The Impact of Technology on 1920s 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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Sloat, Warren 1929 America Before the Crash.
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