Cities, however, were also the birthplace of a mass-consumption society that added new meaning to American freedom. There was, of course, nothing unusual in the idea that the promise of American life lay, in part, in the enjoyment by the masses of citizens of goods available in other countries only to the well-to-do. Not until the Progressive era, however, did the advent of large downtown department stores, chain stores in urban neighborhoods, and retail mail-order houses for farmers and small-town residents make available to consumers throughout the country the vast array of goods now pouring from the nation’s factories. By 1910, Americans could purchase, among many other items, electric sewing machines, washing machines, vacuum cleaners, and record players. Low wages, the unequal distribution of income, and the South’s persistent poverty limited the consumer economy, which would not fully come into its own until after World War II. But it was in Progressive America that the promise of mass consumption became the foundation for a new understanding of freedom as access to the cornucopia of goods made available by modem capitalism.

In Hester Street, painted in 1905, George Luks, a member of the Ashcan School of urban artists, captures the colorful street life of an immigrant neighborhood in New York City.

Movie, 5 Cents. In this 1907 painting, the artist John Sloan depicts the interior of a movie house. By this time, millions of people each week were flocking to see silent motion pictures. The audience includes different classes and races, as well as couples and women attending alone.


1. What does the nature of the audience suggest about movie theaters as places of a new social freedom?

2. Does the painting help explain why some critics complained that movies promoted immorality?

Women at work in a shoe factory, 1908.

Leisure activities also took on the characteristics of mass consumption. Amusement parks, dance halls, and theaters attracted large crowds of city dwellers. The most popular form of mass entertainment at the trun of the century was vaudeville, a live theatrical entertainment consisting of numerous short acts typically including song and dance, comedy, acrobats, magicians, and trained animals. In the 1890s, brief motion pictures were already being introduced into vaudeville shows. As the movies became longer and involved more sophisticated plot narratives, separate theaters developed. By 1910, 25 million Americans per week, mostly working-class urban residents, were attending “nickelodeons”—motion-picture theaters whose five-cent admission charge was far lower than at vaudeville shows.

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