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A Very Different Age: Americans of the…

A Very Different Age: Americans of the Progressive Era

by Steven J. Diner

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At the turn of the century, America was undergoing a profound evolution. People were inundated by industrial products that would save them time and energy. Railroads whisked travelers to their destinations at sixty miles per hour. By 1920 there would be eight million automobiles. Fifteen years earlier, there had been barely eight thousand. Prosperity was ubiquitous, yet a malaise was creeping through the workforce as the disparity between rich and poor grew ever greater, and the individual decried a perceived loss of individual freedom and less control over his life. Self-employment became less common as more and more people worked for larger and larger corporations. The new industrialization weakened traditional bonds. Farmers were now a minority in 1920. Class conflict became a reality. Immigration brought a wealth of new ideas that threatened the status quo. The separation between gender roles began to break down, and soon women demanded the right to vote. Corrupt government was tolerated less, as the difference between what government said it ought to be and what it was became apparent. Political corruption was universal; bosses controlled all the elements of political structure, contributing to the sense of loss of control. Diner notices parallels between today and the early twentieth century.

Then, as now, individuals were concerned about the enormous wealth and power vested in the hands of a few through vertical and horizontal integration of companies. The gulf between rich and poor was expanding, and the individual developed a sense of helplessness. Then, however, there was more trust in the ability of government to control and create a more equitable environment. They were less cynical. The myth of laissez-faire as a solution for all was beginning to crumble. Corporations suffered from ruinous competition and combined to protect themselves by eliminating competitors. The general opinion of many was that government might re-empower citizens. Woodrow Wilson once remarked (1912) that men no longer worked for themselves but were now employees. As companies grew larger, the need for managerial expertise and the development of systems became crucial to the success of corporations. In the past, the foreman had accrued enormous managerial power: he hired and fired, determined pay scales — often arbitrarily — and assigned work loads. No longer.

Engineers initiated time clocks and pay rates and even allocated the tools that were to be used for each job. Frederick Taylor's [b:Principles of Scientific Management|958259|The Principles of Scientific Management|Frederick Winslow Taylor|http://photo.goodreads.com/books/1179804247s/958259.jpg|943169] became the Bible of the new managerial class. Workers lost all autonomy. Taylor showed how higher productivity and a more uniform product could bring increased wages, but his theories were often bitterly opposed. Many managers complained, too, as their jobs became more regimented. A form of welfare capitalism was tried by some firms to create a stable work force and to prevent "radicalism." They offered day care, libraries, benefits, and higher wages for their employees (see Hickam’s description of Coalwood in [b:Rocket Boys|96642|Rocket Boys|Homer H. Hickam|http://photo.goodreads.com/books/1171345733s/96642.jpg|1068585] for an example).

Better postal service was devastating to local stores (shades of e-shopping?). It had been the practice for farmers to come into town and pick up mail at the general store. Now they could order through the mail and have purchases delivered directly to them. In some communities, Sears’ and Wards’ catalogs were burned publicly.

Sorry for the somewhat staccato nature of this review; it mirrors the book. Nevertheless, given my penchant for assimilating lots of facts related to cultural change, this book was great. ( )
  ecw0647 | Sep 30, 2013 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0809016117, Paperback)

The early twentieth century was a time of technological revolution in the United States. New inventions and corporations were transforming the economic landscape, bringing a stunning array of consumer goods, millions of additional jobs, and ever more wealth. Steven J. Diner draws on the rich scholarship of recent social history to show how these changes affected Americans of all backgrounds and walks of life, and in doing so offers a striking new interpretation of a crucial epoch in our history.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:16:19 -0400)

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