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US Pop Culture

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There was once two types of culture: the "high" culture of the rich, and the "low", folk culture of the poor. The rise of the middle class created a "middle" culture. The concomitant rise in technology and industrialization created a "democratic" entertainment for the mainstream. From the mid-1800s on, entertainment began to be mass-produced, and literacy boomed.

As printing became cheaper, newspaper prices were slashed. News baron Gordon Bennett's Sun was the first penny newspaper. The news in these papers was often sensationalized, to encourage sales. Papers also carried serialized fiction. Newsboys were employed to hawk the papers on streetcorners.

Books were still expensive (around $10), so paperbacks were invented. These cardboard covered books sold for 25 cents. Popular authors at this time were Walter Scott and James Fenimore Cooper. There were also female authors, whose books often expressed anti-male, pro-domestic, and puritanical sentiments. Western and southwestern fiction expressed Calvinist attitudes, and often portrayed blacks and Mexicans as inferior. Native Americans, however, were viewed ambivalently. Poetry was very popular, such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's Voices of the Night. Poems from this period were primarily optimistic, encouraging progress.

Theaters were another well-liked form of entertainment. Expensive tickets were 75 cents, while gallery seating was 12 and a half cents. At the Bowery in New York, tickets went for 10-30 cents. Theaters offered both high-class and pop culture entertainment, sometimes even melding the two into a kind of "high pop." The most popular play was "Uncle Tom's Cabin." Other popular plays were written by Shakespeare, or based on the works of Charles Dickens.

Minstrel shows were plays done by white men wearing blackface (in imitation of African-Americans). Two well-known blackface comedians were Thomas "Daddy" Rice and Edwin Christy. Rice was called "the Father of American Minstrelsy."[1] Characters played by these minstrels, such as Uncle Ned and Zip Coon, portrayed African-American males as stupid and lazy. Black women, on the other hand, were portrayed as large and genial (the "mammy" stereotype). [2]

In 1841, P.T. Barnum purchased the American Museum in the Manhattan borough of New York. Barnum's museum was for entertainment, not education, and featured oddities like ventriloquists, midgets, and albinos. One of his "freaks" was General Tom Thumb, who was 2 ft. 1 in. tall at age 5, and then quit growing.

New York's Central Park was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. People were beginning to worry that cities would become unlivable. In 1850, New York city only had 500,000 people, and it was already crowded. So, Central Park was created as a place for people to get away and relax. In the park, people could ice skate during the winter, and bicycle during the summer. It was meant to be a meeting place for all citizens; however, the richest lived near the park, and the poor far from it.

The Antebellum Period of American history is before the Civil War (antebellum means "before war"). The Early Period falls between 1860 and 1920. The "Jazz Age", also known as the "Roaring 20s", was dominated by corporate oligopolies. Many industries were controlled by a small number, and more and more people were working in factories.

As universities began to appear, this new middle class had access to a more formal education than the lower classes. The US GDP increased by 3300%. The work week went from 60 hours in 1860 to 40 hours in 1920. The birth rate boomed.

Dawn of Consumer Culture[edit]

Out of this, the consumer culture was born. The first department stores began appearing at the end of the 19th century. Macy's was founded in 1858. Other department stores from this period were Wanamaker's in Philadelphia and Fields.[3]

Most department stores were run by families. The stores were glamorous and grandiose, with a large inventory geared towards the upper class. They had skylights, chandeliers, lounges, and even in-store restaurants.[4] For advertising, they bought full-page ads. Competition between department stores created the end-of-season sale, and price wars.

Some stores, like Montgomery Ward and Sears, were mail-order only, mailing out catalogs to customers. These companies appealed to people who didn't live near a department store. Richard Sears, founder of Sears, Roebuck and Co., gained a loyal following of rural customers.

Chain stores began to crop up, with names like Woolworth, Great Atlanta, Pacific Tea, and A&P. Frank Woolworth opened his first store, the Great 5 Cents Store, in Utica, NY in 1879, his strategy being to sell nothing for more than a nickel. Although that store closed down, Woolworth succeeded with a similar store in Lancaster, PA, extending the prices to a dime. Woolworth's "5-and-10" stores were a huge success.[5]

The Great Depression occurred during 1929-1939.