The movie palaces of the '20s, '30s and '40s seem unbelievably extravagant when compared with the movie houses that came before and after, but when they are contextualized within the rise of America's consumer culture and placed alongside other public buildings of the period, their extravagance becomes 'readable'. The United States pioneered an economy based on mass production and was the first country to create mass consumer institutions and mass consumer entertainments. The picture palace is one manifestation of this.
Corporations proliferated in nineteenth century America apace with industrialization and encouraged by relaxed governmental restrictions on corporate businesses. Corporatization and industrialization in the U.S. led to increasing stratification of wealth and class. The power of the wealthy elite became physically evident in the palatial homes of the robber barons and in the growth of cities. As Alan Trachtenberg has noted, the growth of cities was neither haphazard nor democratic, but responded to the power of organized wealth as spaces became segregated by function, class, and income in urban America. Trachtenberg also labels the public architecture of this period an "architecture of a new cultural imperialism" as wealthy proprietors and homeowners decorated structures with an eclectic mixture of European, Eastern, and Asian styles.(1)
As corporatized mass production replaced localized, smaller units of production, Americans became more dependent on wages, salaries, and currency. Systems of barter and exchange which had supplemented currency in eighteenth century American households dried up. In middle class households, as historian Jeanne Boydston has noted, this translated into new roles for husbands and wives: husbands became 'breadwinners' and wives became managers of the domestic economy whose chief task was to stretch the dollars their husbands brought home. In lower class families, this division was elided as often the labor of all able-bodied members of the family was required to earn enough cash for city rents and food.
Mass production and urbanization led also to an increasing dependence on "goods made by unknown hands."(2) Advertising, in its nascent professional form, made mass produced goods sound not only necessary but desirable. Writing in The Atlantic Monthly in 1867, James Parton labelled the sewing machine "one of the means by which the industrious laborer is as well clad as any millionaire need be."(3) For many immigrants, ready-made clothes transformed them into 'Americans'.
By the late 1890s, overproduction of goods caused American businessmen to fear glut, panic, and depression. Businesses needed to 'push' merchandise and create a sense of need for mass-produced goods. This was accomplished through advertising and the creation of new public centers of consumption.
Department stores like Macy's, Lord and Taylor, Jordan Marsh, Wanamaker, and Marshall Field replaced older, smaller general stores and specialty shops in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, and elsewhere. Technological advancements, among other things, made the birth of the modern department store possible. By the mid-1850s, cast iron made it easy to design buildings with higher ceilings and wider areas for display; the cost and labor for intricate ornamentation was also lessened when it was done in cast iron rather than stone or wood. Technological advances in glassmaking during the same period made it easier for retailers to get large sheets of plate glass for a comparatively inexpensive sum. Glass display cases increased consumption of goods. Harry Morrison, designer of cafeterias and automats in Chicago, claimed that glass "revolutionized" consumption because it encouraged impulse eating in a way that the "lifeless menu" never could.(4)
Larger sheets of plate glass allowed for a whole new kind of retail display, the department store window. Writing in Chicago in 1911, Edna Ferber called the store window "a work of art...a breeder of anarchism, a destroyer of contentment, a second feast of Tantalus."(5) The packaging and display of goods became a chief concern of retailers and a whole new breed of store employee, the window trimmer, came into existence. Although he is better known as the author of The Wizard of Oz and other works. L. Frank Baum was a pioneer of window display design: he founded the National Association of Window Trimmers in 1898 and published a journal called The Store Window, an industry standard.
Other journals like The Dry Goods Economist advised retailers in the arts of drawing customers and moving merchandise. An article in The Dry Goods Economist counselled store owners to dismantle doorsteps and replace swinging doors with revolving doors in the belief that "no hindrance should be offered to people who may drift into the store."(6) 'Drifting in' was made easier by advances in mass transportation, notably the streetcar.
For rural citizens, the mail-order catalogue filled the department store's shoes. The phenomenal success of mail-order companies like Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward is evident in the circulation figures: 318,000 Sears Roebuck catalogues distributed in 1897, over 1,000,000 in 1904, and over 3,000,000 in 1907. By 1927 Sears Roebuck mailed over 15,000,000 general catalogues and 23,000,000 semiannual sale catalogues. For many rural Americans, the mail-order catalogue provided an introduction to mass consumption and urban tastes. Daniel Boorstin wrote, "Just as Puritan children were supposed to think of their Bible as an exhaustive catalogue of the "types" which provided the pattern for all the actual happenings of the world, so the children of rural America thought of the big books from Sears and Wards as exhaustive catalogues of the material world."(7)
Mass consumption and a notion of the prevailing 'tastes' were also pushed by the daily newspapers, periodicals, and advertisers. Invention of the telegraph allowed newspaper publishers more rapid, uniform coverage of events; at the same time, newspaper and magazine circulation increased dramatically. Retailers took advantage of this and changed the face of American newspapers with a new form of advertising. Up until the mid-1900s, advertisements could only be printed in columns in agate type
Advertisements also became more pervasive. Newly-minted professional ad agencies and "ad men" cultivated this change. Elbert Hubbard, one of the most famous advertising executives of the period, claimed, "When I want to hear really good sermons nowadays, we attend a weekly lunch of the ad club, and listen to a man who deals in ways and means and is intent upon bring about paradise, here and now."(9) Advancements in phototechnology and color lithography at the century's end allowed ad men like Artemas Ward to take full advantage of full color, photographic, and outdoor advertising. Ward believed that color "creates desire for the goods advertisers displayed...It imprints on the buying memory...[it] speaks the universal picture langauge "reaching "foreigners, children, people in every station of life who can read or see at all."(10) O.J. Gude declared that outdoor advertisers "forced their announcements on the vision of the uninterested as well as the interested passerby." Emily Fogg Mead argued that this was necessary if "new habits were to be opened."(11) By 1910, new varieties of light including gaslight, carbon-burning electrical light, floodlights and spotlights helped outdoor advertisers in their mission. Thousands of people crowded sightseeing coaches headed for the commercial districts to witness what Gude called "the phantasmagoria of the lights and electric signs."(12)
The message advertisers employed reinforced idolatry of the upper class even while it professed to surmount class distinction. Roland Marchand calls this message "the parable of the democracy of goods." Equality came to mean equal access to consumer goods rather than equal access to the means of production, and consumers were counselled that they could share the lifestyle of the aristocracy by buying the right toothpaste, breakfast cereal, or automobile. Manufacturers encouraged the worship of wealth through brand names: DuBarry lingerie, Pompadour silks, Imperial underwear, Regina petticoats, Royal Typewriters, Royal Waist and Skirt Supporters, and Princess Loop-Belts were but a few of the products whose names implied a promised connection to class status. Commercial artwork of the time reinforced this. In his drawings Maxfield Parrish used figures and tales like Cleopatra, the Rubaiyat and the Arabian Nights to sell American manufactured goods. One of his drawings featured a courtier serving raspberry Jell-O to a renaissance king; in another, boys in doublets and tights took snapshots with Adlake cameras.
The net effects of mass production, new centers of consumption and new methods of advertising were uniformity and the creation of consumer demand. Daniel Boorstin wrote, "As never before, men used similar, and similarly branded, objects...the fellowship of skill was displaced by the democracy of cash."(13) This did not occur without opposition, however: populist and union movements in the 1880s, 1890s and into the twentieth century united farmers, reformers and industrial workers in opposition to America's consumer culture. Although they managed to articulate alternate visions of American life, they were unequal to their opposition, those who historian William Leach has termed "brokers" of commercial culture in America. According to Leach, these 'brokers' included corporate heads, government officials, bankers, real estate brokers, advertisers, journalists, religious leaders, artists, writers, and museum professionals.
Leach notes that American consumerism has been supported by higher education. Schools like Harvard offered MBAs well before European universities. No MBA programs were offered in Germany or in England until the 1970s; at Harvard in 1930, 1,070 students earned degrees in marketing, advertising, retailing, finance, management, and consumer psychology through the Harvard Business School. This figure was triple the 1920 enrollment.
The United States government lent its support to consumerism through many ventures, including its financial support of World Expositions and World's Fairs. Miles Orvell noted, "When John Wanamaker installed in his Philadelphia store the great eagle from the 1903 St. Louis World's Fair...[it] was merely a crowning manifestation of a longstanding continuity between our officially certified national purpose and merchandising."(14) In 1939, President Roosevelt officially declared that henceforth Thanksgiving would take place on the fourth Thursday of November in response to retailer's concerns about the length of the holiday shopping season. Despite the protests of local, rural merchants, the government lent support to mail-order companies through its expansion of the postal service's rural free delivery in the early decades of this century. The government's commitment to mass-produced, large-scale commerial enterprises is best symbolized in the massive office building constructed for the newly-consolidated Department of Commerce. Herbert Hoover laid the cornerstone for the building in 1929; when it was completed in 1932, it was the biggest office structure in the world. Although there exists a popular notion that governmental growth in the twentieth century has been due to an increase in military and entitlement programs, Leach argued that growth can be traced to "the tremendous expansion of activities designed to control or promote commerce and industry and transport."(15)
During the same period, organized religion lent its support to the new culture of consumerism. Mainstream Protestant religions splintered into modern and fundamentalist branches in the 1870s and 1880s, paving the way for the growth of cults and mind-cure groups. A French cleric named Charles Wagner was one of the more interesting and well-known figures of the period. In 1901 Wagner penned a tract called The Simple Life which was a failure in France and an instant success in America; hundreds of thousands of copies sold in the New York area alone. In The Simple Life, Wagner rails against material, commercial culture's corrupting effect: "the abuse of showing everything, or rather, putting everything on exhibition; the growing incapacity to appreciate that which chooses to remain hidden...One sometimes wonders if society will not end by transforming itself into a great fairway with each one beating his drum in front of his tent." Wagner was also concerned about the absence of ties to the past. He wrote, "Instead of filling their houses with objects which say, "Remember," newlyweds garnish them with quite new furnishings that as yet have no meaning."(16) Wagner's solution was less powerful or radical than his diagnosis. He was no advocate of communitarian or welfare enterprises, and he didn't counsel a return to 'the good old days': rather, he asked readers to be simple "in their own stations." They could do this by avoiding "pessimism" and "self analysis," instead endeavoring to be "confident" and "hopeful."
Department store magnate John Wanamaker was one of Wagner's most ardent American devotees. Wanamaker bought thousands of copies of Wagner's book for his employees and friends and he ordered the construction of a small bungalow next to his expansive country home in Lindenhurst, Pennsylvania so that he could escape to the simple life when he had the urge. Thus, Wagner's message became assimilated into American consumer culture in much the same way that graham crackers, Kellogg and Post cereals, and the therapeautic sanatariums of Battle Creek, Michigan transmuted the millenialist message of the Seventh Day Adventists.
Leaders of the popular "mind-cure" movement echoed Wagner's belief in the power of positive thinking. Figures like Orison Swett Marden and Madame Helene Blavatsky influenced writers like L. Frank Baum and Eleanor Porter. Porter's creation Pollyanna became the American symbol for positive thought. Revivalist Dwight Moody was another popular mind-cure figure who deeply influenced John Wanamaker with his slogan "power for service." Within the mind-cure framework, corporate/consumer service replaced traditional ideals of Christian service. Eugene Del Mar, exponent of the New Thought, wrote in The Joy of Service that Americans should banish forever the "idea of duty or self-denial...just make up your mind that you were made to be happy."(17)
A growth in the service economy after 1895 paralleled the popularity of mind-cure. After 1900 skyscraper hotels and chains of standardized hotels became increasingly common. Ellsworth Statler, owner of the first chain of standardized hotels for a mass market, rejected old notions of exclusivity in the luxury hotel business. He argued that service should be seen as a "salable piece of merchandise."(18) Statler transformed luxury hotels into 'people's palaces' with rooms and services available for a range of prices from $1.50 up. The Pullman Company rechristened itself the Pullman Palace Car Company after it saw the huge popularity of the Pullman sleeping car. Pullman cars featured carpeting, chandeliers, walnut woodwork, and French plate mirrors at prices only fifty cents above standard sleeping cars. Pullman cars were available to consumers of any class, unlike European rail cars of the era. Pullman wanted to engage "the dormant fancies of the public until they grew into demands."(19) Demand was so great that gradually all railways in the U.S. were converted to the wider gauge of rail required by the Pullman cars.
In the cities, hotels and deparments stores proved to be such popular public venues that they gradually absorbed the function of many other public spaces. Often they hosted meetings of civic groups and women's teas; the buildings incorporated libraries, post offices, dental and hospital facilities, beauty salons, nurseries, swimming pools, and Turkish baths to attract more patrons. William Leach notes that "by 1910...department stores and similar institutions were serving as powerful anchors for downtown civic life; they were not only selling goods but also disseminating free entertainment, ideas, and uplift."(20)
Leach argues that this was far from liberating, as it "raised to the fore only one vision of the good life and pushed out all others...[it] denied American people access to insight into other ways of organizing and conceiving life, insight that might have endowed their consent to the dominant culture with real democracy." As older grounds for American democracy like ownership of property and control of work eroded, brokers of consumerism substituted an "inviting vision of their society as one of icon equality...freedom of choice came to be perceived as a freedom more significantly exercised in the marketplace than in the political arena."(21)
American movie palaces drew significantly from this movement and reinforced it. In a 1929 interview, theater decorator Harold Rambusch called the movie palaces "a social safety valve in that the public can partake of the same luxuries as the rich, and use them to the same full extent."(22) Theater operators and studio heads plugged into the architectural and advertising motifs of the day to transform the movies into a legitimate, and eventually dominant, form of discourse and entertainment in America.
From Nickelodeon to Movie Palace
1 Allen Trachtenberg, The Incorporation of America, 117.
2 William Leach, Land of Desire, 7.
3 qtd. in Daniel Boorstin, The Americans: The Democratic Experience, 97.
4 qtd. in Boorstin 116.
5 qtd. in Leach 40.
6 qtd. in Leach 73.
7 Boorstin 129.
8 qtd. in Boorston 144.
9 qtd. in Leach 42.
10 qtd. in Leach 45.
11 qtd. in Leach 48.
12 qtd. in Leach 48.
13 Boorstin 89.
14 Miles Orvell, The Real Thing, 40.
15 Leach 351.
16 qtd. in Leach 203-04.
17 qtd. in Leach 229.
18 qtd. in Leach 114.
19 qtd. in Boorstin 333.
20 Leach 138.
21 Leach xv and Roland Marchand, "The Parable of the Democracy of Goods"