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Ordinary People

By Jonathan Yardley,
whose e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com
Thursday, September 2, 2004; Page C04

DAILY LIFE IN THE UNITED STATES, 1920-1940

How Americans Lived Through the "Roaring Twenties" and the Great Depression


'Daily Life in the United States, 1920 - 1940' by David E. Kyvig. (Book Cover)

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By David E. Kyvig

Ivan R. Dee. 330 pp. Paperback, $18.95

The two decades between the end of World War I and the beginning of World War II were an incredibly important time in the history of the United States. The great events that occurred then still echo in the national memory: the Scopes trial, the Mississippi flood, the Lindbergh flight, the stock-market crash, the Depression, the New Deal. But they are arguably no more important in the long run than the quieter developments that occurred in the daily lives of ordinary Americans whose names almost never make it into the history books yet who are, as the novelist John P. Marquand put it, "these vanished people [who] made things what they are."

How these vanished people lived in these United States from 1920 to 1940 is the subject of David Kyvig's study. Originally put out three years ago in a "library edition" by Greenwood Publishing Group, it is now made available to a general trade readership in this paperback from Ivan R. Dee, one of the country's best small publishers of serious books. "Daily Life in the United States, 1920-1940" is yet another instance of "bottom-up" history, the basic tenet of which Kyvig summarizes deftly:

"A comprehensive history of an era must go beyond the momentous and the distinctive to include the story of the unspectacular and routine everyday lives of ordinary people. Daily life for the mass of people in a society tends to get lost in the focus on rulers, religious and business leaders, generals, and other notable or flamboyant individuals. In order to grasp the full reality of any era, however, an investigator of the past must attempt the difficult task of understanding the routines of daily life for the many. Not only does such an undertaking illuminate the reality of most lives, it clarifies what makes so extraordinary the lives of the few who receive the lion's share of attention."

True, but there is an inherent difficulty to what might be called the history of the commonplace. Unless the historian has the good fortune to come across an unknown or little-known person who left behind a rich trail -- paper, or oral, or a combination of the two -- he or she is given no narrative lines. The stories of Henry Ford and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, two men whose influence on this period was profound, contain their own narrative drama, as do the stories of the Scopes trial and the Mississippi flood. But the historian who wants to trace the ways in which the automobile influenced the lives of ordinary Americans -- or electricity, or Prohibition, or radio and the movies, or any of the other large themes Kyvig addresses -- inevitably is driven to the dryness of statistics and generalizations and speculation.

Kyvig -- a respected historian at Northern Illinois University who was awarded a Bancroft Prize for "Explicit and Authentic Acts: Amending the U.S. Constitution, 1776-1995" -- makes a diligent effort to overcome this inescapable obstacle, and to some extent succeeds; he drops in a few anecdotes and writes in an agreeably lucid style. He also writes about subjects that should be of immediate interest to all readers: the ways in which the American diet changed during these two decades, the widespread acceptance of cosmetics (previously thought the province of "painted" women), the rise of birth control and divorce, the move to the suburbs. But the nature of his subject frequently leads him down what is not exactly a garden path:

"In twenty years the nation's population had grown 24 percent, from 106.5 million to 132.1 million. Two-thirds of the increase occurred in the 1920s, before depression conditions led to a sharp drop in births. Life expectancy had lengthened from 56.3 to 60.8 years for males and from 54.6 to 65.2 years for females. Combined with far fewer births, longer life expectancy produced a notably older population than had been the case two years earlier. Children under the age of 15 now represented only 25 percent of the population instead of the 31.6 percent of 1920. The percentage of Americans over the age of 60 had expanded from 7.4 to 10.4, and those over 65 now accounted for 6.8 percent instead of just 4.6 percent. The population's median age had risen from 25.3 to 29 years."

Et cetera. More could be quoted -- a whole lot more, since Kyvig has mined Census figures with great care -- but that paragraph makes the point. Statistics may contain buried stories, but the statistics themselves don't tell them, and even if they could, the stories would be deficient in narrative. All of the statistics cited above, for example, tell us -- among many other things -- that health care (especially the care of newborns) and diet improved between 1920 and 1940 and that workplace safety may have been given greater consideration, but they don't bring to life the people who were affected by these changes.

Kyvig certainly is correct, though, when he says that "the appearance of conditions that raised the promise of a better life, together with the pain that beset people when those conditions were beyond reach, generally characterized the United States in the 1920s and the 1930s." The age of mass production and consumerism really began during this period, but most Americans couldn't afford to take advantage of all it offered. Thanks largely to General Motors, people were able to buy automobiles in ever-increasing numbers, but other blessings of the modern age -- refrigerators, washing machines, even electric lighting -- were still luxuries far beyond the reach of many, especially those who lived in rural areas. Not until the end of the war and the vast expansion of the middle class did the benefits of national prosperity really begin to extend themselves throughout the population.

This is a true story but not an easy one to tell. Nor is that of another development that Kyvig correctly pinpoints as among the most important of the period: "a growing uniformity in American culture." Though regional, class and ethnic disparities persisted through the period -- as indeed they persist to this day -- standardization became widespread. The culture became national rather than local or regional. People in New England and the West Coast listened to the same radio programs, watched the same movies, read the same newspapers, saw the same advertisements, bought the same products. The South, isolated by poverty and racial discrimination, was far less affected by standardization than the rest of the country, but even there it was only a matter of time.

What was going on was the democratization of what had been, up to then, a not very democratic democracy. The vote was extended to women only as the period began; the Harlem renaissance of the 1920s suggested a brighter future for African Americans; the election of Fiorello La Guardia, Al Smith and others gave a hint that the WASP hegemony was in its final hours; the new mass media began to bring culture, or an approximation of it, to the popular audience; the mass production of standardized food and technology began the slow process of diminishing the difference between what the country offered to the rich and the rest of us. It was the true beginning of modern times.


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