Background on the Money Question, Part Three

   There had long been a tension in American life about what we now call "the American dream"--the idea that anyone can be whatever they like. On the one hand, this idea seemed to embody democratic freedom--the idea that people could rise as far as their ambition could take them, could transform themselves almost without limit. But it also seemed threatening. What was the difference between a dreamer and fraud, between an ambitious man, and a con man? Job applicants today dress their best, they put the best possible "spin" on their resumes. They pretend to be capable of jobs they haven't tried yet. Ambition involves reaching beyond what you are at the present: in that sense ambition always involves presenting yourself as something you are not.

   So in a society "suffused with the spirit of aspiration, of adventure, of industrial and commercial enterprise," as Horace Greely wrote, it was always hard to tell the difference between what people seemed to be and what they really were. By the 1890s there were standard, published guides to success, telling ambitious men what they should look like, how they should act, what they should wear, if they wanted to succeed. For more click below.

 

   Mass production changed nearly every aspect of American life. Since we have all grown up accustomed to mass production, it's very difficult to understand the more subtle aspects of those changes. Mass production made consumer goods much less expensive. A dazzling variety of magazines and books, furniture and home decorations, fancy clothes--things once available only to the rich--now came within the reach of the middle and working classes. The changes mass production unleashed began earlier in the century, but they probably peaked in the twenty years between 1890 and 1910. They took the form of social and political unease about the difference original and re-production.

   Mass production raised interesting questions about the value of human labor. Imagine a handmade table, or a dress. What was the difference between the original and 10, 000 perfect copies? Following the Civil War, technological advances made it possible to produce cheap, full color reproductions of famous paintings. These "chromolithographs" adorned the homes of ordinary Americans across the nation. "The problem with the chromolithographs was not just that they were cheap," writes Miles Orvell; "it was that the reproductions could be of quite good quality, and the better they were, the more they challenged the elite classes." Art critics denounced them as a sham, as fake art, as, like paper money, a mere imitation of "real" value. Not surprisingly, turn of the century artists--and counterfeiters--took up these themes.

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   Mass production made it increasingly difficult to tell the real from the imitation--in fat, it made the very difference between real and imitation a pressing issue. The "Battle of the Standards"--the election of 1896--makes more sense when seen in the light of these general anxieties about the genuine and the false, between self made value and "intrinsic" value.