Modernizing Main Street

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Gabrielle Esperdy. Modernizing Main Street: Architecture and Consumer Culture in the New Deal. The University of Chicago Press, 2008. Pp. x, 244. ISBN 0-226-21800-7. Cloth

Summary

During the 1930s, Main Street was not only a symbol of small town America, but it was the downtown shopping district for both smaller towns and cities and large urban areas as well. Main Street represented the merger of business interests and community values. Like today, people were sympathetic to the small business owner, but favored shopping at chain stores that became widespread during this period because they offered greater selection and lower prices. Strip malls began to spring up at the edges of urban spaces. Grocery chains like A and P, five and dimes such as Kresge’s and Woolworth’s and JC Penney department stores became much more common throughout the country. They competed with the local stores and during the Great Depression this led to the decline and even closure of many Main Street businesses.

The National Housing Act was passed in 1934 as part of New Deal initiatives. One of its arms, the Federal Housing Administration, insured private lenders against losses on loans made to modernize existing residential and non-residential buildings. The FHA sponsored publicity campaigns to promote modernization as a stimulus to building activity and increased consumer activity. These initiatives led to the “fiscally dubious, yet easy-to-swallow proposition that the nation could literally spend its way out of the economic crisis and buy its way into a prosperous future (203).” Gabrielle Esperdy’s goal in Modernizing Main Street is to synthesize the social, political, economic, and architectural dimensions of the modernized storefront of the 1930s that emerged as an important symbol of the Depression era building industry.

The 1930s became known as the streamlined decade with architecture and product design that was exemplified by speed lines, rounded corners, banded windows and sleek facades. Building material manufacturers looked to the design of automobiles and refrigerators for inspiration. The sleek outline of the Chrysler Airflow and the Coldspot Super Six refrigerator came to be replicated in the design of storefronts with curved glass windows and smooth shiny exteriors. Architects and manufacturers likened the updated facades to the face-lift that was just becoming known to restore youth to those willing and able to undergo the procedure. New products such as Vitrolite, Extrudalite, and Vitrolux were patented to provide the light and sparkle to catch the consumer’s eye. Building manufacturers like Libbey-Owens-Ford sponsored Modernize Main Street Competitions as an incentive to business owners to update their storefronts and increase their sales at the same time.

According to Esperdy, the storefront “became a modern vernacular, a form of architecture that, for better or worse, authentically reflected the culture of the United States in the 1930s (10).” Main Street was a part of people’s daily lives. Closed or deteriorating shops were a grim reminder of the economic decline that was affecting everyone. Modernized storefronts were used to demonstrate that the economy was improving and storeowners were encouraged to believe that a new façade would attract customers. The very commonness of stores made them the ideal symbol of New Deal initiatives. An FHA logo from 1935 proclaimed: Modernize Main Street for Profit: Better Housing for American Business. The FHA Public Relations Division consciously linked fashion and modernization. They encouraged the idea that Main Street design should be thought of in the same way as clothing fashion that changed frequently. A FHA merchant’s manual, Modernize for Profit, urged business owners to protect themselves against obsolescence. By feeding merchant fears of loss of customers, the FHA actively encouraged the belief that products had to be continually changed or renewed to retain customer interest.

In the final chapter, Esperdy examines Reading, Pennsylvania’s transformation through the Depression and beyond. The business owners on Main Street vigorously updated their facades, but by the end of World War II, commerce again began to move out to suburban areas. Throughout the ensuing decades modernization eventually became urban renewal and then revitalization. The impetus to bring life back to Main Street continues to occupy city leaders and planners. The 1930s modernized storefronts that remain are now protected under historic preservation guidelines, but they were never intended to last more than a few decades.

Esperdy used previously unexamined FHA and Housing and Home Finance Agencies records at the National Archives as well as the architectural trade journals of the period. The book is generously illustrated with over sixty photographs, advertisements, and government publications. The author presents an impressive number of before and after photographs of storefront modernization that illustrate the impact of the change to the streetscape. The author does not attempt to quantify just what impact the modern facades had on the economy, but this work illustrates on a granular level the workings of one New Deal initiative and the impact it had on Main Street, USA.

Commentary

Spencer Roberts, Spring 2014

Not often do historians write about topics that nearly all North Americans have experienced, which makes Gabrielle Esperdy’s book about American Main Streets an unusually engaging and fascinating narrative about the New Deal. By focusing on the interaction between New Deal agencies like the FHA and those impacted by its policies, she avoids becoming bogged down in discussion of those policies or the administrators behind them. Rather, she shows to readers the salesmen who convinced store owners to modernize their Main Street locations in order to stand out, impress customers, and improve consumer faith. She also shows the manufacturers who were complicit in drumming up sales, who modified product lines to capitalize on financing projects, and who designed entirely new methods of store design based on using all of their products. While some histories of the New Deal forget to show the effects of the programs, Esperdy is concerned only with the changes wrought on Main Streets throughout America.

Most surprisingly, Esperdy makes interesting a story about glass manufacturers and civil architects in league with federal agencies to modernize stores. Who would have guessed that translucent glass was invented during the innovative manufacturing period instigated by the Modernization Credit Plan? Although we often see these stores still standing on Main Streets, Esperdy makes their existence meaningful because they are more than places of business. More importantly, she argues convincingly that American businessmen recognized the significance of modernization on Main Street and used federal programs to build a noteworthy legacy of architecture and design.

The only drawback to Esperdy’s work is that her intense focus on the modernization effort sometimes overshadows the crippling economic crisis that prompted it. While she notes the effects of the Depression on business and manufacturing, she quickly directs her narrative toward the positive effects of modernization programs and construction projects. Although she never intentionally minimizes the national crisis, further discussion of the interaction between modernization programs and the rest of New Deal America would help highlight their importance and acknowledge that they were unusually successful in a time of hardship.

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