Category Archives: 1930s

156: Gail Cooper’s Air-Conditioning America

In Air-Conditioning America: Engineers and the Controlled Environment, 1900-1960, Gail Cooper examines the development of air-conditioning technology and the tensions between engineering philosophy and consumer preference that shaped its design.  Working from a variety of sources, including trade literature, popular magazines, newspapers, and corporate records, Cooper argues that air-conditioning developed via a process of contestation, and that the three systems that resulted – custom-built systems, centralized air, and window units – are each an imperfect mix of the interests of engineers, corporations, and various consumer groups, legacies of the times when each group was more dominant than the other two.

Per Cooper, air conditioning development went through three major phases.  From 1900 to WWI, engineers Alfred Wolff, Stuart Cramer and Willis Carrier adapted industrial heating, ventilation, and freezing systems to offices and factories.  Their custom designs attempted to control both heat and humidity, though they focused mainly on humidity until the 1930s.  The first custom systems were installed in stock exchanges, banks, and Southern textile mills.  Because Progressive reformers were obsessive about healthy ventilation for schoolchildren, schools also became testing grounds for the new technology.

In the interwar years, alternative cooling technologies challenge the engineers and their custom-built systems.  In the 1920s, movie theatres installed mechanical cooling and introduced the public to a/c; attempts to introduce window units in the 1930s failed, but more because of high costs during the Depression than because of a lack of consumer demand.

From WWII to 1960, air-conditioning companies exploit the consumer demand opened up by movie theaters and window units and introduce standardized or central air.  New central systems reshape buildings – just think of the sealed picture windows in suburban tract housing.  By the 1960s, cooled air had become a necessity rather than a luxury, and residents of older buildings began buying up window units – which, while inefficient, live on because they are affordable and portable.

Throughout her narrative, Cooper is attentive to the interests of various groups affected by air-conditioning: engineers who want to create a wholly artificial indoor climate; managers who want to reduce seasonal fluctuations and be able to locate buildings without regard to geography; workers (and consumers) who want comfort and health and don’t like centralized systems they can’t control; movie theaters who use a/c as marketing; public schools who treat children as test subjects; poor people who just want to be cool at any cost.  She also discusses the detrimental environmental impact of controlled indoor environment – one more reminder of what happens when you let turn of the century engineers run the show.


113: Steve Hoelscher’s Making Place, Making Race

In “Making Place, Making Race: Performances of Whiteness in the Jim Crow South,” Steve Hoelscher uses the landscapes and performances of white Southern memory in Natchez, Mississippi to show how a dominant group created a culture of segregation that far exceeded its legal boundaries, and how racialization of “everyday geographies” is constantly being both upheld and reworked.  Hoelscher argues that modern American race relations have roots in the Southern past and especially in the Jim Crow past, so understanding the processes of Natchez’ production of race in the landscape can help us understand racialization of American landscapes more generally.

Hoelscher relies on a wide variety of sources, including ethnographic research and interviews in Natchez, archival sources, including pamphlets, letters, ads, and photos, and secondary and archival sources on lynching, residential segregation, and other evidence of racialization on the landscape.  While he does investigate the broader context of Jim Crow racism, the heart of the article is the Natchez Pilgrimage, an annual event in Natchez that includes old home tours, antebellum-style parties, and a (now-renamed) Confederate Pageant featuring tableaus of life in the Old South.  Hoelscher traces the history of the Pilgrimage to its roots in the 1930s, when enterprising social climber Katherine Miller devised it as a way to generate tourist revenue for Natchez by capitalizing on the town’s Southern heritage.  But the Pilgrimage was also a spatialization and performance of white Southern memory, a way of bringing the Old South to life that replaced the racism and exploitation of slavery with a narrative of harmonious race relations and ladylike Southern belles, all presented in a romantic nostalgia for the good old days.  Until the 1960s, the Pilgrimage achieved this by reproducing the race relations of the Old South, so that black Natchez residents performed roles as butlers and mammies during house tours or singing cotton pickers during the Pageant, and they also worked behind the scenes as cooks, caterers, and cleanup crews for Pilgrimage events.  In the 1930s, this re-enactment of Old South race relations did double duty as a reminder to African Americans of their “proper, historical place as sharecroppers” and a reassurance to whites that the African American station in life was not just natural, it was romantic and desirable.  In the context of very real spatial segregation, economic exploitation, lynching, and overt racism, the Pilgrimage re-enforced the naturalness of the Jim Crow racial hierarchy by performing white nostalgia for the antebellum South.
While the Pilgrimage remained relatively unchanged from the 1930s through the 1960s, the Civil Rights movement had a huge impact on it.  In the early 60s, the first black audience members were horrified at the overt display of whiteness, but though SNCC and the NAACP were able to help Natchezians desegregate schools, stores, lunch counters, libraries, city parks, freedom activists were unable to stop the pilgrimage altogether, and black attempts to participate in the pageant in anything other than prescribed black roles met with fierce white resistance.  However, black participants withdrew from the Pageant and the Pilgrimage in the 1960s; though the event still happens every year, the absence of black participants reminds visitors that it is more about preserving white identity and pride than about fidelity to the Old South as it really was.

96: Bill Stott’s Documentary Expression

In Documentary Expression and Thirties America, Bill Stott looks at 1930s America through the lens of the documentary genre.  Documentary is a form of expression that purports to represent reality but in which it is difficult for viewers to separate the false from the true.  Stott argues that at its base, the 1930s documentary had a left politics, a desire to look not just at the world as it is but at the world of the poor, the downtrodden, and the ordinary, with the intention not just of rendering it vivid and lifelike but also of constructing an audience response or instigating some progressive reform.  The different ways people created and used documentaries in the 1930s indicate, to paraphrase Agee, that the world can be improved and yet must be celebrated.

Stott considers a wide range of documentary forms and uses, and shows how documentary conventions were both developed and subverted.  Radio, examined through Edward R. Murrow, soap operas, and War of the Worlds, was the “paradigmatic medium of documentary” in the 1930s because it combined the two methods of documentary, “the direct and the vicarious, the unmediated experience and the interpretative commentary” in constant juxtaposition with one another.  Photography and documentary films, as Stott shows, were also forms in which apparent reality was actually heavily mediated, particularly when they were made by the government.  By contrast, Agee and Evans’ Let Us Now Praise Famous Men explodes social documentary by both critiquing the world of the tenant farmers and celebrating it in all its beauty, all well being self-conscious about the role of the narrator in the creation of a work of art that reveals the most intimate details and suffering in people’s lives in order to, perhaps, instigate social reform.

While Stott’s analysis is somewhat limited by his choice of documentaries – he works primarily with cultural products created by people who worked for the federal government or for private corporations – and while he could do a bit more with the conditions of production, his visual and textual analysis are strong, and his discussion of documentary as a particularly valid entry into American culture in the 1930s makes sense.  What better way to see what people might have thought about what their world was like?


83: Lizabeth Cohen’s Making a New Deal

In Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939, Lizabeth Cohen uses the new social history/ history from the bottom up to figure out “how it was possible and what it meant for ordinary factory workers to become effective unionists and national political participants by the mid-1930s.”  Like E.P. Thompson, Cohen studies Chicago workers’ slow progress to class consciousness and unionization in the 1920s and 1930s by looking at whole people embedded in complex communities instead of at the working class as a narrow block defined by productive labor.  Accordingly, she argues that daily life both inside and outside the workplace, combined with changes in politics and the developing consumer market, led to new choices in a new world where daily lives eventually lead to political decisions.

In other words, Cohen looks at how the cultural became political.  She shows that in the 1920s, Chicago, people may have worked together in factories, but they went home to ethnic enclaves and kept their money in their communities: shopped at local stores, banked with local banks, listened to ethnic radio stations, watch movies at local theaters, etc, even though national chains were already penetrating the city.  They participated in popular culture not as a homogeneous mass but as ethnic and racial communities, each interpreting cultural products differently.  Their only organizational experience was in forcing welfare capitalism to meet their needs.

With the Great Depression, however, many lost their jobs, many employers discontinued welfare programs, and ethnic institutions and businesses began to fail.  Chain stores, radio networks, and movie palaces filled the gap, which meant that workers participated in a more similar cultural world than ever before.  Through their consumption, workers did the work of integration that mass culture and welfare capitalism had been unable to achieve.  They did so in pursuit of working class interests/ making capitalism more fair, and they did it by integrating themselves into two political and economic machines: the activist welfare state and a national union.

Throughout, Cohen makes the cultural political by linking consumption and politics; studies how local or parochial politics and culture interact with the mainstream; emphasizes that working people made choices; and shows how individual and structural decisions combine to make history.  If after 1939, conservative strains moved to crush the CIO and destroy 1930s radicalism, Cohen shows that in the 1930s, welfare capitalism and mass culture produced a brief moment of radical working-class coherence, where the workers themselves shaped their own New Deal.


13: Michael Denning’s The Cultural Front

Michael Denning’s The Cultural Front, for all its weighty historical detail and analysis, centers around a single theme: that the 1930s amalgamation of labor and cultural interests into a “Popular Front” might be little-known now, but it resulted in a “laboring of culture” that is still reverberating, at least in left-leaning circles, today.
What Denning means by “laboring of culture” is the tricky part, because he sees labor and culture as dialectically related parts, which means that each shapes the other and that they’re therefore as difficult to separate as a codependent high school couple.  So he spends the first half of the book tracing their conjoined public appearances, including the shared language of the “labor movement,” the “proletariat,” and the “work,” “toil,” and “struggle” of labor activists and artists; the “proletarianization” of the culture industries, as children of working-class parents increasingly work as singers, artists, novelists, actors, cartoonists and make mass culture more like working-class culture; and the “social democratic” labor politics that influenced (and was influenced by) everything from textile strikes to fiction to dinner-table conversation.

The result of all this cross-pollination between labor movements, the people in the working-class, and cultural production, Denning argues, was a mass movement to permanently connect American labor with American culture.  That way, American culture could represent and be represented by the people, and Leftist and communist social visions could be realized. 

And lest his readers think he’s making all of this up, Denning spends the whole second half of the book proving it by analyzing products of this labor-culture combo: John Dos Passos’ U.S.A, John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, Billie Holiday’s love songs, experimental musical theater, gangster films, and something he calls the “ghetto pastoral,” of which A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is probably the best-known example.  By thoroughly examining each of these cultural productions formally (er, he spends a good 50 pages talking about metaphors and narrative structures in the Dos Passos section alone) and simultaneously situating them in their cultural and historical context, Denning shows that yes, in the 1930s, labor and culture were thoroughly intertwined.

Of course, mass culture is not super communist or particularly pro-Labor today; if anything, the profusion of reality TV shows, re-released remakes of Spiderman movies, auto-tuned pop music, and baby animal YouTube videos that populate mass culture serve more to distract us than to incite us to revolution.  But lest this decoupling of labor and culture prove that the Popular Front didn’t have as much impact on American culture as Denning claims, he closes his book with this quote from cultural theorist Fredric Jameson:

history progresses by failure rather than by success…. It would be better to think of Lenin or Brecht (to pick a few illustrious names at random) as failures – that is, as actors and agents constrained by their own ideological limits and those of their moment of history – than as triumphant examples and models in some hagiographic or celebratory sense.

In other words, while the movement failed to permanently connect labor and culture, the people in it were both ordinary and extraordinary: they were totally human, but we are still trying to figure out the full implications of the things they produced, the ideas they had, and the politics they espoused.  And hey, maybe the most successful movements are those that show us how ordinary humans can create history.