The Fusion of Material and Symbolic Capital in the American Century

By Bridget Kelley (’22)

When sharing his vision for America in the 20th century in “The American Century,” publishing magnate Henry Luce argued, “Blindly, unintentionally, accidentally, and really in spite of ourselves, we are already a world power in all the trivial ways – in very human ways” (1). Luce believed that the international dominance of American culture, from movies and music to language and material goods, gave the nation power that was both economically and symbolically important. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, America lived out Luce’s vision of economic and symbolic capital through material culture. In “The Power of Capital and the Problem of Legitimacy” by nineteenth-century historian Sven Beckert and “Setback Skyscrapers and American Architectural Development” by architecture scholar Benjamin Flowers, we see how the 7th Regiment’s Upper East Side armory and the Empire State Building were fields for Americans to develop social and cultural capital, while also acting as symbols of a wider American cultural cachet. In the realm of consumer goods, Allan Brandt’s “Engineering Consent” demonstrates how cigarettes possessed abundant social and economic meaning, democratizing access to goods while helping America as a whole grow in wealth and stature. The confluence of economic and cultural capital in these spaces and products affected class lines within the United States while contributing to Luce’s vision of an international “American culture” that reflected prestige and upper-class tastes. 

In “The Power of Capital and the Problem of Legitimacy,” Beckert explains how the 7th New York Regiment ostensibly built their armory to defend against urban mobs, but really used it as a space for entertainment, leisure, and networking. The armory was made possible not by the state but by wealthy New York City capitalists. Beckert writes, “…by May 1, 1875, $80,000 had come in from such illustrious bourgeois New Yorkers as the Astors, Browns, Dodges, Singers, and Vanderbilts” (2). This addition to the built environment was a clear manifestation of the lines between socioeconomic classes in New York. In comparison to the old armory, “the new structure was an enormous fort…built, like so many others of the era, with major urban battles in mind,” (2) and “towered over the most exclusive of the city’s homes around the upper reaches of Fifth Avenue” (2). The armory was large, imposing, and emblematic of the bourgeois regiment members who had funded its construction. The space was not merely emblematic of class divisions; it actually pitted the bourgeoisie against the working class, as in 1887 and 1895 when the 7th Regiment was called to break up the railroad and trolley strikes (2). 

If the armory itself embodied divisions created by monetary capital, the activities within the building demonstrated the power of social capital in 20th century New York. Beckert writes, “Although the armory was the place of assembly for the members of one of the military arms of the State of New York, in practical terms it found more frequent use as a place to “entertain,” to engage in athletic practice, and to converse with fellow members about business and politics in much the same way as in the halls of the Union Club” (2). The armory provided a space for developing social capital through relationship-building with other elites, as well as cultural capital through the cultivation of taste. Though it may have shared similarities with the Union Club, the armory was architecturally distinctive and highly visible, acting as an outward sign of wealth and imbuing its members with social cachet that the lower classes lacked, on top of their immense political capital. The combination of material and symbolic capital found in the 7th Regiment’s armory illustrates the type of American prestige that Henry Luce asserted in “The American Century.” When Luce wrote about America as “a world power in all the trivial ways—in very human ways” as well as “the intellectual, scientific, and artistic capital of the world” (1), he encompassed the multiplicity of forms of power that, at least in New York City, the bourgeois possessed. The upper classes, then, were key purveyors of American prestige on an international scale.

The ability of the built environment to convey American prestige was apparent in the Empire State Building, which was completed a half-century after the 7th Regiment’s armory, a mere two miles away in Manhattan. In “Setback Skyscrapers and American Architectural Development,” Flowers traces the economic, political, and cultural forces that shaped the construction of the building and its related meanings. Similar to the armory, the skyscraper was a space of American material culture in which the confluence of economic and cultural capital reified class consciousness within the United States, this time in the favor of the upper middle class. The building’s history began with several of the same bourgeois figures who were key in constructing the armory. The Empire State Building’s lot had been in the Astor family, and Pierre duPont was an early and influential investor in the building (3). These were the same people who had raised funds for the armory and had long controlled a massive share of New York’s wealth. Thus, the building was associated with the American elite and was made possible by large investments, fusing symbolic and economic capital. 

The skyscraper was built by a firm who saw “architecture as a business, not an art form” and was constructed with financial rather than stylistic motives, showcasing the influence of capitalism (3). Once built, the Empire State Building gave its inhabitants a form of symbolic capital as well. Flowers writes, “The avenue was now the locus of the more mundane and modest world of middle-class, bourgeois capitalism” (3). Though it may have been more mundane and modern, the building represented the solidification of class divisions by celebrating the well-off New Yorkers who built and would populate it. As Flowers explains, “Where the Waldorf-Astoria unquestionably celebrated the wealth of the elite scions of New York society, the Empire State Building—itself a symbol of great wealth—would memorialize the ingenuity and productivity of engineers, architects, and builders. They would raise a tower to hold thousands of white-collar workers” (3). The people who built and worked in the tower thus possessed a level of prestige and cultural capital that became more valued as the white-collar sector expanded. This identity of the upper middle class, white collar worker had a cachet of its own, emblematized fictionally in the rituals of work, socialization, and sex of the advertising executives in Mad Men. The characters, who occupy the top floors of a Madison Avenue skyscraper, cultivate prestige in the form of expensive liquor, lavish meals, the attraction of women, and a certain swaggering attitude that embodies the cultural capital afforded men of their socioeconomic position.

The Empire State Building did not just have meaning to those who inhabited it, but also constituted a larger conception of “America” as an entity. On page 49, Flowers describes how setback skyscrapers like the Empire State Building were “considered both entirely American and modern.” The manufacturing of the building using Fordist and Taylorist principles marked it as a success of American industrial techniques (3). Henry Luce described America as “the intellectual, scientific, and artistic capital of the world” (1), and the Empire State Building exemplified all those aspects. The height and name of the building conveyed a sense of American exceptionalism, asserting the dominance of American economic and cultural power simultaneously. Luce further wrote, “Most important of all, we have that indefinable, unmistakable sign of leadership: prestige” (1). In the same way that social and cultural capital are symbolic yet possess material implications, prestige is developed through a context-specific set of values, attitudes, and power structures. The built environment of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including the Empire State Building and the 7th Regiment’s armory, provided spaces for a certain set of Americans to gain symbolic capital and for America as a whole to develop prestige. 

While the armory and skyscraper reflected the power of America’s upper class, cigarettes were an important part of material culture in the 20th century that allowed a broader swath of Americans to develop cultural capital. In “Engineering Consent,” Brandt explains how “In the depths of the Great Depression, cigarettes were held out as a truly national product, one that crossed the wide boundaries of class, gender, race, and ethnicity” (4). As a commodity, unlike the armory or skyscraper, cigarettes had a low barrier to entry, demonstrating the broad reach of the consumer economy. Women, for instance, were specifically targeted by cigarette advertising and smoking allowed them to develop cultural capital in a new way. By marketing cigarettes to women by drawing on cultural forces like beauty, fashion, and feminism, “The cigarette revealed the power of the technique of investing a commodity with cultural meaning in order to motivate consumption” (4). For instance, by drawing on the ideal of slimness that was becoming dominant in American culture, Lucky Strike marketed cigarettes as a tool for developing the ideal female body (4). Women could gain cultural capital by using cigarettes to help them adhere to beauty standards. They also used cigarettes as a means of emancipation, symbolically smoking them as “torches of freedom” in a New York City parade in 1929 (4). In doing so, women broke from the previous social convention that barred them from smoking in public. 

By choosing to smoke in public, women could develop social capital by aligning themselves with the feminist cause—capital that was beneficial in some circles and detrimental in others, as evidenced by face that “while women’s clubs decried the fall of the proscription on public smoking, feminists hailed the change in social convention” (4). Regardless of the reaction, women’s relationship with cigarettes contributed to the product’s ability to shape the cultural influence of America as a whole. For example, Lucky Strike tried to transform the women’s fashion industry, promoting the color green so that women would choose Lucky Strikes to match the green package with their outfits (4). By using this strategy, Lucky Strike went beyond the individual consumer and contributed to America’s global power, as other nations looked to the United States to shape cultural norms. Reflecting Henry Luce’s notion that America was already “a world power in…very human ways” (1) in the 20th century, the social meanings of cigarettes influenced individual expression along with international industries like fashion. Edward Bernays’ description of cigarette advertising as “engineering of consent” could be applied to the broader impact of cigarettes—consumers were consenting to a purchase, but with it was a consent to broader American norms.

The country’s global power was growing economically as well as culturally in the 20th century, and cigarettes were a key consumer product and contributor to American GDP. Brandt describes the fusion of economic and cultural capital created by cigarettes, writing, “If the cigarette was deeply insinuated into American culture by the middle of the century, it had also become central to the modern nation’s industrial economy” (4). By the end of World War II, cigarettes made up 1.4% of American GNP and 3.5% of spending on nondurable goods (4). The product was thus an important part of America’s growing power on the world scale that increased with the rise of industry during and after WWII. If “the cigarette emerged from WWI as a central element in the culture,” it came out of WWII as a central element in the industrial economy, in which the creation of national brands allowed products to cross class boundaries (4). Though having a few select national brands meant that wealth was centered in the hands of the few, because of what Brandt calls the “democratization of goods” Americans of all classes had a measure of choice among the brands, giving them autonomous access to a product that symbolized luxury and leisure (4). 

While smoking cigarettes did not mean a smoker was wealthy, it provided a field for working class people to develop social capital. Poorer Americans could not fraternize at the armory or earn the white-collar distinction of working in a skyscraper, but through smoking they fostered relationships, performed “taste,” and gained a measure of social cachet. In fact, “Amid the social rigidities of urban industrial culture, the cigarette was favorably associated with pleasure and satisfaction. When surveyed, smokers overwhelmingly cited “sociability” as an essential attraction of the cigarette” (4). This mattered for America as a whole. One of Luce’s premises for what an American Century should look like is that “our world, again for the first time in human history, is capable of producing all the material needs of the entire human family” (1). If America is to help the world get to the promise of material wealth for all, Luce argues, “What we must insist on is that the abundant life is predicated on Freedom” (1). Demonstrated by the cigarette, the United States was distinctive in the way that it could boost its industrial economy while providing all Americans the freedom of choice and democratic access to material goods. 

Like the 7th Regiment’s armory and the Empire State Building, cigarettes were a facet of material culture in which social and economic capital collided. Ultimately, class divisions and class consciousness in the 20th century were about more than just the possession of economic capital; they were solidified by symbolic capital. As Henry Luce writes, the 20th century was “Revolutionary, of course, in science and in industry. And also revolutionary, as a corollary in politics and the structure of society” (1). Development of the built environment and consumer products illustrate the relationship between industry and society, material and cultural capital; armories and skyscrapers were made possible by the massive capital of the wealthy and provided the spaces’ inhabitants and America more broadly with symbolic capital. Cigarettes provide an interesting contrast in that they were widely used across classes, but the industry’s wealth was possessed by the small number of capitalists leading the national brands. In addition to economic power, all three aspects of 20th century material culture—the 7th Regiment armory, the Empire State Building, and cigarettes—symbolized American prestige to the rest of the world by shaping social norms and visually asserting the dominance of the American economy. In the American Century, material culture had the power to assert “the ultimate intelligence and ultimate strength of the American people” (1), both in certain classes within the country and for an international audience.   

Bridget Kelley is an American Studies major with minors in Collaborative Innovation and Anthropology. Her essay was originally written for Professor Korey Garibaldi’s American Studies course ‘History of American Capitalism.’


  1. Luce, Henry. “The American Century.” In Life, 1-13. 1941.
  2. Beckert, Sven. “Accumulating Capital.” In The Monied Metropolis: New York City and the Consolidation of the American Bourgeoisie, 1850 – 1896, 17 – 45. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. 
  3. Flowers, Benjamin. “Setback Skyscrapers and American Architectural Development.” In Skyscraper: The Politics and Power of Building New York City in the Twentieth Century, 39 – 50. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009.
  4. Brandt, Allen M. “Engineering Consent.” In The Cigarette Century, 69 – 101. New York: Basic Books, 2007.

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