Innovation and industry on TV
By the mid-20th century, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), an advocacy group representing the interests of manufacturers across the country, had become a powerful bureaucracy whose commercial efforts matched the force of its political interests. It made use of inventive advertising and publicity techniques based on those of radio, television, and print media. During my fellowship at the museum’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, I investigated the leading example of NAM’s innovative practices: Industry on Parade, a syndicated public affairs television program produced by NAM as “a pictorial review of events in business and industry.” Over 500 episodes of the program aired during the 1950s, drawing a large national audience. Each of these newsreel-style episodes featured behind-the-scenes presentations of American manufacturers and new developments in invention and research.
I worked with the Archives Center’s collection of 428 motion picture reels of Industry on Parade to examine how media was used to promote a modern vision of the postwar industries of building, construction, and architecture. I began with clear research questions: How were industry leaders progressive in their use of the new medium of television to promote their political and social aims? What aspects of building industries were publicized as modern? How did the Industry on Parade series help to create a popular ideology of modern American building and architecture?
I focused on episodes that fell into four subject areas: material manufacturing, construction, domestic and suburban life, and general architecture. I worked closely with 56 episodes, analyzing their visual format, narrative structure, cultural references, and televisual techniques. Images of construction sites, new materials, builders and architects, and significant building projects repeatedly appeared on the show. Highlights from the series include segments on Levittown, the first indoor shopping mall, and Frank Lloyd Wright’s designs for the Johnson Wax Headquarters.
I found that Industry on Parade used elements of televisual culture to reach a popular audience. By carefully packaging and presenting its information, the series helped to popularize images of manufacturing and construction processes that most Americans could participate in only as consumers of the final products. By showing how items were designed, manufactured, installed, and used, Industry on Parade empowered viewers with information. The show also humanized American industry, in part by establishing a visual relationship between everyday objects and the businesses behind them. This was achieved through juxtaposition and editing; many episodes opened with a domestic scene and then transitioned into a factory or office. Depictions of company presidents, product designers, administrative executives, and factory floor workers revealed the human faces that comprised the larger network that lay behind everyday objects and buildings.
I supplemented my research with materials from the Warshaw Collection of Business Americana and the Orange Bowl Collection. These collections contain a wealth of ephemeral materials used for advertising, entertainment, and public education, and, like the Industry on Parade film collection, shed light on the sensibilities, traditions, and practices of Americans at a particular moment in history. For instance, my study of hundreds of photographs of Orange Bowl parade floats from the 1950s to the 1970s showed that the floats characterized various national themes, such as entertainment, history, politics, science, and business. The floats functioned as controlled, merchandised, and designed public exhibits that showcased an abundance of information.
The legacy of Industry on Parade is found today on channels such as DIY Network and HGTV, and programs like How it’s Made. The televisual culture found in Industry on Parade helps us to investigate the ongoing role of viewers and consumers as participants in American innovation and industry.
Samuel Dodd is a doctoral student in architectural history and theory at the University of Texas at Austin, and a museum Fellow in residence during June 2011. He researches American building cultures, including the popularization of architecture and building technology through mass media. He would like to thank all those who helped to bring him to the Lemelson Center and assisted him in the Archives Center. Special thanks to Eric Hintz, Alison Oswald, Kay Peterson, Craig Orr, Wendy Shay, and Peter Liebhold.