Helen Zoe Veit
The first half of the 20th century saw extraordinary changes in the ways Americans produced, procured, cooked, and ate food. Exploding food production easily outstripped population growth in this era as intensive plant and animal breeding, the booming use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and technological advances in farm equipment all resulted in dramatically greater yields on American farms. At the same time, a rapidly growing transportation network of refrigerated ships, railroads, and trucks hugely expanded the reach of different food crops and increased the variety of foods consumers across the country could buy, even as food imports from other countries soared. Meanwhile, new technologies, such as mechanical refrigeration, reliable industrial canning, and, by the end of the era, frozen foods, subtly encouraged Americans to eat less locally and seasonally than ever before. Yet as American food became more abundant and more affordable, diminishing want and suffering, it also contributed to new problems, especially rising body weights and mounting rates of cardiac disease.
American taste preferences themselves changed throughout the era as more people came to expect stronger flavors, grew accustomed to the taste of industrially processed foods, and sampled so-called “foreign” foods, which played an enormous role in defining 20th-century American cuisine. Food marketing exploded, and food companies invested ever greater sums in print and radio advertising and eye-catching packaging. At home, a range of appliances made cooking easier, and modern grocery stores and increasing car ownership made it possible for Americans to food shop less frequently. Home economics provided Americans, especially girls and women, with newly scientific and managerial approaches to cooking and home management, and Americans as a whole increasingly approached food through the lens of science. Virtually all areas related to food saw fundamental shifts in the first half of the 20th century, from agriculture to industrial processing, from nutrition science to weight-loss culture, from marketing to transportation, and from kitchen technology to cuisine. Not everything about food changed in this era, but the rapid pace of change probably exaggerated the transformations for the many Americans who experienced them.
Foreign economic policy involves the mediation and management of economic flows across borders. Over two and a half centuries, the context for U.S. foreign economic policy has transformed. Once a fledgling republic on the periphery of the world economy, the United States has become the world’s largest economy, the arbiter of international economic order, and a predominant influence on the global economy. Throughout this transformation, the making of foreign economic policy has entailed delicate tradeoffs between diverse interests—political and material, foreign and domestic, sectional and sectoral, and so on. Ideas and beliefs have also shaped U.S. foreign economic policy—from Enlightenment-era convictions about the pacifying effects of international commerce to late 20th-century convictions about the efficacy of free markets.
Joshua L. Rosenbloom
The United States economy underwent major transformations between American independence and the Civil War through rapid population growth, the development of manufacturing, the onset of modern economic growth, increasing urbanization, the rapid spread of settlement into the trans-Appalachian west, and the rise of European immigration. These decades were also characterized by an increasing sectional conflict between free and slave states that culminated in 1861 in Southern secession from the Union and a bloody and destructive Civil War. Labor markets were central to each of these developments, directing the reallocation of labor between sectors and regions, channeling a growing population into productive employment, and shaping the growing North–South division within the country. Put differently, labor markets influenced the pace and character of economic development in the antebellum United States. On the one hand, the responsiveness of labor markets to economic shocks helped promote economic growth; on the other, imperfections in labor market responses to these shocks significantly affected the character and development of the national economy.
Antimonopoly, meaning opposition to the exclusive or near-exclusive control of an industry or business by one or a very few businesses, played a relatively muted role in the history of the post-1945 era, certainly compared to some earlier periods in American history. However, the subject of antimonopoly is important because it sheds light on changing attitudes toward concentrated power, corporations, and the federal government in the United States after World War II.
Paradoxically, as antimonopoly declined as a grass-roots force in American politics, the technical, expert-driven field of antitrust enjoyed a golden age. From the 1940s to the 1960s, antitrust operated on principles that were broadly in line with those that inspired its creation in the late 19th and early 20th century, acknowledging the special contribution small-business owners made to US democratic culture. In these years, antimonopoly remained sufficiently potent as a political force to sustain the careers of national-level politicians such as congressmen Wright Patman and Estes Kefauver and to inform the opinions of Supreme Court justices such as Hugo Black and William O. Douglas. Antimonopoly and consumer politics overlapped in this period. From the mid-1960s onward, Ralph Nader repeatedly tapped antimonopoly ideas in his writings and consumer activism, skillfully exploiting popular anxieties about concentrated economic power. At the same time, as part of the United States’ rise to global hegemony, officials in the federal government’s Antitrust Division exported antitrust overseas, building it into the political, economic, and legal architecture of the postwar world.
Beginning in the 1940s, conservative lawyers and economists launched a counterattack against the conception of antitrust elaborated in the progressive era. By making consumer welfare—understood in terms of low prices and market efficiency—the determining factor in antitrust cases, they made a major intellectual and political contribution to the rightward thrust of US politics in the 1970s and 1980s. Robert Bork’s The Antitrust Paradox, published in 1978, popularized and signaled the ascendency of this new approach.
In the 1980s and 1990s antimonopoly drifted to the margin of political debate. Fear of big government now loomed larger in US politics than the specter of monopoly or of corporate domination. In the late 20th century, Americans, more often than not, directed their antipathy toward concentrated power in its public, rather than its private, forms. This fundamental shift in the political landscape accounts in large part for the overall decline of antimonopoly—a venerable American political tradition—in the period 1945 to 2000.
Since the introduction of “Fordism” in the early 1910s, which emphasized technological improvements and maximizing productive efficiency, US autoworkers have struggled with repetitive, exhausting, often dangerous jobs. Yet beginning with Ford’s Five Dollar Day, introduced in 1914, auto jobs have also provided higher pay than most other wage work, attracting hundreds of thousands of people, especially to Detroit, Michigan, through the 1920s, and again from World War II until the mid-1950s. Successful unionization campaigns by the United Auto Workers (UAW) in the 1930s and early 1940s resulted in contracts that guaranteed particular wage increases, reduced the power of foremen, and created a process for resolving workplace conflicts. In the late 1940s and early 1950s UAW president Walter Reuther negotiated generous medical benefits and pensions for autoworkers. The volatility of the auto industry, however, often brought layoffs that undermined economic security. By the 1950s overproduction and automation contributed heavily to instability for autoworkers. The UAW officially supported racial and gender equality, but realities in auto plants and the makeup of union leadership often belied those principles. Beginning in the 1970s US autoworkers faced disruptions caused by high oil prices, foreign competition, and outsourcing to Mexico. Contract concessions at unionized plants began in the late 1970s and continued into the 2000s. By the end of the 20th century, many American autoworkers did not belong to the UAW because they were employed by foreign automakers, who built factories in the United States and successfully opposed unionization. For good reason, autoworkers who survived the industry’s turbulence and were able to retire with guaranteed pensions and medical care look back fondly on all that they gained from working in the industry under UAW contracts. Countless others left auto work permanently and often reluctantly in periodic massive layoffs and the continuous loss of jobs from automation.
The relationship between the car and the city remains complex and involves numerous private and public forces, innovations in technology, global economic fluctuations, and shifting cultural attitudes that only rarely consider the efficiency of the automobile as a long-term solution to urban transit. The advantages of privacy, speed, ease of access, and personal enjoyment that led many to first embrace the automobile were soon shared and accentuated by transit planners as the surest means to realize the long-held ideals of urban beautification, efficiency, and accessible suburbanization. The remarkable gains in productivity provided by industrial capitalism brought these dreams within reach and individual car ownership became the norm for most American families by the middle of the 20th century. Ironically, the success in creating such a “car country” produced the conditions that again congested traffic, raised questions about the quality of urban (and now suburban) living, and further distanced the nation from alternative transit options. The “hidden costs” of postwar automotive dependency in the United States became more apparent in the late 1960s, leading to federal legislation compelling manufacturers and transit professionals to address the long-standing inefficiencies of the car. This most recent phase coincides with a broader reappraisal of life in the city and a growing recognition of the material limits to mass automobility.
The central business district, often referred to as the “downtown,” was the economic nucleus of the American city in the 19th and 20th centuries. It stood at the core of urban commercial life, if not always the geographic center of the metropolis. Here was where the greatest number of offices, banks, stores, and service institutions were concentrated—and where land values and building heights reached their peaks. The central business district was also the most easily accessible point in a city, the place where public transit lines intersected and brought together masses of commuters from outlying as well as nearby neighborhoods. In the downtown, laborers, capitalists, shoppers, and tourists mingled together on bustling streets and sidewalks. Not all occupants enjoyed equal influence in the central business district. Still, as historian Jon C. Teaford explained in his classic study of American cities, the downtown was “the one bit of turf common to all,” the space where “the diverse ethnic, economic, and social strains of urban life were bound together, working, spending, speculating, and investing.”
The central business district was not a static place. Boundaries shifted, expanding and contracting as the city grew and the economy evolved. So too did the primary land uses. Initially a multifunctional space where retail, wholesale, manufacturing, and financial institutions crowded together, the central business district became increasingly segmented along commercial lines in the 19th century. By the early 20th century, rising real estate prices and traffic congestion drove most manufacturing and processing operations to the periphery. Remaining behind in the city center were the bulk of the nation’s offices, stores, and service institutions. As suburban growth accelerated in the mid-20th century, many of these businesses also vacated the downtown, following the flow of middle-class, white families. Competition with the suburbs drained the central business district of much of its commercial vitality in the second half of the 20th century. It also inspired a variety of downtown revitalization schemes that tended to reinforce inequalities of race and class.
Frederick Rowe Davis
The history of DDT and pesticides in America is overshadowed by four broad myths. The first myth suggests that DDT was the first insecticide deployed widely by American farmers. The second indicates that DDT was the most toxic pesticide to wildlife and humans alike. The third myth assumes that Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) was an exposé of the problems of DDT rather than a broad indictment of American dependency on chemical insecticides. The fourth and final myth reassures Americans that the ban on DDT late in 1972 resolved the pesticide paradox in America. Over the course of the 20th century, agricultural chemists have developed insecticides from plants with phytotoxic properties (“botanical” insecticides) and a range of chemicals including heavy metals such as lead and arsenic, chlorinated hydrocarbons like DDT, and organophosphates like parathion. All of the synthetic insecticides carried profound unintended consequences for landscapes and wildlife alike. More recently, chemists have returned to nature and developed chemical analogs of the botanical insecticides, first with the synthetic pyrethroids and now with the neonicotinoids. Despite recent introduction, neonics have become widely used in agriculture and there are suspicions that these chemicals contribute to declines in bees and grassland birds.
Chloe E. Taft
The process of urban deindustrialization has been long and uneven. Even the terms “deindustrial” and “postindustrial” are contested; most cities continue to host manufacturing on some scale. After World War II, however, cities that depended on manufacturing for their lifeblood increasingly diversified their economies in the face of larger global, political, and demographic transformations. Manufacturing centers in New England, the Mid Atlantic, and the Midwest United States were soon identified as belonging to “the American Rust Belt.” Steel manufacturers, automakers, and other industrial behemoths that were once mainstays of city life closed their doors as factories and workers followed economic and social incentives to leave urban cores for the suburbs, the South, or foreign countries. Remaining industrial production became increasingly automated, resulting in significant declines in the number of factory jobs. Metropolitan officials faced with declining populations and tax bases responded by adapting their assets—in terms of workforce, location, or culture—to new economies, including warehousing and distribution, finance, health care, tourism, leisure industries like casinos, and privatized enterprises such as prisons. Faced with declining federal funding for renewal, they focused on leveraging private investment for redevelopment. Deindustrializing cities marketed themselves as destinations with convention centers, stadiums, and festival marketplaces, seeking to lure visitors and a “creative class” of new residents. While some postindustrial cities became success stories of reinvention, others struggled. They entertained options to “rightsize” by shrinking their municipal footprints, adapted vacant lots for urban agriculture, or attracted voyeurs to gaze at their industrial ruins. Whether industrial cities faced a slow transformation or the shock of multiple factory closures within a few years, the impact of these economic shifts and urban planning interventions both amplified old inequalities and created new ones.
Gabriella M. Petrick
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. Please check back later for the full article.
American food in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is characterized by abundance. Unlike the hardscrabble existence of many earlier Americans, the “Golden Age of Agriculture” brought the bounty produced in fields across the United States to both consumers and producers. While the “Golden Age” technically ended as World War I began, larger quantities of relatively inexpensive food became the norm for most Americans as more fresh foods, rather than staple crops, made their way to urban centers and rising real wages made it easier to purchase these comestibles.
The application of science and technology to food production from the field to the kitchen cabinet, or even more crucially the refrigerator by the mid-1930s, reflects the changing demographics and affluence of American society as much as it does the inventiveness of scientists and entrepreneurs. Perhaps the single most important symbol of overabundance in the United States is the postwar Green Revolution. The vast increase in agricultural production based on improved agronomics, provoked both praise and criticism as exemplified by Time magazine’s critique of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in September 1962 or more recently the politics of genetically modified foods.
Reflecting that which occurred at the turn of the twentieth century, food production, politics, and policy at the turn of the twenty-first century has become a proxy for larger ideological agendas and the fractured nature of class in the United States. Battles over the following issues speak to which Americans have access to affordable, nutritious food: organic versus conventional farming, antibiotic use in meat production, dissemination of food stamps, contraction of farm subsidies, the rapid growth of “dollar stores,” alternative diets (organic, vegetarian, vegan, paleo, etc.), and, perhaps most ubiquitous of all, the “obesity epidemic.” These arguments carry moral and ethical values as each side deems some foods and diets virtuous, and others corrupting. While Americans have long held a variety of food ideologies that meld health, politics, and morality, exemplified by Sylvester Graham and John Harvey Kellogg in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, among others, newer constructions of these ideologies reflect concerns over the environment, rural Americans, climate change, self-determination, and the role of government in individual lives. In other words, food can be used as a lens to understand larger issues in American society while at the same time allowing historians to explore the intimate details of everyday life.