Print in Motion: The Expansion of Publishing and Reading in the United States, 1880-1940

By Carl F. Kaestle; Janice A. Radway | Go to book overview

Epilogue

Carl F. Kaestle and Janice A. Radway

.  .  .

By 1940 the United States had become a nation of readers. Elementary and secondary education had expanded exponentially. Whereas, in 1880 only 2.5 percent of seventeen-year-olds had graduated from high school, by 1940 the figure was 51 percent.1 Outright illiteracy, rated at 17 percent in 1880, had become so unusual by 1940 that the government began using the concept of “functional” literacy, defined by the U.S. Army during World War II as a fourth-grade reading level. The percentage of people in the United States who had less than five years of elementary schooling had decreased from 24 percent in 1910 to 6 percent in 1940.2

In chapter 2 of this volume, Carl Kaestle noted that the profile of literacy in the United States in 1880 approximated what Daniel and Lauren Resnick have called “industrial literacy,” that is, a two-tiered system in which there is widespread rudimentary literacy across the population and a smaller elite corps of more extensively educated people with high literacy skills.3 By 1940 the U.S. population was vastly more literate than this. All but a tiny fraction completed at least the fourth grade. High school graduation was by then the modal experience of youth. College attendance had expanded significantly. In this advanced stage of industrial literacy, there were more tiers of differently literate individuals. The middle class increasingly was high school educated. Many upper-middle-class workers had mastered higher levels of technical training and possessed both complex and specialized literacy skills that enabled them to labor intellectually rather than manually.4 These people worked as professionals and managers in a now tightly integrated and heavily bureaucratized society and constituted, along with the upper class, the bulk of book readers. While 80 percent of the population reported reading newspapers regularly, only about onefourth of the population reported reading books regularly.

Nonetheless, by 1940 a consumer culture organized around national brands and promoted at least initially by print advertising had been thoroughly established in the United States, contributing thereby to the creation of a national popular culture. That culture, which took shape during our period, was expressed not only by mass-market magazines and by the best sellers churned

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