THOUGH SOME TECHNOPHILES might think it odd today, Americans in the early part of the twentieth century led rich lives full of information, music and personal interaction. Before radio, people read books, newspapers and magazines for information and entertainment; before television, people listed to music on phonograph records that cost pennies to buy; before email, people sat at their desks and wrote letters to one another … on paper … with a pen … by hand!
Aside from newspapers, magazines were the main source of news and information during the 1910s and 1920s. Literally hundreds of titles were available on such diversely specialized topics as golf, needlework, music, and agriculture. While some came out weekly, most were published monthly. Nearly all contained a mixture of articles, advertisements, short stories and illustrations. Some of America's best-known writers were featured in these magazines. While some publications merely reprinted stories from existing sources, others commissioned new works from both emerging and established authors. By the time his novel The Valley of the Moon was serialized in Cosmopolitan in 1913, for example, Jack London was already a well-known writer.
For the latest information on matinee idols such as Valentino, Pickford and Moore, Americans turned to fan magazines. Photoplay, Screenland, and Motion Picture were just a few of the monthly magazines devoted to Hollywood actors during the teens, twenties and thirties. In them, fans could see their favorite actors and actresses at work and play. Though they sometimes resented these intrusions into their private lives, the actors realized that the magazines were an excellent way to stay in the public eye in between movies. Just like today's stars, silent movie actors used their fame to sell products. Mary Pickford was one early spokesperson: for a price, she lent her name and image to magazine ads and calendars advertising Pompeian Beauty Cream.
By the 1930s, a new form of mass media was becoming popular with audiences: radio. Even so, some of the early publications survived and can still be found on news stands today. Among them are: Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, Golf Digest, Harper's Bazaar, Ladies' Home Journal, McCall's, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Popular Mechanics, Sunset, Vanity Fair and Vogue.
Before radio, the newspaper was the farthest-reaching form of mass communication. It carried news from the court of law, the battle zone and the sports arena. It provided a forum for the broadcast of personal opinion; it aided in the buying and selling of personal and commercial goods; it entertained with serialized novellas. Anyone who could read could find out what was going on in the world just by picking up a newspaper.
On November 2, 1920, however, all that changed. Radio station KDKA, operated by Westinghouse, began broadcasting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Few people heard the broadcast – there weren't that many radios in private homes yet – but that was soon remedied as radio became the latest craze. Between 1923 and 1930, sixty percent of American families purchased a radio for home use. The universal appeal of radio was best summarized by RCA Chairman Owen D. Young, who commented:
Broadcasting has appealed to the imagination as no other scientific development of the time. Its ultimate effect upon the educational, social, political, and religious life of our country and of the world is quite beyond our ability to prophesy. Already it is bringing to the farmer, market, weather and crop reports as well as time signals, which cannot help but be of an economic value. In remote communities, where the country parson is no longer in attendance at Sunday morning services, it is filling a great need in spiritual life. Its educational possibilities are being investigated by our foremost national and state educators. It is taking entertainment from the large centers to individual homes. To the blind and the sick it has unfolded a new and richer life. For the purpose of communication it has destroyed time and space.
The first radio programs were musical: phonograph records played on a turntable near a microphone. Soon, weather reports, news broadcasts and variety shows began to appear. Along with them came advertising. The first radio stations were run on a non-profit basis, with only the sellers of receiving radios making any money. Many felt that municipal governments should subsidize the operation of local radio stations. That idea quickly fell by the wayside, however, and in 1922, AT&T established radio station WEAF for the purpose of selling commercial radio time. Nearly all radio stations established after that time were operated on a commercial basis.
Radio's "Golden Age" began around 1925 and lasted until the growth of the television industry in the early 1950s. Families gathered around the radio and listened together to news, music, drama and comedy programs. Its appeal to the imagination was boundless. Listeners could be in Yankee Stadium for the World Series; they could laugh at the comedic adventures of George Burns and Gracie Allen; they could shiver in anticipation during the suspense of a Boston Blackie mystery!
For more on old-time radio, read our article Radio Trivia.
The American government printed its first postal cards in 1873. Used to send brief, inexpensive messages through the mail, postcards were not seen as anything particularly special until 1893, when Charles Goldsmith was allowed to print illustrated souvenir cards of the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. They were an instant success. A countless variety of images were soon available for collecting. Homes of famous people and well-known landmarks were particularly popular, as were humorous cartoons and works by famous artists and local scenes and landmarks.
By 1906, Americans were buying postcards at the rate of over 700 million a year, storing most of them in special postcard albums or cabinets. The numbers increased to nearly a billion in 1913, the last year of the postcard collecting craze. Up until 1914, the bulk of the postcards available in the U.S. were printed in Germany. When World War One began, shipments of those cards were immediately halted. Soon the craze was over and postcards began to once again be viewed not so much as collectibles but as simple (albeit pretty) message carriers.
Postcards usually sold for a penny and for years they cost only a penny to mail. Depending on what one had to say, writing it on the back of a postcard could be a very economical way to send a letter. Children often sent them as greeting cards and adults used them to impart brief messages, both lighthearted and serious. In 1910, a Sheridan woman sent a postcard every day – each one bearing a different picture of the Sheridan area – to a Texas family, letting the parents know how their son was doing after a serious accident. It would have made no sense to send an entire letter every day, while telephone calls would have been cost prohibitive. But a postcard with just the right words kept the family reassured until their son could communicate for himself.
A Whole-House Exhibit at the Trail End State Historic Site
April 1999 - December 2001
Detail from movie poster, 1916 (Private Collection)
Cosmopolitan Magazine, 1913 (Working Collection)
State Historic Site