusions within the first two or three paragraphs, using titles more striking than descriptive, and increasing the space devoted to more or less relevant photographic illustration.

No longer decorously shoved to the rear of the magazine, but flanking the stories and articles on the same page, stood the advertisements. They deserved their promotion, for however impatient the reader might be at having to search remote corners of his magazine for the end of a story, he was pleasantly entertained on the way by the attractive display of advertising matter competing for his attention. “Advertising,” declared a student of the time, “has ceased to be a modest invitation to buy, and has become an extraordinarily cunning exemplification of practical psychology, forming national habits of thought and action.”

The art and science of commercial advertisement were so wholly American that a textbook on the subject could state, as a mere matter of course, that “other countries may practically be ignored in a book of this kind.” Indeed, with but few and minor exceptions, it was only in the United States that textbooks on advertising were written, or courses on “the psychology of advertising” offered in reputable universities, or advertisement copy writers leagued to defend the “ideals of the profession.”

The magnitude of the advertising business was most imposing. “Measured in dollars and cents, advertising is the most important form of education in the United States,” one economist asserted. According to the statement of Francis H. Sisson, a New York banker, the annual volume of advertising in 1927 was over a billion and a half dollars: $800,000,000 to the newspapers, $200,000,000 to the magazines, $200,000,000 for outdoor display and more than $300,000,000 in campaigns conducted through the mail. Experience demonstrated that this apparently reckless expenditure paid the manufacturers, since they must win new markets as well as hold their own against competitors in familiar fields.

Moreover, new inventions were constantly placing commodities on the market never known before, and without extensive sales campaigns they would have reached the consumer too slowly. A man accustomed for thirty years to an old-fashioned razor would think twice before buying the new-fangled “safety.” But the advertiser made him think not twice but fifty times, placing the idea before him in every trolley car and every newspaper and every drug-store window until at last he ventured the experiment. The Society of American Florists and Ornamental Horticulturalists presented a gold medal to Major P. F. O’Keefe for inventing a four-word slogan, “Say It with Flowers,” which helped double the flower business between 1921 and 1924 and increased it a fourth again the following year.

Because of the incessant appearance of new products and new methods the American advertiser had to obtain favorable publicity not for his own product alone but equally for the whole class of commodities which it represented. The man with California oranges to sell had first to make oranges the favorite fruit at the breakfast table before he could give much attention to explaining the particular merits of fruit grown in his own locality. The Postum manufacturer prepared the way for his own product by undermining the established position of coffee. Bread, meat and milk were praised in general as well as in particular.

Rivals interested in the same commodity had to league together in common defense; there were two thousand trade associations in 1927. “Oil and gas and coal are fighting for the job of heating the country,” wrote Merle Thorpe. “Electric refrigeration and ice are fighting for the job of cooling it. . . . You are besieged, not so much by men seeking to sell the same product as by those who urge concrete against brick, asbestos against cedar shingle, metal lath against wood, wallboard against plaster, linoleum against oak.”


The history of the wars and alliances of the “Great Powers” of American industry is a curious one. As one writer pointed out: “The carpet-tack industry grapples with the oriental rug industry, because nobody who uses oriental rugs needs carpet tacks. The oriental rug interests ally themselves with their old-time enemy the domestic rug makers, to attack the Brussels carpet people. Whereupon Brussels carpets appeal for help to carpet tacks, which in turn persuade linoleum to fall into line. Surely, a diplomatic complication worthy of the days of Kaunitz and Talleyrand!

The methods used by the American advertiser, while interesting in themselves, are even more significant as witnesses to the tastes and standards of the time, for the whole success of the copy writer depended on his ability to understand the psychology of the potential consumer. A Berlin professor pointed out that, “while European business men still look upon producers and upon material production as the aim of modern economics, their American colleagues have realized . . . that the key to modern business life is held by the Honorable Mr. Consumer.”

Because of this anxious study of the whims and humors of the buying market, the advertisers are almost our best source as to the actual aspirations, standards and ideals of the masses of the nation. Let us consider what the historian of some distant future might reasonably conclude as to the American people of the war and reconstruction years from their advertisements.

First, and most confidently, he would conclude that the American people were free spenders. Advertisements said little about low price and very much about “the best is cheapest in the long run,” or “you may pay a little more, but—” followed by a panegyric on the commodity in question. A French perfume failing to sell at ordinary rates, its price was raised, the advertising slogan became: “It costs a little more but Milady deserves the best,” and a fortune was made.

When shoes of identical make, in one experiment, were displayed in the windows at six dollars and at twelve dollars a pair, the twelve-dollar pairs sold out the more quickly. One firm sold bedding from the same grade of feathers under five trade names and at five prices to reach different markets. Finding that nearly every home had its automobile, advertisers strove to widen their market by pointing out the desirability of an extra car for the wife and children, and watchmakers succeeded in impressing their public with the need for both a wrist watch in the daytime and a pocket watch in the evening.


Closely related to the premium on costliness as a positive advantage in goods was the emphasis on social competition—”keeping up with the Joneses.” Social standards were fixed not by the economic class in which the consumer lived but by the class immediately above. An “aristocratic” cigarette or piano or automobile, something “exclusive,” used by “men and women of discriminating taste” or by “the crowned heads of Europe,” was sure of success in the American democracy.

Once upon a time a certain hotel was sneered at as “providing exclusiveness for the masses,” but that would be a literal description of half the advertising of the period. Millions of people bought clothes advertised as “different,” or beauty secrets alleged to be hitherto known only to nobility, or books advertised to appeal only to “the emancipated few,” or the particular brand of cigarette patronized by a movie star or a baseball hero. Advertisers subtly flattered the reader by always depicting scenes of comfort or luxury in their illustration; if the goods were as commonplace as oilcloth or kitchen furniture they would be attractively shown in the pictured interior of a grand mansion.

That success in life was the same as material success our historian would also rightly conclude. In nearly all advertising copy the possible consumer was vaguely placed in some “office” and assumed to be a business man. Except in farm journals, the out-of-door worker rarely appeared on the page, and the professional man and the factory operative were almost equally neglected. Success was depicted in terms of being a business manager; failure was being “a clerk at fifty.” Health was advertised not so much for its own sake as being a business asset; education treated as a question of being able to “get on” in life; even “personality” considered merely as a means to “success,” not as being success in itself.

One typical advertisement may stand as a sample of many thousands: “This Singular Book Wields a Strange Power Over Its Readers, giving them a Magnetic Personality almost instantly! Will you read it 5 days free—to prove it can multiply your present income?”

Testimonials from successful people seemed to give a business guarantee as well as a social hail mark. The degree of sincerity of most of these “voluntary indorsements” can be judged from the following trade notice: “For those of your organization who require testimonials or special posing of moving picture players, operatic or theatrical stars, famous athletes, society people, and other famous personalities, there is vailable a new service called Famous Names, Inc., Chicago (branches in New York and Hollywood, Calif.). The fee for the exclusive use of a star is between $150 and $2500.”


Another safe induction from the mass of advertising evidence would be the charm of novelty, the love of efficiency, and the indiscriminate but genuine interest in the triumphs of inventive science. Goods were sold as novelties under manufactured trade names instead of, as in the previous generation, an imitation of something older. “Rayon” rather than “artificial silk” sold dress goods. Old-fashioned laundry or bathroom fittings were sneeringly dismissed as comparable with corsets, crinolines, kerosene lamps and buggies.

The phrases of science helped sell all kinds of commodities. Foods were discussed in terms of “calories,” “vitamins” and the “fuel value” of so many pounds of beefsteak. Pictures of a scientist examining a test tube replaced the sometime Indian herb doctor in advertisements of patent medicines and cosmetic lotions and notions. Even the sheerest quacks and frauds had to assume the verbiage of the laboratory. The swindler “may aver that if you lie on a large electric warming pad worth $15, but sold under a fancy name at $100, you may invigorate your entire organism by currents of magnetic vibration operating directly through the iron of your blood. . . . Each one of these statements has, in fact, drawn crowds and convinced them, in a city infested with authentic scientists of the best (hence most inarticulate) quality.”

Two other aspects of latter-day advertising warrant some attention: the indirect approach and the appeal to the sense of beauty. In the more costly display advertising, in high-grade magazines or on the billboards, the name of the advertiser was not rudely intruded; the indirect, implicit appeal to the wary customer proved more effective than a direct attack. The reader might obtain the general impression from automobile advertisements for instance, that the sole function of the machine was to provide an unobtrusive background for a bevy of charming bathing girls. Not goods, but social values and “service,” were sold in the advertiser’s copy; not clothes, but the advantages of neat appearance; not foods, but health; not labor-saving devices in the home, but visions of leisured women engaged in sports; not dancing or saxophone lessons as such, but social popularity.

Perhaps as a result of keen competition, perhaps because women did so large a share of American buying, the esthetic appeal of manufactured goods was stressed more than ever before. “Women are making men style-conscious,” declared the chairman of the fashion board of the National Association of Merchant Tailors. “To-day style is the compelling sales factor in every line of merchandise from automobiles to pajamas; even dish-washing machines are being offered in pastel shades to harmonize with the wall tones of the kitchen.”

The sweeping lines of an automobile, the colored tiles of a bathroom, the increasingly attractive window dressing of the main avenue shops, the “cabinet” phonograph in place of the old trumpet, the less obtrusive heating and lighting fixtures in the living room, the improved design of the kitchen sink and the bright aluminum ware above it, the French designs of perfume bottles—these merely illustrate the freer use of color and more tasteful employment of line in the newer manufacture. If in any respect the United States of 1928 was beyond question, superior to the nation of 1914, it was in the comparative decrease of industrial ugliness.

Advertising commodities was, of course, but one phase of the general industry of publicity. The science of propaganda, so greatly developed during the war, found much employment in time of peace. Press-agenting of individuals, propaganda for causes, campaigns for charitable work, and many other occupations where an understanding of the arts of persuasion was important, enlisted numerous trained workers.*

* A study of the earnings of the graduates of the school of journalism of Columbia University showed that the average income of those who stuck to strictly journalistic work was about $6000 a year a decade after graduation, while those who went in for advertising or publicity work were averaging over $10,000. Columbia Alumni News. XVIII, 145 (Nov. 19, 1926).


By 1927 more than a hundred cities were advertising their advantages at an estimated total cost of ten million dollars a year. As in China, the American public authorities have not thought it beneath their dignity to appeal to their public and not merely command it. There is a winsomeness about “This is your park, please keep it in order,” not to be found in the older signs “Persons littering the park will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law”; wastepaper receptacles labeled “Please stuff me with paper” obtain results not reached in the mere command not to throw rubbish into the Street; and the touch of comradely humor in “Go slow and see our town; go fast and see our jail” proved often more effective than the bare information, “Speed limit—15 miles an hour.”

Another influence of advertising psychology on national customs was euphemism, the practice of wording a familiar idea in a more attractive way. In commerce “second-hand cars” became “used” or “rebuilt” cars, “installment plan” became “deferred-payment plan,” the real-estate agent became a “realtor,” and the undertaker a “mortician” in charge of a “funeral home.”

In politics the attractive phrase “short ballot” was used for the plan of making most offices appointive instead of elective, and woman suffrage was called by its advocate “equal suffrage,” by its opponents “double suffrage, the former phrase stressing the idea of democratic right, the latter the unwelcome enlargement of the vote. The publisher Haldemann-Julius discovered that by manipulation the titles of his “little blue books” (paper—bound classics and best sellers) he could increase the sale of any given volume several fold.

Still another effect of advertising technique was the concentration of civic-welfare crusades into brief “drives,” conducted in much the same way as the liberty-loan drives of war time. Between April, 1924, and April, 1925, in a single Mid-Western city over thirty special days and weeks were set aside for community observance, among them: suburban day, home-sewing week, ice-cream week, truth week, father’s day, mother’s day, boy’s day, thrift week (with seven special days inside it), home-beautiful week, education week, art week, music week, joy week, go-to-church Sunday, labor Sunday, golden-rule Sunday, child-health week, fire-prevention week, courtesy week, defense day, “buddy-poppy” day (for aid to the veterans) and a dozen more. America was not far from the calendar of the French Revolution, with each day, week and month consecrated to some special civic virtue.

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