Even as unemployment remained high in Britain throughout the 1920s, and inflation and war reparations payments crippled the German economy Hollywood films spread images of “the American way of life” across the globe. America, wrote the historian Charles Beard, was “boring its way” into the world’s consciousness. In high wages, efficient factories, and the mass production of consumer goods, Americans seemed to have discovered the secret of permanent prosperity. Businessmen like Henry Ford and engineers like Herbert Hoover were cultural heroes. Photographers like Lewis Hine and Margaret Bourke-White and painters like Charles Sheeler celebrated the beauty of machines and factories. The Man Nobody Knows, a 1925 best-seller by advertising executive Bruce Barton, portrayed Jesus Christ as “the greatest advertiser of his day,... a virile go-getting he-man of business,” who “picked twelve men from the bottom ranks and forged a great organization.”
After the Ludlow Massacre of 1914, discussed in Chapter 18, John D. Rockefeller himself had hired a public relations firm to repair his tarnished image. Now, persuaded by the success of World War I’s Committee on Public Information that it was possible, as an advertising magazine put it, to “sway the minds of whole populations,” numerous firms established public relations departments. They aimed to justify corporate practices to the public and counteract its long-standing distrust of big business.
River Rouge Plant, by the artist Charles Sheeler, exemplifies the “machine-age aesthetic” of the 1920s. Sheeler found artistic beauty in Henry Ford’s giant automobile assembly factory.
Figure 20.2 THE STOCK MARKET, 1919-1939
This graph illustrates the rapid rise and dramatic collapse of stock prices and the number of shares traded during the 1920s and early 1930s.
They succeeded in changing popular attitudes toward Wall Street. Congressional hearings of 1912-1914 headed by Louisiana congressman Arsene Pujo had laid bare the manipulation of stock prices by a Wall Street “money trust.” The Pujo investigation had reinforced the widespread view of the stock market as a place where insiders fleeced small investors—as, indeed, they frequently did. But in the 1920s, as the steadily rising price of stocks made front-page news, the market attracted more investors. Many assumed that stock values would rise forever. By 1928, an estimated 1.5 million Americans owned stock—still a small minority of the country’s 28 million families, but far more than in the past.