“People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.”–James Baldwin, 1953
“If the essence of history is the memory of things said and done, then it is obvious that every normal person, Mr. Everyman, knows some history.”–Carl Becker, 1931
In 1935 historian and journalist Mark Sullivan believed the history of everyday life and culture was important. And that put him in the minority. In the 19th and early 20th century, American history was dominated by political and diplomatic historians. Focusing more on the “great men and great ideas,” studies of ordinary life and popular culture were uncommon. Thankfully for us, Sullivan disagreed and wrote “Our Times: The United States, 1900-1925.”
Written just a few yeas after the end of the 1920s, Sullivan’s six volume series “follow[ed] an average American through this quarter century of his country’s history” and described the changes they experienced, from the proliferation of the automobile and impact of World War I to changes in hairstyles and “the vogue of ping pong.” No matter now trivial or mundane it might seem, all things that were a part of American life found a part in the book series. When Dan Rather republished the series in 1996 he called Sullivan’s work a “pointillist portrait of America.”
In addition to his ordinary subject matter, Sullivan used every-day sources to tell American history. Citing schoolbooks, popular music lyrics, newspaper cartoons, and advertisements, Sullivan’s bibliography was radically different than most historians of his day.
A historian of popular culture once wrote “popular culture…penetrates American bones; it surrounds the lives of American citizens,” and that’s what I think about when I read Sullivan’s history of the United States. And having this understanding of ordinary life and culture can help us make better sense of changes in political, economic, and other types of history too. They’re all interconnected.
Sullivan didn’t get everything right, to be sure, and you’ll probably find yourself questioning some of these points (I did). He veers towards a “consensus” history that leaves out many groups of Americans who didn’t experience the “typical” American experience. Rather noted “Sullivan isn’t ready to understand the changes in the lives of American women, who at the beginning of this period couldn’t vote, smoke, wear short hair or skirts, or work outside the home except in a few, mostly menial, jobs. Worse, Sullivan shows a woefully weak understanding of the importance of race relations in America throughout its history. He never deals with the sorry influence of the Ku Klux Klan as it developed in his times or with the culture that Mark Twain called “The United States of Lyncherdom.”
Today, where cultural and social history is appreciated and flourishing, Sullivan’s words might seem obvious and not worthy of mention. However, if you take a moment and read the excerpt below from Volume II of Sullivan’s series, I think you’ll find its an imperfect though highly relevant reminder on why these types of stories are so valuable to our history and must be preserved. When I read this most recently, I immediately thought of community-led archives and how they still are struggling to preserve and tell their own community’s history. The history of ordinary people isn’t just a study in the “average” person’s life, it needs to take into account the vastly different experiences ordinary people living in different places and situations as well.
Henry Ford, as the manufacturer of inexpensive automobiles, may have had a more deep-reaching effect on the lives of average Americans than Warren G. Harding;
That the person who invented the typewriter, and thereby was largely responsible for introducing women into business offices, for the passing of the dependent “old maid aunt” and the coming of the independent “bachelor girl”- that this inventor may have been of more fundamental consequence to a larger number of human beings than Joseph G. Cannon.
That the discovery of the remedy for diabetes may have done more for human happiness than the entire thirty-one years of Henry Cabot Lodge in the Senate;
That the acquisition of the Phillipine Islands may have been of less real consequence to the average American than the increase in the effectiveness and abundance of fly-paper and window-screens;
That the perfecting of the vacuum cleaner and the electric flat-iron may have meant as much to the average woman as the bringing of woman suffrage;
That the making of bathtubs, modern plumbing, running water, steam heat, and the like, accessible to the average man, may have meant more to that average man than, let us say, all the proceedings of the convention that nominated Alton B. Parker for the presidency;
That the raising of the maximum yield of milk given by one cow from 23,189 pounds per year in 1897 to 37,381 pounds per year in 1920; and the raising of the maximum yield of eggs laid in a year by one hen from 254, which was the record in 1900, to 335 in 1922- that these achievements may have been of greater consequence to the average human beings than, let us say, the invention of the direct primary– regardless for the moment of how the credit should be distributed as between the cow and the hen that made these records, on the one hand, and, on the other, those men of patient art who devoted themselves to the practical science of breeding;
That the man who bred the “cat-ham” out of the early generations of Hereford cattle, and bred the big hindquarters in, may have been a more important person than the politician who put William Jennings Bryan in nomination for the presidency in 1908;
That the popular novels, from “David Harum” and “Eben Holden” in 1900 to “Main Street” and “Alice Adams” in the 1920’s were as interesting to as many people and as important in their influence on popular thought as the number of congressmen;
That the composers of “The Long, Long Trail” and “Over There,” by their contribution of human sentiment to the morale of the soldiers, may possibly be entitled to rank with some names more formally associated with the winning of the war;
Whether there were not more Americans who took their political guidance from the philosophy of Mr. Dooley and the cartoons of Homer Davenport, of John McCutcheon, or Jay Darling, than from the more didactic political teachings of Champ Clark;
More who could name the tennis champion of the day than could name the man who ran for Vice-President with Taft in 1912;
More who could tell who were the five leading motion picture actors of the time than could name the five men who were Speakers of the House from 1900 to 1925;
That more people can name the five leading actors or singers of the day than can name the five American signers of the Versailles Treaty;
That such a poem as “The Man with the Hoe” may have had a larger relation, either as expression or as cause, to the American spirit as it was in 1900, than any speech made by any statesman in the same year.
Also, although there is a high authority for the preference expressed in the saying “Let me write the ballads of a nation, and I care not who writes the laws”- nevertheless there are a few historians, in the formal sense, who feel called upon to say much concerning the popular songs of the period they write about.
Finally, I cannot recall any formal history that has recorded many jokes or provided much laughter; yet it is difficult to conceive that there were no jokes and no laughs, no Dooleys or George Ades or Will Rogerses during the periods those histories cover.
All this is merely meant to suggest that a history which aims to reflect the life of the people of the United States from 1900 to 1925, and to reflect that life in something like the actual proportions and relations in which it was lived, may properly go even farther than Doctor McMaster- audacious pioneer that he was- toward including aspects of life other than merely “presidents…congresses…embassies…treaties…political leaders…and parties.”
If you’re interested in some more recent works that explore parts of ordinary American life and history, here are a few of my favorites:
-Making American Corporate, 1870-1920″ by Olivier Zunz (1990)
-The Incorporation of American: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age, by Alan Trachtenberg (1982)
-A Consumer’s Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption, by Lizabeth Cohen (2003)
-Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal, by Abigail Carroll (2013)
-Domestic Revolutions: A Social History of American Family Life, by Steven Mintz and Susan Kellogg (1989)
-Working, by Studs Terkel (1974)
-Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World 1890-1940, by George Chauncey (1995)
-While You Were Gone: A Report on Wartime Life in the United States, edited by Jack Goodman (1946)
-American Humor: A Study of the National Conscience, by Constance Rourke (1931)