The Interwar Era 1920-1940

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The Interwar Era 1920-1940

Issue Summary
Contributing Forces
Notable People
Primary Sources
Suggested Research Topics
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With Europe exhausted from World War I (1914–1918), the United States became the world leader in industrial progress. New energy sources of oil and electricity fueled newly mechanized industrial production systems. As a result, an increasingly mechanized United States greatly influenced developments in Europe and the rest of the world. World modernization arrived Americanized.

The decades of the 1920s and 1930s were separated from the past and the future by two catastrophic world wars. Frequently the two decades are contrasted. The 1920s are known as a period of economic boom. The 1930s are mostly associated with the economic hardships of the Great Depression. They were far more similar to each other, however, than to any other time period before or after. Major trends begun in the 1920s carried through the 1930s, only colored by economic difficulties. For many Americans their daily lives were not drastically different between the two decades. Just as not all people experienced the great prosperity of the 1920s, not all people suffered severely through the 1930s. In terms of overall traits, the two decades shared more in common than often acknowledged. Together they represented a period of dramatic change in U.S. society involving technology, the arts, and general lifestyle.

Assembly line production, first introduced in 1914 by Henry Ford in the Detroit auto industry, was adapted to other industries. Consumers quickly saw a broader range of durable goods than ever imagined before. Mass production, and the resulting mass consumption, were born. As it did with the factories, mechanization also greatly affected the home, with various new electrical appliances easing the workload everyday.

The changes on U.S. society proved profound during this era. Farm mechanization allowed fewer farmers to tend larger acreages. Many small farmers who found themselves unable to compete were squeezed out. Displaced farmers and farm laborers replaced by the machines moved to the city looking for work. As a result, the era period marked the major transition of America from a predominately rural society to an urban society. For the first time in U.S. history more people lived in the city than the country.

Of the many products increasingly available, the automobile brought perhaps the biggest change to society. The common availability of the automobile dramatically altered peoples' ability to get from one place to another. They could commute from the suburbs and go just about anywhere they wanted when they wanted.

As the era saw the technology of mass production spread from one industry to another, fueling increased mass consumerism, the mass media also came of age. Movies, recordings, and radio brought entertainment in new forms to more and more people. National sports stars gained mythological stature and a unique American popular culture took a more defined shape. It was during this interwar period of the 1920s and 1930s that modern America emerged, an American culture distinct from its predominately European roots. These new developments affected all other facets of U.S. society and laid the foundation for a post-World War II (1939–1945) economic boom.


A new modern style called Art Deco is introduced at a Paris exposition that influences the appearance of many consumer products and architecture through the 1930s.
Construction of the Empire State Building is completed, making it the world's tallest building for the next forty years.
Amelia Earhart is the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean.
Babe Didrikson Zaharias wins two gold medals at the Summer Olympics held in Los Angeles, California.
Detroit automobile manufacturers roll out the first models sporting a new modern streamlined look, a departure of the previous square Model T appearance.
Jesse Owens wins four gold medals and sets three world records at the Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany.
Architect Frank Lloyd Wright builds a Pennsylvania retreat residence known as Fallingwater, reflective of the revolutionary changes to residential and commercial architecture.
San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge is completed to accommodate the fast-growing automobile traffic.
June 1937:
Joe Louis wins the world heavyweight boxing title, becoming a role model for black Americans.
Babe Ruth retires from major league baseball, having created a legend that rose above sports for a Great Depression crowd hungry for heroes.
Lewis Mumford's The Culture of Cities is published, providing solutions to improving city livability.
The first television programming appears, but World War II delays further development for the next several years.

Issue Summary

The interwar era of the 1920s and 1930s was filled with an amazing diversity in hopes, achievements, and events. The United States dramatically changed toward an urban, industrial, consumer-oriented society. New scientific and technological advances were steadily appearing on the scene, and recognition of American arts was growing faster than ever. Despite economic setbacks of the Great Depression lasting from 1929 to 1941, life continued, and Americans made do as best they could. Rapid advances in technology continued, and progress in the arts actually accelerated. A new American culture emerged.

Science, Business, and Technology

As it had throughout its history, U.S. society continued to greatly value science and technological achievement in the early twentieth century. The boom years of the 1920s led to greater investment into scientific research. The stock market crash of 1929 and ensuing Great Depression had only a limited effect on scientific research. Substantial progress was seen in various science applications in industry and business. Skyscrapers, bridges, and airships reflected such new developments in construction in the era.

The era was marked by an incredible number of scientific advancements even throughout the 1930s and despite the decline in available funds to provide support. In fact, whereas three Americans won Nobel prizes in the sciences during the 1920s, nine won Nobel prizes in the 1930s. The building U.S. legacy in scientific achievement would be a key trait of the nation through the next half-century.

Giant corporations continued to dominate business as they had in the previous decades following the Civil War (1861–1865). By the end of the era, in 1939, the top 5 percent of corporations took in almost 85 percent of U.S. corporate income. The growth of mass production during this era also introduced other major new facets of business, the search for maximum production efficiency, and increased attention to the effectiveness of salesmanship and advertising. As a result, many new developments aimed at improving manufacturing efficiency and marketing budgets increased. To the buying public, the era most represented a vastly increased variety of products for sale.

Corporate research programs that expanded greatly in the 1920s established dominance in the technological research field in the 1930s. By 1940 over half the new patents issued were to corporations. As a result, some newly developed materials greatly stimulated the increase in diversity of products. Aluminum, a lightweight rust-free material, came into wider use, ranging from transportation equipment to eating utensils. Airplanes steadily grew larger and safer. Nylon was introduced for ladies' stockings by 1939. Production of plastics, still in its early years, offered great hope for advancements in products. Unlike other materials more commonly used in manufacturing, plastic was resistant to humidity and was sturdy yet flexible. The outlook appeared bright, though wide use of plastics would not come until the 1950s. Many, however, believed the United States had entered the "plastic age" in the 1930s. The first television programming arrived in 1939, though World War II interrupted further development. In agriculture the introduction of hybrid corn revolutionized a key U.S. crop.

In order to maintain these advances in science and technology, efforts at improving the nation's education system led to significant changes. The increasing technical nature of business and industry required more training than ever before. By 1940 just over half of all youth were graduating from high school, compared to 29 percent in 1930, and less than 17 percent in 1920. The number of students attending college grew even more dramatically. The number of bachelor degrees increased to 186,000 in 1940 from 122,000 in 1930. Improvements in school attendance during the 1930s were due in part to the lack of job opportunities available. This discouraged youth from leaving school early.

Some thought the advances in science and technology would automatically trigger great social progress. Though it was soon discovered this might not be the case despite the ongoing mechanical and scientific advances, still people believed the new technologies could at least cure some problems. For example, the Committee on Technocracy, formed in 1932, called for a larger role of the engineering profession in running the nation. Later, Lewis Mumford in the 1938 book The Culture of Cities studied how cities function. He offered technological solutions to the major social problems coming with the increased growth of cities.


Clearly the product stimulating most change for the 1920s and 1930s era was the automobile. Factory sales of cars increased from 1.6 million in 1919 to 4.5 million in 1929. By the end of the 1920s, the nation's leading industry had become auto manufacturing. Production and new advances continued into the 1930s. A radical change in auto design came in 1933. The look of the previously popular box-like Ford Model T with its high-perched chassis, exterior trunks, and square engine compartments, gave way to more modern designs. The passenger compartment, trunks, bumpers, and engines were combined into a more unified design with graceful curving lines. As a result, cars became longer, lower, and more powerful. Rides were consequently much smoother. Though production continued through the 1930s, auto manufacturers such as General Motors and Chrysler decreased the variety of car models produced. The economic austerity of the Depression years also spawned a busy used car market.

The demand for petroleum products similarly shot up, with less than three billion gallons of gasoline sold in 1919 up to 15 billion in 1929. An entire automobile industry grew, involving dealerships, tourism, roadside advertising, repair garages, and other roadside businesses.

As the Depression years dragged on, thousands took to the roads, often looking for work or better times. Despite economic hardships, the number of automobiles purchased actually increased from 26 million to well over 27 million during the 1930s. To accommodate more car travel, new roads and bridges were built. The miles of state-controlled surfaced roads increased from 350,000 in 1919 to 662,000 in 1929. The number of miles of surfaced road almost doubled in the 1930s. Another technological achievement of the era was San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge, completed in 1937 to accommodate the increasing automobile traffic. The 4,200-foot span was longer than anything previously built and represented a major engineering feat.

To serve this growing number of travelers, campgrounds and motor courts sprung up across the nation. A whole new roadside architecture and industry developed. For example, both Howard Johnson's and Big Boy restaurants started in the 1930s. What was described as a "Roadside Americana" was born.

More About…Mass Production

A key characteristic of the 1920–40 interwar era was the dramatic expansion of mass production thanks to assembly line technology. This development revolutionized industrial production and permanently changed American culture. The primary characteristics of mass production are specialization of labor so that workers focus on only a small part of the production process, the use of machines in making products, and the standardization of parts so that they are interchangeable on the products. In early American history, highly skilled craftsmen produced most goods. The craftsmen spent years in training and held a clear position in society. They would manufacture a product from beginning to end of the process. Mass production in Western society began in earnest in Britain's textile industry of the eighteenth century. A major advance came with steam engines in 1785. This low-cost new energy source replaced the traditional human, water, and animal power. By the mid-1800s, the application of division of labor, use of machines in manufacture, and production of standardized parts was well established. But production processes of going from one step to another still remained largely informal.

Studies in the late 1880s identified how production processes could be more efficiently organized. Modern production planning was born with the "time-andmotion" studies. Specialized work areas were established and motion patterns of workers streamlined. It was Henry Ford who pulled all the new production concepts, involving production lines and conveyor belts, together. The highly analytical production process proved exceptionally successful in dramatically reducing production times for manufacture of cars. The mass-production principles applied by Ford spread quickly to other industries. Ramifications of this new process were major and diverse. The role of the professional manager rose to oversee the synchronized activity of a modern production system. By the 1930s the quantity and variety of material goods were greatly expanding. These methods demanded much more capital, requiring corporate ownership. Smaller businesses became less competitive and were squeezed out of business. In place of the skilled craftsmen of earlier times, the specialization of labor required for production lines required very narrowly defined skills of many specialized employees. The laborer was more detached from the product, and his role in society less clear. These worker issues demanded new approaches by management to maintain high worker efficiency.

These basic improvements in manufacturing productivity lead to exceptional increases in material wealth and living standards in industrialized nations through the rest of the twentieth century.

Truck and bus traffic increased significantly as well. There were 898,000 trucks registered in 1919. By 1939 this number had skyrocketed to 4.7 million. Also, bus registration doubled in just four years, from 17,800 in 1925 to 34,000 in 1929, and then almost tripled in the 1930s. As highway traffic expanded, the great era of railroad dominance came to a close. The 1920s saw the growth of railroads end, as the size of the U.S. railway system remained about the same as before with a 10 percent increase in freight tonnage. During the 1930s the amount of material hauled by railroads declined by approximately one-third, and the miles of track declined. Inland shipping did increase considerably. There was an approximate 50 percent increase of shipping on the Great Lakes and traffic along the New York state canals doubled.

Another major change in transportation was the growth of aviation. Aviation grew dramatically from just a novelty in 1920 to 38 airline operators in 1929 carrying 162,000 passengers. Although the number of airline operators actually decreased due to the economically troubled times in the 1930s, the number of miles flown by commercial airlines increased substantially from 22.7 million miles in 1929 to almost 83 million in 1939. The number of passengers increased to 1.7 million in 1939.


As technological change influenced consumer products, it also influenced their appearance as well. In decades prior to the 1920s, busy designs and elaborate adornment were popular. In contrast the linear elegance and geometry of Art Deco was introduced in 1925. The style of Art Deco is simple, clean shapes. The earlier highly decorative and ornate designs became greatly streamlined. This change in style was influenced by the growing ideals of technological efficiency introduced by the new emphasis on mass production.

The new style, also labeled Streamline Moderne, reflected technological progress of the time and symbolized speed. The new sleek aerodynamics of airplanes, trains, and automobiles embodied these streamlined elements. These design elements appeared in many other forms as well, including radio cases, furniture, tableware, and even toasters. Clothing design also became more simplistic and efficient. U.S. fashion styles began diverging from the French and moving toward a more distinctive American style that would fully emerge in the 1940s. The streamlined appearance symbolized sophistication and wealth.


Architectural changes were another hallmark of the era. Streamlining associated with automobiles and airliners was also evident in building styles as well. The structures built for the Century of Progress International Exposition in Chicago in 1933–1934 clearly reflected this trend. Also, the Rockefeller Center in New York, built between 1931 and 1939, followed this trend of modern sleek design. The center consisted of 14 Art Deco buildings and sculptures celebrating the progress of mankind. Ironically, this celebration of progress came during a time of extreme hardship and doubt in much of the public.

The skyscraper had begun making an American appearance in Chicago in the late nineteenth century. With a number of buildings approaching or exceeding two hundred feet in height, the city passed a restriction limiting buildings to ten stories. As a result, the world of skyscrapers moved east to New York City. Advances in elevators and the use of heavy steel frames made possible much taller buildings. Competition was a key ingredient of the world's skyscraper construction. Shortly after the turn of the century, Frank W. Woolworth requested architect Cass Gilbert to build an office building for him that would exceed the height of the seven hundred foot Metropolitan Life Insurance Tower in New York City. In a Gothic architectural style, the striking 792-foot Woolworth Building was the world's tallest building from 1913 to 1930. The heavily braced steel frame rose some sixty stories.

A building boom in Manhattan in the late 1920s and early 1930s produced the Chrysler Building in 1930 and the Empire State Building in 1931. The Chrysler Building was designed to be three hundred feet higher than the Woolworth Building. It, too, was built of a heavy steel frame. The top of the 1,046-foot tall building was decorated with distinctive radiating crescents of chrome, nickel, steel, and triangular windows. Quickly, the Art Deco Chrysler Building gave way in height to the Empire State Building, constructed from 1929 to 1931.

Under the guidance of chief designer William Lamb, the building had to conform to city regulations that required a minimum amount of light and air reach the street below. The requirement meant the building would have to be stepped back at certain intervals. The building grew to 85 stories, attaining a height of four feet above the tip of the Chrysler Building's spire. On top of the building, Lamb added a two hundred foot tall tower. The building would remain the tallest building in the world for the next forty years until the 1,100-foot John Hancock Center in Chicago was completed in 1969. Later, taller buildings replaced the heavy masonry (brick and stone) siding of the 1930s with walls of glass covering steel skeletons.

The era saw other major changes in buildings introduced by prominent architects. U.S. architect Frank Lloyd Wright modeled building design after nature and environment. Each building was designed specifically to its surrounding, integrating nature with technology. The Johnson Wax Company Administration Building in Racine, Wisconsin, reflected well Wright's design advances for the era. He was also noted for Taliesin West, his winter residence and school located in Scottsdale, Arizona, and Fallingwater, a residential retreat located in Bear Run, Pennsylvania. Similarly, Walter Gropius arrived from Germany in 1936 to teach architecture students at Harvard University. Gropius emphasized the incorporation of new technology into residential places.


A major driving force in shaping American culture at this time was the rise of mass media. Effects of radio on American society were far reaching. The first commercial radio station, KDKA, began operation in 1920 in Pittsburgh. By 1929 approximately 40 percent of American homes owned radios. The number of radio stations increased to 618 in 1930 and 765 in 1940. The number of families with radios more than doubled, rising from 12 million to 28 million. Programming included adventure stories, soap operas, comedies, sports, and music. Millions listened to World Series baseball broadcasts and championship prizefights.

Popularity of mass publications also increased. Detective, western, movie, and romance magazines attracted more and more readers. Major new publications included Readers Digest, Look, and Life magazines. Affordable, mass-produced paperback books also became popular in the late 1930s and 1940s. These books reached out to the immense magazine-buying public and could be found on racks in department stores, drugstores, and newsstands. Top-selling books in the 1930s were Pearl S. Buck's The Good Earth, Hervey Allen's Anthony Adverse, and John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.

The most popular form of entertainment out of the home was clearly the motion picture. Movies with sound became standard by 1930, and Technicolor became common by the end of the decade. Despite the Depression, attendance remained high through the decade. Popular movies of the era tended to reflect the wishes of people to escape the monotony and hardships of the Great Depression. Gangster films such as Little Ceaser and The Public Enemy, comedies such as A Night at the Opera and Modern Times, and animated features such as Three Little Pigs and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs entertained audiences and offered a respite from everyday life.

As during the nineteenth century, literature remained the most respected element of U.S. culture in the interwar era. Many new authors had become established in the 1920s, such as Sinclair Lewis, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, and Eugene O'Neill. In the 1930s John Steinbeck, Pearl Buck, John Dos Passos, Erskine Caldwell, James T. Farrell, and Thomas Wolfe were added to this group. Major themes of American literature during the Depression were social protest against the increasing influences of industrialization and modernism, journalistic documentaries taking indepth looks at the "real" America, anti-Fascism in reaction to the rise of European dictators, and cultural nationalism supporting the U.S. cause against foreign influences.

In art, Modernism of the 1920s changed to Realism in the 1930s. Through substantial support of various federal relief programs, the focus shifted to nationalism (intense loyalty to one's own country) as the most common theme. With the generous infusion of public funds, American art was coming of age by the end of the 1930s.

Reaching Back

Rapid changes almost inevitably led to reactions against these changes by some. With the 1920s and 1930s being an era of rapid technological and social change, attempts were made at preserving and connecting with the past. This reaching back took several forms. For example, American folktales were comprehensively collected and published in American Humor (1931) by Constance Rourke. Folk art became increasingly popular. The first major exhibition of U.S. folk art occurred at the Newark Museum in 1930 by Holger Cahill. The public found these links to the past comforting. They reflected a slower paced life with less social isolation than people were experiencing in the expanding industrialized cities.

Some searched even further back than early American folklore and folk art. The thirst for links to the past also was expressed in a growing interest in "primitivism." Spurred by the economic and social problems of modern society, people reached toward what they believed to be the superiority of primal human existence. In this vein the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s brought forward African heritage into American culture. Jazz, ragtime, blues, and spirituals provided the public access to the "primitive" world throughout the 1930s. Such "jungle music" became popular along with certain black American performers such as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. Jazz also became recognized as the nation's most unique art form, free from European association.

The reach to the primitive also influenced efforts to "salvage" what were considered the vanishing native cultures in the western United States and elsewhere. Franz Boas from Columbia University and others, including Margaret Meade, conducted extensive fieldwork recording the traditions of native cultures around the world. Collections of American Indian artifacts grew, led by such institutions as the Brooklyn Museum and the Museum of the American Indian.

In another attempt to connect to the primitive, by 1930 noted artists, including Georgia O'Keefe and Ansel Adams, were making journeys to remote areas in the West away from the eastern cities. They believed the richness of the native cultures rejuvenated their inspiration and work. As American life was becoming more technologically oriented and mobile, people were searching for these connections to the past.

Another form of reaching back came in some applications of architecture. In contrast to the sleek modern look of residences as introduced by architect Frank Lloyd Wright and others, foreign architectural styles became more desirable for many institutional and business buildings. Gothic Revival style became common for churches and educational buildings, including the Ivy League schools. This heavy, ornamented style symbolized to people medieval society's spiritual inspiration as opposed to the more modern secularization (nonreligious) reflected in the unornamented streamlined modern style. Revivalist furnishings also provided an avenue for people to escape from the more mass-produced commercial culture of the 1920s and 1930s.

Even Henry Ford, who greatly contributed to this era of mass production, had yearnings for the simpler past. As a result Ford created an outdoor museum, Greenfield Village, established in the late 1920s. The museum included replicas of famous American historic buildings, such as Philadelphia's Independence Hall, and some actual historic structures transported from their original locations. Old tool exhibits represented the American pre-industrial craft traditions. Ford considered the museum a link between the early American craft industries and his assembly line form of mass production.

Golden Age of Sports

Another major defining aspect of the era related to the emergence of mass media and technological change was the growth of organized sports. Described by many as the "golden age of sports," it was during this interwar period that professional and organized amateur sports became a prominent part of U.S. society. As has often been the case since, major sports figures reflected social issues in the larger society. Particularly prominent athletes included Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Red Grange, Barney Ross, Babe Didrikson Zaharias, and Joe Louis. Among other things, they each represented the daring and rugged individualism that larger society celebrated during the 1920s and considered a link to the past in the 1930s.

Concurrently, it was an era of talented sportswriters who greatly influenced the public perception of sports and sport figures. Legends were created, such as the Babe (Babe Ruth), the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame, and the Manassa Mauler (Jack Dempsey). Lively stories routinely filled the daily sports pages. In addition, improved transportation during the era enabled sports teams to travel further, opening up new opportunities and exposing more people to the exploits of star athletes. Other new technologies also influenced sports equipment enhancing performance on the field.

The sport of baseball in particular was strongly linked to the modern American ideals of democracy (everyone has a chance to better their position), individualism, and meritocracy (achieving success based on the individual's achievements). There were many heroes at the time in baseball, including Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, Jimmie Foxx, Lefty Grove, Dizzy Dean, Carl Hubbell, and Mel Ott. They each had their own unique persona and amassed great followings in the news.

An athlete in another sport who personified the American dream of success while also representing a link back to rugged individualism was football legend Red Grange. Coming from humble origins, Grange was an All-American halfback at University of Illinois from 1923 to 1925. After completing his career at Illinois, Grange signed to play for the Chicago Bears in the newly emerging National Football League (NFL). After an impressive career throughout the 1930s, Grange became a charter member of the pro football Hall of Fame. In contrast to others such as boxer Jack Dempsey and Babe Ruth, Grange maintained a modest, hardworking, and clean living reputation. Like Dempsey, however, he represented a link to the frontier values of rugged individuals in an increasingly industrial and urban nation. This link reaffirmed traditional values in an era of rapid change.

Women in Sports Though sports in America in the 1920s and 1930s were male dominated, changes were occurring in the status of women in sports, just as it was in the greater society. Sonja Henie, a Norwegian figure skater, led the way in gaining recognition for women athletes. Henie won world's figure-skating championships for ten consecutive years from 1927 to 1936 and three Olympic medals in 1928, 1932, and 1936. She then became a movie star.

Remarkable achievements by others came as well. In 1926 Olympic medallist Gertrude Ederle was the first woman to swim the English Channel. In 1928 Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean, doing it again solo in 1932. Earhart, representing daring, courage, and independence, set other aviation records in the 1930s. Helen Wills Moody won 19 Wimbledon, French, and U.S. singles tennis titles from 1923 to 1938. Moody was perhaps the most widely admired female athlete of the period because she more closely represented traditional values of femininity than other sports stars of the era. She was both athletic and attractive, well-behaved, and not overly aggressive on or off the court. These traits more closely conformed to public expectations of women in society at the time.

Recognized as the greatest woman athlete of the era was Mildred "Babe" Didrikson Zaharias. Born in Texas to Norwegian American immigrants, Didrikson broke numerous sports gender barriers while growing up. As a youth she participated in baseball, basketball, football, tennis, volleyball, boxing, skiing, cycling, and swimming. In 1932 Didrikson won the Women's National Amateur Union track championship, competing in all eight of the events held. That same year she won two gold medals in the Los Angeles Summer Olympics. She might have won even more medals, but rules restricted women to a limited number of events. Later in her athletic career, Didrikson became the top female golfer in the world, winning 53 amateur and professional tournaments. She was named Female Athlete of the Year six times and in 1950 was honored as Female Athlete of the Half Century. Didrikson did much during the 1930s to challenge the stereotypes of female physical inferiority.

Race and Ethnicity As with women, some barriers were weakening regarding black Americans and other minorities. Despite rigid racial segregation in public life, some black American athletes became embraced by white society. While the Negro Leagues, founded in 1920, grew separately from baseball's white Major Leagues, two players achieved a high status in U.S. society, pitcher Leroy "Satchel" Paige and catcher Josh Gibson. Paige was a legendary pitcher in the Negro Southern Association and the Negro National League. Gibson became known as the "Babe Ruth" of the Negro Leagues, hitting some eight hundred home runs in a career lasting from 1927 to 1946. Over 40 years of age, Satchel later joined the Cleveland Indians in 1948 and sparked them to the American League championship and into the World Series that year. Paige remained in the Major Leagues until 1953. Paige was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1971 and Gibson the following year.

Other black athletes gained national recognition. Track star Jesse Owens was the son of an Alabama sharecropper and grandson of a former slave. Raised in Cleveland, Ohio, Owens broke three world records and tied another at the Big Ten track championships in 1935 while a sophomore at Ohio State University. In the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany, Owens set three world records, tied one, and won four gold medals. It was a dramatic performance as German leader Adolf Hitler was presenting the Olympics as a showcase for his Aryan propaganda of white supremacy. Because Owens was humble and patriotic in character, he was embraced by white society as a national celebrity. Despite his fame, the limited economic opportunities for blacks in America left him to financially struggle in later life.

Joe Louis was also born into a southern sharecropper family. Raised in Detroit, Michigan, Louis excelled as an amateur boxer and turned pro in 1934. From 1934 to 1937, Louis won 28 of his 29 fights. He won the heavyweight title in June 1937. Louis worked on a public image that would be acceptable to white America. He was quiet, unassuming, read the Bible, and was openly patriotic. Supporters claimed Louis instilled hope in black America. In 1938 Louis defeated former world champion German boxer Max Schmeling. As with Owens, to many Louis' victory represented the triumph of American democracy over Nazi aggression. The "Brown Bomber" at that point became a mythic national hero.

Another boxer won greater acceptance for Jews in America. Barney Ross, a Jewish boxer, held the titles of lightweight, junior welterweight, and welter-weight between 1934 and 1935. Ross countered the stereotype of Jews with his masculinity and physical ability. He represented the newer image of Jewish American success and toughness.

Sports reflected various aspects of the new American culture. It reaffirmed for many the new dominant cultural values of the interwar era. In some cases it also provided a link back to old ideals and national perceptions of rugged individualism of the frontier.

A New America

The era was most characterized by urbanism, modernism, mass media, and mass production and consumption. A common and distinctive American culture had emerged, driven by large-scale advertising, radio, motion pictures, increasingly standardized education, and increased movement due to automobiles. By the late 1930s, people were realizing that success and prosperity could be achieved along with the economic security provided by New Deal programs. Despite the Great Depression, a belief in progress still persisted. For many this was best demonstrated by the Century of Progress Exposition in 1933–1934 in Chicago, and the world's fairs in New York and San Francisco in 1939. The era's urban-based attitudes gained greater strength in society. The traditional perspectives toward tobacco, dancing, liquor, and other social activities were being increasingly challenged. Attitudes toward women's role in society did not change as much, however. Women were still subject to inequality with men.

More diverse racial and ethnic groups were increasingly influencing American culture. For example, by the end of the 1930s Jews had gained prominent positions in U.S. society in the fields of law, art, science, literature, education, business, and politics. Two men of Jewish background were elected governors of Illinois and Kansas. However, as with women, attitudes toward racial and ethnic minorities still had a long way to go in recognizing equality under the law.

Contributing Forces

Growth of Industrialization

Following the American Civil War (1861–1865), the numerous small workshops and manufacturers that typified early U.S. industry began giving way to corporations. As part of this industrialization, mechanized factory production grew faster than ever. The resulting rise of commercialism and industrialization in the late nineteenth century presented major new problems to U.S. society. From 1865 to 1900, however, in what has been called the Gilded Age, optimism ran high. American business believed industrialization would eventually lead to unbounded social progress and incredible wealth. The rise of the new wealthy industrial leaders during this period, however, did not correspond to a rise in public well-being. Labor standards were incredibly low in the mills and sweatshops. Hours were long, conditions intolerable, and pay insufficient. Discontent rose regarding what was considered the social irresponsibility of industrial leaders. The newly forming modern mass production industries were not benefiting the growth of a healthy democratic society.

In addition, other factors were disturbing to many in the late nineteenth century. First, the nation's economy became more vulnerable to the whims of fluctuations in business cycles, and hence less stable. Secondly, the economic inequality between citizens increased. Thirdly, many businesses combined into yet bigger businesses. With fewer companies, competition declined and business monopolies grew. The greater economic instability, greater differences in economic classes, and lessened competition did not bode well for the common citizen.

In response to these business trends, government oversight began to grow through regulatory agencies. The Interstate Commerce Commission, the Federal Reserve System, and the Federal Trade Commission were formed. Nonetheless, by 1920, the top 5 percent of U.S. corporations, consisting of about 17,000 businesses, cornered almost 80 percent of the nation's corporate income. While the nation's top business leaders worried about further government regulation, the public feared the ever-increasing power of the industrial giants.

Some still questioned how good these business developments were for the common worker. One response to the social problems brought by industrialization was the growth of the Socialist Party, founded in 1901 by Eugene V. Debs. Debs contended that modern industrial capitalism degraded the worth of the nation's citizens for the sake of industrial efficiency and profit making. Debs' popularity peaked in the presidential elections from 1912 to 1920. The party attracted a broad spectrum of workers, including craft workers, machine operators, farm laborers, and farmers.

Reaction to the products of large-scale industrial production also grew. One expression of distaste was the Arts and Crafts Movement. The movement stressed the use of products relating back to earlier cottage industry days and handmade products. A major focus of the Arts and Crafts Movement was to guard against the artlessness of mass-produced items in interior house décor.

The Gilded Age gave way to the Progressive Era from 1900 to 1917. As a reaction to the Arts and Crafts Movement, progressives accepted industrial progress as inevitable. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who first gained national attention in the 1890s, insisted that machine and art could indeed coexist and demonstrated this in his designs.

Labor Activism

Another trend was the increased activism of laborers. A labor movement grew, fueled by the rapidly growing mass-production industries. Workers in the meat packing, textile, and garment industries began taking action to improve their working conditions. Massive garment industry strikes occurred between 1909 and 1915 in Chicago and New York. Though some gains were made in passing regulations on manufacturing, strong resistance by business and adverse rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court largely inhibited such responses to the growth of business. Factory conditions and length of work days largely evaded regulation as most successes in labor law came in the protection of women and child laborers.

The stage was set for large industries to transition into mass production using assembly line techniques introduced by Henry Ford in 1914. As a result large corporations dominated because they were able to use their vast resources to expand and to market and distribute their products of mass production across the nation. Following World War I (1914–1918), the automobile became the central product in the economic boom and the dominant symbol of the new American middle-class success.

Technology Advancements

Technological advances triggered other major changes in industry. As industrialization had increased, management began focusing more on production efficiency. Continued increased mechanization, in addition to expanding assembly line production, brought new approaches to industry. Studies targeted reduction of wasted time and physical motion of the workers. Continued business consolidations eliminated those businesses that could not achieve sufficient efficiency. As a result of industrial advances, new inventions boosted production and expanded the variety of commodities available as well as the choice of colors of many products. New fabrics appeared such as rayon and celanese.

The 1920s saw a substantial increase in electricity available to homes. This led to a much greater demand for products such as radios, electric irons, vacuum cleaners, refrigerators, and washing machines. In an effort to capitalize on this demand, the focus on salesmanship rose to new heights. Numerous newspaper and magazine articles explored the many facets of selling products or services. Along with salesmanship came the further growth of the advertising business. The nature of ads in magazines and newspapers changed dramatically from the pre-World War I years. They were becoming larger and more eye catching. Advertisements became a regular feature in movie theaters, on radio programs, and on billboards along the newly improved roadways.

More About…An Era of Population Change

A population growth rate that had been slowing in the 1920s slowed even more in the 1930s. Two key factors influencing this decline in population growth were a sharp drop in immigration due to very restrictive immigration laws passed in the early 1920s and a lower birthrate. The population grew from 105.7 million in 1920 to 122.8 million in 1930 to 131.7 million in 1940. Most of the growth was in urban areas. Urban population grew from 54 million in 1920 to 74 million in 1940, while the rural population only grew from 51.5 million to 57.2 million. Despite the difficult years, in which many went undernourished, the life expectancy of Americans actually increased from 59.7 years in 1930 to 62.9 by 1940 due to improved medical care. Death rates from such diseases as whooping cough, measles, diphtheria, and paratyphoid fever also declined dramatically. Longer life expectancy, combined with lower birth rate, led the population to age more with the average age increasing from 25.3 in 1920 to 29.0 in 1940.

Other trends included black Americans migrating at a high rate from the South to the North and West, and women and men becoming almost numerically equal for the first time in the nation. Because of the drop in immigration, the number of foreign-born Americans dropped from 13.7 million in 1920 to 11.4 million in 1940.

These major population changes, including the resettlement of blacks to northern and midwest cities, the relative increase in women, the declining number of immigrants, and a general westward movement of the nation set the stage for major social and economic change following World War II.

The Roaring Twenties

The dramatic industrial growth since the Civil War led to the 1920s becoming the most prosperous decade in U.S. history up until that time. From 1922 to 1929, industrial workers' wages increased 13 percent. Many factory workers were gaining new fringe benefits. The average workweek in industry declined from 47.4 hours in 1920 to 44.2 hours in 1929. The average unemployment rate between 1923 and 1929 was a low 3.7 percent, down from 6.1 percent the previous decade. Because of these improvements in the workplace, disputes between management and labor declined. Consumer prices remained stable through most of the decade as the quantity of manufacturing production increased a whopping 50 percent between 1922 and 1929. The number of businesses increased from 1.7 million in 1919 to 2.2 million in 1929. With financing easier, more people were starting businesses. The number of patents for new inventions almost doubled in the decade.

Growth of the super-corporation was spurred by this economic boon. Corporations that became familiar household names include Westinghouse, Bell Telephone, Eastman Kodak, Bank of America, Standard Oil, General Motors, and U.S. Steel. The nation's wealth continued to become more concentrated in U.S. society, with the top two hundred corporations controlling approximately 50 percent—$81 billion—of corporate wealth by 1929. This figure represented 22 percent of the national wealth in general

The Arts

Whereas the technological ingenuity of Americans was gaining increased international recognition in the nineteenth century, the arts presented a different picture. The fine arts in the United States grew slowly through the early nineteenth century. Europe would remain the center of art achievements for the Western world entering the twentieth century. Various leading American artists, including sculptors, writers, and painters, would go to Europe for months or years to study and improve their skills. Many would stay in Europe to enjoy the long-established community of artists and the governmental support not present in America. The United States had not supported artists, and few schools in the arts were available until after the Civil War.

After the war industrialization in the United States greatly expanded. A large accumulation of wealth by business and financial leaders provided a new market for American artists. Art collections grew, and fine arts museums began appearing in the 1870s, such as New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. The rise of the Modernism art style in the 1890s proved a major change in the arts. Suddenly art was much more accessible to the general public as Modernism styles were increasingly being adopted in the production of various goods by 1910. The Armory Show in New York City in 1913 exhibited 1,600 art works. Finally, the massive show brought a major change in how fine arts were viewed, presenting them as no longer the sole domain of the wealthy. Art had become part of the new era of growing mass consumerism and newly growing urban industrial centers. Art institutions became very popular in the United States, and by the later 1920s American artists were being invited to exhibit their works in Europe.

By the mid-1930s, American artists began returning to America as fascism and communism was spreading in other countries. A renewed appreciation of the relative freedom in the United States grew among the arts community. Given the difficulties of the Great Depression, the Realism style in art grew, with depictions of everyday life becoming more common. For example, paintings often focused on rural and small town scenes.

One field of the arts in the United States that gained international recognition early in the nineteenth century was literature. Fiction writers, beginning with Washington Irving in the early 1820s, gained international acclaim. Other notable authors were James Fenimore Cooper, Edgar Allen Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, and Samuel Clemens. Philosophers included Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. The turn to Realism in the fine arts was reflected in books such as John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. By the 1920s writers had begun to react to the narrow and strict values and attitudes of the Victorian period in which society was closely confined. Authors focused more on rootless characters. In the 1930s writers, such as Steinbeck, protested what they felt were unjust social conditions in the nation.

By the late nineteenth century popular music consisted of the highly rhythmic piano music of ragtime, band music such as the "Stars and Stripes Forever" by John Philip Sousa, the comedy music of vaudeville, and church music. Jazz began its spectacular growth in the 1920s as a unique American art form. The Harlem Renaissance played a key role as black American musicians combined ragtime with the blues musical forms of the South into an internationally popular jazz sound. New dances developed along with it. By the 1930s the jazz sound led to the spread of big bands playing swing music. The record industry became well established in the 1910s. By 1914, 500,000 homes had phonographs, and they were becoming a standard piece of furniture in middle-class homes. Record production peaked in 1921 at 100 million records, but then declined to only six million in 1932 at the depths of the Great Depression.

The Depression significantly damaged popular cultural industries producing movies and music, though movie houses actually flourished until 1932. Later in the 1930s, New Deal programs would eventually come to the aid of many artists, including actors, painters, and writers.


The Rise and Fall of Great Expectations

All in all, a new U.S. economic system had emerged in the 1920s. New dominant giant corporations were producing commodities for mass consumption. The oil, automobile, chemical, radio, airline, and advertising industries were booming. They offered a greater variety of standardized goods produced more cheaply. Rugged individualists were making fortunes. On top of that, the financial stock market was producing riches for almost anyone who invested. Wages and salaries were sufficient to allow consumers to purchase goods and services and have a credit standing to take out more and more loans to increase buying power. An urban middle class began to be a major factor in the nation's economy, involving industrial and white-collar work. This segment of society enjoyed rising wages and greater access to installment buying. Purchase of goods not necessary for sustaining life increased, and a revolutionary change in values followed. Individual fulfillment through conforming to a national consumer culture weakened traditional ties to neighborhoods, religion, and family. Many believed this economic prosperity had become a permanent feature of U.S. society.

Not surprisingly, the average U.S. citizen was highly optimistic about the future of America until the stock market crash in October 1929. It was an era of great expectations. The economic downturn during the early years of the Great Depression—from 1929 to 1932—brought a dramatic change in expectations. Many believed the long-lasting economic woes indicated that capitalism was no longer effective, and that the American system of production and distribution formed in the 1920s had broken down. The closure of banks on the eve of President Franklin Roosevelt's inauguration in March 1933 was taken as proof of this failure of the economic systems of mass production and mass consumerism that were the hallmarks of this era.

Backlash to the Industrial Era

Many Americans were skeptical of the new modernism entering into American society during the inter-war era. The horrifying scenes of World War I, with mass death resulting from armaments and toxic gases, left a disdain in many for the new technologies and industrial processes behind that destruction. These psychological effects of the war carried through the 1920s and 1930s. While exciting to some, the increased presence of the assembly line, a quicker pace of life, continual scientific and artistic developments, and rapid growth of new skyscrapers caused anguish to others. Critics bemoaned that the new machine age had changed the nation's moral and spiritual foundations without offering a substitute. Some foresaw the machines taking jobs away from laborers. Evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants led opposition to the rising consumer culture. They and others feared a spiritual starvation rising in America. Author Walter Lippmann labeled the new developments the "acids of modernity." An Agrarian Society, formed primarily of southern intellectuals, charged the rising consumer society spawned a "rootless individualism."

Critics of the newly emerging industrial society also came from the literary world, including Waldo Frank who wrote Our America in 1919 and poet T.S. Eliot who published "The Waste Land" in 1922. A number of the leading literary figures sought refuge in foreign countries, including T.S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, and Gertrude Stein. Artists maintained rustic rural retreats and modernist art colonies grew up in rural New England. The traumas of the Great Depression only intensified these criticisms.

Curing Social Ills

The continued pace of industrialization through the early twentieth century spawned various viewpoints on how to address the social problems resulting from the growth of industrial cities. Starting in the late nineteenth century with the rise of industrialization, a number of people published accounts of how technology could potentially contribute to a perfect society. These people were labeled utopians. They believed the ills of industrialization witnessed during that time period, including terrible working conditions for factory laborers, would be only temporary. As technology further developed, a clean, harmonious world would evolve. Technology would provide solutions to social problems where religion and political ideologies had failed.

Since these magical solutions seemed unlikely to materialize, private efforts grew to correct the social problems growing out of industrialization. The idea of "settlement houses" first began in London in 1884. The goal of a settlement house was to improve conditions in the neighborhood in which it was located. The facility would provide certain services, including counseling and sponsoring various types of local group activities. Social activist Jane Addams brought the idea to Chicago in the United States, establishing the Hull House in 1889. The facility, which expanded to 12 buildings and covered half a city block, gained international recognition.

More About…Mass Consumption

The outgrowth of mass production of goods was mass consumption by the public. The low-cost production by the new manufacturing processes of the 1920s and 1930s led to more and more products available, and hence increased consumption by the public. New social and environmental issues arose. Mass production made greater demands on raw materials. Conservation of natural resources and disposal of the wastes of production and discarded goods became long-term issues.

Mass production of goods also led to concerns over the quality of products across the nation. The growth of consumerism led to government agencies being charged to insure consumer protection and the rise of consumer protection organizations. Food and drugs received the greatest government control. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) was created in 1914 to guard against deceptive practices and regulate the package labeling of consumer products. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), first established in 1927, addressed consumer protection in foods, cosmetics, and other substances. Nonfood products were less thoroughly regulated. Standards institutions largely operated by industry addressed their quality. These institutions set minimum standards and addressed such topics as standardized electrical fittings.

By the 1950s safety standards for consumers gained greater attention. The standards, largely formed by industry, are normally not legally enforceable but are voluntary in nature. Standards regarding the effectiveness of products are not regulated but left for consumers to determine. The biggest inroads for insuring safe products were related to the auto industry in the 1960s, resulting from the work of consumer advocate Ralph Nader. The National Highway Traffic Administration was created in 1970 to deal with all aspects of auto safety.

Greater attention and stronger oversight was focused on advertising. As business competition rose on a national basis with the development of national brands, advertising became more complex, utilizing the powerful media of first radio then television. Enormous amounts of money were involved. Oversight of advertising centered on misleading and untruthful claims. Legislation also focused on minimum standards of accuracy for labeling some products, primarily food and drugs.

As well as working on social reforms and assisting local trade union organizations, the Hull House provided kindergarten and day nursery services and secondary and college-level extension classes. Settlement houses in the United States became very active in assisting the many new immigrants arriving in the country and leading efforts at social reform legislation such as passing child labor regulations, establishing workmen's compensation funds, and establishing juvenile court systems. An international organization of settlement houses was formed in 1926. Whereas President Herbert Hoover relied on such private programs to assist the needy during the early Great Depression years, President Franklin Roosevelt recognized their inability to deal with such a major economic crisis. His administration's New Deal programs provided assistance and relief on a scale that private organizations could not approach.

Reaching Back

Other forms of backlash grew against mass production. An Arts and Crafts Movement grew, promoting handicrafts as morally superior to the dehumanized mass-produced industrial goods. Some promoted pre-industrial handicrafts trying to bring back the idealized American spirit of the colonial period. The Arts and Crafts Movement's primary affects were on household furnishings. By living among such items, one could be transported back to a different era, at least to some degree.

This interest in turning back the clock was also stimulated by the great influx of immigrants to fill the rapidly growing numbers of factory jobs in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Many felt the new immigrants threatened the ideal America; that they were "unfit" to be Americans and would destroy the predominant culture and values. In 1921, and again in 1924, Congress passed laws to severely restrict the number of immigrants coming into the country.

Prosperity for Many

Most Americans embraced the new industrial production geared toward mass consumption and the resulting prosperity that rose to unprecedented levels. Many businesses and those workers with jobs prospered from the era of rising mass production. Employers enjoyed major profits, and workers the availability of a broad range of consumer goods. For those who could afford them, the new home appliances made daily life easier and freed more leisure time. The automobile, which had become a status symbol, was central in F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby (1925).

For many this prosperity carried into the Great Depression, despite high unemployment and many business failures. For example, with the rise of mass production and mass consumerism came the increased need for advertising on a scale never before seen. Advertising agencies were hired by manufacturers to entice the public to purchase newly available commodities. Many ad companies flourished during the 1930s. For example, the Chicago firm of Benton and Bowles, established in 1929 just before the stock market crash, grew to be one of the largest agencies in the world by 1935. Often owing to the creative work of these advertisers, some manufacturers prospered as well. The sales of Pepsodent toothpaste and Maxwell House coffee soared.


Rise of American Pop Culture

The era saw a distinctive American culture become much more defined. A national vision of what the "good life" should be like took shape. This rise of mass consumption and production led to a more uniform life throughout the nation. As a result, the longstanding regional variations in economy and society decreased considerably. This increased uniformity in American culture reflected a revolutionary change in American business. One such change was the growth of advertising and marketing expenditures. They became a major part of the U.S. economy. Another major outcome of this growing uniformity was that personal success and people's self-awareness became defined very differently from before. The traditional socializing framework oriented predominantly around God, nation, and family added a new fourth major dimension, pop culture. Radio greatly propelled this profound change to U.S. culture by opening up a whole new way of perceiving the world. These changes in social values, attitudes, and ideas were accompanied with dramatic changes in public health, education, and technology.

A distinction grew throughout the interwar era of the 1920s and 1930s between the elite arts (such portrait paintings, ballet, and symphony) and the more common ones (handicrafts, folk songs, theater). This distinction steadily became clearer during this era as technological innovations mounted, and the large super-corporations rapidly grew. Film, radio, and musical recordings greatly expanded the range of artistic expression in America. Motion picture studios, radio networks, and record corporations produced a steady stream of entertainment, often for great profit. Hollywood prospered as approximately 90 percent of money spent by the public on amusement went to movie theaters. As a result, the era was the golden age of radio and movies—an age that would be greatly altered by television after World War II.

This process, which led to an increasingly homogenous distinctive national culture, was referred to as "Americanization," as it reflected the departure from past European influences. Of course, Americanization only readily embraced those citizens of northern European, Protestant ancestry. Largely excluded from pop culture were ethnic and racial minorities. Ironically, black Americans, who were denied economic and social opportunity in almost every facet of U.S. society, played a major role in shaping this popular culture. Contributions by black performers such as Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday made American culture distinctively American. Jewish Americans also began to make their mark in American pop culture. This influence was particularly true in the film industry where eastern European immigrants including Adolph Zukor, Carl Laemmle, the Warner brothers, Marcus Loew, and others became the new movie moguls. Their dominance lasted well past World War II. Popular Jewish performers included Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, and Fanny Brice, all of whom opened the door for other Jewish entertainers in later years.

The new capitals of the modern consumer society were New York City and Hollywood. New York was the literary, cultural, and financial center. It contained publishing houses, music halls with the new jazz sound, and the big city vitality. Hollywood furnished widely watched films which largely promoted the new American popular culture.

In 1940 the United States stood at the beginning of a new modern world. But World War II greatly disrupted this trend toward modernism. After the war the United States experienced unprecedented prosperity from the late 1940s into the late 1960s; a prosperity built largely on the developments of the 1920s and 1930s.

Notable People

Jack Dempsey (1895–1983). Dempsey was the first major athlete in the interwar era following World War I—an era that became known as the Golden Era of Sports. At 6'1" and 190 pounds, he was not as big as modern day heavyweights, but his rise from humble origins, aggressive boxing style, and rugged persona gained him substantial popularity. Dempsey was born to poor Irish immigrants in Manassa, Colorado. During much of his youth, he rode the rails in the West as a hobo, looking for work and getting into fights. He entered professional boxing in 1917 and quickly rose to the heavyweight championship on July 4, 1919. Dempsey remained champion for over seven years. To the American public, Dempsey represented a link to the nation's rugged past in an era of rapid change. He also complemented the vitality of the new age of jazz and the automobile. Dempsey lost his title to exmarine Gene Tunney in September 1926 before a crowd of 130,000 spectators. The two boxers offered stark contrasts in style and personality which reflected the social conflicts in America during the 1920s. Tunney, coming from a middle-class family, represented a more scientific approach to boxing as opposed to Dempsey's brawler image.

Biography: Henry Ford

1863, July 30–1947, April 7 Henry Ford was an American industrialist who revolutionized factory production through the use of assembly line methods. This innovation spawned mass production and mass consumerism, a hallmark of the era of the 1920s and 1930s. Ford was born and raised on a farm in Dearborn, Michigan. At age 16 Ford began work in Detroit machine shops where he first became familiar with the internal combustion engine. He moved back to the farm where he built his own machine shop and began working on a small farm tractor using a steam engine. Ford again returned to Detroit where he gained employment as chief engineer for the Detroit Edison Company, which provided electrical service to the city. Pursuing his interests aside from his employment, he completed his first working gasoline powered engine by late 1893 and in 1896 built his first horseless carriage. With help from various backers, Ford formed the Detroit Automobile Company in 1899. After leaving and creating the Ford Motor Company in 1903, Ford marketed his first automobile. Then, in a move that would revolutionize America, in October 1908 Ford introduced the Model T automobile. In an effort to produce cars for the ordinary person rather than only the rich, Ford stressed low prices. The Model T sold for only $290 in 1927. Ford sold over 15 million cars in the United States in the next 19 years, and another one million in Canada. That was half of the automobiles sold in the world.

Because of Ford's goal to reach the common person, the car produced one of the greatest and most rapid changes in world history. The automobile industry became the strongest contributor to the American economy and greatly influenced the growth of cities and the spread of suburbs. It was production of the Model T that revolutionized industrial production by introducing the assembly line concept. Ford first introduced the concept in the new Highland Park, Michigan, auto plant in 1914. A new car was produced every 93 minutes, six times faster than previously possible. It was a giant gain in industrial productivity.

Another major achievement by Ford was attaining complete self-sufficiency with the opening of the River Rouge plant in 1927. With his new assembly line techniques, Ford was producing cars faster than his parts suppliers could keep up in the early 1920s. To fix that problem, Ford gained control of all aspects of the car manufacturing business, including the mining of raw materials, their transport to machine and auto plants, and the production and delivery of the automobiles.

Despite his major early achievements, the new auto industry kept changing rapidly, with many new innovations. By the late 1920s, Ford's company was lagging behind the innovations introduced by other car manufacturers. In December 1927 he introduced the Model A, but General Motor's Chevrolet and Chrysler's Plymouth outsold it. By 1936 Ford Motor Company ranked third in auto sales.

In addition to not keeping up with new innovations, Ford also bitterly opposed the formation of labor unions in the 1930s. He hired company police who incited violence to prevent unionization. This intimidation continued even after Chrysler and General Motors had come to terms with the United Automobile Workers (UAW). Ford workers did not organize until 1941.

Though Ford introduced tremendous technological change to U.S. society, he was still a believer in the rural values of his early life. Yet in an era marked by a major change in America from a rural agricultural to an urban industrial nation, Henry Ford perhaps was the most influential individual. He had triggered a permanent change in the economic and social character of the United States.

Lewis Mumford (1895–1990). Mumford was an American historian, urban planner, and architectural critic. He studied at the City College of New York and at the New School for Social Research. Mumford wrote on urban issues and architecture for New Yorker magazine from 1931 to 1963. After publishing several books from 1926 to 1931 on the history of American architecture, Mumford authored another series of four books from 1934 to 1951 criticizing the dehumanizing aspects of modern technological society. He urged that technology should be brought into harmony with more humanistic goals. He offered solutions to achieve this harmony in these books, which were entitled Technics and Civilization (1934), The Culture of Cities (1938), The Condition of Man (1944), and The Conduct of Life (1951). A key later work by Mumford was The City in History (1961), which assessed the role of the city in the history of human civilization. He received the U.S. Medal of Freedom in 1964 from President Lyndon Johnson. Mumford continued his criticism of the role of technology in a two-volume set titled The Myth of the Machine (1967–1970).

George Herman "Babe" Ruth (1895–1948). Baseball legend Babe Ruth dominated the sports world like no other during the 1920s and 1930s. His exuberant personality off the field, and accomplishments on the field, contributed to a mythology. Ruth was born and raised in the slums of Baltimore, Maryland. Largely neglected by his family, Ruth became a very mischievous youth. Lacking the financial means to raise Ruth, his parents legally committed him to St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys, a reformatory and orphanage, at age seven.

A standout in baseball, the local Baltimore minor league team signed Ruth in 1914. His contract was sold to the Boston Red Sox later that same year. In 1915 his hitting and pitching led the Red Sox to the World Series. He led the Red Sox to two more World Series in 1916 and 1918 before being sold to the New York Yankees in early 1920 because of the Red Sox's financial problems. Ruth's notoriety quickly took off in New York with his penchant for fast cars and women, rich food and drink, and stylish clothes. On the field he set hitting records and led the Yankees to seven World Series between 1921 and 1932. Until his retirement in 1935, he led the American League in home runs twelve times, including sixty in 1927 which stood as a major league record for the next 34 years.

Ruth projected a vibrant cultural image and was admired for both his rambunctious behavior and success. He symbolized the realization of the American dream through his display of power, natural ability, uninhibited lifestyle, and success rising from a rough childhood to fame and fortune. Ruth represented the ultimate spendthrift in the age of rising consumerism. He was the ultimate hero of the era and loved playing that role.

William Carlos Williams (1883–1963). A U.S. poet as well as medical doctor, Williams became a critic of the world's social trends during the Great Depression through such poems as "Proletarian Portrait" and "The Yachts." Later in Paterson, a five-volume set published between 1946 and 1958, Williams continued to assess modern man in America. Williams also wrote novels, including White Mule (1937), short stories, and an off-Broadway play. He was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 1963.

Frank Lloyd Wright (1867–1959). Wright was one of the most influential architects in U.S. history and greatly contributed to the rise in modernism in America. Through his career Wright designed some eight hundred buildings, of which 380 were built. He briefly attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison from 1885 to 1886 where he took engineering courses because no architectural training was offered. Eager to practice architecture, Wright left college for Chicago, where he found employment in an architectural firm. By 1893 he opened his own firm. His first work, designing a house for W.H. Winslow, attracted considerable national attention. Wright became a key part of the "Prairie School" movement in architecture. The Prairie School became widely recognized for the innovative approach to building modern homes. Contrary to architectural trends of the time, Wright utilized mass-produced materials and equipment, normally used for commercial buildings. Wright also diverged from the more elaborate compartmentalization (dividing into small rooms) and ornamental detailing of homes, opting for plain walls, open space, and roomier living areas. Wright built fifty Prairie houses between 1900 and 1910. He also designed and built apartment houses, churches, company buildings, and recreation centers. In 1909 he built his own residence, named Taliesin, in Spring Green, Wisconsin.

The stock market crash in 1929 stopped almost all architectural activity in the United States. During the early years of the Great Depression, Wright lectured at Princeton, Chicago, and New York City. He also began writing on urban problems in the United States, publishing The Disappearing City in 1932. Wright began the Taliesin Fellowship program, a training program for architects and related artists at Taliesin at Green Springs, Wisconsin. During the Depression Wright developed a new system for constructing low-cost homes known as Usonians. Among them were the Jacobs house (1937) in Wisconsin and the Winckler-Goetsch house (1939) in Michigan. When the economy improved, Wright began receiving commissions once again. Perhaps most notable was the weekend retreat, known as "Fallingwater," Wright built in Pittsburgh in 1936 The house extended out over a waterfall. Other work included the campus and buildings at Florida Southern College during the 1940s, the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, and the Marin County government center north of San Francisco.

Wright introduced a whole new style of American architecture. It involved considerable use of open space and "organic architecture" in which buildings harmonize with their setting as well as the inhabitants. To this end Wright published An Organic Architecture in 1939.

Primary Sources

The Progress of Science

In assessing the potential psychological costs of the machine age in the interwar era, Lewis Mumford made the following observations in The Story of Utopias, first published in 1922 (Peter Smith, 1959, pp. 271–282):

Science has provided the factual data by means of which the industrialist, the inventor, and engineer have transformed the physical world; and without doubt the physical world has been transformed. Unfortunately, when science has furnished the data its work is at an end: whether one uses the knowledge of chemicals to cure a patient or to poison one's grandmother is, from the standpoint of science, an extraneous and uninteresting question. So it follows that while science has given us the means of making over the world, the ends to which the world has been made over have had, essentially, nothing to do with science.

Indeed scientific knowledge has not merely heightened the possibilities of life in the modern world: it has lowered the depths. When science is not touched by a sense of values it works—as it fairly consistently has worked during the past century—toward a complete dehumanization of the social order. The plea that each of the sciences must be permitted to go its own way without control should be immediately rebutted by pointing out that they obviously need a little guidance when their applications in war and industry are so plainly disastrous.

The needed reorientation of science is important; but by itself it is not enough. Knowledge is a tool rather than a motor; and if we know the world without being able to react upon it, we are guilty of that aimless pragmatism which consists of devising all sorts of ingenious machines and being quite incapable of subordinating them to any coherent and attractive pattern.

Future Progress

Walter Lippman was an influential and internationally famous American journalist who often wrote about politics and modern society. He wrote a column for the New York Herald Tribune from 1931 to 1967. Lippmann was a critic of the New Deal, opposing big government solutions posed by President Roosevelt. In 1936 he offered observations on the increasing promise of science and technology in America despite the political uncertainty and economic hard times of the period. Lippmann penned the following thoughts as introductions to two sections of a book he co-edited, The Modern Reader: Essays on Present-Day Life and Culture (1936, p. 76, 164):

Even had the World War [World War I] never occurred, the economic structure of the globe and of the United States would doubtless have changed with unparalleled rapidity in the two decades between 1915 and 1935. For a century there had been a steadily accelerating pace in such change. But the war threw the world into confusion. It was responsible for a tremendous stimulation in some economic fields, a powerful retardation in others… In much of the world… the years immediately after the war witnessed an unexpected and illusory revival. This season of 'prosperity' was most exuberant and extravagant in the United States, where it came to an abrupt and calamitous end with the crash of 1929. The result has been, throughout the world but most of all in the United States, a drastic revision of certain economic ideas popular in the flush days of the boom, and a searching reexamination of old concepts of the proper relation between government and industry.

… [T]hanks to the achievements of science and invention, mankind now possesses the means to furnish ample security, leisure, and comfort to the people of the Western nations. For countless centuries men labored to solve the problem of producing enough food, fuel, and clothing to save them from want; now that problem is more than solved, and the new task is to find means of distributing the wares that technology could easily make superabundant. The contrast between the existing state of society, harassed by war, poverty, and a hundred other ills, and the peaceful and abundant state that ought now to be obtainable, sharpens the pens which castigate [attack] our social order and which present plans for altering it. Social criticism has never been more abundant, social Utopias have never been presented more alluringly… There are… philosophers… who contrast the serenity of Oriental civilization with the sick hurry of Western civilization.… Some men, believers of equality, would trust for movement forward to the masses, while others, believing in inequality, trust for progress to an aristocracy of leaders.

Sports Issues

Sports figures assumed larger-than-life dimensions during the Great Depression. A key factor was the sportswriters who wrote powerful characterizations of the exploits of sports heroes. One key sporting event was the victory of American black boxer Joe Louis over German Max Schmeling in a 1938 world championship bout held in the United States. The International News Service distributed the following article written by Bob Considine, reporting on Louis' victory and reprinted in David Halberstam's The Best American Sports Writing of the Century (1999, pp. 138–139):

Listen to this, buddy, for it comes from a guy whose palms are still wet, whose throat is still dry, and whose jaw is still agape from the utter shock of watching Joe Louis knock out Max Schmeling.

It was a shocking thing, that knockout—short, sharp, merciless, complete. Louis was like this:

He was a big lean copper spring, tightened and retightened through weeks of training until he was one pregnant package of coiled venom.

Schmeling hit that spring. He hit it with a whistling right-hand punch in the first minute of the fight—and the spring, tormented with tension, suddenly burst with … activity. Hard brown arms, propelling two unerring fists, blurred beneath the hot white candelabra of the ring lights. And Schmeling was in the path of them, a man caught and mangled in the whirring claws of a mad and feverish machine.

The mob, biggest and most prosperous ever to see a fight in a ball yard, knew that there was the end before the thing had really started. It knew, so it stood up and howled one long shriek …

Schmeling staggered away from the ropes, dazed and sick. He looked drunkenly toward his corner, and before he had turned his head back Louis was on him again, first with a left and then that awe-provoking right that made a crunching sound when it hit the German's jaw. Max fell down, hurt and giddy, for a count of three.

He clawed his way up as if the night air were as thick as black water, and Louis—his nostrils like the mouth of a double-barreled shotgun—took a quiet lead and let him have both barrels …

The big crowd began to rustle restlessly toward the exits, many only now accepting Louis as champion of the world. There were no eyes for Schmeling, sprawled on his stool in his corner …

But once he crawled down in the belly of the big stadium, Schmeling realized the implications of his defeat. He … now said Louis had fouled him. That would read better in Germany, whence earlier in the day had come a cable from Hitler, calling on him to win.

Suggested Research Topics

  • Examine Lewis Mumford's series of four books that began being published during the Great Depression in which he assessed the new modern technological society. The books are The Technics and Civilization (1934), The Culture of Cities (1938), The Condition of Man (1944), and The Conduct of Life (1951), all published by Harcourt and Brace of New York. What key problems in modern society did Mumford see? What solutions did he offer to make technology more helpful to cities?
  • What were the main industries of the interwar era? How and when were they affected by the assembly line technologies?
  • What sports were available to America's women? Did they change through the interwar era? How did they reflect U.S. society in general?
  • What factors made baseball America's pastime? How did it represent basic aspects of democracy?
  • Identify various architectural buildings best reflecting the interwar era. How do they differ from those of previous eras?



Baker, Houston A., Jr. Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Corn, Wanda M. The Great American Thing: Modern Art and National Identity, 1915–35. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

Erenberg, Lewis A. Steppin' Out: New York Nightlife and the Transformation of American Culture, 1890–1930. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.

Evensen, Bruce J. When Dempsey Fought Tunney: Heroes, Hokum, and Storytelling in the Jazz Age. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1996.

Flink, James J. The Automobile Age. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1988.

Lears, T. J. Jackson. No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880–1920. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Marchand, Roland. Advertising the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity, 1920–40. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

Miller, Donald L. Lewis Mumford: A Life. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1992.

Mumford, Lewis. The Story of Utopias. Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1959.

Pells, Richard W. Radical Visions and American Dreams: Culture and Social Thought in the Depression Years. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998.

Tichi, Cecelia. Shifting Gears: Technology, Literature, and Culture in Modernist America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987.

Westbrook, Robert B. John Dewey and American Democracy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991.

Wilson, Richard G., Dianne H. Pilgrim, and Dickran Tashjian. The Machine Age in America, 1918–41. New York: Brooklyn Museum, 1986.

Further Reading

Bradbury, Malcolm, and James McFarlane, eds. Modernism, 1890–1930. New York: Penguin, 1976.

Cooney, Terry A. Balancing Acts: American Thought and Culture in the 1930s. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1995.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby (1925). New York: Collier Books, 1986.

Gelderman, Carol W. Henry Ford: The Wayward Capitalist. New York: Dial Press, 1981.

Haskell, Barbara. The American Century: Art and Culture, 1900–50. New York: W.W. Norton, 1999.

Hoyt, Edwin P. The Tempering Years. New York: Scribner, 1963.

McCoy, Donald R. Coming of Age: The United States During the 1920s and 1930s. Baltimore, MD: Penguin Books, 1973.

Mumford, Lewis. The Culture of Cities (1938). New York: Harcourt Brace and World Inc., 1970.

——. The Condition of Man. (1944). New York: Harcourt Brace and World Inc., 1973.

——. The Conduct of Life. New York: Harcourt Brace and World Inc., 1951.

——. Sketches from Life: The Autobiography of Lewis Mumford, The Early Years. Boston: Beacon Press, 1983.

——. Technics and Civilization (1934). New York: Harcourt Brace and World Inc., 1963.

Noble, David F. America by Design: Science, Technology, and the Rise of Corporate Capitalism. New York: Knopf, 1977.

Twombly, Robert C. Frank Lloyd Wright: His Life and His Architecture. New York: Wiley, 1979.

See Also

Escapism and Leisure ; Everyday Life ; Hollywood ; Labor and Industry ; Radio ; World's Fairs

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The Interwar Era 1920-1940

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The Interwar Era 1920-1940