Amy Henderson: The Shock of the Old

For generations immersed in social media, culture means a different thing than it did in 1940

Franklin Delano Roosevelt by Douglas Granville Chandor
Franklin Delano Roosevelt by Douglas Granville Chandor Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

This post is part of our ongoing series in which ATM invites guest bloggers from among the Smithsonian Institution’s scientists, curators, researchers and historians to write for us. The National Portrait Gallery’s cultural historian Amy Henderson recently wrote about Louis Armstrong’s last recorded performance at the National Press Club.

A front page article in May 23’s Washington Post captures a signature irony of life in 2012: the past is revealed best not by digging through dry-as-dust artifacts and manuscripts, but by the wonders of today’s technology. The article describes how one woman researching her family history was overjoyed at finding details of their daily life revealed in the recent release of the 1940 U.S. Census. On a digitized image of the original census ledger, she discovered a long-lost cousin who lived at a boarding house on P Street NW. It was like a magical secret door to her past had suddenly opened, and her next step was going to be finding that house and photographing it to paste in a family album.
The 1940 Census, embargoed for 72 years to maintain confidentiality during the then-normal life span of seven decades, is today an enormous boon for researchers of all kinds. The Census reveals details about life in 1940 that are rich, poignant, and illuminating. And, as the Post reports, “thanks to technology, the information will be more accessible, more quickly, than that from any previous census.”

The Census release made me think about how new technologies enhance contemporary culture by personalizing everything that attracts attention—movies, music, fashion, even the way we get our news. Today’s interactive media has created a culture whose common experience is Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and Tumblr. Connected 24/7, we are a species soldered to our media devices: our whole world is in our hands…and eyes and ears.

The ubiquity of this experience is showcased in two fascinating new exhibitions that opened recently in Washington: “The Art of Video Games” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the Hewlett-Packard New Media Gallery at the Newseum.

The American Art Museum’s exhibition focuses on how video games have evolved as an increasingly expressive medium in modern society. Beginning with Pac Man in 1980, games have entranced generations with striking visual effects and the creative use of the newest technologies: for SAAM, the virtual reality of video games has generated “a previously unprecedented method of communicating with and engaging audiences.”

At the Newseum, the HP New Media Gallery “places visitors at the center of the news revolution” through live Twitter feeds on touch-screen monitors that instantly connect visitors to news stories as they happen around the world. This instant communication allows people to experience first-hand how new media is changing the way news is generated, reported and absorbed in the 21st century.

Because social media customizes individual experience, today’s culture tends to be dominated by information that is personalized and “narrowcast” rather than “broadcast” to a mass audience. When I’ve talked about this with my interns, their eyes pop at the very idea that media once served as a cultural unifier. But as alien as this seems to today, American culture in the 1920s and 30s was shaped by a mass media that targeted a mass audience. Media then consisted of a mere handful of outlets—NBC and CBS radio, movie studios like MGM, Warner Bros., and RKO, and magazines like The Saturday Evening Post and LIFE—and all combined to generate a mainstream, shared culture. Everyone listened to such top-rated radio shows as “The Jack Benny Show” and “Burns and Allen,” smiled at Norman Rockwell’s illustrated magazine covers, and congregated in neighborhood movie theaters to experience Hollywood’s golden age in communal gatherings. Mass media generated a cultural flow that, even during the Depression, glued the nation together by common experience.

Why this happened is partly because mass media technology kept enlarging its ability to reach ever-broader audiences.  But the rise of a shared mainstream culture was also possible because mid-20th century America was so radically different from America today. The revelations of the 1940 Census provide quantitative clues that help explain why a shared culture was possible.

In today’s terms, the 1940 Census is an historical Facebook of the 132 million people who then lived in the United States. In 1940 almost 90 percent of those surveyed identified themselves as white; 9.8 percent were black and 0.4 percent registered as “other.” Contrast that to 2010: 72.4 percent said they were white, 12.6 percent African American, 16.3 percent Hispanic, 4.8 percent Asian, and 2.9 percent declared themselves to be two or more races.

Education levels have changed radically: in 1940 only 5 percent had college degrees; in 2010, that had risen to 28 percent. Occupations have also transformed American life: in 1940, the top five industries were manufacturing (23.4 percent), agriculture (18.5 percent), retail (14 percent), personal services (8.9 percent), and professional services (7.4 percent). In 2010, nearly a quarter of the population was employed in educational services, health care, and social assistance; next came retail (11.7 percent), professional, scientific, management and administrative services, waste management services (10.6 percent), and construction (6.2 percent).  The median annual wage for men in 1940 was $956, and $592 for women; in 2010, the median income for men was $33,276, and for women, $24,157.

In 1940, Ira May Fuller became the first person to receive Social Security benefits—a check for $22.54. Glenn Miller had such hit songs as “In the Mood” and “Tuxedo Junction,” while Tommy Dorsey’s orchestra featured Frank Sinatra and the Pied Pipers singing “I’ll Never Smile Again.” American inventions included rayon, zippers and cellophane. Men wore wide ties and sported fedoras, while women wore hats, gloves and padded shoulders. Radio’s top-rated program featured Edgar Bergen, a ventriloquist, and his wooden dummy Charlie McCarthy. The 1940 Academy Award ceremony gave the Best Picture Oscar to Gone with the Wind, and Hattie McDaniel became the first African American to win an Academy Award (Best Supporting Actress). There were 7 million cars on the road, and Franklin Roosevelt ran for an unprecedented third presidential term.

Today, the 309 million people in the United States live in a world that is infinitely more diverse and educated. Many work at jobs that didn’t exist 72 years ago. And for generations immersed in social media, culture means a different thing than it did in 1940. As the American Art Museum, the Newseum, and many other museums have figured out, the way culture is presented and interpreted needs to reflect a 21st century perspective. Contemporary audiences may be attracted to “retro,” but like their predecessors, they search out experience in real time. Even if it’s virtual.

Get the latest on what's happening At the Smithsonian in your inbox.