In the last thirty years of the nineteenth century, the American economy had been wracked by a series of economic depressions. By the dawn of the twentieth century, business was booming. In most American industries, business owners were learning the lesson of the day: Bigger is better. When the United States Steel Corporation was incorporated at a value of $1 billion in 1901, it became the world's largest corporation. Other companies followed the lead of U.S. Steel in buying up or merging with competitors to give themselves the advantage of size. Many of the companies in existence at the beginning of the twenty-first century were founded in the 1900s, including the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company (1901), the Quaker Oats Company (1901), the J. C. Penney Company (1902), the Pepsi-Cola Company (1902), Texaco (1903), the Ford Motor Company (1903), the Harley-Davidson Motor Company (1907), the Hershey Chocolate Company (1908), and the General Motors Company (1908). These large companies employed a growing number of professional managers, a new occupation whose practitioners tried to bring logic and order to the huge operations they managed. New management techniques included building elaborate assembly lines, using machines to speed up production times, and encouraging worker efficiency.
Although the rise of big business increased economic activity in the nation, many worried that these large companies were becoming too powerful. Politicians used laws such as the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 to limit the power of large corporations to control the marketplace. In fact, President Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919) gained a reputation as a "trustbuster" for his efforts to break the power of large trusts. (A trust is a combination of companies that work together to reduce competition in an industry.) Congress also passed laws to regulate business practices in the areas of transportation, consumer protection, and banking. Labor unions also stepped up their efforts to protect the rights of workers, whom union leaders said were threatened by the growth of big companies. Unions staged many strikes against American businesses, including the famous Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902, which nearly crippled American business.
Though most Americans learned about the changing economic climate of the day through their newspapers, they also began to experience those changes directly as they purchased and used a variety of new products. The single most notable product to emerge from this decade was the Model T automobile manufactured by the Ford Motor Company beginning in 1908. The self-propelled vehicle known as the car was still in its infancy when Henry Ford (1863–1947) used his assembly line process to make a car that was affordable to more Americans than ever before. The Harley-Davidson Motor Company began to manufacture its motorcycles in this decade as well, and both Ford and Harley-Davidson continue production into the twenty-first century. Though few consumers knew of it, two brothers named Wilbur (1867–1912) and Orville (1871–1948) Wright invented a product in 1903 that would revolutionize travel in the years to come: the airplane.
A range of other products that would have a lasting impact were also introduced in this decade. The Brownie camera, made by Kodak, allowed common people to create their own photographs. The popular stereograph allowed them to view three-dimensional (3-D) images from around the world. Both products changed the way people saw the world.
The way that people bought things also changed. The dime store, and especially dime store giant Woolworth's, brought a version of the department store to lower-income Americans, providing a variety of low-cost goods. Sears, Roebuck used its famous catalog to offer Americans in even the most distant locations access to the growing array of consumer goods. By 1908, the company mailed out 3.6 million copies of a catalog offering ten thousand different items, from guns to pianos to, eventually, houses made from a kit.