An Appreciation: The Fortune Survey, 1935-1949
Seventy years ago this month, in July 1935, Fortune magazine published the first installment of a quarterly feature, "The Fortune Survey," that was to run for more than a dozen years.
When I first read about these polls many years ago, I dispatched an intern to the Library of Congress to copy them and the essays that accompanied them. Little did I know what a treasure trove he would uncover. Not only are the poll questions a lively guide to history, but they are also a compelling primer on polling.
The July 1935 essay that introduced the poll occupied a page and a half in an issue that included bread-and-butter business articles on cotton, Anheuser Busch, women in business, and smelting and refining. The issue also included a portrait of Harry Hopkins and reproduced paintings of Williamsburg restored. The editors introduced their new survey this way:
Mr. Walter Lippman once wrote a book entitled Public Opinion. It was a very good and interesting book much read by journalists, politicians, historians, and plain voters. It proved beyond question that a knowledge of public opinion was essential in a democracy. But what public opinion was, it did not purport to say. Nor how public opinion might be discovered. After the date of that book as before it, journalists, politicians, and drug store prophets continued to ascertain the state of the people's opinion by declaring their own. And the nearest approach to objective inquiry was the time-honored straw poll with a million or so of postcards chucked at the hinder parts of the population like bird shot at a rising duck.
The date of the book was 1922. And in 1922 journalists-even journalists of Mr. Lippman's intelligence-were justified in pressing the matter no further. A generation just clearing its lungs of the chloroform of official war propaganda found it difficult enough to know what it thought about such simple matters as the weather. What it thought about politics was beyond any man's comprehension.
By the end of the 1920s, the editors said, the public was becoming familiar with the new survey device being used in industry and advertising. Fortune hired the polling firm of (Paul) Cherrington, (Elmo) Roper, and (Richardson) Wood to direct quarterly in-person surveys of three thousand individuals and to expand the reach of surveys beyond the commercial world to broader public opinion topics.
A review of the polls in the summer and fall 1935 installments is a reminder of the durability of policy issues. Issues of fairness are rarely far from the surface of our politics, and they were present in the first installment of the Fortune survey when pollsters probed views about Louisiana senator Huey Long's "Share-the-Wealth" campaign. In one question, 45 percent believed that "the government should allow a man who has investments worth over a million dollars to keep them, subject only to present taxes," but 46 percent disagreed. Unsurprisingly, upper-income respondents were less disposed toward sharing the wealth than lower-income ones. The editors drew the reader's attention to a small gender gap, with women more willing to consider confiscating the money than men.
Those now thinking about the estate tax reform might be interested in another question the surveyors asked: "How much money to do you think any one person should be allowed to inherit?" Fifty-two percent chose no limit, with another 18 percent saying more than $100,000, a considerable sum in those days. Fifteen percent didn't know. In 1935, 22 percent answered that they were members of what we call the "investor class" when asked, "Do you own any securities?"
In foreign affairs in 1935, we were most favorably disposed toward England, a trend that continues to this day, and least favorably inclined toward Germany and Japan. A debate over paper versus glass for milk containers didn't revolve around environmental concerns, but rather issues of sanitation and convenience. People preferred glass.
The hardy perennials of polling made their appearance in the early installments of the Fortune survey. People were asked whether their cost of living had gone up or down in the past year and whether their monthly electric and telephone and yearly tax bills were too high, too low, or reasonable. Questions about going to war and about Roosevelt's popularity appeared in 1936.
The freshness of the early polls (Gallup's, too) and the enthusiasm with which the editors conveyed their findings is hard not to admire. Today we have more pollsters in the field than ever before, sampling more people than ever before. There's more competition, and pollsters routinely push the survey instrument far beyond where it should go. Many public pollsters follow the media's leads, just as Cherrington, Roper, and Wood probably did on subjects of interest to Fortune's editors.
But something has changed. Journalism was a different trade then, and little of the cynicism and negativity that infuses today's reporting can be found in the Fortune stories about public opinion. The respect that the writers had for their audience comes through on every page. Polling was in its infancy, and the Fortune survey set out to teach its audience about surveys and the country about itself. It's impossible to turn back the clock, of course, but one reader's reaction is that the pollsters and journalists today could learn a lot from those early polls, and especially the way they were reported.
Karlyn Bowman is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., and director of the AEI Public Opinion Studies.
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