Abstract: The Cultural Promises of the State: A Reconsideration of Corporate Social Politics in 1920s America

Daniel Amsterdam


This paper describes how corporate elites in the 1920s turned to local government with new enthusiasm as a mechanism for reforming the culture of industrial America. Most historians tend to portray businessmen's social politics during the so-called New Era as focused primarily on private-sector experiments with welfare capitalism. In fact, corporate social politics were much more expansive and traversed the public-private divide. As this paper shows, in the years following the end of World War I, corporate interests lobbied local officials in cities across the country for a windfall of public spending on a host of social programs, from public schooling and the promotion of public health to the construction of decentralized cities featuring parks, playgrounds, libraries, museums and single-family homes. Rather than a social welfare state, these businessmen hoped to build what I call a civic welfare state, a network of programs that in the minds of elite businessmen promised to reform the culture of modern America by remaking American cities and the citizens who inhabited them.