We think to the 1920s as a time of great prosperity. Yet, poverty was still very present in many parts of the Western World. For most of the countryside dwellers and entire sections of the city dwellers – unskilled urban workers and recent immigrants, for example – poverty was a fact of life.
What was uncommon and so attracted the attention of both the contemporaries and later the historians, was that an entire, quite large section of society, the middle-class, knew an unprecedented growth in prosperity.
The rise of consumerism
Between 1919 and 1929, the results of industrialisation started to become apparent. Machines, the introduction of the chain line and other innovations in term of shifts and work organisation, allowed workers to work less and still produce more than their fathers and grandfathers. The workweek went from seven to six days in many countries. In some instances (for example for a time in the Weimar Republic) it even went down to five days. The hourly wages increase slightly, and some family could rely on two providers, as women working outside the home started to become a socially acceptable occurrence.
At the same time, many inventions that in the 1800s were just curiosities and generally too expensive to be marketable were employed to mass-produce items for everyday life at approachable costs.
In a moment when at least the middle-class had more money and more free time on their hands than ever before, more goods were produced at more affordable prices. And in the time after the trials of WWI, people wanted to treat themselves and have fun.
With all these favourable circumstances in place, the market started to respond and give people what they wanted. In abundance.
Market strategies changed dramatically. Consumers’ attitude changed drastically. The way people spent their money changed forever.
The Rise of Advertisement
Advertisements weren’t new in the 1920s. The practice had already started in the late 1800s. But the 1920s produced a new way to use it.
Advertisement had previously be used just to give info about the characteristics and the availability of a certain item. In the 1920s, the purpose of advertisement change. It ceased to be just information and became an enticement, a call to action. It started to create the need for a product. Appealing to how a product could make a person more elegant, more attractive, or make their jobs easier and faster, the new forms of advertisements tried to move the customer to buy.
Many of the new products were not essential, but they could make life easier and more comfortable. Advertisements created the need to buy, so to appear modern and prosperous.
Prosperity was the secret desire of the middle-class. At the moment when they were rising from a state of semi-poverty to a state of almost-prosperity, the middle-class was eager to look prosperous even when they really were not. Appearing to be prosperous was almost as important as being prosperous. Advertisement continuously appealed to this need, which the mass-market had itself created.
Contrary to the past, advertisements, especially in magazines, now addressed women. This was a new section of the market that didn’t previously exist because before WWI, very few middle-class women had worked and so disposed of their own money. Magazines and their advertisement proposed a new role for women. No more mere housewives, but managers of the house, even when men still earned all the money. Women would then manage it, at least in regard to day-to-day life. Appealing to women’s sense of advancement was one of the most winning advertisement strategies of the era.
Kyvig, David E., Daily Life in the United States 1920-1940. How Americans Lived Through the ‘Roaring Twenties’ and the Great Depression. Ivan R. Dee Publisher, Chicago, 2002
Perrish, Michael E., Anxious Decades: America in Prosperity and Depression, 1920-1941. W.W. Norton & Co. Inc., New York, 1992