In their book "The Day the Bubble Burst", Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan-Witts examine the human side of the 1929 stock market crash that precipitated the Great Depression.
There are many parallels between the behavior of markets and individuals prior to the Crash, and those we see today. The divide between the "haves" and the "have-nots" is at least as pronounced today, if not more so, and of course there are many more people in the country - and the world - to be affected by such divisions. Attitudes are also very materialistic, the focus entirely on worldly reward and material wealth.
I recommend "The Day the Bubble Burst" as a very well-written snapshot from our nation's history of what happens when greed and hubris slam headlong into reality. I fear we may be close to another such episode in the not very distant future. Sadly, I don't think those in charge of running our country have learned much in the interim.
Here's the book's view of the consumer society ninety-odd years ago.
Many of the dubious advertisements appearing in the U.S. press urged readers to invest in bonds and stocks. The circle between Madison Avenue and Wall Street was complete; they were inexorably linked, in a relationship developed in ten short years, during which the ad men had created an ambience invaluable to the continuing popularity of stock speculation. The limitless, desirable, and expensive goods coming onto the market—often products of companies quoted on the Stock Exchange—could only be sold by determined advertising campaigns. If those campaigns failed, the market would slump.
To maintain his place in consumer society, a man was told he needed a car, radio, icebox, and refrigerator; his wife required a washing machine, automatic furnace, and one of the modish pastel-hued toilets. To complete their domestic bliss they would have the latest in bathrooms: a shrine of stunning magnificence, containing, among other items, “a dental lavatory of vitreous china, twice fired.” To buy it would cost the average American six months’ salary. But paying was no problem; there were the installment plans. It was also part of the advertising philosophy that it was no longer enough to buy a car, radio, or refrigerator. People must have the latest model—junking the old one, even though it was still useful. Failure to do so would cause factories to close from the Atlantic to the Pacific, ending what some newspapers called “the golden era.” To protect it, they told their readers, was the patriotic duty of every American; one way to express that was, “to buy until it hurts.”
The farsighted were even encouraged to spend while alive to ensure a better hereafter. They could, for instance, find in the current issue of The Saturday Evening Post this advertisement from a New York casket and vault manufacturer: “How often we find cause only for regret in our memories of the manner in which we disposed of the remains of our loved ones. We were thoughtless, perhaps. It would have been so easy to provide adequate protection against the elements. However, it is idle to dwell on things past. Let us look into the future calmly and follow the examples of thousands of families who rely upon the Clark Graves Vault to defeat Nature’s destructive forces. For never yet has this vault failed to protect its contents from the hurtful elements of the earth.”
And so, with that promise of bodily immortality, the forward-looking would not just be buried in old-fashioned graveyards; they would be “lovingly interred” in Gardens of Rest and Vaults of Sleep, “resting” in silver- or gold-plated coffins in sepulchers resembling Greek-pillared mausoleums, equipped with specially sealed boxes in which, if one wished, the departed’s stock certificates might be placed. The boxes would be hewn from “immortal” granite. If that was too expensive, the Rock of Ages Corporation offered sculpted headstones, with extra angels available on demand. For those who could not afford even that, a range of cut-price funeral parlors offered “a Repose Room, Free, and use of Twenty Palms.”
The twin pillars of American civilization were now the copywriter and the salesman. Between them they supported the stock market. To do so they committed many sins in the name of prosperity. But the age of plenty seemed destined to go on forever as the manipulators continued to think of new ways to create still bigger gains in the Dow Jones and Times “averages.” The nation was being coerced and cozened by forces it blindly trusted—business, advertising, and journalism. The few voices that protested were ignored.
Wall Street constantly encouraged Madison Avenue to persuade the public to extend its mortgage on the future. If it was necessary to buy a new car every year, it was far better to purchase two. A home should not merely have one bathroom—preferably with a dental lavatory—it needed a second. A radio was essential for every living room. Even the American Association of Wholesale Opticians had joined the clamor, urging people to wear one style of glasses for work, another for leisure, a third for sport. The jewelers urged brides to insist on platinum wedding rings, preferably encrusted with diamonds. If they had any doubts about the wisdom of not wearing plain old-fashioned gold bands, the advertisements informed them that by buying fancier and more expensive rings, they were giving employment to more American craftsmen than would otherwise be working. Patriotism was always a clincher. And it all helped to keep the market booming.
By 1929 the Greeting Card Association of America was ready to play its part. In a few sickening verse-years, the association had come a long way from simply selling birthday and Christmas cards. Now they had get-well cards, sorry-I-forgot-your-anniversary cards, and even sorry-you-have-been-run-over cards. Under the benevolent gaze of the stock market, the association was out to make America anniversary conscious. And so it became necessary to create new ones.
Mother’s Day was born.
Combining the talents of the card makers, the candy manufacturers, and the florists, Mother’s Day became the perfect rip-off. Florists had always been in the van of advertising; they had also mounted a successful campaign to remove the unhappy phrase from newspaper death notices: “No flowers by request.” It had been replaced by the far more positive—and profitable—slogan: “Say Farewell with Flowers.”
In a mother-orientated nation, no son, however cynical, could refuse to send flowers on that special day; the many florists in and around Wall Street—established originally to provide the carnation boutonnieres favored by fashion-conscious brokers—did a record business during the week before the bogus anniversary. As the day drew closer, the price of blooms soared—a practice perfectly understood in the countinghouses; it was known as pushing the price as high as the market would bear. In fact, candy manufacturers saw the price of their shares rise as a result of Mother’s Day. Western Union and other telegraph companies witnessed similar results. Western Union even prepared a selection of messages for those unable to think of what to say. The most popular one in 1929 was: “I send a blessing for every thread of silver on my mother’s head.”
Recognize any parallels between 1929 society and our own?