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A Biography of America

The Twenties

The Roaring Twenties take to the road in Henry Ford's landscape-altering invention -- the Model T. Ford's moving assembly line, the emergence of a consumer culture, and the culmination of forces let loose by these entities in Los Angeles are all explored by Professor Miller.

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Program 20: The Twenties/The Tensions of Prosperity

Douglas Brinkley and Donald L. Miller


Narrator: The 1920s. The age of prosperity, movement, creativity, consumption.

Brinkley: We’ve always seemed to be somehow creating the newest forms of things to make life better, simpler, more efficient. Sometimes this has negative consequences and other times, positive ones. Take a figure like Henry Ford.

Miller: He helps to create a mass consumption in a society that’s on wheels.

Narrator: America on wheels. Moving from country to city, from small town to suburban sprawl. From the old to the new. Wanting the best of the new, keeping the old.

Today on A Biography of America, “The Tensions of Prosperity.”

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Henry Ford and his Model T.

Miller: The 1920s. It’s the Jazz Age, the Era of Wonderful Nonsense, the Age of Babbitts, Bootlegging, and Bathtub Gin. Americans were speeding up, moving out, buying more, having fun, dreaming bigger. It’s a decade we’re drawn back to because it’s here that we start to see ourselves, that Americans become recognizably modern. And no story describes this cultural transformation better than the story of the automobile revolution, and the rise of Los Angeles, the first auto-age city.

Henry Ford was at the center of these great changes, and he wasn’t modest about his place in history. As he once said: “I invented the modern age.” Now that’s pushing it. But this cranky cultural reactionary, who, at the height of the Jazz Age, tried to revive square dancing and country fiddling, was one of the greatest revolutionaries of the Industrial Age.

His Model T Ford began this country’s love affair with the car and turned America into an automobile civilization. But Ford’s greatest innovation wasn’t the Model T. It was the system he developed for making it, and thousands of other products. This was modern mass production, the single most important factor in making America the economic and military powerhouse of the 20th century.

Ford’s system of belt-driven assembly line production is arguably the most important innovation of the Industrial Age. Ford, in fact, coined the word, “mass production.” Until he did, in 1926, it was called Fordism. All of us are products, in one way or another, of Fordism.

Henry Ford was born on a farm near Dearborn, Michigan in l863, only a few weeks after the Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. As a boy, he loved to roam in the woods and fields by the River Rouge, near his home, and he developed a lifelong attachment to rural values of thrift, self-reliance, and simple living. But in truth, he hated the isolation and boredom of farm life.

This was the Machine Age, and he was enthralled by modern machinery. At age sixteen, he left home and walked to Detroit, where he found work in a machine shop. His dream was the dream of countless other backyard mechanics of that time with names like Dodge, Buick, and Olds. It was to build a horseless carriage, a self-propelling road machine that ran, not on steam, but on the fuel of the coming age, gasoline.

Ford spent his evenings after work in a small shed behind his house putting together his first car. When he finished it on June 4th 1896, it was almost two in the morning, but he was so excited he wanted to take it for a run. Then he realized that the door of the shed wasn’t wide enough to get his road machine through. So he grabbed an axe, demolished the doorframe, and rode off into the night.

His wasn’t the first car. Europeans like Karl Benz had been making cars for at least a decade. But Ford’s could go 20 miles per hour, a terrific speed back then; and it was reliable and didn’t cost that much. As he built more cars and formed his own company with the backing of Detroit capitalists, Ford developed the idea that would make him the most powerful industrialist in America.

Mass Production & the Assembly Line

In 1900, most cars were rich men’s toys. Ford wanted to build an inexpensive car for farmers like his Irish father. It would be rugged, reliable, and designed for rough country roads; and it would liberate rural people from the isolation that had nearly driven him crazy on his father’s farm.

Ford was convinced there was only one way to make such a car. He’d fix on a design, freeze it, and then work on ways to reproduce it year after year. As he said, “The way to make cars is to make one automobile just like another automobile; just as one pen is like another pen, or one match is like another match when it comes from a match factory.”

When Ford’s chief financial backer kept pushing for big, fancy cars, Ford bought him out in 1906, built a new production plant at Highland Park, north of Detroit, and began work on the Model T with a team of dedicated mechanics. Here was Ford, the backyard mechanic, in his glory, working day and night on his dream product, tinkering, testing, playing with new ideas, working with men he respected, all of them self-taught. And the car they produced was a beauty. It ran like a dream, but at $825, the equivalent of a teacher’s salary back then, it was still too expensive for the common man.

The car would stay the same. What had to change was the way of making it. This is where Ford would make his outstanding contribution to the machine age: as a systems-builder, the creator of a gigantic technological system capable of producing, well, almost anything.

To drive down the price of his car he’d have to make lots of them. The profits would come from volume, not pricing. And that meant speeding up the work by simplifying it. Adam Smith had called it the division of labor.

By 1914, Ford and his engineers had installed a belt-driven movable production line that took the work to the worker, and then carried that man’s work to another worker, and so, until a shining Model T rolled off the line. It was continuous flow production. No one had ever done this before.

Before Ford, the closest thing to continuous flow production was the dis-assembly line of the Chicago meatpacking plants, where animal carcasses hung on a rail and moved from butcher to butcher. Ford claimed that this was the inspiration for his own assembly line. Ford worked incessantly to simplify manufacturing until most work was done automatically, without thought. The culmination was a system where men and machines were merged into a single tremendous machine, a megamachine, with the belt as the boss.

Before the assembly line, it took 13 hours to make a car. Soon it took less than an hour. By saving time, Ford saved money and drove down the price of his car nearly every year. The last Model T, built in 1927, cost a mere $290.

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The Rise of the Automobile

In the early 1920s, over 50% of all cars sold in the United States were Model Ts, and Henry Ford was an American hero. People liked him because he didn’t put on airs. He chewed on a toothpick, drank soda from a bottle, and liked to stay at home nights with his wife. Ford was a simple farm boy who made good — your ordinary American billionaire.

But when people wrote him fan letters, they almost always talked about the car, the “Tin Lizzie” as it was affectionately called. The Model T liberated millions of people who had never traveled more than 12 miles from their homes. That’s the distance a horse could go in a single day. Farm women could now jump into the family Ford and head off to town, anytime they liked. More farmers had cars than bathtubs. When asked why, one farm wife said, “You can’t drive to town in a bathtub.”

Ford may have thought of the Model T as everyman’s car, but it was every woman’s car too. Women took to the wheel in droves. In Hollywood, a group of underpaid chorus girls got together to buy a Model T so they could spend their days off at the beach. And boys started picking up girls at their homes and taking them for joyrides, moving courtship from the front porch to the back seat of the family Ford. Ever the prude, Ford tried to discourage this by making smaller back seats. But with the Model T being a full seven feet high, couples — it became the joke — could make love standing up.

Never was a technology better suited for a country. America was a big, wide-open place and Americans were a restless people, always on the move. The car greatly increased American mobility. And in a materialistic society, it became an instant status symbol. Sex, speed, and status. The car has always been about the pursuit of that unholy American trinity.

Labor Conditions

While the car liberated the driver, it enchained the workers who made it. It’s ironic that the challenging, experimental enterprise that produced the assembly line at Highland Park created a new kind of work devoid of excitement and challenge. Here is the continuing dilemma of mass production. Speed and specialization drives down prices. But in democratizing consumption, it debases work.

At Ford’s plants, spotters and foreman enforced regulations that forbade leaning against machines, sitting, talking, singing, even whistling and smiling. Ford workers learned to communicate without moving their lips. They called this “the Ford whisper.” And men went crazy from the speedup and the tedium of the work.

The result was an enormous, hugely expensive labor turnover; almost 400% in the first year the line was installed. Ford solved this problem with another radical innovation: the five-dollar, eight hour day. This was when the average work day was 9 hours and the average industrial wage, $2.45. Workers all over the country poured into Detroit, and the press hailed Ford as an enlightened employer. But Ford’s fellow industrialists blasted him for undermining the capitalist system.

Ford, however, understood something most of them hadn’t figured out yet: that a mass production economy would grind to a halt unless workers were paid back enough to buy back the products they made. When Ford’s advertising department brought him a slogan “Buy a Ford, Save the Difference,” he changed it to “Buy a Ford, Spend the Difference.” The advocate of rural thrift had certainly altered his tune. Still, Ford’s passion was production, not distribution. Yet this obsessive preoccupation with production would soon undermine his dominance of the auto industry.

The River Rouge Plant

President Calvin Coolidge declared that “a man who builds a factory builds a temple.” Ford’s Temple of Production was his new River Rouge plant, built in the 1920s on land he used to explore as a boy, where the River Rouge empties into Lake Erie. It was designed by the famous architect Albert Kahn, with a lot of input from Henry Ford. And it was the largest factory in the history of the world, a self-sufficient industrial city with 93 sprawling structures, 90 miles of railroad tracks, 27 miles of assembly line conveyors, and 75,000 employees, 5,000 of whom did nothing but keep the place clean.

The Rouge fulfilled Ford’s dream of controlling every aspect of car making. He bought iron ore deposits in northern Michigan and Minnesota, coal mines in Appalachia, and rubber plantations in Brazil. And he shipped these materials to the Rouge on Ford-owned railroads and Ford-owned ships. Ford made his own steel at River Rouge, and his own glass. Eight miles of glass a day.

In 1928, Vanity Fair magazine ran a full spread of photographs of the Rouge by Charles Sheeler. The caption to Sheeler’s photograph, “Criss-crossing Conveyors,” describes River Rouge as an “American Altar to the new God of Mass Production, an architecture symbol that defines America, just as the Pyramids defined Egyptian civilization.”

Notice Sheeler’s style. The plant and its technology–the smokestacks, the furnaces, the conveyors, the severely functional plant buildings–are presented in clean, precise style–machine art for a machine age monument. And where are the workers? Hardly anywhere in these pictures. It’s the machines, not the men, who are bringing in the future.

Competion Arises

Ford’s mind, like Sheeler’s, remained fixed on the work, not the workers. None of his rivals had a better-integrated manufacturing operation. Still, they were catching up to him. That was because America was changing, but Henry Ford wasn’t. In a sense, Ford dug his own grave.

He had helped make America a nation of consumers, and now style started to matter more than utility. Upwardly mobile people didn’t want the same old Model T, in basic black; they wanted the kind of long, sleek machines Babe Ruth was hot-dogging around in, or, at least inexpensive versions of them.

No one understood this better than Alfred Sloan, the head of a giant new automobile corporation called General Motors. Starting in 1923, Sloan introduced a line of cars designed for different income levels. GM built Chevrolets to compete directly with the Model T. But more affluent buyers could move up to a Pontiac, an Oldsmobile, a Buick, and the quintessence, a Cadillac.

GM’s cars came in a variety of alluring colors and with plenty of accessories. And while Ford refused to sell on time, Sloan introduced installment buying. By 1926, three- quarters of American cars were bought on credit. Sloan also pioneered the idea of the used car trade-in and the practice of planned obsolescence; coming out, every year, with a car just a little better than the previous year’s model.

Finally, Ford was forced to capitulate. In 1928, he scrapped the Model T and introduced the Model A, a sleeker, more luxurious car that came in a variety of striking colors. It sold well, but it was too late for the Ford Motor Company. GM passed Ford in sales and remained ahead long after Henry Ford’s death in 1947.

But there was no stopping the changes Ford had set in motion. By the mid-1920s, auto manufacturing was the leading American industry and the lifeblood of the oil industry. And during the 1920s, highway construction was the second largest item of government spending.

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Los Angeles

America hit the road in the twenties, and nowhere did the car make a bigger impact than in Los Angeles. In the 1920s LA had more cars than any other place on earth. This new auto-age city exploded into prominence overnight, and would influence the direction of urban change all over the world.

In 1932, a writer from New York named Morris Markey had trouble making sense out of LA. “As I wandered about Los Angeles, looking for the basic meaning of the place, the fundamental source of its wealth and economic identity, I found myself quite at sea.” Markey had read the Chamber of Commerce propaganda about the citrus crops and the recent oil boom, but “none of these seemed to be real the cause of the city.” It struck him as odd “that here alone, of all the cities in America, there was no plausible answer to the question: `Why did a town spring up here and why has it grown so big?'”

The city that he could never figure out had grown from a tiny Spanish village, founded in 1781, to a place of well over a million people. And most of that growth had occurred in the 1920s, when LA’s population doubled. Most of these new arrivals came across the plains from the Midwest, many of them in Model Ts, the modern-day prairie schooners. In 1920, LA had 141,000 cars. In 1930, 770,000 cars.

Before this influx of cars and people, Los Angeles had grown much like other American cities. It had a busy downtown surrounded by streetcar suburbs. The difference was the almost total absence of apartments and the tremendous preponderance of single-family houses. That and the sweep of the city’s reach, far out into the surrounding orange groves and irrigated valleys.

But LA was a sprawling suburban city before the introduction of the Model T. Its suburbs were created not by the car but by the trolley car. Before World War I, Los Angeles had the largest mass transit system in the country, most of it the creation of Henry E. Huntington, whose uncle, Collis Huntington, had been one of the builders of the Southern Pacific Railroad.

Huntington built this system to feed his real estate empire. He bought empty land, drove his transit lines to it, advertised it all over the country, and then sold it to people coming out from the East.

While this was going on, Los Angeles expanded in an orderly manner, along its radiating rail lines, which connected the suburbs to the downtown. But when people began buying Model Ts and driving them in town to work and shop, that started the problem. The narrow streets of the city simply couldn’t handle the crush of trolley cars as well as automobiles. Downtown LA soon had the worst traffic congestion in the country. Something had to be done.

The Los Angeles government considered building a combination subway and elevated track system, but this ran into the opposition of a group called the Los Angeles City Club. It called for the creation of a new type of city, a decentralized metropolis of suburban businesses, strip malls, and garden suburbs, all connected by wide, well-paved roads. A city deliberately planned for the car.

“Why build an expensive subway system when people preferred to use cars?” That was their reasoning. Spread out the city, spread out the cars, and congestion would be solved. There would be a downtown, but it would no longer be the focal point of the metropolis. Henry Ford put it more directly: “We shall solve the city problem by leaving the city.”

This is exactly how LA developed in the 1920s and afterward. It was a city built by urban flight and by the decline of those things many people considered the sign of a great city–a bustling downtown and an efficient mass transit system. Orderly growth along the electric lines gave way to spaghetti-like sprawl.

With the convenience of a car, families didn’t have to live near mass transit lines. They could live anywhere, provided roads were built to carry them around. And the city accommodated them, undertaking the greatest road building program in the world. People of Los Angeles proudly called it the City of Freedom, because that’s what the car meant to them.

All the while, trolley ridership, and service, declined, and with it, the downtown. This wasn’t done according to a master plan. The City Club merely expressed the desire of thousands of people drawn, like most other Americans would soon be drawn, to the double dream of a car and a home in the suburbs. This is why Morris Markey couldn’t make sense out of LA. It was a city built on dreams.

A sizable number of Mexican Americans did immigrate to LA and lived downtown. But most of the people who came to Los Angeles in the 20s weren’t impoverished immigrants seeking industrial work. They were mostly white people from the farms and small cities of mid-America. And they were drawn to Los Angeles not by work opportunities, but by the dream of leading the good life in a city of sunshine, a place without sprawling immigrant slums, organized crime, and industrial pollution. Historian Frederick Jackson Turner had it wrong. The frontier still beckoned. Far more people went west in the 20th century than had gone there in the century before.

For a promising moment, constant road building and expanding subdivisions stayed ahead of congestion. But there were limits to the amount of land that could be converted to roads and houses. First, limited access highways relieved congestion. Then in 1939, the first of the massive freeways was built, in a continuing attempt to accommodate the car. Los Angeles, by then one of the great cities of the country, still had congestion, only now it was on the periphery, not at the center.

The Movie Industry

By this time, the auto-age city had become, as well, Tinsel Town, the capital of American movie-making. That too happened in the 20s, when a sleepy little retirement community called Hollywood became the home of the world’s greatest concentration of movie studios.

The movie industry grew up in New York City in the first two decades of the 20th century, and many of the first movie houses and small studios were run by immigrant Jews who got started in the garment industry, a business based, as movies were, on changing styles.

These silent movies were universal entertainment. There were no language barriers to overcome, so they became wildly popular in ethnic communities. The New York Jews who created Hollywood were risk takers and dreamers. They started small and became big: Samuel Goldwyn, William Fox, Adolph Zukor, Louis B. Mayer, Marcus Loew, the Warner Brothers (Harry and Jack).

They came for the sunshine and the space. In that age of poor lighting, most movies had to be made outdoors. California sunlight allowed producers to make movies all year round. Land was also cheap and available in big parcels, giving studios lots of room to expand as they moved to the production of biblical extravaganzas with huge casts and sets.

Henry Ford hated movies. Even the religious epics were, he said, “all about sex and sin.” And they were made by Jews, who Ford blamed for everything, from jazz (“Jews ruled the music industry”), to short skirts (“Jews also controlled the garment industry”). But even Ford used newsreel-type films to advertise his cars to a country hooked on movies.

By the mid-’20s, 100 million people were going to movies every week. And films about the rich and famous whetted the appetite of people for cars and other expensive consumer goods.

Ford held his nose while his wallet expanded. Like most Americans, Ford looked to a future of unstoppable economic growth. But just when people were thinking that the prosperity wave would never break, it broke.

The Stock Market Crash of 1929

The Stock Market Crash of 1929 triggered a twelve-year-long economic depression, the biggest national crisis since the Civil War. Both auto sales and movie attendance dropped. But the last thing a lot of people were willing to let go of was their car. As the comedian Will Rogers said: “America is the only country where people drive to the poor house in their car.”

The displaced poor patched together their dilapidated Model Ts and hit the road in search of opportunity. Most of us have seen The Grapes of Wrath, a movie that was banned in the Soviet Union after audiences expressed amazement that even wandering peasants owned cars. But to the Joad family of John Steinbeck’s novel, California wasn’t the American Dream. It was the last stop.

At first Henry Ford refused to believe we were in a depression. “These are really good times,” he declared in 1931. But this wasn’t unusual behavior for Ford. A lot of Ford’s life was an escape from reality.

The man who built an empire on speed and movement tried to slow down the accelerating pace of change. Beginning in the 1920s, he began to restore small pieces of America as he remembered them. He rebuilt his boyhood home down to the last detail. And he built a complete 19th-century community called Greenfield Village, in Dearborn. It was a tribute to the candlelit America he was born into. It’s still there. And in this, Henry Ford’s time machine, there are no cars. The man who claimed to have invented the modern world left orders that they be forever prohibited.

You Decide: The Roaring Twenties


The decade was called the “Roaring ’20s.” Hollywood movies and television make it look like one big dance party with a few gangsters thrown in for dramatic purposes. Historians, journalists, and novelists are fascinated with the 1920s as the beginning of modern America — a decade that helped set the tone for the rest of the century.

But the twenties also saw the Scopes trial, a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, new restrictions on immigration, and ongoing rural poverty.

So how would you describe the 1920s?
Did they “Roar” or was it just a big “Yawn?”

Roar: Did you know that for most Americans who made their living in agriculture, life went on pretty much as usual? And that for many, things got worse?

Yawn: Did you know that during the 1920s, the United States experienced an unprecedented economic boom?





Economic Prosperity

The Gross National Product of the nation rose from $74 billion at the beginning of the decade to more than $104 billion in 1929. Wages were up. Workers had more money to spend, and they spent it on automobiles, home appliances, radios, phonographs, and popular entertainment, especially movies. Millions of ordinary Americans invested in the stock market for the first time as stock prices soared upwards.

Farm commodity prices fell dramatically following World War I. By 1925 there was a serious downturn in the building industry, which was in a state of depression four years before the stock market crash of 1929. Black sharecroppers in the South were barely surviving economically on an average wage of about $350 a year. When the stock market crashed in 1929, millions of people were thrown out of work, fortunes were lost and businesses were ruined.


So how would you describe the 1920s?
Did they “Roar” or was it just a big “Yawn?”

Roar: Did you know that sobriety increased during the 1920s?

Yawn: Did you know that liquor was readily available during Prohibition?

The Effects of Prohibition

The 18th Amendment to the Constitution ushered in an era of Prohibition, which outlawed the sale and consumption of alcohol. Still, many Americans found ways to imbibe illegally. They went to speakeasies, private clubs that provided entertainment and liquor. Others bought illegal whiskey and beer from bootleggers. Popular movies and novels about the 1920s make it look like one big happy party of booze, jazz, and good times.

Yet very few people actually made gin in their bathtubs. While movies about the 1920s often depict excessive use of illegal alcohol, per capita consumption of alcohol actually dropped from 2.6 gallons per person pre-Prohibition in 1910 to less than a gallon per person post-Prohibition in 1934. Prohibition helped change America’s drinking habits.

So how would you describe the 1920s?
Did they “Roar” or was it just a big “Yawn?”

Roar: Did you know that much of what passed for popular culture in the 1920s was actually fairly silly and frivolous?

Yawn: Did you know that movies and radio created a whole new popular culture in the 1920s?


The Impact of Popular Culture


The 1920s witnessed the rapid development of the motion picture industry, especially in Hollywood. For most of the decade, the films were silent. Nonetheless, the public loved them and flocked to movie theaters on a regular basis. In 1927, the first “talkie,” The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson, ushered in an even more exciting era of mass entertainment.

Sales of radios at the beginning of the decade amounted to just $2 million, but by the end of the decade soared to $600 million. Radio networks like CBS and NBC became a major industry, changing the way the country received news, music, sports, entertainment, and national advertising. NBC’s radio coverage of the 1927 Rose Bowl was the first coast-to-coast network broadcast.

Women got the right to vote in 1920. They also took jobs in cities in great numbers and developed greater independence than ever before. Short skirts, short hair, and new fashions characterized the Flapper of the 1920s. As the Saturday Evening Post writer Samuel Crowther put it in 1926: “There is no distinction in the cut of the clothing between the rich flapper and the poor flapper — national advertising has attended to that. The rich flapper has better clothing than the poor one, but a block away they are all flappers.”

Popular culture of the 1920s included young people who entered flag pole sitting contests or swallowing goldfish for thrills. Dance marathons, where you danced until you dropped from exhaustion, were popular.

Young men and women began to imitate the fashions worn by movie stars. The women imitated the ultimate flapper, movie actress Joan Crawford, and the men all tried to be like Rudolph Valentino, the star of silent films who was the heartthrob of millions of women.

While popular novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald lived the high life of the Twenties, his novels portrayed a darker view of modern America and the failure of the American Dream. The Great Gatsby (1925) explores the idea that wealth, material possessions, and fame are not enough to ensure happiness.

So how would you describe the 1920s?
Did they “Roar” or was it just a big “Yawn?”

Roar: Did you know that in 1927 there were more than 3 million miles of roads in America, but only 96,000 miles were paved?

Yawn: Did you know that by the late 1920s, there were 23 million registered cars in America?


Effects of the Automobile

One person interviewed for the classic study, Middletown, by Robert and Helen Lynd (1929) said: “I’d rather go without food than give up the car.” Another interviewee said that the biggest change in America could be explained in just four letters: A-U-T-O.

Mass production of automobiles and the urbanization of America also led to a new culture and a whole new way of organizing cities, towns, and markets as cars made it possible for millions to live in suburbs, some with their own shopping centers.

There was no national highway system in the 1920s. Roads were still better suited to horses and buggies than to automobiles. Motorists faced frequent mechanical breakdowns, flat tires, and getting stuck in mud holes. When traveling long distances, they often found it difficult to find lodging or restrooms, stopping at campsites and then small tourist cabins, since motels as we know them today did not exist.

Automobile congestion in cities contributed to a mass exodus to a new place to live — the suburb. The growth of suburbs eventually caused the decline of inner-city business districts as suburban shopping centers began to replace older concentrated business districts.

With what you now know, how would you describe the 1920s?
Did they “Roar” or was it just a big “Yawn?”



Decades in History

It seems natural to talk about time in decades. We all do it. We even organize history by decades and centuries. These are convenient ways to divide up time. Decades are often used to divide up the story of an individual or a nation. But is this really accurate? Is one decade dramatically different from the one before it or after it, or do time and historical events flow along without regard to the calendar?

The “Roaring Twenties” has a colorful sound to it, but what does it really mean? Does it mean that whatever qualities that made America “roar” during the 1920s were absent before 1920 or after 1930?

To understand the 1920s one needs to think about the end of World War I in 1918 and the effect that war had on Americans who wanted to get back to leading their own lives and put the war behind them. Many of the important changes that occurred in the Twenties — mass consumption of manufactured goods, automobiles, radio, the movie industry, the rise of suburban living — had their origins in the previous two decades.

The stock market crash of 1929 would have lasting effects on the economy for many years beyond 1929. The effect of the automobile on America of the 1920s, profound as it was, is an ongoing saga to present times. One could easily make the case for the 1950s being the next big expansion of the use of automobiles and the decade of the superhighway.

The use of decades to describe history is a common device. But keep in mind that the story of a single person or of a whole nation does not always fit into neat ten-year segments. Sometimes it is important to stand back and take a much longer (or sometimes shorter) look to see other patterns and to find other interesting stories to tell.

Questions to Ponder

The decade was called the “Roaring 20s.” Hollywood movies and television make it look like one big dance party with a few gangsters thrown in for dramatic purposes. Historians, journalists, and novelists are fascinated with the 1920s as the beginning of modern America — a decade that helped set the tone for the rest of the century. But the twenties also saw the Scopes trial, a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, new restrictions on immigration, and ongoing rural poverty.

1. Could we call the economic boom of the 1990s, the “Roaring Nineties”?

2. How different is American life in the 1920s from the way we live today? How is it the same?

3. Think about the forces that are shaping America in the first decade of the 21st Century. What name would you give to this new decade?


Allen, Frederick Lewis. Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920’s. [Originally published in 1931]. New York: Harper & Row, 1964.

Behr, Edward. Prohibition: Thirteen Years That Changed America. New York: Arcade Publishing, 1996.

Dumenil, Lynn. The Modern Temper: American Culture and Society in the 1920’s. New York: Hill & Wang, 1995.

Goldberg, David J. Discontented America: The United States in the 1920’s. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.

Scharff, Virginia. Taking the Wheel: Women and the Coming of the Motor Age. New York: The Free Press, 1991.


Henry Ford

The Life of Henry Ford
A Henry Ford site with links to biographical information, a chronology, etc.

Today in History: July 30
An illustrated history of Henry Ford and his Model T, with related links.

Henry Ford
A history of Henry Ford and the Model T, with photos and related links.

Henry Ford
A biography of Henry Ford.

A Science Odyssey: People and Discoveries: Henry Ford
A biography and a photo of Henry Ford with a link to information on the moving assembly line.



Ford’s Commentary on Mass Production

Henry Ford (1863-1947) – The Assembly Line
A brief history of Henry Ford and his assembly line.

Henry Ford And The Model T
A history of Ford and his Model T. Includes the quote “…One pin like another pin…”



Alfred Sloan

Flint Timeline Project – Alfred P. Sloan
A brief profile of Sloan, with related links.

Alfred P. Sloan Foundation
A biography of Alfred P. Sloan.



Early Hollywood

Greatest Films Before 1920
A history of the movie industry with references to the various movie moguls.



Samuel Goldwyn

Samuel Goldwyn
A photo of Goldwyn and many Goldwyn related links.



William Fox

William Fox
A brief profile of Fox with related links.

Fox Theater – The Fox Empire
A biography of William Fox.



Adolph Zukor

Adolph Zukor
A brief profile of Zukor with a photo.

Louis B. Mayer

The Time 100: Louis B. Mayer
A biography of Louis B. Mayer.

Louis B. Mayer
Two short biographies of Louis B. Mayer.



Jack Warner

Jack Warner
A chronology of the life of Jack Warner.

Sheeler Photos of River Rouge Plant

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art: Criss-Crossed Conveyors
Image of Charles Sheeler’s photograph, “Criss-Crossed Conveyors.”

Oral History Interview: Charles Sheeler
The text of an interview with Charles Sheeler about his work.

Charles Sheeler
Photos of the River Rouge Plant by Charles Sheeler.


Series Directory

A Biography of America


Produced by WGBH Boston in cooperation with the Library of Congress and the National Archives and Records Administration, and with the assistance of Instructional Resources Corporation. 2000.
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