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[Detail] Vacuum cleaners on display at the J.C. Harding & Co.

Historical Analysis and Interpretation: Bruce Barton, Advertising, and the 1924 Presidential Campaign

In 1920, ad man Bruce Barton wrote an article entitled, "The Silent Man on Beacon Hill: An Appreciation of Calvin Coolidge." After declaring that Coolidge is a breath of fresh air on the political landscape, Barton emphasizes Coolidge’s frugality, modesty, and unpretentiousness. He claims that such “old-fashioned characteristics . . . are exceedingly refreshing in these ultra-modern days” as he invokes George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln. Barton also quotes Coolidge as saying: “The man who builds a factory builds a temple; the man who works there worships there, and to each is due, not scorn and blame, but reverence and praise.”

During the 1924 presidential election, Bruce Barton headed up Calvin Coolidge’s ad campaign. Coolidge not only ran against Democratic nominee John Davis and Progressive candidate Robert LaFollette, but also the specter of Warren Harding’s scandalous presidency.

The two-part Pathe News film Visitin’ ‘Round Coolidge Corners also emphasized Coolidge’s character, containing statements such as: “Through New England meeting-houses like these, Pilgrims and Puritans taught the whole nation ideals, courage, honor, and devotion. They stand today for all that is finest in American character north, south, east and west.”

Compare this film and other election-year ad campaigns with Bruce Barton’s article, using the questions at the end of this section. Bring another dimension to this exercise by considering Sinclair Lewis’ “Publicity Gone Mad” in which the author claims:

the immemorial human desire for expressing one’s self is shown . . . in advertising and publicity. The man whose hat, religion, job, pay-check, house, and soul are completely standardized gains the ancient privilege of being different by reading of Chief Officer Manning’s ecstatic passion for Lucky Strikes [Cigarettes and] the lovely Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt’s adoration of Pond’s Cream. . . .

“Publicity Gone Mad”
The Nation

Lewis later writes: “For this is perhaps our greatest improvement over Europe . . . our changing of the ancient right of privacy so that the most secret and perhaps agonized thoughts of any human being are the property now of any swine who cares to read about them.”

  • What does Lewis's statement mean in terms of Calvin Coolidge’s campaign?
  • How do the articles and film emphasize Coolidge’s character? What is the importance of establishing such credibility?
  • How does the depiction of Coolidge as “old-fashioned” relate to the quote, “The man who builds a factory builds a temple; the man who works there worships there, and to each is due, not scorn and blame, but reverence and praise.”?
  • How does Coolidge’s quote compare to Lewis’ claim that the man’s “hat, religion, job, pay-check, house, and soul are completely standardized gains”?
  • In 1925, Bruce Barton wrote the best-selling book, The Man Nobody Knows, an interpretation of Jesus Christ as a modern businessman and of Christianity as the basis for the modern business ethic. How does this interpretation relate to both Coolidge’s and Lewis’ statements?