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The Great Standardization of American Life

Updated on October 29, 2019

Since the 19th century, the United States has embarked on a brave new world of standardization and societal homogenization, charting a course into the unknown which we continue to tread. Space, time, custom, have all been annihilated by a society gripped by revolutionary transformations which have utterly transformed the face of the planet and the meaning of human existence. During the rise of modern America, society transformed from one still defined by regional differences, heterogenous popular culture, and genuine, local, organic, community, to one based upon a capitalistic, corporatized, mass, unified national culture. Since then, history has not been the same.

There are many aspects of this great change in existence which could receive attention but none would be more fitting than to start with the subject of time, which in 1883 was transformed into time zones. Clocks were not a new thing, having existed for many centuries. But before the 1880s, clocks in the United States were set according to their local time, and thus every village and town would have its own time to correspond with what would be the equivalent of noon. This however, had the unfortunate habit of playing havoc on rail lines, which ran between towns. Trains rely upon an extremely sensitive and precise schedule, or else the system does not work. Rail companies required a system which would be homogenous and which would enable cities to have the same time, so that their networks could be coordinated. The solution was to standardize American time on 4 time zones, with time in each zone being the same wherever one was. At a stroke authentic and local time was annihilated, replaced by artificial, homogenized, and rationalized national time, structuring life not around the timeless rhythms of natural life and the sun, but instead around time zones engineered for the convenience of modern industrial life and corporations.

The Gibson girl
The Gibson girl

This ruthless drive for homogeneity expressed itself as well in the very image, representation, model, of the American people, poured into the mold of stereotyped images to produce the vision of the new woman. Of course, there has been throughout history plenty of national personifications, plenty of national images, of men and women assumed to be the natural stereotype and figures of a land. But the United States, embarking on its bold new experiment in rationalization and homogenization, took this another step forward. The figure of the “Gibson Girl” would become the standard new homogenized depiction of the American girl, tall, upright, her hair thrown upwards in a bun, increasingly sporty and athletic. Her resulting variations would be many and the names numerous, with the new woman, Fisher Girl,, and flapper standing out as particular models, but they all shared the same homogenizing, media-centric depiction, blasted into every home by the new magazine, and serving as a way to assimilate the hordes of new immigrants who came onto the shores of the United States.

Amusement parks in the United States brought about a new style of leisure.
Amusement parks in the United States brought about a new style of leisure.

What about fun, play, the inherent human driving for enjoyment and pleasure? Once more, a bold experiment was undertaken on American 19th century society, professionalizing, rationalizing, homogenizing play. Life became increasingly segregated into ever more frenetic rhythms of work and leisure, replacing previous Republican ideals of manhood centered around one’s identity as a producer and control over one’s work, and into the zone of pleasure came the host of new ways to pass one’s time -- amusement parks, baseball, films. All of these were commercialized and often corporatized in their own way. Amusement parks produced a new standardized sense of thrill, focusing on mechanized enjoyment and industrialized conceptions of pleasure, a dramatic change from less institutionalized versions of play and entertainment. Most importantly, they would pop up across the entire United States, so that almost every city had an amusement park, building on a craze for them sparked by the Chicago 1893 exposition. Baseball has received polemics about whether it was an industrialized sport, of whether it was one which matched industrial life with a scientific, rational, and organized sport. Regardless of whether baseball represents a pastoral and backwards-looking sport or an industrial and modernist game, baseball became the American national pastime, and an increasing assortment of leagues and professional teams were introduced. Sport and leisure would start to become homogenous all across the United States. And for films, by 1913 the United States could boast some 13,000 movie theaters, with films being shuttled between them by train -- the same films shown all across the nation, in a remarkably standardization of visual culture that matched the transformations that had taken place in print with the proliferation of vast numbers of new, cheap, mass-circulation magazines.

The refrigerated rail car, which made Chicago's meat centralization possible.
The refrigerated rail car, which made Chicago's meat centralization possible.

The food Americans consumed was also the product of the irresistible forces of the great homogenization. At first, it was above all else related to the major changes brought about in terms of food production and processing. As railroads criss-crossed the American continent, a vast market was developed for agricultural products, and also a vastly increased economy of scale. Initially cowboys were used to drive cattle north to Chicago, but later the Swift Meat Company would come up with the refrigerated rail car in 1878, using the passage of chilled air to provide for meat to be shipped long distances and not rot. The result of this was an explosion in centralized processing at Chicago. Over the decades to come, large Chicago meat packing plants would gain a stranglehold over the industry, and the American diet would come to incorporate increasing quantities of beef, produced in Chicago -- a great standardization of food over previous regionalized production of pork for local markets.

To some extent, this applied as well to the food which Americans consumed. It was an age before chain stores came to dominate across the nation as would later be the case, but a national mode of middle class consumption would increasingly come into being. “[When one] pauses to think of the vast number of people who regularly or occasionally lunch or dine in hotels, clubs or restaurants, and of the many thousands, hundreds of thousands, who for some weeks or months of every year, traveling on business and pleasure, make these establishments their temporary homes and refreshment places, one readily sees how widely disseminated is the influence of these colleges of living, the American ‘Standard of Taste.” Across the United States reformers and americanizers would endeavor to assimilate newcomers into regular American eating practice, and the number of restaurants would expand markedly, as food became increasingly commercialized. Certainly there would be new diversity introduced, such as an increased admiration for ethnic cuisine. But this too was assimilated into a generously increasingly American, national, and homogenous cuisine, one which could produce a homogenous type of food across the entire nation.

Democratization came to fashion too, but a democratization which was the bane of the previous plurality of clothing and dress. Certainly, fashion was something which could give rise to great diversity, as attested by the constant seasonal changes of fashion and the wide array of different ideas promoted. But modern, global, fashion was something which simultaneously led to a loss of the authentic and real fashion traditions which had previously constituted the garb of everyday people. The new high couture of the United States, Britain, France, and Germany was labeled as fashion, and the clothing which didn’t match the new standards was backwards and passe. Thus, Dutch fishermen garb and outfits of Tunisian peasants had the same similarity -- they were no longer garments suited for modern society, regardless of their practicality or suitability for their users. Instead, they were dated and backward remnants of a previous time. They had to be replaced, while being plundered for ideas to feed the metropoles of fashion. Fashion in the United States would over time assimilate and destroy the garb of both indigenous peoples within the US, such as Indians, and of the various ethnic groups that came to the US from Europe or across the world, and would create a unified, mass market, fashion world. Americans would have access to an increasing variety of clothes, but the former diversity and regionalism of fashion would be destroyed.

And what of the sweat that the American worker wiped from his brow creased with the travail of labor? It went to companies that were increasingly homogenous, increasingly professionalized and vast in scale. If modern capitalism requires a managerial class and corporations, the American case would be an exception in its sheer scale and rapid development of impersonal capitalistic relations. In Britain and France, family firms and family modes of management would continue to be the mainstay of capitalist organization for far longer. US companies would increasingly see the old limited family firms and a paternalist type of capitalism transformed into massive firms linked together in trusts, with a professional, managerial class, leading companies that were interchangeable the one from the other. Massive joint stock companies were formed to essentially monopolize key sectors of the economy through a process of morganization, producing a homogenous and standardized economic environment.

Assembly lines didn't only make products cheaper, they also made work more monotonous and standardized time.
Assembly lines didn't only make products cheaper, they also made work more monotonous and standardized time.

The factory where he worked at? Here the homogenization of labor and time grew rapidly too, as technological advance rendered old skilled labor increasingly obsolete, to replace it with unskilled labor working on machines. A cigarette roller? Duke Cigarettes found a machine for that. Steel? Frederick Taylor was hired to attempt to rationalize and homogenize it. Automobiles? Instead of skilled laborers producing parts in an artisanal production, instead the assembly line. Meat packing plants with piece work production and assembly-line like production of sausages and other materials, in conditions which drove workers to death and despair. Even writing and clerical work found itself changed, with typewriters, and their modus operandi switched from being tasked-focused to hour-focused. This produced increasing efficiency, profits, and shorter hours, but at the cost of making work increasingly homogeneous, boring, and repetitive.

Americanization sought to homogenize the American masses
Americanization sought to homogenize the American masses

All of these aspects treat material factors. What about the soul of the people? Here too, the hand of homogeneity, assimilation, and americanization exerted itself, with the rise of Americanization movements dedicated to assimilating the foreigner and the immigrant to the nation’s shores. Certainly this was tempered by more than simply forcing the foreigner into the American model -- there were settlement houses which genuinely attempted to promote the idea of cultural exchange, that immigrants were bringing gifts that would be given to the great American nation and which would enrich it as a whole. But no mythology exists which is stronger than the ideal of the melting pot, stirred by the white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant American, bringing together the vast numbers of foreign cultures in America into a single mass. And even gift-giving celebrations might celebrate the fusion of foreigners into a single American race, bringing together the latin, teutonic, and slavic races to produce a greater America, in ceremonies which depicted immigrant groups laying onto the altar of America their traditions as gifts to the great, melded, nation. The regional differences in America would be slowly reduced over time, as the countryside became more associated with the city. This can be seen through the cultural propagation of amusement parks into the countryside and the mechanization and increasingly market-based nature of agriculture, as the North and the South were reconciled, as the railroad destroyed distance and space to knit the nation ever more tightly together. America would become one nation, and a nation which despite the immigrant masses drawn from across the world, racial diversity, and its massive size, would be one which would nationalize and homogenize itself like no nation before.

Of course, not everything could be homogenized, but it could nevertheless be standardized. Scientific racism attained new heights during this era. Racism was of course, nothing new to the United States beforehand, but an increasingly scientific bent to it aimed to categorize different races using “scientific” principles linked to evolution. This justified the exclusion of racial minorities and immigrant groups from the body politics, and served as a cause for the sanitization of the nation through their exclusion or assimilation. In the United States it would over time come to produce a white identity (such as the assimilation of Irish into white respectability), opposed to the identities of other races -- initially black being the most prominent, but with the idea of a pan-indian identity being developed in the boarding schools that the United States ran, and Asian identity coming along much later.

The America which had emerged by the 20th century was a dramatically different one from that of 1865. It had knit itself together once more, and aggressively promoted the assimilation of differences. Life had become increasingly standardized and the same across the nation, so that from one city to another the same experiences, same events, same amusements, same stories repeated themselves. Economic life was dominated by the rationalization of work which destroyed previous focus on the autonomous producer. People were categorized into conclusive racial categories and traits and intelligence “scientifically” assigned to them. It transformed a commercial and agricultural society into a scientific, modern, industrial society, in the span of just a few brief decades. There have been few nations on earth which have ever known such a dramatic and near utopian reconfiguration of society, a revolution which has permanently altered American society, to the extent that we can divide it, and perhaps the world, into before and after.


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