Life World War I, “The war that would end all wars.”, had ended by1918; Europe was left in ruins physically, politically, and economically. Theyears following the most devastating war to take place prior to the 1920s,Europe would struggle with economic and political recovery, but not the UnitedStates. Left virtually unharmed by World War I, the United States was even ableto experience a decade of peace and prosperity following such a disastrous war.
Of the many reasons for America’s prosperity, technology played one of the mostvital parts in bringing the great economic and cultural prosperity that Americaexperienced during the 1920s. New advancements, new discoveries, and newinventions improved American lives in many if not every conceivable way, but notwithout a few negative side-effects. One of the first major inventions to becomea national craze was the automobile. First developed with a combustion engine in1896 by inventor Henry Ford, he later started the Ford Motor Company, which massproduced affordable automobiles known as the Model-T. Ford’s Model-Ts becamesuch an overwhelming success that he sold over 15 million Model-Ts by 1927(Gordon and Gordon 77).
By the end of the decade, there was almost one car perfamily in the United States (Bruce 80). As a result, the automobile became anincreasingly important part of American lives. Workers no longer needed to liveclose to their workplace, instead they could live farther away and still arriveat their jobs with ease. Homemakers could run errands with greater convenience.The overall increase in productivity and efficiency left the American peoplewith more time for entertainment and recreation. Families could visit relativeson a constant basis, even distant relatives. The automobile provided a perfectway for people, especially for adolescents, to socialize and make merry.
Theautomobile craze even came to a point where the back seat of a car replaced theparlor as a place for courtship and love (Gordon and Gordon 58). The popularityof the automobile also brought immense economic prosperity. One of the majorcontributions to the prosperity of the 1920s was the construction of roads andhighways, which poured fresh public funds into the economy (Bruce 79).Automobiles appeared everywhere and were being driven everywhere. However amajor problem was experienced by everyone as a result of this. According toKenneth Bruce: “..
.there were very few good roads outside the east coast;crossing the continent was a real adventure, as during the spring when the snowmelted or after a good rain storm, automobiles would sink into gumbo mud up totheir hubs. Travelers crossing Iowa or Nebraska were often forced to waitseveral days until the road dried before moving onto the next town. …”(79) In 1924, the Federal Road Act offered federal money to state legislatures,which would organize highway departments and match federal funds. Spurred on bythis federal money, every section of the country launched ambitious roadbuilding programs during the 1920s.
By the end of the decade, highwayconstruction programs employed more men and spent more money than any singleprivate industry. The increased use of automobiles touched every corner of theAmerican economy. It stimulated the oil industry, it boosted road construction,extended the 1920s housing boom to suburbs, and even developed new businesses(Bruce 79-80). The success of the Ford Motor Company was so great that it caneven be compared to that of today’s Microsoft. And like today’s Bill Gates, Fordand his Ford Motor Company had become a national symbol of industrialprosperity. By 1922, Ford, who earned over $264,000 a day, was declared abillionaire by the Associated Press (Gordon and Gordon 32). Luckily for thefederal government, Ford paid a record $2,467,946 in income taxes for theprosperous year of 1924 (Gordon and Gordon 50).
According to ElizabethStevenson: “… Nothing ever dramatized the system of factory organizationso well as the break in Ford automobile production stretching across a good partof the year 1927. Ford was the epitome of everything in the world of everydaywork that the citizens of the 1920s admired. His faults were overlooked oraccepted as virtues, and his success in this great mechanical and businessventure seemed a test of the health of the nation itself. The public founditself absorbed, entertained, and delighted by such toys as Model-Ts andModel-As. If Ford should fail, they all in some measure failed.
But anticipationwas joyous. Even the suspense was delicious, it would be a misunderstanding tothink that it was all a matter of sober self-interest, that this man would againbring about the car that suited at the price that was right. ..
.” (190)Evidently Stevenson was not the only person to feel this way. Bruce even saidthat Ford was the high priest of mass production, which people of the world sawto be more important than any ideological doctrine as the industrialmiracle-maker to the curse of world poverty. (80) The combination of an increasein American recreation and the advent of the automobile helped to bring aboutthe success of the movie industry. Early movie attendance was fairly low due tothe sparse distribution of movie theaters.
But as automobiles became morepopular, transportation became less of a hassle, and consequently movieattendance soared with the increase of automobile sales. With comicalperformances by comedian, Charlie Chaplin, dramatic performances by sex symbol,Rudolph Valentino, and many other famous actors, the movie industry was able toattract a massive audience of loyal viewers, even during the years of silentblack-and-white films. Later in 1922, improvements in sound recording technologyenabled the filming and broadcasting of the first movie ever made with sound,”The Jazz Singer” starring Al Jolson.
And finally in 1926, the adventof Technicolor enabled the creation and broadcasting of movies with not onlysound but with color also. Consequently, the movie industry became a major partof American industry in general. In 1927 alone, over 14,500 movie theatersthroughout the nation showed over 400 films a year each, as movies becameAmerica’s favorite form of entertainment (Gordon and Gordon 68). As the movieindustry grew, so did the salaries of actors.
In 1924, John Barrymore’s contractwith Warner Brother’s reached $76,250 per picture, plus $7,625 over seven weeks,and all expenses paid (Gordon and Gordon 50). The trend of increasing salariescontinued throughout the decade. However, after the advent of sound in movies,many actors were fired because of their poor voices, inabilities to memorizelines, or even their inabilities to speak English. But those who still continuedto act experienced remarkable salary increases. Greta Garbo’s salary rose from$350 a week to $5000 a week at MGM and football star, Red Grange, was paid astunning $300,000 per picture (Gordon and Gordon 68); while the average Americanworker earned around a mere $2,000 annually. The advent of certain technologieshelped to bring about the immense success of the movie industry; a success thatwould persist even to this very day. The automobile was certainly one of thegreatest crazes of the 1920s, but it was not the greatest.
An invention ofsmaller dimensions, lower cost, and with the same abilities to bring peopletogether spurred on the greatest craze of the 1920s. The radio became an instantsuccess among the American public. Being substantially cheaper than a car, theradio became a part of virtually every home in America in only a few shortyears. Following the startup of the first public radio broadcasting station,KDKA, in Pittsburgh, thousands more broadcasting stations pop up all over thecountry in the next few years. Radio instantly became a national obsession; manypeople would stay up half the night listening to concerts, sermons, “RedMenace” news, and sports.
Those without home radios gathered around crystalsets in public places (Gordon and Gordon 32). The advent of public radio allowedlisteners to not only keep up with national issues and events, it also allowedlisteners to experience new ideas, new entertainment, and to form opinions onmatters that had never been publicized to a national degree. The radios inthousands of homes linked people in simultaneous enjoyment and excitement(Stevenson 150). According to Stevenson: “.
.. The mechanical inventions ofthe day were keeping up with the events. Radio not only reported the events butshaped them. Radio strengthened a tendency already working to make the people ofthe United States feel united and whole; for the first time, it seemed as ifthey could have thoughts and feelings simultaneously.
For certain individualsthis was comforting and strengthening. It had the effect of making people wishto have simultaneous sensations. .
..” (114) “…
There was a tendencyupon the part of a whole population to become amused spectators at events. Thehobby of radio listening encouraged the tendency, but the set of mind was a newthing, a feeling that one’s country and one’s self were exempt from unpleasantconsequences. What happened happened to other peoples and other individuals,mostly other kinds of countries and individuals. One lived, one lived indeedwell, and had a predictable kind of success, and the tragedies and comedies oflife were performed as in a show.
” (154) With the benefits of the radioalso came many negative side effects. For example, those who spent a lot of timelistening to the radio became very idealistic, and some even experienceddifficulties discerning reality from “radio reality”. As Stevensonquoted, “The hobby of radio listening encouraged a tendency, …, a feelingthat one’s country and one’s self were exempt from unpleasantconsequences.”, which demonstrated that people of the 1920s only saw the”good” in life and were ignorant of the “bad”. Radioadvertisements quickly followed the outburst of radio popularity.
And accordingto Stevenson, radio advertising did not help the American public to become moreopen-minded. Take the following passage from Stevenson’s The American 1920s:”… Advertising was false in promising more than the seller delivered tothe buyer, but it was false in seeming to be a world to which real life mustbring itself to relation.
It was false to particular American life and it wasfalse to particular human nature in its blindness, narrowness, its smoothingaway of individual corners and all inconvenient or tragic exultations ordespairs. It was so persuasive a surface, so willingly adjusted to by manypeople that it was like a lowered, limited horizon. Strong emotions and fiercebeliefs were stoppered down so that when they burst forth they rushed out withviolence and exaggeration.
” (151) The false advertising of radioadvertisements helped to create a sense of ignorance among most Americanstowards anything unpleasant. Even though radio had brought the nation togetheras a whole, it also had the unfortunate side effect of making people of the1920s more close-minded, ignorant, and disillusioned. Perhaps it was the senseof denial and false-hope created by radio that made America so mentallyunprepared for the Great Stock Market Crash and the Great Depression. The carand the radio were not the only inventions to penetrate into the consumermarket.
Ford’s methods of mass production and efficiency enabled factories toproduce a plethora of diverse consumer appliances ranging from dish-washers toelectric toasters. As a result of World War I, production in American factorieshad been overhauled to accommodate for wartime needs. And after the armistice,these factories had to either mass produce other goods besides munitions or fireworkers, so they turned to the world-wide market of consumer goods. Americandemands for consumer goods sky-rocketed during the 1920s, not only because ofpost-war demands but of American indulgence in luxury and convenience.
Theprimary reason why Americans bought so many household appliances was to simplifyeveryday tasks such as dish-washing or cutting grass, so that they could spendmore time with their families or on entertainment. Like the domino effect thattook place with the boom of the automobile industry, demand for consumer goodsspurred the growth of various other industries and increased demand for labor,which consequently increased worker wages. In fact, wages increased were up 33percent from prewar periods even after being adjusted for inflation (Gordon andGordon 86). In order to accommodate for the labor shortages, factories began tomechanize small tasks to cut back on labor requirements.
Simple tasks such aspackaging and cleaning of parts and tools which were once handled by people werehanded over to faster and more efficient machines. The standardization of theassembly line process further increased factory efficiency. Instead of havingworkers move around to select tools, tools were brought the workers by means ofconveyor belts or movable storage units. The massive resource requirements offactories and household appliances stimulated the growth of utilities industrieslike never before. Electricity and plumbing became a standard in American homes.As a result of the massive growth of the consumer goods market, the nationaleconomy was greatly strengthened, but a harmful side-effect also resulted. Thespecialization of labor tasks in factories decreased the need for skilledworkers, since workers were only required to do a few tasks many times insteadof doing many tasks a few times.
Scientific advancements during the 1920s wasnot confined to only industrial technologies, health and medicine advancedgreatly during the same time period. Surprisingly, a post-war interest developedin nutrition, caloric consumption, and physical vitality (Gordon and Gordon 14).This crusade for health was lead primarily by the “Flappers”, liberaland out-going women, of the 1920s. A Flapper was often described as a women who”bobbed her hair, concealed her forehead, flattened her chest, hid herwaist, dieted away her hips and kept her legs in plain sight (Noggle 161).
“The Flapper’s focus on “dieting away her hips” lead her to increaseconsumption of vegetables and fruits while decreasing consumption of meats andfats. With the rise in popularity of the Flapper, came a significant change inthe dietary habits of Americans as a whole. Coincidentally, the discovery ofvitamins and their effects also happened around the same time. Herbert McLeanEvans discovered Vitamin E, and its anti-sterility properties in 1920. Elmer V.McCollum discovered Vitamin D, its presence in cod liver, and its ability toprevent rickets, a skeletal disorder, in 1920. Vitamins A, B, C, K, and varioussubtypes of each were also discovered during the 1920s. Through radiobroadcasts, the public learned of the benefits of consuming foods with highnutritional values, and thus a generation of health fanatics was started.
However, this was very ironic because cigarette consumption rose to roughly 43billion annually (Gordon and Gordon 23) and bootleg liquor became a $3.5 billiona year business during the same time period (Gordon and Gordon 68). Whilepursuing a pure goal of excellent health, the American people failed to realizethe harm that cigarettes and liquor had wrought upon them. The prosperity thatAmerica experienced during the 1920s seemed like it would last forever. Therewere virtually no signs of economic depression; wages were at an all time high,the Dow Jones Industrial Stock Index never stopped increasing, everyone indulgedin luxuries and entertainment, and there was always a general atmosphere of hopeand promise for the future. Life was easy and convenient thanks to the manytechnological advances that took place during the 1920s. Who would have thoughtthat it would all come to an end on October 24, 1929 and that a decade ofdespair and depression would follow such an age of happiness and prosperity.
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, 1987. Noggle, Burl Into the Twenties. Urbana Chicago Illinois:University of Illinois Press, 1974.
Sloat, Warren 1929 America Before the Crash.New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1979. Stevenson, Elizabeth TheAmerican 1920s. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1962.Technology