10 Events That Defined American Culture

Invention isn’t the only important word to begin with the letter i. Innovation and inspiration also fit the bill. And, of course, important. Here’s a list of ten important innovations or inspirations in various cultural fields that have made a major impact on American life.

1

The publication of “Poor Richard’s Almanack” (1732)

Benjamin Franklin was 26 years old when he began Poor Richard’s Almanack in 1732, under the name Richard Saunders. He would continue it every year until 1758, liberally borrowing maxims and proverbs from lots of other people. No matter. It became a huge bestseller and the first American book besides the Bible to give Americans something in common from a literary standpoint.

2

The performance of “The Black Crook” (1866)

Americans had been singing and dancing on stage in comic operas since the 1780s. But it wasn’t until the opening of The Black Crook at Niblo’s Garden in New York City that song and dance were married to melodrama, giving birth to the American musical. The cast included a chorus and dancing girls who showed their legs.

3

The opening of the Home Insurance building (1884)

A whole lot of construction took place in Chicago following the great fire of 1871, including the first big building to be erected on a skeleton of steel girders, which gave it more strength and allowed it to be ten stories high. Designed by architect William L. Jenney, the Home Insurance building opened the door, with the invention of the elevator brake, to the skyscrapers of the 20th century.

4

The advent of the Copyright Act (1909)

The Copyright Act gave authors, publishers, and composers control over their work and the rights to compensation if others wanted to use it. Over the rest of the century, the law was extended to other creations, including paintings, movies, and computer programs. It helped make the arts a more attractive way to make a living.

5

The rise of jazz (1920s)

Born from the slave songs of the South, jazz hit its stride in the 1920s and has influenced nearly every form of music to come along since: swing, bop, rock, fusion, and even classical. Jazz also influenced the culture in other ways, such as clothing styles and language.

6

The birth of talking pictures (1927)

On October 6, 1927, American movie patrons were thrilled to hear a popular singer named Al Jolson say, “Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet.” Grammar aside, Jolson was right. The opening of The Jazz Singer heralded the birth of “the talkies,” an entertainment medium that would have a huge impact on American speech patterns, manners, and cultural mores.

The Jazz Singer, which was a smash hit, wasn’t the first feature-length movie to have sound. In 1926, Don Juan had been accompanied by sound effects and music synchronized to action on the screen, but no dialogue. The Jazz Singer not only had six songs but also 350 spoken words. Movie actors haven’t shut up since.

7

The abstract expressionism movement (1950s)

Abstract expressionism was the first major art movement to begin in the United States. It featured violent color patterns and motion over subject. Its leader was Jackson Pollock, who discarded easel and palette, laid his canvas on the floor, and dripped or poured paint on it.

8

The establishment of the NEA (1965)

Though other countries had long histories of government support of the arts, America didn’t get into the act until the establishment of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in 1965. Since then, the NEA has provided support for a wide range of artistic efforts, some of them intensely controversial. It has also sponsored exhibits from around the world.

9

The acceptance of “Deep Throat” (1972)

It was pretty much like every other porn movie: inane plot, bad puns, and wooden acting. But Deep Throat somehow was seen as chic by Middle America. It played in “legitimate” theaters, attracted couples instead of just men, and paved the way for greater acceptance of sex in the cinema and society in general.

10

The opening of Facebook (2004)

Born from a web-based photo directory of college students, Facebook became nothing less than a global cultural force. It was launched by a Harvard sophomore named Mark Zuckerberg (along with others) and at first was limited to college students.

But in 2006, the site was opened to everyone. Good idea. By 2013, 67 percent of all adult Americans who used the Internet were Facebook users. And users they were: It has been estimated that the data on Facebook grows by half a petabyte a day — and a petabyte is one quadrillion bytes.

All those bytes consist of 1 billion people sharing nearly every facet of their personal lives every day. All that sharing, in turn, has affected American politics, fashion, music, and the economy. “It wasn’t until I saw Facebook,” noted veteran tech journalist David Kirkpatrick, “that I saw a company that was going to change the way we lived.”

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