While it would be fair to say that for many non-Americans the movies have shaped their perception of the United States, for Americans themselves, it could be argued that the automobile has had a much more profound effect. This paper will argue that the automobile had more of an impact on American life and culture than the film industry, and will examine the role of Henry Ford in this process.
Following the First World War, America experienced a large economic expansion. This was, in part, due to the extra production needed to fuel the war effort. This saw partnerships between capital and the state develop, as new economic practises took hold. At the forefront of this state capitalism was Henry Ford, whose company made the first mass-produced cars. As Henretta (2009) states, “An abundance of new consumer products, particularly the automobile, sparked this economic expansion.” 1 This led to a period of optimism among Americans, with many feeling that there could never be another depression. “Most Americans had come to assume during the 1920s that there would never be another depression.”2
Ford was a man who exploited new systems of mass-production to make cheap vehicles, which an increasingly prosperous America was looking to buy. “Between 1922 and 1929, the gross domestic product grew from $74.1 billion to $103.1 billion, approximately 40 percent, and per capita income rose impressively from $641 to $847 (about $10,000 today, one-third of present per capita income).” 3 Ford was also a proponent of Welfare Capitalism, and paid his workers $5 a day. Nevertheless, he was anti-union, which led to much strife and conflict in his businesses. Other activities of his, such as the publication of the anti-Semitic newspaper, The Dearborn Independent, marked him out as one of the most right-wing men in America.
At the same time as this growth in the car industry, many millions of Americans were also enjoying the new art form of the cinema. Films starring actors and actresses such as Clara Bow were immensely popular, with half of the population, or 50 million people, attending the movies on a weekly or more frequent basis.4 Bow herself became enormously popular, especially for a film called ‘It’, which led to her being called ‘The It Girl’.
While movies acted as a distraction for many people, there were plenty of others for whom the movies were out of economic reach. Capitalists like Ford had helped to create a situation where the there was no safety net for the people who were directly affected by the economic crisis. The desperate need that many Americans felt was reflected in the way that they wrote to President Roosevelt in their hundreds 5, expressing hope that he could help them. In many ways, the New Deal, and the massive changes which resulted from it, was a response to this crisis.
It can therefore be seen that the automobile was a piece of technology which heavily influenced American life. Not only did its production lead to changes in economic practise, but it also opened up America to ordinary travellers. This in turn saw large population movements following the Great Depression, as Americans travelled seeking work. It could also be argued that the practises of capitalists like Ford helped to create the great poverty and alienation which resulted from the Great Depression. Ford therefore had a greater impact than Clara Bow, and the car more of an effect than film.
- Henretta, James, America’s History (2009), Chapter 23, p.675
- Tindall, George B. & Shi, David E. America, brief Second Edition (1989), p. 697
- Henretta, America’s History, Chapter 23, p.675
- Kyvig, David E. Daily life in the US, 1920–1939, Greenwood Press Daily Life Through History Series, 2002. p.79.
- Henretta, America’s History, p.701
Henretta, James, America’s History (2009), Chapter 23, p.675
Kyvig, David E. Daily life in the US, 1920–1939, Greenwood Press Daily Life Through History Series, 2002. p.79.
Tindall, George B. & Shi, David E. America, brief Second Edition (1989), p. 697