“The Boom” – When Capitalism Reigned Supreme; The Religion of Economic Prosperity and Boosterism


During The Twenties, GNP rose from $74 billion to $104.4 billion. (TFC, Vol. III, p. 25) and the buying power of wages increased 50% from 1913 to 1927 (Id, p. 96)

The Twenties saw the development of Madison Avenue and the mass marketing of products. Modern advertising techniques, such as celebrity testimonials originated in The Twenties. Radio ads, billboards and mass circulation magazines became ubiquitous. By 1925, magazines and newspapers owed 70% of their total income of $1.3 billion to ad revenues. (TFC Vol. III, p. 118) Brand slogans that lasted decades appeared: “The pause that refreshes”,- Coca Cola; “I’d walk a mile for a Camel”, “Good to the Last Drop”- Maxwell House Coffee”. The goal was to increase consumption. And the goal was achieved: The Twenties saw the beginning of the “consumer society”.

In contrast to the Victorian society that had placed a high premium on thrift and saving, the new consumer society emphasized spending and borrowing. Consumer goods, such as radios, automobiles, washing machines, refrigerators, gas stoves, all kinds of other household appliances (vacuum cleaners, phonographs, etc.) purchased on easy credit and installment buying became common. Between 1920 and 1929 installment purchases quintupled, reaching six billion dollars annually. (TFC, 96-99) 90% of all pianos, sewing machines, washing machines; 80% of vacuum cleaners, radios, refrigerators; 70% of furniture; and 60 % of autos were purchased on credit (Id.) Another source estimated that 75% of all automobiles, 85-90 % of all furniture, 80% of all phonographs, 75% of washing-machines, 65% of vacuum cleaners, 25% of all jewelry, and the greater part of all pianos, sewing-machines, radios, and electric refrigerators, were sold by partial payment. About $140,000,000 worth of clothing was also sold per annum on this plan. http://www.1920-30.com/business/

Alongside the automobile, the telephone and electricity also became emblems of the consumer economy. By 1930, two-thirds of all American households had electricity, and half of American households had telephones. As more and more of America’s homes received electricity, new appliances followed: refrigerators, washing machines, vacuum cleaners, and toasters quickly took hold. Advertisers claimed that “labor saving” appliances would ease the sheer physical drudgery of housework, but they did not shorten the average housewife’s work week. Women had to do more because standards of cleanliness kept rising. Sheets had to be changed weekly. The house had to be vacuumed daily. In short, social pressure expanded household chores to keep pace with the new technology. Far from liberating women, appliances imposed new standards of cleanliness. http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/disp_textbook.cfm?smtid=2&psid=3396

Ready-to-wear clothing was another addition to America’s expanding consumer economy. During World War I, the federal government defined standard clothing sizes to help the nation’s garment industry meet the demand for military uniforms. Standard sizes meant that it was now possible to mass produce ready-to-wear clothing. (Id.)

Even the public’s eating habits underwent far-reaching shifts. The most striking development was the shift toward processed foods. Instead of preparing food from scratch at home (plucking chickens, roasting nuts, or grinding coffee beans), an increasing number of Americans purchased foods that were ready-to-cook. Important innovations in food processing occurred during World War I as manufacturers learned how to efficiently produce canned and frozen foods. Processed foods saved homemakers enormous amounts of time in peeling, grinding, and cutting. (Id.)

Accompanying the rise of new consumer-oriented businesses were profound shifts in the ways that businesses operated. To stimulate sales and increase profits, businesses expanded advertising, offered installment credit, and created the nation’s first regional and national chains.

The nation’s first million-dollar advertising campaign (Uneeda Biscuits in a waterproof box) demonstrated advertising’s power. Before the 1920s, most advertisements consisted of vast expanses of print. Absent were brand names, pictures, or catch phrases. During the 1920s, advertising agencies hired psychologists (including John B. Watson, the founder of behaviorism, and Edward Bernays, Sigmund Freud’s nephew) to design the first campaigns. They touted products by building-up name brand identification, creating memorable slogans, manipulating endorsements by doctors or celebrities, and appealing to consumers’ hunger for prestige and status. By 1929, American companies spent $3 billion annually to advertise their products–five times more than the amount spent on advertising in 1914. (Id.) A short film about advertisements in the 1920s can be found at https://youtu.be/0DtWM2KP1vI;

During the 1920s, the chain store movement revolutionized retailing. Chains of stores multiplied across the country, like Woolworth’s, the five-and-dime chain. The largest grocery chain, A&P, had 17,500 stores by 1928. Alongside drugstore and cigar store chains, there were also interlocking networks of banks and utility companies. These banks and utilities played a critical role in promoting the financial speculation of the late 1920s, which would be one of the causes for the Great Depression. A discussion of consumerism in the 1920s is at https://youtu.be/NvtsYZjL-wI (Id.)

Networks of chain stores and department stores that could reduce prices through economies of scale replaced the neighborhood stores. There were A & P, Piggly Wiggly and Safeway groceries; F.W. Woolworth, JC Penny, and SS Kresge retail stores; and Sears & Roebuck and Co., RH Macy, and Montgomery Ward department stores. Sales in five and dime chains increased 160 % and sales of grocery chains increase 287% between 1919 and 1927. (Allen, VII, 3)

The rise and development of booster organizations like Rotary, Kiwanis, Lions, Elks, and the Chamber of Commerce during the decade contributed to the “boom” environment.

The Prosperity Gospel

President Coolidge’s famous statement, “The business of America is business” capsulizes the overwhelmingly dominant attitude of The Twenties. The decade featured nearly seven years of economic expansion and plenty for most of America (but not all, e.g. farmers, mining, and textiles). The economic boom was called Coolidge Prosperity. (Allen, VII)

In 1928, then candidate for president Herbert Hoover made the following comment in a campaign speech: “One of the oldest and perhaps the noblest of human aspirations has been the abolition of poverty….We in America today are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of any land. We have not yet reached the goal but given a chance to go forward with the policies of the last eight years, we shall soon, with the help of God, be in sight of the day when poverty will be banished from this nation.” (Allen XII, 3) This assessment of The Twenties’ economic condition would prove to be grossly overly optimistic.

As reflected in Hoover’s statement, The Twenties’ entrepreneur believed capitalism and its resultant prosperity had a religious foundation. Indeed, “the association of business with religion was one of the most significant phenomena of the day,” wrote journalist Frederick Lewis Allen in his 1931 retrospective Only Yesterday. (pp. 6 et. seq.) Allen noted that this phenomenon is best reflected in Bruce Barton’s 1925 bestseller, The Man Nobody Knows, which presented Jesus as the “founder of modern business” whose self-confident leadership modeled the best of executive skill, and whose parables reflected the essentials of effective advertising. Jesus, according to Barton, was not only “the most popular dinner guest in Jerusalem,” and “an outdoor man,” but a great executive. “He picked up twelve men from the bottom ranks of business and forged them into an organization that conquered the world. . .. Nowhere is there such a startling example of executive success as the way in which that organization was brought together.” (Allen, VII, 7)

The Rev. E. W. Perry, explaining the religious foundation of Twenties’ capitalism, stated:

As a business man, Christ stands at the head of his class. Business defined simply means employment, trade, profession or dealing by way of sale or exchange. Christ seemed to have understood His business relation with His Father from childhood. A close student of the life of Christ will note a business-like genius in His mind. He talked much of profit and loss and counting the cost of things. Jesus was not all emotions by any means. He possessed consecration, but it was intelligent. He put religion in His business and business in His religion. No business man can fail who takes Christ for his example. The fact is, He was born in a radical family that is noted for business the world over, so He naturally had a business run of mind. He believed in money and organized His church on a business basis, equipped with a secretary and treasurer.

(Streissguth, p. 289)

The “prosperity gospel”, as it was sometimes called, was the belief that God grants health and wealth to those with the right kind of faith. The movement depicted faith as palpably demonstrated in wealth and health. It could be measured in both in the wallet—one’s personal wealth—and in the body—one’s personal health—making material reality the measure of the success of immaterial faith. (Catherine (Kate) Bowler, Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel, Oxford, 2013)

Another manifestation of the “prosperity gospel” mind set includes Russell H. Conwell’s famous sermon, “Acres of Diamonds.” Conwell re-interpreted his Calvinist inheritance for this new corporate age, equating poverty with sin and riches with dutiful virtue. Conwell’s Wall Street gospel agreed with the unfettered accumulation by the nation’s first millionaires and billionaires, sharing the mythical secret that brought an Andrew Carnegie or John D. Rockefeller to the top: sheer will. Conwell preached the sermon some 6,000 times, promising listeners that wealth lay within any American’s grasp, if they would only accept their Christian duty to work hard and see God’s hand through the workings of capitalism.

Reflective of the conflation of business and religion, in 1922 Charles Filmore published the very successful magazine “The Christian Business Man”. (Rolf LundénBusiness and Religion in the American 1920s (New YorkGreenwood Press1988).