In the first decade
of the twentieth century

2014 marks 100 years since the beginning of World War I. Ceremonies such as the Londonʼs Red Roses exhibit serve as a reminder of the slaughter in which England lost more than 994,000 soldiers, France another 1.3 million, Germany 2.5 million, and Russia 3.3 million, while the United States lost 117,465. While the nearly 20 million casualties of World War I would pale in comparison to the over 72 million of World War II, it is worth taking a look at the state of civilian life before these tragic events took place.  

We already have vivid historical narratives of the early twentieth century. The popular novels of Theodore Dreiser, Joseph Conrad, Henry James, André Gide, and Edith Wharton, were widely read, and still so for many today. We also have the artistic creations of Auguste Renoir, Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso, in a word in which impressionism and modern art were transforming the world of painting and sculpture.  These writers and artists were not yet household names. Fame thus depended on a thin layer of wealthy consumers willing to buy books and works of art sufficient for writers and artists to make a living.

While these works of art appealed to the rising wealth of Americans and Europeans, they also belied an underside of life in which inequality, discrimination, and the expansion of European colonialism unfolded. If we look at the underside, it is instructive to recall Thorstein Veblenʼs 1899 classic, The Theory of the Leisure Class, a critique of the contradictions and superficialities of material consumption. In turn, in his 1890 book, How the Other Half Lives, Jacob Riis set out in vivid photographic detail the lives of lower income residents of New York. And in 1903, W.E.B. Dubois wrote The Souls of Black Folk, a searing commentary on the legacy of slavery and racial discrimination on Black communities in the U.S.


Tenement Units
in New York, 1880.

Jacob Riis,
How the Other Half Lives.

In the first decade of the twentieth century, Americaʼs population still lived in largely rural areas. The Census of 1910 estimated that less than half (45.6 percent) of the U.S. population of 93.86 million was then living in urban areas, and which rose only to 52.1 percent by the 1920 level of 108.54 million. Residential electrification, water and sewage services were still in the early stages of development. Transportation still depended as much on horseback and stagecoaches as it did on an emerging automobile industry.  Roads were poor, and there was as yet no system of interstate highways to join together the various regions of the country. The only and limited exception at this point was the recently inaugurated Lincoln Highway, which began operation in 1913.

For most individuals, labor conditions often hazardous, and industrial accidents were widespread, reflecting an absence of workplace standards. When Upton Sinclair wrote his 1906 exposé, The Jungle, about the Chicago meatpacking industry, it led to a wave of reforms, including the adoption of the Food and Drug Act of 1907.  Elsewhere, working conditions were often perilous. Frances Perkins, later to become Franklin D. Rooseveltʼs Secretary of Labor, was an eyewitness to the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in Manhattan, New York in which 143 garment workers died from the fire, smoke inhalation, or falling to their deaths in the sealed building.  

Personal danger was not confined to the workplace. The newly constructed White Star Line RMS Titanic completed sea trials in 1911, and was about to launch a trans-Atlantic luxury cruise service. On April 12, 1912 it was soon to begin its fateful maiden voyage, casting a shadow on an industry that had been once hailed as the wave of the future.


Titanic sinking
on April 15, 1912.

No hint of an impending disaster would be found on the pre-sailing pages of the Saturday Evening Post, let alone anywhere else. Instead, if anything, there was a general fascination with the notion of Trans-Atlantic luxury cruise voyages, especially when so many immigrants had arrived in typically dismal circumstances. On April 15, 1912, the Titanic hit an iceberg off Newfoundland in which some 1,500 passengers died and only 705 survived.  It was the largest peacetime disaster in a century, and caused a sensation in the press. The slaughter of World War I would soon displace the shock of the loss of the Titanic.

In 1912, William Howard Taft was President, locked in an electoral contest with Theodore Rooseveltʼs newly formed Bullmoose Party, and against an as yet to be confirmed Democratic opponent, New Jersey governor Woodrow Wilson. Wilson would go on in November to defeat a divided Republican opposition. April stories of the Saturday Evening Post said little about the unfolding election since nominating conventions that would take place in the summer held as much sway as any primary election.  


The Saturday
Evening Post,
December 30, 1911.

Nor was womenʼs suffrage yet at hand. In 1911 the Saturday Evening Post had a cover anticipating whether the election of 1912 would bring women the right to vote, but this was not to be. Congress passed the nineteenth amendment on June 4, 1919, but it was not ratified by a sufficient number of states until August 18, 1920, almost two years after the First World War.

As to the country at large, the U.S. was at peace, undergoing a wave of rising prosperity interrupted only by periodic financial crises, including those dating back to 1873, 1894, and 1907. The latter was resolved by a determined intervention by J.P. Morgan who orchestrated a bailout of Wall Street banks.  When Woodrow Wilson won the election of 1912, by the end of the next year, Congress adopted legislation to establish the Federal Reserve Bank to forestall future crises.  This came on top of the adoption of the sixteenth amendment, which granted the Federal Government authority to impose income taxes. Ratification dated back to Alabama in 1909, and adoption was confirmed by Delawareʼs ratification on February 3, 1913.  

While the Wright Brothers helped launch twentieth century aviation in 1903, by 1912 there was no commercial aviation service yet offering trans-continental service. Plane manufacturers were tinkering with new designs, and most were too small to offer commercial passenger service. Only after Lindberghʼs 1927 trans-Atlantic flight did inter-continental passenger service become a reality.   

Commercial radio broadcasting did not begin until 1920, when Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania station KDKA began broadcasting on November 2. For the most part, newspapers were the principal source of public information, and entertainment was as often live as it was with some of the early motion picture theatres, which themselves began as early as 1894 and films were usually short featured silent films that often featured rising stars such as Mary Pickford, and with others long since little remembered.

The U.S. economy during the first decade of the twentieth century was on a path to growth and innovation. In 1912, per capita nominal GDP stood at $385 (in 2013 dollars it would be $9,375), and increased gradually over the decades to todayʼs $52,9991 as of 2013.  Prices in 1912 were thus markedly lower, by a factor of 25 times, and thus advertising prices in the early decade of the twentieth century should be seen as such. As to the average workweek, estimates of the time pointed to a typical full-time manufacturing job workweek of just under 60 hours, falling to 40 hours by the 1930ʼs, and down to todayʼs average 35 hours. A shorter workweek combined with rising real wages meant that the age of mass consumption was on the rise.

The World of Advertising
Against this backdrop, it is instructive to take a look at what people were consuming in the period around the time of the First World War.  To do so, we have compiled a sample of advertising images, many drawn from The Saturday Evening Post in the period just before and after 1912. What makes this relevant is that while we have some idea of marketing from such publications as the 1897 and 1909 Sears Roebuck sales catalog, other published sources enlarge the range of consumer goods and services then on the market.

Advertising of the period reveals a lot about what people were consuming, or hoped to consume, as well as what they were thinking. Advertisements include a growing array of material goods, an emphasis on products of the rapidly expanding automobile industry, and on the activities and conveniences that a rising middle class would come to enjoy. Today, many of them seem quaint, but back then, many of them were innovations that were not even imagined during the nineteenth century.

Households were acquiring some of the amenities that used to be only the province of the wealthy. One of them was an upgraded indoor bath and plumbing system, as evidenced here by an ad for a complete installed bathroom with fixtures.  


The Saturday Evening Post,
April 6, 1912, p.78.

With indoor plumbing, households also began to acquire more creature comforts, including inner-spring mattresses, lead painted walls, and drywall replacements for plaster lathing.  


The Saturday Evening Post,
April 6, 1912, p. 67.

The Saturday Evening Post, April 6, 1912, p. 52.

The Saturday Evening Post, Dec. 30, 1911, p.29.

Construction standards for housing were also slowly in the rise.  As fire was a constant threat, and fire prevention services were limited, some firms were offering steel garages to provide protection for automobiles and motorcycles, products still in their infancy and not yet typical household items.  The hazards of lead were not yet known, and it would take decades before a program to remove lead paint would get under way.


The Saturday Evening Post,
April 6, 1912, p. 70.

The Saturday Evening Post,
April 6, 1912, p. 21.


Another way of reducing fire hazards was in the use of asbestos roofing shingles, and which later was also used as a material for insulation of hot water pipes in buildings.  It would take a generation before the risks of asbestos became known. A tide of lawsuits over lung disease and mesothelioma led Johns-Manville to declare bankruptcy in 1982, with a trust fund set up afterward to treat settlement claims.


The Saturday Evening Post, April 6, 1912,
p. 68 (left) and p. 57 (right).

Home heating in the early twentieth century was done largely by coal-fired furnaces, with wood burning stoves slowly being replaced.  Natural gas and home fuel oil systems were a rarity, and it would not be until after the Second World war that oil and natural gas became the dominant home heating technologies.

While restaurants were growing in popularity, especially in large towns and cities, for the most part, households consumed food at home, and around the family dinner table.  


The Saturday Evening Post,
April 6, 1912, p.69.

Because cooking was time consuming, the demand for appliances that could help in meal preparation while saving energy were a growing household interest.  Long before the advent of the pressure cooker, cuisinart food machines and sous vide cooking, fireless cookers already were making a difference in kitchen efficiency.  With limited burner space on a stove, one could place a semi-prepared dish in a fireless cooker, close the top, and allow it to continue cooking under pressure while other matters were attended to.

And what about food itself?  Cookbooks over the decades have long been around and provide an idea of what kinds of ingredients were used. Fannie Farmerʼs Boston Cooking School Cook Book was first published in 1896, later to be supplemented by such titles as Irma Rombauer and Marian Beckerʼs Joy of Cooking, first published in 1931, among many others that still are used today.  Calorie counting was not in fashion.

Milton Hershey started his chocolate confectionery company in Lancaster, Pennsylvania back in 1894. By the turn of the century he already was starting to produce the iconic chocolate candy bar. In New York, the then Sen Sen company promotes Thomas Adamʼs Chiclets as a “dainty mint covered candy coated chewing gum”. Production would later be taken over by the Chicago Wrigley company. In 1912, Cleveland Crane launched its peppermint Life Savers circular candy, and which later would be taken over by New Jersey confectioner Mars. And in Johnstown, New York, the Knox Company promotes its “pure, plain sparkling gelatine”, and which later would be re-branded in different flavors as the Jell-O we know today.


Middle: The Saturday Evening Post, Dec. 30, 1911, p. 3.
Right: The Saturday Evening Post, April 6, 1912, p. 55.



Left: The Saturday Evening Post, April 6, 1912, p. 67.

Middle: The Saturday Evening Post, April 6, 1912, p. 67.
Right: The Saturday Evening Post, December 30, 1911, p. 34.

Other food products included Beech Nut peanut butter, Nabiscoʼs Sugar Wafers, and the “Empire Candy Floss Machine”, which was the origin of todayʼs cotton candy machines. The firm also listed its popcorn, peanut roaster, and ice cream machines that also were part of the food landscape.  

While none of these products was as yet resulting in todayʼs obesity epidemic, one sign of a tilt in health was an increase in dental cavities. Manufacturers responded with a growing array of toothpaste creams, along with toothbrush innovations. Newark, New Jersey Rubberset Company promotes its trademark toothbrush products, production of which later would be taken over by the Bristol-Myers Pharmaceutical Company.


The Saturday Evening Post,
April 6, 1912, p. 73.

If sugary products were not enough to satisfy food cravings, Americans also were taking to cigarette and cigar smoking on a grand scale. While tobacco ads would come to dominate magazine advertising in the post World War II era, in the early years, warnings about the risks of lung cancer were nowhere to be found.  And the iconic Zippo lighter would not be launched until 1932 to become the collectorʼs item it is today.


Right: The Saturday Evening Post, April 6, 1912, p. 61.


One sign of rising wealth was the expansion of the recreational boating industry. While house building kits had been around for a few decades, boat building kits represented a novelty. Fiberglass was decades away in boat building, so kits were offered with wood materials. Yet, some manufacturers decided to sell steel-hulled boats with inboard motors, using designs adapted from military contracts.


The Saturday Evening Post, April 6, 1912, p. 61 (left) and p. 57 (right).

In the early years of the twentieth century, firearms were in steady demand, whether for hunting, as with a Daily air rifle, or for personal protection, as in a womenʼs hand-held pistol. Because crime rates were so low, the public seemed largely willing to have law enforcement agencies do most of the police work in pursuit of criminal justice, a willingness that would weaken over the years as perceptions of inadequate police protection, rising crime, and corruption led many to embrace an absolutist right to fire arms. The National Rifle Association, founded in 1871, was not yet engaged in the Second Amendment right to bear arms that it would play in more recent years.  


The Saturday Evening Post, December 30, 1911, p. 41.

In the early years of the twentieth century, office technology was on the march. No one had even imagined a world of computers, cell phones, and the internet, but the building blocks were already being assembled. The Burroughs Company, founded in St. Louis, Missouri in 1886, was already producing reliable printing calculators, though for a while, operated mainly by hand cranks.  

Typewriters had been on the market since the 1860ʼs. By the early twentieth century, they still were too considered expensive for many. Newer and cheaper models would soon change the market. With the spread of typewriter technology, firms wrestled with the type of keyboard best suited to the market. The Dvorak keyboard, still available in certain digital machines, lost out largely to the QWERTY keyboard in the U.S., mainly because the latter seemed to reduce typing errors better. 

 The Saturday
Evening Post,
Dec. 30, 1911,
p. 56 (left)
and April 6, 1912,
p. 55 (right).


While office technologies represented the expansion of the service industry, education institutions sought to provide increasingly specialized training for the professions. Law school was a relatively recent innovation developed in the late nineteenth century. And while the American Bar Association adopted a three-year program of study requirement only in 1906, many could study law at home, or learn law as apprentices as clerks in a law office. As with medicine and many others professions, women were still a rarity, the first being a graduate of Northwestern College of Law in 1870. Today, women account for well over half of all law school graduates.


The Saturday
Evening Post,
April 6, 1912, p. 68.


Turning to manufacturing, still a major driver of the economy, equipment manufacturers were in the early stages of road, and bridge construction that would make way for an expanding transportation industry. At the heavy equipment level, some such as Bucyrus-Erie touted the soon to be completed Panama Canal, while others pointed to truckload dumping capacity for material delivery.


The Saturday
Evening Post,
December 28,
1912, p. 2 (left)
and p. 1 (right).

Besides homebuilding, one of the most expensive household purchases was an automobile. We have seen how steel garage manufacturers were proposing to shield them from the risks of fire. But even as the automobile industry began to expand, roads were limited in scope and quality. Vehicle tires advertisements pointed to the problem of frequent flats requiring periodic repairs.


The Saturday Evening Post, April 6, 1912,
p. 76 (left), p. 68 (middle) and p. 2 (right).


Our household review would be incomplete without including a few automobile advertisements. Ads emphasized a combination of power (six-cylinder engines were found on luxury models such as Oldsmobile and Packard, while Ford cars all had four-cylinder engines), price (Ford emphasized an entry price of $690 for its Motel-T, while Oldsmobiles were prices between $5,000 and $7,000, and Packards even more), performance (Packards were noted for speeds up to 70 miles an hour), and value (Packard claimed its cars were the “best cash asset”, long before the famous “Ask the man who owns one” came along). Fuel economy was not considered a selling point, as were operating and maintenance costs. Added features, common to more recent automobiles, were not as yet much of an option – commercial radio broadcasts only began in 1920, air conditioning was limited to refrigerated freight train cars, and power steering and brakes were decades away. And Cadillac began offering the first models with electric starters, beginning with the 1912 Touring Edition.


The Saturday Evening Post, April 6, 1912.

If the first decade of the twentieth century seemed idyllic, it was. Except for a financial panic in 1907, real incomes were increasing, new innovations were coming to market, and household products once the province of only the wealthy began to be produced for a mass market.  What interrupted the flow of progress was World War I, a conflict that began in August 1914 and out of which they U.S. managed to remain until April 1917. By warʼs end, over 20 million casualties had been inflicted, and a small U.S. army and air force helped to turn the tide.


The Saturday
Evening Post cover,
June 29, 1918.

The U.S. still viewed European countries on an equal footing among the worldʼs great powers. Only after another world war would the U.S. emerge as a dominant world power and out of which income and wealth creation would follow the innovations dating back to the early part of the century.

Emeritus Professor of Economics
Economics & Finance School of Business
Montclair State University
New Jersey, USA