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 publiciz …