Thornton Wilder’s Our Town: Back to the Good Ol’ Days Essay
By the early 1900’s, many small towns had already been established and the generations who resided in them during that time were set in their ways. Wives stayed home to care for their families, men worked hard to ensure that their wives and children had everything that they needed, and a child’s biggest concern was attending school. Crimes within those towns were almost nonexistent and close bonds were based on trust and honesty.
Thornton Wilder’s Our Town is a play set in the early 1900’s in Grover’s Corner, New Hampshire, an imaginary town which depicts the way life was for small-town Americans during the time of the Industrial Revolution. Our Town provided escapism for people who lived in large cities from the rapid series of controversial events that occurred within the first three decades of the 20th Century. Peggy Whitley (2008) stated that “The turn of the century decade began one of transition and progress and is considered the first decade of materialism and consumerism…automobiles, ships, and trains, changed the way people viewed their world” (1).
The Industrial Revolution was rapidly changing big cities. Factories that mass produced things such as furniture, firearms, and newly invented home appliances became more common, which made it possible to manufacture goods more cheaply and quickly. This was indeed a great form of progress in the eyes of consumers, but many small businesses that had passed trades down from one generation to another fell victim to larger corporations and some were forced into employment under treacherous conditions.
When mass production began, business owners strived to produce a lot of product for little cost which resulted in excruciatingly long hours and extremely low wages for their employees. Factory workers were exposed to unsanitary environments, poorly ventilated areas, and other hazardous conditions on a daily basis. There were no safety regulations so injuries occurred on a regular basis and since employees were considered expendable, those who were injured were simply fired and replaced.
Doors were often locked by business owners early in the mornings and remained locked until late in the evening to ensure that their employees didn’t leave before the workday was over, an action that caused 146 deaths when a fire started in a high-rise factory and triggered the beginning of laws that protected employees’ rights (Linder, 2002). While the industrial world was growing, so was the need for new forms of transportation.
Few automobiles had made their way here from Europe by the 1900’s and were considered a toy for the rich, but shortly after Henry Ford’s affordable “Model T” was presented to the public in 1908, automobiles became more common among the middle class which freed people from geographical boundaries. People no longer had to live within 20 miles of railways or trolley cars because they had their own means of transportation which allowed for an easier commute. Automobiles also became a popular way to deliver goods because of their speed and accessibility; however, there is often a high price to pay for convenience (Whitney, 2011).
Similar to the conditions for factory workers, safety regulations on the roadways had not yet been established. Seatbelts and airbags hadn’t yet been invented and speeding laws and traffic signals hadn’t made their way to America’s dirt roads, so most accidents were severe or fatal. Since most states didn’t require motorists to obtain a driver’s license, roads were packed with unskilled drivers. We see this in Our Town after Emily almost gets struck by a reckless delivery truck and Mr. Morgan (1999) says, “You’ve got to look both ways before you cross Main Street these days.
Gets worse every year…Now they’re bringing in these auto-mobiles, the best thing to do is just stay home” (304). Aside from the occasional car passing through, most small-town Americans seemed oblivious to the chaos of the metropolitan areas; however, worry and doubt slowly crept into the “Mayberry towns” as the world around them was moving faster and becoming more corrupt. Wilder informs us of the concern of small town citizens in Our Town through the voice of the Stage Manager (1999), “Summer, 1913. Gradual changes here in Grover’s Corner. Horses are getting rarer.
Farmers coming to town in Fords. Everybody locks their house doors now at night. Ain’t been any burglars in town yet, but everybody’s heard about ‘em. ” Shortly after the curtain closed on Grover’s Corner 1913, America reluctantly joined the battle of World War I. There was only one well-known citizen of Grover’s Corner lost to the Great War. His name was Joe Crowell and most new him as the town’s paperboy. During the first act of Our Town, the Stage Manager (1999) lets us in on Joe’s fate: “Joe was awful bright – graduated from high school here, head of his class.
So he got a scholarship to Massachusetts Tech. Graduated head of his class there, too. It was all wrote up in the Boston paper at the time. Goin’ to be a great engineer, Joe was. But the war broke out and he died in France. All that education for nothing” (p. 291). I believe that this was Wilder’s way of reminding his audience of a time when the people they loved who never returned home were alive and happy, and since most Americans knew someone who was lost overseas, the news of the happy-go-lucky paperboy’s short life made the play more relatable and realistic.
In the real world, many American men died overseas and those who returned home permanently wore physical or emotional evidence of the trauma they witnessed, but soldiers weren’t the only ones who had changed during the war. Woman had assumed the role of their men while they were gone, working in factories and service oriented positions that were normally occupied by men. By the time Our Town was written in 1938, America had morphed into a totally different society. The 1920’s, otherwise known as the Roaring Twenties, was the time of radical change and luxury.
Roughly 65% of homes had electricity and new home appliances such as refrigerators, washing machines, irons, and toasters were invented. Authors had begun to write openly about sexual matters, women began to dress more provocatively and wear makeup, men were wearing more stylish, form-fitting clothes, and some even embraced unnatural things such as Ouija boards, Voodoo, and fortune telling (Littell, 2007). Conservative activists known as the Women’s Christian Temperance League fought to maintain the status-quo by forcing their personal beliefs onto the whole of society in the name of the law.
They thought that they had won the battle when the 18th Amendment was passed by Congress, prohibiting the production, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages, but much to their surprise, their noble intentions back-fired and sent our nation on a downward spiral. Trying to eliminate one sin sent many good men into a dangerous life of bootlegging, promiscuity became a way of life, and crime syndicates rose to a level of wealth and power beyond all expectations.
Due to the lack of supply and a steadily increasing demand, profit margins of alcoholic beverages surged, allowing businessmen who took advantage of the opportunity such as Joe Torrio, “Nucky” Johnson, and Arnold Rothstein to employ more men known as “gangsters” to take part in their criminal acts. Their main distributors were average men who ran modest businesses by day, and secret saloons known as “speakeasies” by night. Marty Gitlin (2011) states that, “By 1922, approximately 5,000 speakeasies had opened for business, and gangsters were competing to provide alcohol for them and for anyone else who would pay for it” (p. 5).
The Roaring Twenties not only gave birth to organized crime and gangsters, but a new kind of woman as well. By the time the twenties began, women had become familiar with the workforce as a result of helping industries thrive during the war, then the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920, giving women the freedom to vote and their independence was complete. Women no longer had to rely on a man to make her dreams come true the way Mrs. Gibbs did in Our Town.
If a woman of the twenties wanted to go to Paris, she could work and save her money and go wherever her heart desired. The more promiscuous women of the twenties started wearing makeup, ditched their “iron-sided” corsets, and began to wear dresses so short that they revealed their knees! Ironically, the women who were supposedly very sexual began to wear dresses that completely hid their figures, cut their hair off to short bobs, and some would even tape their breasts down to make themselves appear to be flat-chested.
Reportedly, a flapper’s main objective was to make herself look like a young boy. Although gangsters and flappers mainly resided within cities, the effects of the prohibition were noticeable, even in the smallest towns. Anyone could take part in bootlegging by making “bathtub gin” at home. William Meredith (2005) stated in his account of the prohibition, “Before prohibition, most men drank in saloons. After Prohibition, they began drinking in the home, which exposed the family to the ‘evils’ of alcohol even more so than before” (7).
The original intentions of the Temperance League was to protect wives and children from the effects of alcohol, but because of their actions, they weren’t only being exposed to the effects, many were also taking part in the act themselves. This was noted in a song that came about during prohibition which can be found in Gitlin’s (2010) book, The Prohibition Era: Mother’s in the kitchen washing out the jugs, Sister’s in the panty bottling the suds, Father’s in the cellar mixing up the hops,
And Johnny’s on the front porch watching for the cops. (p. 46) Before the Prohibition, drinking was looked down on and alcoholics were pitied and avoided. Since Grover’s Corner was made up of mostly Protestant Conservatives, drinking was thought of as a terrible sin, so Simon Stimson, the only well-known alcoholic serving as the church’s choir leader, was considered the biggest controversy in town. Unless he was conducting hymns, he kept to himself while his neighbors whispered about his “troubles” amongst themselves. When Mr.
Webb (1999), the town’s Publisher and Editor, is called upon by the Stage Manager to provide insight into the town, a lady from the audience asked if there was much drinking in Grover’s Corner to which he replied, “I’d say likker ain’t a regular thing in the home here, except in the medicine chest. Right good for a snake bite, y’know – always was” (p. 294). Ironically, the prohibition added a “forbidden fruit” appeal to drinking, and since many small town men were making liquor for profit, more men began to partake in the sin that the Temperance League strived to abolish.
Over the course of the 1920’s, the homicide rate across the nation rose 78 percent, the number of federal convicts increased by 560 percent, and police funding increased by over eleven-million dollars. Though millions of dollars were being thrown toward enforcing the Volstead Act, only one out of every 260 arrests ended in conviction. It was obvious that the 18th Amendment had not only been a complete failure, but counterproductive as well; therefore, it became the first and only amendment to ever be repealed in 1933 (Meredith, 2005). It was almost impossible to live through the 1920’s unaffected.
The ways of American people changed, either for better or worse, but few were able to remain the same. While people were becoming more materialistic, manufacturers such as Ford and General Electric began to offer financing on their products which paved the road for the “American dream”. Consumers no longer had to save their money to have cars and appliances; they could “have it now and pay for it later”. Because so many goods were being produced and not enough money was coming in, the stock market was destined to crash, and in October of 1929, it did just that and our country went from seeking advancement to fighting for survival.
Bettye Sutton (1999) recalls, “In the Great Depression the American dream had become a nightmare. What was once the land of opportunity was now the land of desperation…The American people were questioning all the maxims on which they had based their lives – democracy, capitalism, individualism” (1). In the cities, manufacturers put thousands of men out of work and replaced them with desperate women and children to do the same work for less pay. Food was scarce and evictions were common, forcing middle class people to live in squalor and stand for hours in bread and soup lines just to stay alive.
Since so many taxpayers were unemployed and homeless, city relief and charity funds were quickly exhausted which caused an extreme ration of food and other charitable resources. Across the Great Plains, a terrible drought had set in which caused massive dust storms to sweep the country and a severe shortage of food. Most farmers during the twenties had mortgaged their farms to finance new machinery and couldn’t pay their bills due to dry crops. Many families lost everything and became migrant workers; travelling from one place to another, stopping to work for food, and sleeping wherever they were able.
Small towns in America were very self-reliant; therefore, they weren’t affected with nearly as much impact as the rest of the country. Financing through banks became sketchy, but in close-knit communities, loans could be arranged between individuals. My great-grandparents, for example, borrowed $1,500 from a wealthy neighbor and added it to the $1,000 they already had to buy their first home. For the most part, routines carried on normally for small town citizens. People raised their own chickens, cows, and gardens, so the food shortage went unnoticed with the exception of a few ommonly purchased items. Food vouchers for condiments such as sugar and flour were rationed and dispersed on a periodical basis. If a family ran out of those items before they got another voucher, they had to do without until the next one came in. The only visible proof small towns on the east coast saw of the catastrophe going on around them was the occasional dust storm that would blow by on its way to the Atlantic, but they heard enough about the devastation that most lived very careful, paranoid lives.
While the American economy was easing into a more stable state, political issues from abroad were washing onto American shores. Months after Adolf Hitler began his reign in 1933, German immigrants formed groups known as the German American Bund, a group devoted to supporting Hitler. Mark D. Van Ells (2007) explains in his article, Americans for Hilter, “Nazi ideology taught that all Germans were united by blood and that the descendants of German emigrants around the world needed to be awakened to their racial duties in support of Hitler” (2).
Members of the group wore uniforms similar to the ones worn by Nazis and followed the same principles of protecting their race. Socialists often protested their rallies which usually led to violence. Ells (2007) also stated that, “By 1938, anti-Bund sentiment had grown so strong that German-American leaders concluded they either had to dissociate themselves completely from the Bund or run the risk of being branded Nazis themselves” (15). Overseas, Hitler’s reign of terror was quickly spreading as he took over several different small countries and raged war against Europe.
America’s original “hands-off” mindset to acting against his dictatorship began to shift into one of precaution and our military began to grow. By the late 1930’s, the already guarded American people were paranoid and overrun by political controversy. Sylvaine Gold (2007) said in her article that celebrated Our Town’s 75th year in production, “In 1938, with Hitler and Stalin in power and the memory of war and depression still keen, Wilder summoned up a tranquil turn-of-the-century New Hampshire community whose most worrisome problem seems to be an alcoholic choirmaster” (1).
Our Town was presented to people in large cities to remind Americans of a time when things were pure and morals were still in place, before thousands of young men were killed in European trenches, cities were taken over by gangsters and corrupt politicians, middle class families were sentenced to years of desperation, and foreign dictators threatened America’s newfound stability. Those who saw Our Town in its first years of production experienced a few hours of peace in a world full of chaos.
Many during that time felt a strong hint of nostalgia while they pictured Grover’s Corner as their own hometowns before the world around them became complicated. Gold (2007) went on to say, “The nearly total refusal to engage the political or social issues implied in Wilder’s description of the town confounds critics on the left and the right” (4). Even now, 75 years later, Grover’s Corner is described on stages all across America due to the amount of people who identify with the story.
As the fourth generation in my family to be born and raised in my town, where everyone knows one another and works hard to preserve our history and heritage, I found Our Town to be highly relatable. While watching the play, I was reminded of all the stories that I heard from my grandparents and great-grandparents about the way things were during the time that Our Town was set. They always spoke of our town with pride, similar to that of the Stage Manager in the play. My grandparents have all passed now and they lie in the town cemetery the same way the founders of Grover’s Corner did, unable to tell their stories to our future generations.
Among other emotions that washed over me during Our Town, I am grateful that Thorton Wilder took the time to create a play that brings my ancestors’ history to life, so it will never be forgotten. According to quote from a preface that Wilder wrote (1938, 2013), “[his play] sprang from a deep admiration for those little white towns in the hills and from a deep devotion to the future” (3), preserving this peaceful part of history for future generations is exactly what he had in mind.
Not only did Our Town provide escapism for people of the 1930’s, it also taught them all a very valuable lesson that was most important during the time it was originally produced. Most Americans during that time were blinded by despair. Even those who were lucky enough to survive the Depression without losing their homes had to sell luxuries that they had gotten used to such as cars, washing machines, and refrigerators and they took what they still had for granted.
Rich, poor, or in-between, most people spent a great deal of their time worrying about the uncertainty of the future. More than ever, Americans needed to hear Emily’s (1999) monologue after her death in which she asked, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it…every, every minute? ” (p. 314), a timeless lesson that still applies today and will as long as human kind continues to exist.