Mass media in the 1920s

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2008

23 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1. Introduction

2. Modern Times – A New Culture Emerges

3. Print Journalism
3.1 A Press for the Masses
3.2 The Rise and Fall of Tabloids
3.3 Magazines
3.4 Advertising

4. Radio Broadcasting
4.1 Early Broadcasting Experiments
4.2 The First Radio Stations
4.3 Broadcasting Companies and Radio Networks
4.4 Radio Advertising and Federal Regulation
4.5 Radio Program and Radio’s Impact on Society

5. Motion Pictures
5.1 When pictures began to move
5.2 Silent Movies
5.3 Talking Pictures
5.4 Censorship

6. Conclusion


1. Introduction

The purpose of this paper is to provide a short but comprehensive overview of the new types of media – tabloids, magazines, radio, and motion pictures – that originated in the United States in the 1920s.

The emergence of those mass media went along with the emergence of a new mass culture. It is therefore necessary to take a look at the social, economic, and political context of the period at first. Then the various forms of media will be considered individually and examined with regard to their impact, both positive and negative, on American society. In doing so, it will become evident that the press, radio, and cinema of the time did not only reflect but also shape American popular culture towards a cosmopolitan, yet increasingly uniform point of view.

2. Modern Times – A New Culture Emerges

The 1920s are commonly depicted as a decade of technological and scientific innovations, prosperity and entertainment, bootleggers and flappers, sports heroes and silent movie stars, hot jazz and the Charleston. Today, these keywords have taken on a rather romantic tinge of adventure. However, it must not be forgotten that the developments and achievements respectively which marked the 1920s were preceded and accompanied by profound social, economic, and cultural changes. Immigration and race, organized crime and prohibition, sexual morality and gender were the crucial issues on top of the agenda then. The United States experienced a fundamental shift in moral values and patterns of thought as it was moving from a rural, traditionalist culture to a far more permissive urban culture.

Before 1900, social and moral standards in the United States were based on the traditional Puritan beliefs in “self-help, hard work, thrift, and personal sobriety” (Goldberg 2003, 83). Those principles, which had been introduced by the early immigrants from Northern and Middle Europe, were represented by the majority classes of farmers and merchants. Guidelines on family and community life were set by trustworthy authorities, such as preachers, teachers, mayors, or judges.

At the turn of the century, industrialization brought about a major demographic shift from the country to the city, which was followed by a cultural rural-urban divide, i.e. the rural population lost its dominance to an ever increasing urban majority of industrial workers, non-European immigrants, and big businessmen. After World War I, labor movements succeeded in pushing through a reduction of working hours and an increase in salaries in many industries. In consequence, the beginning business age saw a general rise in living standards, allowing the urban classes to spend an increasing amount of their income on modern appliances, recreation, and luxury goods. The growing advertising industry did its best to constantly create new ‘needs’ among the respective target groups, thus spurring the dissemination of automobiles, radio, movies, and spectator sports as well as cigarettes, processed foods, and cosmetics. From this point on, “the tastes of the crowd” (Goldberg 2003, 83) set the tone in urban society, in which material wealth and status symbols became more and more important. A new mass culture was born, backed by mass production, mass consumption, and mass entertainment.

The rural population, however, was just marginally affected by the rapid economic upswing and drastic change in lifestyle. Farmers were especially reluctant to give up their nostalgic ideas of a self-sufficient community life. Only very gradually did they adapt to modernization. Determined by utilitarian thinking, their buying habits remained more modest than those of the urban majority, though. But also other minority groups, such as Native Americans and blacks as well as a growing number of unemployed, found themselves deprived of participation in the new ‘good life’.

Given this situation, the world of communications underwent striking changes as newspapers and magazines, radio and motion pictures became media for the masses, offering both information and entertainment. By means of expansion and diversification the profit-oriented media industry tried to reach the most diverse of target groups. However, the media did not serve a mere materialistic purpose. Most importantly, they were to draw Americans closer together and “persuade a nation divided by race, class, and ethnicity that it had a common identity” (Cashman 1989, 65). (Cashman 1989, 60-65; Goldberg 2003, 83-87; 162-170)

3. Print Journalism

3.1 A Press for the Masses

As early as the 1830s, the emergence of the so called penny press spurred the growth of a press for the masses. Before, most daily newspapers had sold for about six cents and mostly by subscription, which only the middle and upper classes could afford. Newspaper content relied on documents and was often “a compilation of clippings from London papers some months old” (Mott 1950, 243).

The new penny papers cost only one cent and were sold on the street, where they would reach a wider readership, for instance Benjamin Day’s New York Sun, first published in 1833 under the slogan ‘It shines for all’, James G. Bennett’s New York Herald (1835), and Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune (1841). Outside New York, the Los Angeles Times, the Philadelphia Public Ledger, and the San Francisco Examiner became important mainstream dailies. All penny papers featured eight to twelve pages crammed with the latest news, which had either been personnally investigated or telegraphed from Europe. Yet in general, a stronger emphasis was put on public appeal than on the truth.

Many of the penny papers fell victim of newspaper consolidations that took place in the first half of the 20th century and led to the emergence of powerful newspaper chains in the U.S. Yet there can be no denying the fact that the early one-cent papers paved the way for the “information versus sensation dilemma” (Folkerts/Teeter 1989, 376) of the 1920s. (Folkerts/Teeter 1989, 376-379; Emery/Emery 1988, 115-132, 333-340; Mott 1950, 228-244, 635-642)

3.2 The Rise and Fall of Tabloids

In the late 19th century, newspaper tycoons Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst introduced an overtly sensationalist style of reporting in their daily newspapers New York World and New York Journal respectively. In order to gain circulation, coverage concentrated on crime, sports, national disasters, celebrity affairs, and social scandals. Colored comic strips and columns offering advice on housekeeping and marriage became popular supplements. What was then referred to as ‘yellow journalism’, named after a comic strip character from Pulitzer’s New York World, Yellow Kid, came to be known as jazz journalism in the 1920s and was exemplified best by tabloids such as the New York Illustrated Daily News, the Daily Mirror, and the New York Evening Graphic.

Measuring eleven by fourteen inches, the tabloid was about half the size of a regular broadsheet newspaper, and therefore not only lower in price but also “well suited to being read on the buses, streetcars, and subways that many city inhabitants had begun taking to work” (Wallace 2005, 12). By its sensationalist content the tabloid clearly targeted the lower classes. A lowbrow style of writing, screaming headlines, and eyecatching photograph illustrations were to appeal to the large groups of poorly educated workers and immigrants almost illiterate of the English language.

The New York Illustrated Daily News was started in 1919 by cousins Joseph Patterson and Robert McCormick. Within five years, circulation rose from 26,000 to 750,000. By 1929, the Daily News had the largest circulation of any newspaper in the country, with 1,32 million copies sold every day. Packed with on the spot photographs of big-name gangsters, suicide victims, and scenes of crime the Daily News soon gained a reputation as ‘New York’s Picture Paper’. Next to crime, a strong emphasis was put on the portrayal of New York’s rich and famous. “It was the attention paid to regular people who became famous, or infamous, that attracted many of the Daily News readers” (Wallace 2005, 14). Tabloids owed much of their success to the fact that they allowed their readers to catch a glimpse of the glamour and luxury of the time, which in real life were out of reach for most of them.

In 1924, William Randolph Hearst launched the Daily Mirror to challenge the Daily News. Also in 1924, former bodybuilder and publisher of Physical Culture and True Story periodicals Bernarr Macfadden joined the tabloid craze and started the New York Evening Graphic. Following Macfadden’s former True Confessions stories, the Graphic featured fictional first-person narratives that were headlined, for instance, ‘I Know Who Killed My Brother’ or ‘He Beat Me – I Love Him’ (Wallace 2005, 25). Besides, Macfadden filled his pages with articles on the importance of healthy living and physical exercise. For its excessive display of scantily dressed beauties the tabloid was nicknamed ‘the Pornographic ’. But the time was ideal for Macfadden’s message, as “in the absence of community bonds and traditional social networks” (Wallace 2005, 23) people became more and more obsessed with a new form of self-presentation that was based on one’s outer appearance rather than on inner strength.

“It was a reporter’s job to make emotional reading out of casual things” (Covert 1975, 67) to create personal identification amongst readers with what they were reading. For instance, extensive media coverage of Charles Lindbergh’s daring transatlantic solo-flight from New York to Paris in 1927 made him an instant hero, and “when he returned home, the former airmail pilot was greeted with enormous ticker-tape parades” (Wallace 2005, 16). But for the sake of high circulation some tabloid reporters went beyond the bounds of ethic decency. When on 12 January 1928 murderess Ruth Snyder was the first women in the U.S. to be electrocuted, Daily News photographer Tom Howard smuggled a camera into the execution chamber and snapped a photo of how Ruth Snyder was about “to cook, and sizzle, AND FRY!” (Cashman 1989, 61). The Graphic warned its readers: “Don’t fail to read tomorrow’s Graphic. [...] A woman’s final thoughts just before she is clutched in the deadly snare that sears and burns and FRIES AND KILLS!” (Emery/Emery 1988, 326).

Conservative groups eventually declared war on what had once been jazz journalism and was now the worst sort of gutter journalism. They blamed tabloids of lowering morals by disrespecting Christian values, privacy, and human dignity. In turn, tabloid publishers argued that they had only responded to the demands of a sensation-seeking readership, as circulation figures proved. Nevertheless, the Daily News managed the shift to a more moderate tone and serious news coverage without losing much of its readership. Hearst and Macfadden were not so lucky and dropped their papers in 1928 and 1932 respectively. This meant by no means the end of journalistic sensationalism, yet it was the end of a highly manipulative kind of journalism, which had both reflected and constructed American society for more than a decade. (Emery/Emery 1988, 323-330; Mott 1950, 666-673; Wallace 2005, 11-28)

3.3 Magazines

The sensationalist journalism of tabloids was juxtaposed in the 1920s by the investigative journalism of magazines such as the Reader’s Digest, Time, The American Mercury, and the New Yorker. All of those magazines were to provide a free-thinking but anyhow thoughtful view of 1920s America. Although articles aimed at information rather than entertainment, they were written in a sharp satirical and often humorous style. Besides, editors had the tendency to jazz up figures and facts by adding witty comments of their own. Some editors followed the muckraking tradition of Pre-World War magazines by their criticism of social and political wrongs of the time. Their well composed mixture of objective information and subjective interpretation made the so called ‘magazines of opinion’ a popular reading especially among the educated middle and upper classes, who were able and willing to pay a higher price for better quality.

In 1922 the pocket-sized monthly Reader’s Digest was started by DeWitt Wallace. It provided “condensed versions of articles of current interest and entertainment value that had appeared in other magazines” (Emery/Emery 1988, 343). The magazine was just right for anyone who wanted to get a general idea of what was going on in the world without having to work their way through a stack of papers. Although until 1929 the Digest was sold only by subscription, the concept turned out to become the greatest success in the history of American magazines. International editions in more than sixty countries followed and proved equally successful.


Excerpt out of 23 pages


Mass media in the 1920s
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz  (Fachbereich Angewandte Sprach- und Kulturwissenschaft)
The Twenties in the United States: Social Change, Popular Culture and Literary Representations
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Mass, Twenties, United, States, Social, Change, Popular, Culture, Literary, Representations
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Rebekka Hahn (Author), 2008, Mass media in the 1920s, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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