Technology Impact On 1920

     Life World War I, "The war that would end all wars.", had ended by
1918; Europe was left in ruins physically, politically, and economically. The
years following the most devastating war to take place prior to the 1920s,
Europe would struggle with economic and political recovery, but not the United
States. Left virtually unharmed by World War I, the United States was even able
to 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 most
vital parts in bringing the great economic and cultural prosperity that America
experienced during the 1920s. New advancements, new discoveries, and new
inventions improved American lives in many if not every conceivable way, but not
without a few negative side-effects. One of the first major inventions to become
a national craze was the automobile. First developed with a combustion engine in

1896 by inventor Henry Ford, he later started the Ford Motor Company, which mass
produced affordable automobiles known as the Model-T. Ford's Model-Ts became
such 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 per
family in the United States (Bruce 80). As a result, the automobile became an
increasingly important part of American lives. Workers no longer needed to live
close to their workplace, instead they could live farther away and still arrive
at their jobs with ease. Homemakers could run errands with greater convenience.

The overall increase in productivity and efficiency left the American people
with more time for entertainment and recreation. Families could visit relatives
on a constant basis, even distant relatives. The automobile provided a perfect
way for people, especially for adolescents, to socialize and make merry. The
automobile craze even came to a point where the back seat of a car replaced the
parlor as a place for courtship and love (Gordon and Gordon 58). The popularity
of the automobile also brought immense economic prosperity. One of the major
contributions to the prosperity of the 1920s was the construction of roads and
highways, which poured fresh public funds into the economy (Bruce 79).

Automobiles appeared everywhere and were being driven everywhere. However a
major problem was experienced by everyone as a result of this. According to

Kenneth Bruce: "...there were very few good roads outside the east coast;
crossing the continent was a real adventure, as during the spring when the snow
melted or after a good rain storm, automobiles would sink into gumbo mud up to
their hubs. Travelers crossing Iowa or Nebraska were often forced to wait
several 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 by
this federal money, every section of the country launched ambitious road
building programs during the 1920s. By the end of the decade, highway
construction programs employed more men and spent more money than any single
private industry. The increased use of automobiles touched every corner of the

American 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 can
even be compared to that of today's Microsoft. And like today's Bill Gates, Ford
and his Ford Motor Company had become a national symbol of industrial
prosperity. By 1922, Ford, who earned over $264,000 a day, was declared a
billionaire by the Associated Press (Gordon and Gordon 32). Luckily for the
federal government, Ford paid a record $2,467,946 in income taxes for the
prosperous year of 1924 (Gordon and Gordon 50). According to Elizabeth

Stevenson: "... Nothing ever dramatized the system of factory organization
so well as the break in Ford automobile production stretching across a good part
of the year 1927. Ford was the epitome of everything in the world of everyday
work that the citizens of the 1920s admired. His faults were overlooked or
accepted as virtues, and his success in this great mechanical and business
venture seemed a test of the health of the nation itself. The public found
itself absorbed, entertained, and delighted by such toys as Model-Ts and

Model-As. If Ford should fail, they all in some measure failed. But anticipation
was joyous. Even the suspense was delicious, it would be a misunderstanding to
think that it was all a matter of sober self-interest, that this man would again
bring 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 said
that Ford was the high priest of mass production, which people of the world saw
to be more important than any ideological doctrine as the industrial
miracle-maker to the curse of world poverty. (80) The combination of an increase
in American recreation and the advent of the automobile helped to bring about
the success of the movie industry. Early movie attendance was fairly low due to
the sparse distribution of movie theaters. But as automobiles became more
popular, transportation became less of a hassle, and consequently movie
attendance soared with the increase of automobile sales. With comical
performances by comedian, Charlie Chaplin, dramatic performances by sex symbol,

Rudolph Valentino, and many other famous actors, the movie industry was able to
attract a massive audience of loyal viewers, even during the years of silent
black-and-white films. Later in 1922, improvements in sound recording technology
enabled the filming and broadcasting of the first movie ever made with sound,
"The Jazz Singer" starring Al Jolson. And finally in 1926, the advent
of Technicolor enabled the creation and broadcasting of movies with not only
sound but with color also. Consequently, the movie industry became a major part
of American industry in general. In 1927 alone, over 14,500 movie theaters
throughout the nation showed over 400 films a year each, as movies became

America's favorite form of entertainment (Gordon and Gordon 68). As the movie
industry grew, so did the salaries of actors. In 1924, John Barrymore's contract
with 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 salaries
continued throughout the decade. However, after the advent of sound in movies,
many actors were fired because of their poor voices, inabilities to memorize
lines, or even their inabilities to speak English. But those who still continued
to 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 a
stunning $300,000 per picture (Gordon and Gordon 68); while the average American
worker earned around a mere $2,000 annually. The advent of certain technologies
helped to bring about the immense success of the movie industry; a success that
would persist even to this very day. The automobile was certainly one of the
greatest crazes of the 1920s, but it was not the greatest. An invention of
smaller dimensions, lower cost, and with the same abilities to bring people
together spurred on the greatest craze of the 1920s. The radio became an instant
success among the American public. Being substantially cheaper than a car, the
radio became a part of virtually every home in America in only a few short
years. Following the startup of the first public radio broadcasting station,

KDKA, in Pittsburgh, thousands more broadcasting stations pop up all over the
country in the next few years. Radio instantly became a national obsession; many
people would stay up half the night listening to concerts, sermons, "Red

Menace" news, and sports. Those without home radios gathered around crystal
sets in public places (Gordon and Gordon 32). The advent of public radio allowed
listeners to not only keep up with national issues and events, it also allowed
listeners to experience new ideas, new entertainment, and to form opinions on
matters that had never been publicized to a national degree. The radios in
thousands of homes linked people in simultaneous enjoyment and excitement
(Stevenson 150). According to Stevenson: "... The mechanical inventions of
the day were keeping up with the events. Radio not only reported the events but
shaped them. Radio strengthened a tendency already working to make the people of
the United States feel united and whole; for the first time, it seemed as if
they could have thoughts and feelings simultaneously. For certain individuals
this was comforting and strengthening. It had the effect of making people wish
to have simultaneous sensations. ..." (114) "... There was a tendency
upon the part of a whole population to become amused spectators at events. The
hobby of radio listening encouraged the tendency, but the set of mind was a new
thing, a feeling that one's country and one's self were exempt from unpleasant
consequences. What happened happened to other peoples and other individuals,
mostly other kinds of countries and individuals. One lived, one lived indeed
well, and had a predictable kind of success, and the tragedies and comedies of
life were performed as in a show. ..." (154) With the benefits of the radio
also came many negative side effects. For example, those who spent a lot of time
listening to the radio became very idealistic, and some even experienced
difficulties discerning reality from "radio reality". As Stevenson
quoted, "The hobby of radio listening encouraged a tendency, ..., a feeling
that one's country and one's self were exempt from unpleasant
consequences.", which demonstrated that people of the 1920s only saw the
"good" in life and were ignorant of the "bad". Radio
advertisements quickly followed the outburst of radio popularity. And according
to Stevenson, radio advertising did not help the American public to become more
open-minded. Take the following passage from Stevenson's The American 1920s:
"... Advertising was false in promising more than the seller delivered to
the buyer, but it was false in seeming to be a world to which real life must
bring itself to relation. It was false to particular American life and it was
false to particular human nature in its blindness, narrowness, its smoothing
away of individual corners and all inconvenient or tragic exultations or
despairs. It was so persuasive a surface, so willingly adjusted to by many
people that it was like a lowered, limited horizon. Strong emotions and fierce
beliefs were stoppered down so that when they burst forth they rushed out with
violence and exaggeration. ..." (151) The false advertising of radio
advertisements helped to create a sense of ignorance among most Americans
towards anything unpleasant. Even though radio had brought the nation together
as a whole, it also had the unfortunate side effect of making people of the

1920s more close-minded, ignorant, and disillusioned. Perhaps it was the sense
of denial and false-hope created by radio that made America so mentally
unprepared for the Great Stock Market Crash and the Great Depression. The car
and the radio were not the only inventions to penetrate into the consumer
market. Ford's methods of mass production and efficiency enabled factories to
produce a plethora of diverse consumer appliances ranging from dish-washers to
electric toasters. As a result of World War I, production in American factories
had been overhauled to accommodate for wartime needs. And after the armistice,
these factories had to either mass produce other goods besides munitions or fire
workers, so they turned to the world-wide market of consumer goods. American
demands for consumer goods sky-rocketed during the 1920s, not only because of
post-war demands but of American indulgence in luxury and convenience. The
primary reason why Americans bought so many household appliances was to simplify
everyday tasks such as dish-washing or cutting grass, so that they could spend
more time with their families or on entertainment. Like the domino effect that
took place with the boom of the automobile industry, demand for consumer goods
spurred the growth of various other industries and increased demand for labor,
which consequently increased worker wages. In fact, wages increased were up 33
percent from prewar periods even after being adjusted for inflation (Gordon and

Gordon 86). In order to accommodate for the labor shortages, factories began to
mechanize small tasks to cut back on labor requirements. Simple tasks such as
packaging and cleaning of parts and tools which were once handled by people were
handed over to faster and more efficient machines. The standardization of the
assembly line process further increased factory efficiency. Instead of having
workers move around to select tools, tools were brought the workers by means of
conveyor belts or movable storage units. The massive resource requirements of
factories and household appliances stimulated the growth of utilities industries
like never before. Electricity and plumbing became a standard in American homes.

As a result of the massive growth of the consumer goods market, the national
economy was greatly strengthened, but a harmful side-effect also resulted. The
specialization of labor tasks in factories decreased the need for skilled
workers, since workers were only required to do a few tasks many times instead
of doing many tasks a few times. Scientific advancements during the 1920s was
not confined to only industrial technologies, health and medicine advanced
greatly during the same time period. Surprisingly, a post-war interest developed
in nutrition, caloric consumption, and physical vitality (Gordon and Gordon 14).

This crusade for health was lead primarily by the "Flappers", liberal
and 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 her
waist, 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 increase
consumption of vegetables and fruits while decreasing consumption of meats and
fats. With the rise in popularity of the Flapper, came a significant change in
the dietary habits of Americans as a whole. Coincidentally, the discovery of
vitamins and their effects also happened around the same time. Herbert McLean

Evans discovered Vitamin E, and its anti-sterility properties in 1920. Elmer V.

McCollum discovered Vitamin D, its presence in cod liver, and its ability to
prevent rickets, a skeletal disorder, in 1920. Vitamins A, B, C, K, and various
subtypes of each were also discovered during the 1920s. Through radio
broadcasts, the public learned of the benefits of consuming foods with high
nutritional values, and thus a generation of health fanatics was started.

However, this was very ironic because cigarette consumption rose to roughly 43
billion annually (Gordon and Gordon 23) and bootleg liquor became a $3.5 billion
a year business during the same time period (Gordon and Gordon 68). While
pursuing a pure goal of excellent health, the American people failed to realize
the harm that cigarettes and liquor had wrought upon them. The prosperity that

America experienced during the 1920s seemed like it would last forever. There
were virtually no signs of economic depression; wages were at an all time high,
the Dow Jones Industrial Stock Index never stopped increasing, everyone indulged
in luxuries and entertainment, and there was always a general atmosphere of hope
and promise for the future. Life was easy and convenient thanks to the many
technological advances that took place during the 1920s. Who would have thought
that it would all come to an end on October 24, 1929 and that a decade of
despair and depression would follow such an age of happiness and prosperity.


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University of Illinois Press, 1974. Sloat, Warren 1929 America Before the Crash.

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American 1920s. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1962.