Bryson on U.S. Standard of Living in 1927
By David Henderson
The first book I read on my current vacation at my cottage is Bill Bryson’s One Summer, subtitled America, 1927. It’s his story about various events in the United States in 1927. I’ve been a fan of his travel writing; my favorite is his book on Australia, In a Sunburned Country, which I read twice after visiting Australia. I also did a favorable review of his At Home: A Short History of Private Life. Here’s one paragraph from that review:
Bryson has pulled off a marvelous feat. He devotes almost every chapter to a room in his Victorian house in England. He then considers why the room is the way it is and what preceded it. In doing so, he produces an important economic history, only some of which will be familiar to economic historians and almost all of which will be unfamiliar to pretty much everyone else. A large percent of it is important, and the reasons are two: (1) you get to pinch yourself, realizing just how wealthy you are; and (2) you get a better understanding than you’ll get from any high-school or college history textbook about the economic progress that made you wealthy. Not surprisingly, given that I’m an economist and Bryson isn’t, I have a few criticisms of places where he misleads by commission or omission. But At Home’s net effect on readers is likely to be a huge increase in understanding and appreciation of how we got to where we are.
Back to One Summer. I highly recommend it. It’s vintage Bryson: interesting, informative, and entertaining. One of my favorite sections is on the eugenics movement of the time, a movement that had attracted some heavy hitters in American public life: more on that in a subsequent post.
Some of the economics is iffy: hey, he’s a travel writer, not an economist. But here is a beautiful paragraph that give the reader a sense of how well off Americans were in 1927:
To a foreign visitor arriving in America for the first time in 1927, the most striking thing was how staggeringly well-off it was. Americans were the most comfortable people in the world. American homes shone with sleek appliances and consumer durables–refrigerators, radios, telephones, electric fans, electric razors–that would not become standard in other countries for a generation or more. Of the nation’s 26.8 million households, 11 million had a phonograph, 10 million had a car, 17.5 million had a telephone. Every year, America added more new phones (781,000 in 1926) than Britain possessed in total.
He then goes off the rails a little with a mercantilist touch mixed in with his documentation of Americans’ holdings of consumer durables, writing:
Forty-two percent of all that was produced in the world was produced in the United States. America made 80 percent of the world’s movies and 85 percent of its cars. Kansas alone had more cars than France. At a time when gold reserves were the basic marker of national wealth, [DRH note: I trust that Econlog readers will see what’s wrong with this previous clause] America held half the world’s supply, or as much as all the rest of the world put together.