Tough Guys and Pretty Boys:

The Cultural Antagonisms of Engineering and Aesthetics in Automotive History

by David Gartman

The Changing American Character: From Work Ethic to Consumption Ethic

Several factors caused Americans to abandon Ford's focus on utilitarian engineering and cost-cutting efficiencies and embrace GM's emphasis on style. By the mid-1920s the basic technology of all makes was uniformly high, so the average buyer could take the car's utility for granted. Consequently, consumers began to focus their attention on the social function of the car as a symbol of status and distinction. Mere possession of an auto no longer served this function, as it once did, since ownership had now spread down the class hierarchy to the lower-middle class and even to some working-class people. In these circumstances, distinction was conveyed by the type of car one owned, and the cheap, mass-produced car was certainly not very distinctive. By the early 1920s, for example, the once-beloved Model T was beginning to be socially stigmatized as ugly and poorly constructed. One Model T joke of this era asked: Why is a Model T like a mistress? Because you hate to be seen on the streets with one. Another joke poked fun at the T’s loosely joined construction, with an owner stating he knew his speed without a speedometer: “When my Ford is running five miles per hour, the fender rattles; twelve miles an hour, my teeth rattle; and fifteen miles an hour, the transmission drops out.” These attitudes raise deeper questions about American consumers and their desires. Why were mass-produced cars aesthetically stigmatized? And why were Americans increasingly looking to consumption for status and distinction, and no longer to their work? The answers to these questions are found in the profound changes wrought in American society by the fragmented and deskilled mass-production process pioneered by the auto industry.

From the beginning, Americans were deeply ambivalent about mass production. On the one hand, they hoped that mass production would further democracy and equality by bringing goods previously confined to the wealthy within the reach of common people. Many philanthropists and reformers of this era, for example, believed that the mass-produced car would bring to the masses opportunities for economic mobility and revitalizing leisure previously available only to the few. On the other hand, some Americans feared that mass production would further dehumanization by reducing people to deskilled, standardized cogs in an impersonal industrial machine. This fear was not confined to high-minded intellectuals but shared by common working people. They, like other Americans, were imbued with the work ethic, and thus used to defining their moral worth by their work, that is, by their productive contribution to society. But workers found it increasingly difficult to display their morality, skill, and civic-mindedness in standardized, mindless work controlled by someone else. So early on workers revolted against the mass-production system, which confiscated their skills, sped up their work, and subjected them to mechanical despotism. A wave of class conflict, in the forms of strikes, turnover, and absenteeism, appeared among automobile workers in the early mass-production shops, raising questions about the human viability of the system.

Gradually, however, manufacturers found a solution to the conflict, and once again Henry Ford led the way. In 1913, there was an attempt to organize the Ford Motor Company by the Industrial Workers of the World, a radical anarcho-syndicalist group which sought not to represent workers but to form “one big union” to destroy both capitalism and the state. Although the attempt failed, it obviously worried Henry, motivating him to announce in 1914 the Five Dollar Day to head off further labor trouble. This program raised the wages of his workers in exchange for their submission to the inhumanities of mass production and adoption of a stable, consumption-oriented lifestyle focused on the family and home. To ensure that they used their higher wages in the ways he preferred, Ford created the Sociological Department and charged it with investigating the details of workers’ home lives and consumption habits. Other mass producers followed suit, and by the early 1920s many American workers were using their higher wages to purchase consumer goods and create in their homes a refuge from the demands of their dehumanizing mass-production jobs. In short, this period saw the beginning of a gradual cultural shift from a work ethic to a consumption ethic. Americans began to define themselves less by what they did on the job and more by what they bought, possessed, and consumed in their leisure time.

Automobiles assumed a central place in this emerging consumer society. The type of car one drove testified to one's character and worth. In such a society, the look of inexpensive, mass-produced cars like the Model T was unacceptable, because it visually testified to the cheap, degraded mass-production process to which these car owners were subordinated. The fragmentation spoke of a divided, unskilled work process. The uniformity of color and style testified to the standardization of human effort. And the flat, rectilinear lines spoke of the rigid, unbending discipline of machines and managers. Compared to the curving, integrated, varied designs of luxury cars, mass-produced cars testified to degraded social status. People who were trying to escape and forget about their work lives in the realm of consumption did not want to be reminded of the indignities of mass production by a car that looked mass-produced. So the Model T declined, and GM sales rose, for Sloan gave consumers the look of luxury in mass-produced cars. His cars had styles that covered over the reminders of work with beautiful, superficial illusions.

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Five Dollar Day

For more on the Five Dollar Day, see Stephen Meyer’s “Ford and the Five Dollar Day.

Workers' Home Lives

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