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Thread: Myths of the Golden Era -- Exploded!

  1. #21
    Practically Family Atomic Age's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by LizzieMaine View Post
    Myth: "Orson Welles panicked the entire nation with his 1938 'War of the Worlds' Broadcast."

    The Facts:

    The best source of information on the post-broadcast reaction remains Professor Hadley Cantril's landmark study "The Invasion From Mars," published in 1940, and reissued in 1966. Cantril's estimates of the program's audience and of the numbers of listeners who reacted to the broadcast are the most accurate available, and form the basis for most of what's been written about the program over the decades. It's a book that's constantly quoted -- but rarely seems to have actually been read by those who are doing the quoting.

    So what, exactly, does Cantril say?

    Professor Cantril estimates, first of all, that no more than six million listeners heard the broadcast. This figure is derived from a scientific poll taken by the American Institute of Public Opinion six weeks after the broadcast, as well as from the C. E. Hooper Inc. Hooperrating survey actually taken on the night of October 30th - Cantril's figure splits the difference between the two surveys to come up with the 6 million figure. Of these, Cantril estimates, based again on the AIPO survey, that about 1.7 million accepted the program as a news bulletin and 1.2 million were sufficiently distressed to do something about it. In other words, nearly a third of those who heard the program believed it -- and nearly a quarter of those who heard it were, in Cantril's words, excited by it.

    Impressive -- and, the source of the "Night That Panicked America" legend. But was "America" truly panicked?

    Consider this. The population of the United States according the the 1940 census (the closet available figure to 1938) was approximately 150.6 million. If 1.2 million people were "excited" by WOTW, that amounts to less than one per cent of the total population -- and by no stretch of the imagination can that be considered a nationwide panic. Cantril's estimate includes everyone who "reacted" to the broadcast, whether they picked up the phone to call a neighbor or ran screaming into the street -- so the number of people who took the latter extreme would be substantially less than one percent of the total population.

    So -- why has the legend persisted? Why do we have these images of frightened families surging into the streets, fleeing some unspeakable fate?

    Press coverage has a lot to do with it - and again, timing is everything. The newspapers were still smarting from the beating they'd taken from radio during the European Crisis -- and WOTW gave the print media a chance to wag the Finger Of Alarm at the irresponsibility of this Upstart Medium. The story was played up big in the New York papers -- where the tabloid Daily News and Daily Mirror, especially, gave the story gigantic headlines and pages of inside coverage. Even the staid New York Times gave the story banner placement. The excesses of the New York press can be excused, perhaps, by the fact that a lot of the "panic" was centered in New Jersey, where the alleged invasion took place -- but looking back on the newspaper coverage today, one has to wonder just how carefully researched it actually was.

    In any case, the legends took root -- and have entered into our national folklore. All the statistics one could ever want to quote will never dispel the myth that all the nation fled in panic on that Halloween Eve 1938. It's a good story, and it's an unfortunate truth that that a good story beats out straight history every time.

    Myth exploded.
    In addition, the broadcast would only have been "live" on the east coast and part of the mid west. The rest of the country would have heard a recorded transcription an hour or so later, at which time the announcement that it was only a radio show was being made very clear.

    Of course to the news men of the day, the east coast WAS the whole country. (they probably STILL think that)

    Doug

  2. #22
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    Quote Originally Posted by LizzieMaine View Post
    Myth: "During the 1930s and 1940s, everybody smoked."

    The Facts: If you believe movies and advertisements, the Golden Era existed in a constant haze of tobacco smoke -- and a cigarette was the universal badge of adulthood. Housewives and businessmen, laborers and executives, big-time athetes and poolroom loafers, the overwhelming majority of adults, men and women alike, regularly puffed away -- that's the common belief. But the reality is more complicated.

    The origin of the "everybody smoked" myth has a lot to do with World War 2. According to a detailed government study of "Cigarette Smoking Behavior In The United States" around 80 percent of American men who were of the right age to serve during the war became habitual smokers for at least part of their lives. For American men born between 1900 and 1925, "everybody smoked" is a pretty reasonable assessment. But for women, who make up half the population, the story is quite different.

    Smoking became popular for women in the 1920s, the story goes, as a symbol of freedom -- that's how they marketed it, anyway. But according to the statistics, the campaigns were quite a bit less successful than the myths would have us believe. During the flapper era, the percentage of women who smoked never surpassed 20 percent. Smoking among women increased somewhat during the thirties, but at no time during that decade did more than 35 percent of women smoke. Among all American women born between 1900 and 1924 the percentage who became smokers never exceeded 50 percent -- and the percentage didn't reach that level until the 1970's! During the Era itself, the majority of American women didn't smoke.

    A lot of people did smoke, and smoke was a pervasive ingredient of the atmosphere of the time, there's no denying that. But "a lot" isn't "everybody" -- and for women, it wasn't even "most."

    Myth exploded.
    My dad was in the Air Force during the Korean war, but was stationed in Germany. He "smoked" because if you were a smoker, you were issued cigarette rations. Well if you were in Germany in 1951, you could trade a pack of American cigarettes for Hummel figurines, Cuckoo Clocks, you name it. He never actually smoked.

    Doug

  3. #23
    Practically Family Atomic Age's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Stanley Doble View Post

    Another thing that bothers me is the number of people who still believe WW2 ended the Depression. Hogwash, it was over by 1934, 8 years before the US entered WW2.

    I was surprised myself. I read the same books and articles you read. It was only when I read some books and magazine articles published in the thirties that I found it out. One that struck me was a description of a party right after Repeal, at which the celebrants wore paper hats with funny mottoes like "It's hell when your wife is a widow" and "Wasn't the depression awful?"

    Then I did some research and found out the US economy held up pretty well through 1930, bottomed in 1931 and 32, began recovering in 1933 and was back on track in 1934.

    By 1936 the recovery was so strong, the government put the brakes on the economy fearing another "boom and bust" cycle. This resulted in the "Roosevelt Recession" of 1937 and 38.
    Don't tell my Grandfather that the depression was over in 34, when he lost his business and had to move from Ohio to Arizona to find work.

    Yes things somewhat were better by 34, but unemployment was still over 15% in 1940, and didn't drop below that number until war production started. (contrary to popular belief, war production started BEFORE December 7th 1941)

    Doug

  4. #24
    Practically Family Atomic Age's Avatar
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    I wonder how many people stopped drinking after the repeal of prohibition, just because "the thrill was gone" now that it was legal?

    Doug

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    One of the Regulars HodgePodge's Avatar
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    Another thing that bothers me is the number of people who still believe WW2 ended the Depression. Hogwash, it was over by 1934, 8 years before the US entered WW2.
    In a book I've recently been flipping through (it's a collection of recollected stories from people who lived through the depression) called "Ten Lost Years", more than one of the men interviewed considered WWII to have been what really turned things around, so if it's a misconception, it's one that has been perpetuated since "way back when."
    "I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them." ~ Jack London

  6. #26
    Bartender LizzieMaine's Avatar
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    Some interesting figures on the Gross Domestic Product during the Depression here.

    A lot of people will spin the figures one way or another to promote a political point of view, but there are some things to consider in looking at these numbers. One is that using 1929 as a benchmark of normality isn't exactly accurate -- 1929 was the peak of the twenties boom, and as such was the result of a bubble. But that's what people are doing when they say "it took until World War 2 for the nation to recover" -- when you look at the chart, you'll see that it took the economic bubble of the War to bring the figures back to 1929 levels. But from 1934 to 1937, the GDP increased steadily, and by 1937 it was back in the nineties, which is pretty impressive compared to where it was four years earlier. And the 1938 recession was merely a minor bump compared to the depths of the Depression.

    It did take longer for employment to improve, but it was improving steadily thruout the mid-thirties, minus the 1938 recession. The main reason it took so long is because it had reached the depths it did -- over 24 percent of the workforce was idle in early 1933, but by 1937 that figure had improved to a bit over 14 percent. That's still bad, but it's a lot, lot better than it was. The recession knocked it back down to 18 percent, but it regained ground over the next two years, and then the defense boom started to kick in in 1940.

    Many at the time believed that if FDR trusted his instincts instead of listening to his political advisers, the 1938 recession might have been blunted or might not have happened at all -- which would have changed the figures considerably.
    Last edited by LizzieMaine; 03-05-2012 at 06:52 AM.
    The humblest citizen in all the land, when clad in the armor of a righteous cause, is stronger than all the hosts of error. -- William Jennings Bryan

  7. #27
    Bartender LizzieMaine's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Atomic Age View Post
    In addition, the broadcast would only have been "live" on the east coast and part of the mid west. The rest of the country would have heard a recorded transcription an hour or so later, at which time the announcement that it was only a radio show was being made very clear.

    Of course to the news men of the day, the east coast WAS the whole country. (they probably STILL think that)

    Doug
    The transcription procedure wasn't used for WOTW -- most CBS stations on the West Coast didn't yet have recording equipment installed in 1938. The West, or at least those CBS stations that chose to carry the program, took the Mercury Theatre live at 5 in the afternoon -- early enough that most people were busy with other matters and weren't paying any attention to the radio.

    Transcription delays for the West didn't start to be used on a wide basis until 1939, when both NBC and CBS authorized the procedure for selected programs. It didn't start to be used for all programming until after the war.

    The opposition program on NBC, by the way, was The Chase and Sanborn Hour, featuring Bergen & McCarthy, the most popular program on the air in the fall of '38 -- with an estimated audience of 37 million people. Columnist Dorothy Thompson suggested the reason the panic wasn't widespread was that "all the intelligent people were listening to Charlie McCarthy."
    Last edited by LizzieMaine; 03-05-2012 at 07:05 AM.
    The humblest citizen in all the land, when clad in the armor of a righteous cause, is stronger than all the hosts of error. -- William Jennings Bryan

  8. #28
    One Too Many Stanley Doble's Avatar
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    There are a lot of angles on this. I suppose to a lot of people the depression ended when they got a good job whether it was in 1934 or 1940.

    Roosevelt thought the recovery was strong enough that he put the brakes on the economy in 1937. The twenties boom was an artificial boom that led to a bust in the thirties. So to take the economy of the late twenties as "normal" would be a mistake.

    The stock market did not exceed the 1929 peak until 1954. So if you were an investor who bought at the peak, you could say the depression lasted until then.

    By most benchmarks 1930 was not a bad year although economic activity was sinking. Those who underestimated the severity of the depression were not fools, they knew what was happening but they had no idea it would go as far as it did. 1931 and 1932 were the worst, then the economy started to pick up again. 1933 and 34 were years of recovery.

    You would have to go back to sources written in the 1930s to see things the way they did then. Memory is a funny thing and so is journalism. I have spoken to people who lived through those times and some thought it was great, no kidding. I had a teacher who graduated university in the early 30s and went right to work for the government. He had a good salary, got married, bought a house and a car, no problems. My mother's family were old fashioned farmers. They felt a bit of a pinch for a while but they were frugal people not used to throwing money around even when they had it. The depression made little or no difference to their lifestyle. None of them lost their farms or anywhere near it. They always had plenty to eat, warm clothes, a comfortable home, and work to do. My mother told me they had a phone and a car, luxuries some of their neighbors could not afford. These were not rare exceptions. They were commonplace.You won't find their stories in any book. In fact I am surprised how vehement the denial of the truth can be. The facts are available to anyone who wants to look them up.

    Speaking of unemployment. Right now unemployment in the US is over 20% according to those who keep accurate statistics at Shadow Government Statistics. This includes those who unemployed but are excluded from official statistics by changes made in to their method of calculating statistics the 1980s and 1990s.

  9. #29
    Bartender LizzieMaine's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by HodgePodge View Post
    I might be jumping in where I don't belong, but after prohibition was repealed were there not areas that remained "dry" that could have had an influence on the lower per capita consumption? I would hope that someone would have stopped and said "hey, wait, of course that person isn't drinking in 1934, it's still illegal where they live!"

    edit: "reply with quote" still isn't working for me. :S
    That's quite true -- there were 18 states that stayed dry after Repeal, and the last of them didn't go wet until the sixties. But there were dry states *before* Prohibition as well -- 22 states had passed their own Prohibition laws by 1915, and the Federal government banned the transport of alcoholic beverages thru the mail in 1913, cutting off the main flow of alcohol into those states. So, those facts would also have to be taken into account in considering the figures.
    The humblest citizen in all the land, when clad in the armor of a righteous cause, is stronger than all the hosts of error. -- William Jennings Bryan

  10. #30
    Incurably Addicted Edward's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Atomic Age View Post
    My dad was in the Air Force during the Korean war, but was stationed in Germany. He "smoked" because if you were a smoker, you were issued cigarette rations. Well if you were in Germany in 1951, you could trade a pack of American cigarettes for Hummel figurines, Cuckoo Clocks, you name it. He never actually smoked.

    Doug
    I've heard of cigarettes a currency in a lot of contexts. Makes sense. Still shocks me that the military ever issued them, though!
    Last edited by Edward; 03-05-2012 at 07:30 AM.
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