1929

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2189

There are probably two years in all of American history that enjoy instant popular recognition and association with specific events. One, of course, is 1776, the Bicentennial of which was celebrated four years ago on a national scale with great emotional and commercial fervor. Popular associations with this year are...

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There are probably two years in all of American history that enjoy instant popular recognition and association with specific events. One, of course, is 1776, the Bicentennial of which was celebrated four years ago on a national scale with great emotional and commercial fervor. Popular associations with this year are positive. The same cannot be said for the second memorable year, 1929. It is identified almost exclusively with the Great Crash of the stock market and the onset of perhaps the most emotionally and economically debilitating period in United States history, the Great Depression.

1929, because of the Great Crash, did not go unnoticed during the fiftieth year of its anniversary, however, although it certainly was not celebrated. Several television productions and considerable newsprint were devoted to the events of those terrible days in late October. Several books were published as well, most dealing mainly with the Crash. One might expect that these volumes would be commercially exploitive and devoid of sound scholarly research and value. Such has not proven true, however, at least in the case of Warren Sloat’s 1929: America Before the Crash. Sloat, who worked as a newspaperman for twenty years and has written for several national magazines, including The Nation, Ramparts, Commonweal, and the Saturday Review, has produced an engaging popular history of the year, and indeed of much of the early twentieth century, of real value to both the general reader and the professional historian.

A blend of social, business, economic, technological, and political history and biography centered around the celebration of the central popular event of that year, Light’s Golden Jubilee, 1929: America Before the Crash, although advancing no clearly defined thesis, provides the reader with a highly readable portrait of a not-too-distant period that will evoke the positive memories of older readers who lived through it and will fascinate younger ones who did not. By dealing with the year in its entirety with minimal treatment of the Crash, Sloat shows that the negative associations with this year, based almost exclusively on a single event, are not entirely justified.

To the initial surprise of the reader, there is bare mention of the October Crash, although considerable attention is devoted to its causes. This should not astonish one, however, for few in 1929 were prescient. In that year Americans had inaugurated a new president of international renown. A brilliant, cosmopolitan humanitarian, Herbert Hoover, had served his nation—and indeed the world—since World War I in a variety of key posts. He was openly committed to pursue a program of peace through disarmament, and his incumbency was welcomed not only by Americans but also by much of the rest of the world, especially Europeans. Until the last three months of the year, few would have anticipated that the halcyon days of the 1920’s were to be followed by the bleak ones of the 1930’s. Hoover, himself a successful businessman, although concerned about the orgy of speculation in the market, had a positive attitude towards the economy, and that prestigious journal, the Times of London, asserted that, at the time Hoover took office (March, 1929), “the strength and prosperity of his own country never stood higher.”

America in 1929 was therefore in the mood for celebration, not introspection, and the central national event of that year, at least before late October, was Light’s Golden Jubilee, the commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of Thomas Edison’s invention of the incandescent lamp. The observance was more, however; it was a nationwide celebration of the tremendous technological innovations and business expansion that had significantly contributed to America’s emergence as a major world power. Applied science had radically changed the world in the previous half-century, and American business and the author of much of this transformation, Edison, stood as international symbols of the popular conviction that science was capable of producing an unlimited number of miracles which would make life easier and more enjoyable for all. The Jubilee culminated in the pilgrimage to Henry Ford’s temple to American technology, Greenfield Village, in Dearborn, Michigan, of five hundred of the most important people of the time. They came, on October 21, 1929, to celebrate the transference and reconstruction of Edison’s Menlo Park laboratory at Greenfield Village, to witness Edison’s reenactment of his discovery of the incandescent lamp, and to honor the celebrated inventor and promoter at a gala dinner at Ford’s re-creation of Independence Hall. (Ford had tried to purchase the original from the city fathers of Philadelphia, as he had so many other historical structures, but his offer had been refused.)

Structuring his book around this event which took place only days before the Crash, Sloat provides the reader with vignettes of the activities of many of those in attendance active in finance, business, public relations, politics, social services, and the arts and sciences in the months and years before October 21. He also discusses many American and foreign personalities who were not in attendance but who were central to the events, both national and international, of that year. Within these categories Sloat includes, but does not limit himself to, treatments of such diverse figures as Edison and Ford, President Hoover, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., Charles Schwab, Orville Wright, Owen Young, Julius Rosenwald, Will Rogers, Charles Chaplin, Otto Kahn, Vaslav Nijinsky, Scott Fitzgerald, Marie Curie, Richard Byrd, Albert Einstein, Charles Dawes, William Randolph Hearst, Charles Lindbergh, Al Capone, Benito Mussolini, and Samuel Insull.

Much of Sloat’s attention is directed toward the leaders of the business and financial community. The popular attitude toward big business in 1929 was almost universally positive, although it was to change radically in the months and years following the Great Crash. Most agreed, Sloat asserts, that businessmen were selfless individuals committed to helping others. The Rotary and Kiwanis Clubs were popularly endowed with divinity. Service was business’ watchword although profits were important. Businessmen high and low and much of the general public believed that through consolidation, rationalization, and social consciousness the undisciplined, disorganized, and unmonitored capitalism of old could be refashioned to produce prosperity and advanced material comfort for most if not all of society.

The degree of commitment to this goal varied from individual to individual. Henry Ford paid his workers the highest salaries of the day, provided Americans with the cheap, efficient transportation that altered American society, and sought to make his operations self-sufficient through vertical integration. Through his founding of Greenfield Village and the Henry Ford Museum he also tried to educate people in the technological advances that had been made in America since its founding.

Charles M. Schwab, at one time the highest-salaried man in the United States, was living testimony to the American conviction that a man of humble birth could rise through the ranks to the apex of big business. He also embodied the virtue of selflessness Americans ascribed to many of their business leaders. Employed as a factory worker at Carnegie Steel in his youth, the young Schwab early won the affection of his employer. While delivering a message to Carnegie’s house, so the story goes, Schwab was required to wait. He sat down at a piano and began to play and sing. Carnegie, a lover of music, was impressed with the young man and took him under his wing. Ultimately, at only thirty-five years of age, Schwab was elevated to the presidency of Carnegie Steel. He later served as the intermediary between Carnegie and J. P. Morgan in the formation of United States Steel, which he also served as president. He left this post to build Bethlehem Steel into a great armaments manufactory. At President Wilson’s request, Schwab unselfishly served his country as head of the Emergency Fleet Corporation during World War I. The “wide-open, throbbing heart” of big business, as he was described in the American Mercury in 1927, Schwab asserted that “idealism rather than dollar-chasing is the motivating force behind big business in the United States.”

Many businessmen, such as John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and Julius Rosenwald, regarded philanthropy as the agency through which the high profits of big business could aid society in general and stimulate the economy. Rosenwald, the head of Sears, Roebuck & Company, was the most innovative in that he realized that philanthropic funds must not be allowed to stagnate. A man of modest personal demands, he believed that excessive wealth, especially inherited wealth, was corrupting. A financier of unpopular causes at the time, such as the construction of one-room schools for blacks and the fight against venereal disease, Rosenwald practiced a capitalist philanthropy. He believed that projects should be only partially and never perpetually endowed, and that additional funds must be raised from others. Philanthropic money should be used sparingly and briefly, so that money was kept in circulation. Every project, according to Rosenwald, should eventually be self-supporting or become government supported. A man who regarded philanthropy as a business, and thus as dynamic, Rosenwald in 1928 stipulated that proceeds from the Rosenwald Fund were to be spent within a quarter-century of his death.

The 1920’s also witnessed the appearance of promoters who created the concept of celebrity in American life. Sloat’s lengthy treatment of the activities of several of these promoters is especially entertaining and illuminating. Otto Kahn, the German-born banker who pursued successful banking careers in Great Britain and the United States, was the greatest cultural entrepreneur and patron of the arts of his day. As chairman of the Metropolitan Opera, he introduced Arturo Toscanini to American audiences. He was also responsible for the first American appearances of Nijinsky and the Ballet Russe, Stanislavski, the Abbey Players, and the Moscow Art Theatre.

The most imaginative promoter of the period was Edward L. Bernays. Austrian by birth and the nephew of Sigmund Freud, Bernays came to the United States with his family as an infant. He received a bachelor’s degree from the agricultural college of Cornell University, but moved quickly into public relations where he found his true calling. Bernays demonstrated his marketing skills most clearly for the American Tobacco Company in the promotional coup he created for Lucky Strike cigarettes. Before Bernays took the account, the company had carried on a campaign to increase female smoking by promoting smoking as an appetite inhibitor. This appeal to feminine vanity precipitated a counterattack by the candy industry which espoused the medicinal properties of candy and asserted that “the cigarette will inflame your nostrils, poison with nicotine every organ of your body, and dry up your blood—nails in your coffin.” Bernays, a loyal nephew of his famous uncle, decided for the first time in the history of marketing to apply psychoanalytic theories to the problem.

Bernays and American Tobacco consulted a prominent psychoanalyst who contended that cigarettes were identified with men, and, in this age of female emancipation when women were attempting to suppress their femininity, cigarette smoking should be advanced as a symbol of female equality. Bernays, through telegrams to debutantes, promoted a march for freedom “in the interests of equality of the sexes and to fight against another sex taboo.” The result was an Easter Sunday, 1929, march up Fifth Avenue of young women militantly smoking cigarettes. Successes such as this fostered the conviction that Bernays was the ideal choice to serve as public relations counsel for Light’s Golden Jubilee. Bernays transformed this salute to Edison and American technology and business into the national event of the year, in many ways analogous to the 1976 Bicentennial celebration.

Sloat is especially adept in discussing the intricacies of corporate formations and pyramiding. His sections on the creation of the Radio Corporation of America and the National Broadcasting Company are lucid treatments of very complex subjects. He has also done well in his discussion of the rise and fall of that Horatio Alger figure, Samuel Insull, an Englishman by birth who became Edison’s assistant, creating a Midwestern utility empire that eventually fell victim to Insull’s greedy overextension.

The book is not without flaws, however. Such pivotal 1929 figures as Secretary of the Treasury Andrew W. Mellon and the Van Sweringen brothers are never mentioned. The author also tends to overlook, or at least minimize, the conditions of labor, the farmers, and minorities, and the fact that the general standard of living was depressingly low in this age of assumed prosperity. In addition, the absence of a clearly stated purpose for writing this book makes critical analysis difficult. Sloat has performed a satisfactory job of research through the utilization of the periodicals of the period and books, including many of very recent publication. He has also aided the reader by providing an appendix of one-paragraph biographies of over fifty of the most important personalities who appear in the book. And, although Sloat’s work does not supersede these masterworks on the period by Frederick Lewis Allen, Only Yesterday and The Lords of Creation, its author is privileged to write from the perspective that allows him to determine the symbolic significance of Light’s Golden Jubilee as a barometer of many Americans’ attitude toward technology and business. It is a book worthy of the attention of the scholar, the student, and the casual reader.

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