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The myth of Gatsby's suffering middle class

By Amity Shlaes

New York Times

Published: Monday, June 3 2013 1:30 p.m. MDT

What did people do with their free Saturday? They drove their new toy, the automobile. In 1920, a quarter of families had cars. By 1930, more than half did. What mattered to these drivers was not that a Gatsby had a Duesenberg or a Rolls-Royce, but that they had a Ford.

Material changes also took place right in the home that The New Republic’s author described. In 1920, 35 percent of households had electricity. By 1930, that share was 68 percent. Electricity brought appliances into homes, including electric irons and washing machines. The old drudgery was reduced; women began to enjoy free time. They could even fool around with another great innovation, the typewriter. In short, being stuck in the middle class became more enjoyable in the 1920s.

To see America’s 1920s middle-class experience in context, it helps to consider how we think of the rest of the world today. Specifically, it is important to ask what material benefit symbolizes arrival in the middle class elsewhere in the world. Indians have chosen their definition, one that makes sense to the rest of us: indoor plumbing. If a family has an indoor toilet, it is, or is becoming, middle class. The 1920s were the decade when America enjoyed the transformation that India has just enjoyed. At the decade’s start, 2 in 10 American homes could boast indoor flush toilets. By 1930, more than 5 in 10 did.

But that is not all. As the decade progressed, there were other gains. Farmers languished, but those who moved to town did find jobs. Blacks still suffered, but the Ku Klux Klan faltered in the last third of the decade. Lynching did not disappear, but the Historical Statistics of the United States show that the rate of such murders dropped.

What made all this improvement possible? New ideas, and an environment that fostered them. Patents hit record rates. More important, companies began to use the new patented ideas to develop machines in factories that in turn made production much cheaper. The classic case of such improvement was the automobile tire. From 1910 to 1930, the cost per tire of driving 1,000 miles dropped from about $10 to about $1.

It hadn’t always been true in the United States that good ideas found the capital needed to finance them. But in the 1920s, they did. The general sense was that if the rich prospered, the rest might do better than before. This attitude was validated by tax data. The Wilson, Harding and Coolidge administrations all cut tax rates. Following these cuts, more revenue than the authorities had expected flowed in. But, crucially, the wealthy also paid a greater share of the taxes.

Indeed, it might be useful to take some of the policies of the 1920s as models for today. Even those who share Fitzgerald’s fatalism vis-à-vis the 1920s can certainly take pleasure in a simple reality. The past is not always bad.

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