New Era leaders like Hoover sought to bring aspects of the new administrative state created by Progressive reformers in concert with voluntary organizations to avoid the coercive power of the centralized state. Novelist Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951) satirically captured the spirit of the age in a best-selling novel, Babbitt (1922). In the opening pages, George Babbitt's house showcases the trappings of the modern consumer economy, with a listing of the mass-produced things that prosperity has made possible for the Babbitt family. Cultural critic Samuel Strauss, quoting RalphWaldo Emerson (1803-1882), declared that "things are in the saddle," and he raised troubling questions about the new impact of mass consumption. Nevertheless, the decade of prosperity undeniably brought the United States out of the depression of 1920-1921 and steered the country away from scarcity economics into an economy and society of abundance.
What made this economic progress possible? Business leaders and politicians alike proclaimed that the country had entered a New Era of industrial capitalism, based on a secular faith in mass production, mass consumption, and high wages (though this last often lagged behind the others). The rise of big business had created the capacity to produce. Mass marketing and consumption now made it possible to bring prosperity to the masses—at least, to those Americans who had high enough incomes. Coolidge coined the motto of the age: "The business of America is business." He went on to say, "The man who builds a factory, builds a temple. . . . The man who works there worships there." Between 1922 and 1928, the index of industrial production increased by 70 percent. From 1921 to 1929, real gross national product rose 45.6 percent, with an annual average 6 percent growth rate. Prices remained relatively stable, while real disposable income per capita (the money left to each American after paying bills) increased from $543 in 1920 to $693 in 1929. Boston, Massachusetts, department store owner Edward A. Filene (1860-1937) argued that American business had become the agent of social progress. Managerial leadership, technological innovation, mass marketing, and the rise of consumer credit were some of the major reasons for New Era prosperity.
Prosperity during the New Era brought about a new national mass culture, reflected in the exploding popularity of the automobile, the medium of radio, and other mass entertainment such as movies and sports. Automobile production rose from one and a half million new cars in 1919 to four and a half million by 1929. Motor vehicle registration increased from 9.2 million in 1920 to 26.7 million by 1929. By the end of the New Era, one in six Americans owned a mass-produced automobile. Car manufacturing drew on 20 percent of the nation's steel production, 25 percent of the machine tools, 75 percent of the plate glass, 80 percent of the rubber, and 90 percent of the petroleum. Local, state, and federal government spending for road construction was four times that for railroad tracks. The automobile industry stimulated economic, social, and cultural spin-offs involving highway construction, gasoline stations, motels, road markers, roadside stands, and vacation spots. Automobility took white, middle-class Americans out of the center cities to the rapidly expanding suburbs, including the fastest-growing areas around Detroit, Michigan, and Los Angeles, California.
As a decade of contrasts, the 1920s fascinates historians who have began seriously reexamining the history of New Era America. The Republican administrations of Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover dominated national political life. Most Americans paid more attention to the economic prosperity and cultural conflicts of the time than they did to partisan politics. New Era industrial capitalism promised to bring the fruits of industrialization to the mass public by creating a culture of consumption that more and more ordinary Americans could enjoy. In an age dominated by private corporations engaged in mass production at
home while exporting American-made goods and acquiring raw materials abroad, Americans thirsted for popular heroes who could reassure them that the individual still mattered. The most famous of these was pilot Charles A. Lindbergh (1902-1974), who captured the public's imagination on May 20-21, 1927, with the first nonstop Transatlantic flight ever, from New York City to Paris, France. Met with overwhelming admiration in France, "Lucky Lindy" returned home to a hero's welcome in New York City