During the Corporate Era, industrialization, national competition, and business expansion brought widespread economic growth and social change to the United States. This period also saw turbulence in the form of widespread immigration, financial panics, and confrontations between labor and management. America became an urban nation, and business got big. While the gap between the rich and poor grew, the growing middle class earned and consumed more.
In the early 1900s agriculture became less extensive and more intensive. Instead of plowing up more land, farmers focused on making their land more productive. Animal-powered equipment, seed saving, and crop rotation faded away as farmers became modern business managers taking financial risks. To increase yields from their land, they began using hybrids, fertilizers, pesticides, and gas-powered machinery.
Fordson tractor, 1920s
As gas-powered tractors dropped in price, farmers moved away from horse-drawn equipment. Seventy-five percent of tractors purchased in 1923 were Fordsons. However, Ford’s unwillingness to update the tractor led to its failure in 1928.
Intended to benefit the common good, Prohibition banned the sale and use of most alcohol from 1920 to 1933. But it did not stop Americans from drinking. Continuing and widespread public desire for alcohol had the unexpected consequence of expanding violent, organized crime. Illegal sources of production and distribution emerged quickly, and mob bosses controlled competition with guns. Crime became big business.
Thompson submachine gun, 1920s
Criminal competition for control of the illegal alcohol market was intense and violent. High powered weapons like the Thompson submachine gun were a favorite of gang members.
Singer was one of the first big businesses. Although the sewing machine was a breakthrough technology, success took more. The company excelled at clever marketing. It opened factories and sales offices around the world. A vast new office workforce maintained control and profitability. By 1900 Singer was multinational.
Singer sewing machine patent model, 1851
Inventor Isaac Singer patented sewing machine improvements in 1851, but competitor’s patents limited the production and sale of the new technology. The Singer company achieved success through innovative marketing, sales, and production techniques. The company sponsored demonstrations at local fairs and in elegant showrooms, developed a home sewing market with a door to door sales force, offered customers the opportunity to buy a sewing machine with monthly payment plans, and mass produced the machines in large factories with semi-skilled workers.
Thomas Edison, 1847–1931
Americans’ propensity to remember success and forget failure, along with Thomas Edison’s relentless self-promotion, helped make him a national invention icon. His electric lighting system of 1879 was a much heralded triumph. But few recall the talking dolls of 1890 that he called his “little monsters.” Expensive and heavy, with poor voice quality, they flopped in the marketplace.
Edison talking doll, about 1890
Edison light bulb, 1879
Hattie Carnegie, 1886–1956
Born Henrietta Koningeiser, Hattie Carnegie changed her last name to that of America’s richest man, her first step to becoming a tastemaker. She prospered by reinterpreting Parisian dress for the American consumer and also was the first to introduce high-end ready-to-wear fashions.
Hat by Hattie Carnegie, about 1950
Hattie Carnegie designed this pink hat in the 1950s. Each annual fashion line from Carnegie contained anywhere from 500 to 1,000 hats.
The Advertising Business
Establishing the Business, 1870s–1920s
The advertising business grew up alongside mass production. Selling strategies such as branding and national campaigns guaranteed a steady demand for new products. A new breed of agents created full-service agencies with transparent billing systems. They designed as well as placed ads and staked their success on trust.
Trade card with promotional character known as Slicker Boy, about 1900
Working together, manufacturers and advertisers created the concept of “branding.” Branding encouraged consumers to choose, trust, and remember certain products over others. An effective brand reassured consumers about the quality and consistency of mass-produced products—from food to soap—that had once been made at home or purchased from local manufacturers.