My name is John Haddad. I have been teaching American Studies courses at Penn State Harrisburg since 2003. One of my favorite courses to teach is called “American Popular Culture and Folklife” (AM ST 105). When I planned this course, I decided to base it on the theme of ORIGINS. I asked myself, “What areas of popular culture really speak to Americans who are alive today?” I then designed a curriculum that would take the students back in time to uncover the beginnings of these cultural forms. “What cultural, economic, and social forces,” I asked myself, “led to their creation?” In this way, I started to build a class that would explore football, shopping, the movies, youth literature, theme parks, rock & roll, superheroes, and TV shows. Perhaps I can better explain the course by providing examples of some of the topics and books that we cover.
Today, football is the most popular spectator sport in America. What are the origins of this game? To find out, the class goes back in time to the 1870s. During this decade, conditions were exactly right for the creation of an intensely physical sport like football. With westward migration winding down, restless Americans no longer had a frontier to settle. And since the Civil War had ended, boys could not prove themselves on the battlefield like their fathers had done. Finally, as more Americans left the countryside and moved to cities, their office jobs required far less physical labor than the farming life they had left behind. In sum, American life was changing: it was becoming less agricultural and more urban, less physical and more sedentary, and less individualistic and more corporate. America was becoming modern! Well, many Americans thought their sons were becoming (to use a word used today) “soft.” Out of these concerns, football emerged on the campus of Yale University, where man named Walter Camp was largely responsible for inventing it. The game spread rapidly. Americans embraced a game that they thought could toughen young men and provide them with intensely physical experiences. And since the game also required organization, self-discipline, and leadership, Americans also believed that football could help prepare young men for careers in new corporations. Football was born!
Today, everyone shops. We shop for food, for clothing, and for household goods, just to name a few. Sometimes, we shop for no other reason than that we feel like shopping! This way of life, dependent as it is on shopping, is called “consumer culture”: we live in a culture where the people satisfy many of their needs and wants by making purchases. Our ancestors did not live this way. They satisfied many needs by growing crops, hunting, and making things. They also entertained themselves without making purchases: they danced, told stories and legends, and sang folk songs. When did American culture start to become a consumer culture? For this part of the class, we visit the 1890s. At that time, America’s factories had become extremely productive, churning out all kinds of consumer goods. But what is the point of making goods if no one buys them? Clearly, ramped up production required increased consumption. I do not think it is a coincidence that we see sophisticated advertising, marketing, and retail models appear in this period. In class, the students and I look at ads from the period and try to figure out their strategies. We also explore a new retail model – the department store – to understand this powerful new way to sell goods. Finally, we also get to go shopping ourselves: each student examines the products from a Sears Catalogue from the period.
After shopping, the class goes to movies! Thomas Edison’s laboratories invented moving pictures in the 1890s. In class we learn how this marvelous new technology worked and why it took the country by storm. We also see what the movies were like by watching a number of short films that were made between 1895 and 1910. And when we do, we ask questions. What stories did Americans choose to turn into film? What were Americans’ dreams in 1900? What were their fears and anxieties? What were their values? What did they think was funny?
Youth culture has really become a powerful current within popular culture. In class, we look at several texts designed for younger readers. For example, the students read the very first Nancy Drew novel, The Secret of the Old Clock (1930). This book opens up lots of windows for the class to peer through. We examine girlhood in America after women won the right to vote in 1920s. We see how the lives of teenagers radically changed in the 1920s (it starts to look like teenage culture today!). And we examine how American culture shifted after the stock market crash of 1929 – Nancy Drew captures the transition from the Roaring 20s to the Great Depression. Nancy Drew is not the only piece of youth fiction that we read. We also enjoy the first superhero comic book – Superman (1938). These colorful adventure stories allow students to understand the Great Depression, Crime and Policing, Jewish America (the creators were two Jewish boys), and America’s long-running fascination with superheroes.
I think you get the idea. I will briefly mention some of the other topics we cover: Joe Louis, Jesse Owens, and Negro Leagues Baseball; Walt Disney Studios and Disneyland; the birth of Rock and Roll; and Star Trek and Star Wars. By the time the class is over, students have received a sweeping overview of American popular culture. They also learn a lot of history!