The Emergence of the Modern United States
Woodrow Wilson's America: The Emergence of the Modern United States, 1856-1924
The process of industrialization created a virtual revolution in the lives, work, play, and thought of most Americans. Those who went off to war for the Union or the Confederacy in many ways were pre-modern Americans who lived mostly on farms and in small towns; used human and animal labor to produce food and make articles for the home; read by candlelight; enjoyed recreation and entertainment at harvest festivals, church socials and singings; and lived lives that were simple, sometimes hard, and often short. The lives of their own sons and daughters, however, were vastly different in many ways. To begin with, an increasing number of Americans born after the Civil War worked off the farm, many in jobs that did not even exist prior to the Civil War. As a rule, they ate better, were healthier, engaged less in physically hard labor, and generally lived longer. Moreover, new inventions profoundly altered people’s lives. In 1876 Alexander Graham Bell gave the first public demonstration of a telephone, and by 1900 there were 1.5 million telephones that revolutionized business practices, vastly decreased rural isolation, and in general sped communications. Three years later in 1879 in his laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey, inventor Thomas Alva Edison produced the first incandescent lamp, in which the light bulb burned for over thirteen hours. In Hamilton County, Tennessee, by 1926 there were almost 35,000 electric customers, and even in nearby McMinn County there were around 1,400. The assembly line produced automobiles to meet a mushrooming demand (22,000 in 1929 in Knox County alone and almost 3,000 in Bradley County). For entertainment, an increasing number of Americans turned to the new invention of the radio. KDKA was the nation’s first radio station, in 1920, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and by 1923 there were almost 600 radio stations sending their programs to the 600,000 purchased radios and a countless number of homemade ones. It is not clear which radio station was the first one to broadcast in Tennessee, but many believe it was WNOX which first went on the air in November 1921.
On clear winter nights, it was claimed, WNOX’s signal could be heard as far away as New York City. Nashville’s WSM ultimately became more popular, especially when program director George Dewey Hay announced that after the station’s broadcast of a classical grand opera that there would be a broadcast of country music that he called the “Grand Ole Opry.” And for those who didn’t want to stay at home, there were the new “movie palaces.” By March 1927, over half of the total American population was going to the “picture shows at least once a week. Knoxville’s first and most famous movie theater was the Tennessee Theatre that opened on October 1, 1928 with Clara Bow’s film “The Fleet’s In.” The Tennessee held around 2,000. To be sure, the benefits of modernity were not spread evenly across the population. Poor rural regions, especially in the South, often were left behind. For example, while Knox County in 1926 had around 23,000 electric customers, nearby Fentress, Grainger, Hancock, and Union Counties had no electric customers at all, and some areas of East Tennessee did not get electricity until after the Second World War. Poor urban immigrants, African Americans, and Native Americans also were left behind. Not only did the process of industrialization revolutionize the lives of an increasing number of Americans, but it also brought them face-to-face with the growing desire to reform some of the worst by-products of industrialism and the comparatively sudden realization that their newly-gained industrial power had thrust them into the increasingly competitive and dangerous world of international rivalries, imperialism, and war. As noted above, the general process of industrialization. For our purposes here, however, we will concentrate our attention on the two themes of reform and expansion, and conclude by returning to the industrial process to assess the causes of the Great Depression of the 1930s.
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