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FMC Program Segments 1900-1930

"Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture"
Robert and Helen Lynd Measure Muncie, Indiana


Ben Wattenberg during filming of FMC BEN WATTENBERG: Thank you, Morris. Why don't they let me drive once in a while? Well, life was getting better for babies, and for moms, and for most everyone else. Henry Ford advertised his new Model T as "stronger than a horse and easier to maintain." In the early part of the century, the mass-produced automobile and a blizzard of other new machines were dramatically changing the way Americans lived. 

The industries and inventions that arose in the 19th century had mostly provided the building blocks of America's infrastructure -- steel, canals, railroads, oil, coal, and of course big daddy, electric power. That tree of infrastructure bore fruit. The 20th century was to be the consumer century, hailed by most, scorned by some. 

In 1900, there were only 8,000 cars in the entire country, owned naturally enough by the very rich. But by 1925, a new Model T was rolling off the assembly line every 15 seconds. By 1930, there were more than 26 million cars, used by about half the population. Thanks largely to Henry Ford's use of standardized parts and the assembly line, costs fell, even as wages rose throughout the country. Before World War I a car cost the average American worker the equivalent of 24 months wages. By the late 1920s a car could be purchased for about 3 months' wages. By 1928, more than three quarters of all the cars in the world were in America. 

Notwithstanding this outpouring of consumer goods, the American economy remained volatile. Since the earliest days of the Industrial Revolution, swings in national production marked repeated cycles of booms and busts, of panics, small depressions and periodic high unemployment. 

In 1919, unemployment and inflation prompted more than 2,000 strikes across the country, involving more than four million workers. What to do about this growing rift? 

John D. Rockefeller, Jr., billionaire son of the founder of Standard Oil, believed that the key was religion. In the spirit of the time, he sought data and funded a survey of religious attitudes. The young man chosen to head the study was not a social scientist -- not yet. He was a social activist, Robert Lynd. 

While training to be a minister, Lynd lived and worked in the difficult conditions of an oil camp in Elk Basin, Wyoming, owned by Rockefeller's Standard Oil. 

STAUGHTON LYND (Son of Robert and Helen Lynd): My dad, after his summer in Elk Basin, published two articles for which he criticized the long hours, the low pay, the social isolation. And in fact the story at our family table was that he wrote a letter to John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and asked him for a contribution for the project of building a community center for the women in Elk Basin. The story is that John D. Rockefeller replied and said that Standard Oil had a hard year and he wasn't in a position to contribute. 

BEN WATTENBERG: Despite young Bob Lynd's public attacks on one of the most powerful men in America, or perhaps because of it, he got the job. Lynd's new wife, Helen, a graduate of Wellesley College, joined him in the investigation. Together the Lynds searched the Midwest for a sample community that they hoped could represent Mainstream America. 

In 1923 they found what they were looking for in Muncie, a small city of 38,000 people in Lynd's home state of Indiana, 40 miles to the northeast of Indianapolis. Their subsequent book, a smashing best seller still in print, would be called "Middletown," and it would make Muncie the most studied community in the world. 

THEODORE CAPLOW (University of Virginia): They wanted a place that was as unexceptional as possible, with nothing outstanding about it. And that is true of Middletown to this day. That is what they liked about it. They were looking for in a sense the essence of plain Americanism. 

BEN WATTENBERG: The Lynds arrived in Muncie in January of 1924. As they put it, they set out to observe Munconians as an anthropologist would study a primitive tribe. 

STAUGHTON LYND: He refused to study religion as a thing in itself. He took the position that it could only be understood as part of the entire life of the community. The folks who were paying for the study were very dissatisfied with it. They thought it was a waste of time. They thought it wasn't going anywhere. And my dad had a tough time sticking to it. 

BRUCE GEELHOED (Ball State University): They took up residence in Muncie and tried to become part of the fabric of the community. It was a conservative culture, it was a community that reflected the influence of late 19th century southern attitudes. 

The Lynds had a series of questionnaires, where they would survey the attitudes of high school students, they would survey the attitudes of house wives, they would survey the attitudes of the people on the street. No one had done a small city survey of the type that the Lynds proposed to do. 

BEN WATTENBERG: Several survey questions measured patriotism in Muncie. The Lynds showed high school students the statement that "The United States is unquestionably the best country in the world." More than 90 percent of the students agreed. Clearly they believed that America was a most exceptional place. 

Robert and Helen Lynd tried to capture how life in a small heartland city had changed between 1890 and 1925. To establish their time line, the Lynds used data from Census Bureau records along with the personal recollections of Munconians drawn from hundreds of interviews. 

They made long lists of goods that could be found in the home of 1924 that were unheard of in the Muncie home of 1890: a furnace, running hot and cold water, indoor plumbing, toasters, washing machines, vacuum cleaners, telephones, refrigeration, fresh fruit all year round, a greater variety of clothes, and by the way cigarettes. What the Lynds saw in Muncie was happening across the nation. The portion of American households owning flush toilets more than doubled in 10 years. Less than one percent of homes had central heating before 1920; but by 1930, the figure was above 40 percent. By 1930, one in four homes had a washing machine. The number of households with radios climbed from one percent to 40 percent in a single decade. Telephones quickly spread from only 5 percent of households in 1900 to 41 percent in 1930. 

NANCY KOEHN (Harvard Business School): The 1920s were a very important decade in the rise of consumer society in America, unmistakably an inflection point -- not in terms of the production of the goods or the existence of the goods, but in terms of the actual acquisition of those goods by millions of households. 

BEN WATTENBERG: The Lynds observed how new technology and new political goods were transforming everyday life in Muncie. Consider the movies. Within three decades of the invention of moving pictures, 70 percent of Munconians went to the movies at least once a week, and almost half went two or more times. Eighty percent of high school boys and 70 percent of high school girls went to the movies more often without their parents than with. The Lynds concluded that movies were transforming leisure time from a family activity into an individual one. Some high school teachers thought moving pictures were bringing about the early sophistication of their students. 

In the Lynd survey of housewives, mothers worried about how these changes affected their children. 

QUOTE: "Girls aren't so modest nowadays. They dress differently. It's the girls' clothing. And we can't get our boys decent when girls dress that way." 

BEN WATTENBERG: Telephones gave Americans greater liberty of communication. For young people, a phone could be a more private way of approaching the opposite sex. 

QUOTE: "Girls are far more aggressive today. They call boys up to try to make dates with them, as they never could have when I was a girl." 

Moving Picture Exhibition BEN WATTENBERG: The Lynds also saw how cars affected behavior. Sometimes mobility also means privacy. One Middletown judge told the Lynds that cars were "houses of prostitution on wheels." The Lynds noted that movies and the automobile were changing the nature of the predominantly Christian town. The Sabbath was becoming the Sunday holiday. Church attendance fell to almost half of what it had been in the 1890s. 

BRUCE GEELHOED: What the Lynds saw in Muncie that they later became very critical of, was this all-too-vigorous embrace of the consumer society. The Lynds were very critical of advertising and of the manipulation of people's attitudes and beliefs. And of course much of the 1920s prosperity was conditioned by advertising. The Lynds were very much critical of this mentality that was taking place in America where personal possessions were valued more than personal relationships. 

BEN WATTENBERG: The Lynds saw the new consumer economy as contributing to a growing division in society. It would become the most controversial aspect of their work. 

THEODORE CAPLOW: They discovered the scandal of class. Most Americans at the time had been brought up to believe that we live in a democracy where everybody is essentially equal, though admittedly some people are richer than others. The Lynds discovered in Middletown that there was a business class as they called it, and a working class, and that they were as different as two different tribes. Their conditions of life were different, their values were different, their expectations were different, and there wasn't they thought much passage between the two. 

BEN WATTENBERG: The Lynds identified 70 percent of Munconians with jobs as "working class"; that is, typically factory or construction workers, those that made a living working with things. The other 30 percent belonged to what the Lynds called the "business class." These were the people who worked with ideas or with other people, developing, promoting and selling services. This difference, according to the Lynds, affected every aspect of life in Muncie. 

DAVID KENNEDY (Stanford University): What distinguished the working class from the business class was not level of income necessarily; rather, it was security of employment. The business class were people who had long-term secure employment prospects. The working class, the much larger category, were people who could not count on stable employment and had no protection against unemployment -- no substantial savings, no unemployment insurance plans and so on. So their lives, the working class lives, were characterized by volatility and insecurity to a degree that simply wasn't true of this other category of people. 

BEN WATTENBERG: When the Lynds published "Middletown" in 1929, it was an instant hit. They had tapped into Americans' growing love affair with data. Critics took a variety of messages from the Lynds' work. NANCY KOEHN: There's a great written debate I think that quietly but consistently rages about whether the rise of a consumer society has been on net a good thing for Americans or not. Americans have voted with their feet. I think it's hard to see a lot of commerce as anything but at some core level a set of elections. No one forced Americans to buy movie tickets or mass-produced lipstick from Max Factor or baked beans. They chose to do that. 

BEN WATTENBERG: The Lynds focused on class differences just when class itself was changing. 

HOWARD BAHR (Brigham Young University): They're looking at two processes. One is they show class to us -- working class, business class. But the other is the progress of modernization. And the progress of modernization actually muddies up the class distinction that they want to make. 

People are getting washers and refrigerators, indoor plumbing. We have cars, not for all the lower class, but everybody is thinking about getting a car if they don't have one. 

BEN WATTENBERG: Case in point: the rich man's car was likely to be luxurious and perhaps chauffeur-driven. But a working class car performed exactly the same function: it took a passenger from point A to point B, faster, easier and cheaper than a horse and buggy. All car owners enjoyed an increase in their liberty of mobility. 

Like the car, many of the new consumer goods were liberty multipliers. Call them "liberty machines." The radio and the movies let middle-class folks hear and see the same entertainment as rich people. The telephone, once a rich man's toy, provided the liberating force of communication for millions. Middle-class women may not have had servants, but washing machines and vacuum cleaners could offer the liberty of time off from housework. 

Now, I think the Lynds were great sociologists. They reported on modernization and on the availability of consumer goods. But they had big problems with that. By my lights, what the Lynds didn't quite get is that consumer goods were eroding class differences, and actually leveling the playing field.

     Photo Credits:
   Moving Picture Exhibition. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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