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“The Flapper,” F.A. Leyendecker, LIFE Magazine, February 1922
When we think of the 1920s, many of us have an image of grainy black-and-white film showing Flappers doing the Charleston on a skyscraper beam or plane wing to a soundtrack of Dixieland jazz. Flappers were fashionable young women who eschewed bulky petticoats and heavy skirts for a lighter style, shorter “bobbed” hair, tight felt hats, and (per their name) galoshes that flapped if left unbuckled. If you’re a sports fan, maybe the image is Babe Ruth knocking a home run out of Yankee Stadium. Either way, the overriding image of the decade is frivolity and exuberance, often fueled by illegal alcohol (though hopefully, that didn’t apply to the skyscraper dancers or to most of Ruth’s 714 home runs). Everyone seems to enjoy being filmed unless the cops are dumping out their booze bottles.
These images aren’t false by any means, but the Twenties are the first decade to come along where we need to be on guard against superficial impressions. We’ve all seen shows or commercials that condense entire decades down to iconic images: the sailor kissing his girl in Times Square when WWII ended in 1945, hippies twirling in the park or Apollo missions in the 60’s, depressing gas lines or disco balls in the 70’s, etc. These defining clichés obscure the underlying complexity of the times and often only represent the experiences of a handful. I had dozens of relatives alive in the 1960s. To the best of my knowledge, none twirled in a park in a tie-dye shirt and I know for sure that none walked on the moon.
We’ll dig beneath the surface of the 1920s and look at social conflict, industry, and criminality, then conclude with a look at the rise of mass entertainment that’s dominated popular culture ever since. First, we’ll look at some “roaring” images of our own. The driving video below gives us a full throttle, hair-raising tour of New York City nearly a century ago. Try to imagine yourself as having been raised on a 19th-century farm, never having visited a city, or seen powered vehicles or heard traffic noises. It’s a bit frenetic, but at least the driver isn’t distracted by texting.
Modern Americans are familiar with controversies over immigration. The U.S. has always been a land of newcomers but its people go through waves of relative hospitality and xenophobia, or fear of outsiders. In economic boom times, for instance, Mexican workers were welcomed but then deported in recessions like the 1930s. The 1920s came on the heels of over half a century of increasing immigration by Catholics, Jews, and southern and eastern Europeans who didn’t fit the mold of “native stock” WASPs (white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants). WASPs and other Americans from northern and western Europe didn’t consider the newcomers real Americans.
There’s a scene in the movie Petrified Forest (1936) when somebody compares 1930s gangsters with Old West outlaws. The grandfather says they’re different because “gangsters aren’t American.” He doesn’t say real American the way some people today would think of Barack Obama, as sort of a tweener; he left out that qualifier and just said, “not American.” That was typical of the way many “Native Americans” looked at even 2nd or 3rd-generation Italian-Americans, assuming that described the gangster in question. The WASPs had seen enough by the 1920s and dug in to retain their hold on American identity. It was partly due to World War I, that exposed soldiers to French ways and triggered a threatening Bolshevik revolution in Russia. That overlapped with tension at home between rural, more slow-paced, traditional America and the fast-growing cities. Cities were seen as repositories of all that was dangerous and alien to white Protestant farmers: immigrants, factories, moral promiscuity, and new ideas. WWI just widened the spigot of threats. In the previous chapter, we saw how America’s First Red Scare (1919-20) stoked a fear of Italian and Russian immigrants.
Bartolomeo Vanzetti (left) and Nicola Sacco, Boston Public Library
In 1920, immigrants Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti murdered a guard and paymaster in a bank robbery in Braintree, Massachusetts, sealing many Americans convictions that they were under siege. Their high-profile trial and electrocutions were more about their Italian ethnicity and anarchist political convictions than about the robbery, which happened routinely enough among America’s own citizens without leading to high-profile trials.
Town & Country
In the 1920s, the usual xenophobic/nativist tensions had another demographic dimension. The 1920 census showed that, for the first time in U.S. history, city dwellers and suburbanites outnumbered those in small towns and rural areas, raising fears that a traditional way of life was being eclipsed. The pristine rural purity they imagined never really existed in the first place, but there was definite truth to the notion that a traditional way of life was going by the wayside. Prohibition and the Ku Klux Klan can be partially understood as attempts to hang on to that traditional way of life, but they only made city dwellers and immigrants resent “country bumpkins” or “rubes,” worsening the problem. The term jaywalker comes from country “jays” in Los Angeles who, not used to urban traffic and more familiar with horses, stepped out in front of cars and buses. Imagine if you’d grown up when people and animals roamed freely in the streets. It would take some getting used to learning to look in both directions before crossing. This was especially a source of tension early on when only the wealthy could afford cars.
The rural-urban split, as historians call it, also had an economic dimension. The 1920s was an uneven period for agriculture because of the downturn in exports after WWI and drought on the Southern Plains that set in by the end of the decade. Meanwhile, the cities were booming because of renewed industrialism and electrification. The 1920s resonates with modern Americans increasingly divided politically and economically not just into red (conservative) and blue (liberal) states, but also the disputed “Big Sort” of blue “island” cities within otherwise red states.
The 1920s version of the rural/urban split manifested in several ways, most famously the dramatic re-emergence of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). One of the most popular movies of the silent era, Kentuckian D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915), was a sprawling Civil War epic that glorified the vigilante organization. Even President Woodrow Wilson, who was so progressive in his diplomatic ideals, endorsed the film at a special White House screening, and it included the quotation on the right from the founder of the League of Nations. Suffice it to say that protecting the millions of Blacks who lived in the “Southern country” wasn’t on their agenda. The new Klan, though, had national not just regional appeal. They had urban chapters, to be sure, but in the 1920s, the KKK represented the attitude of rural Americans North and South who hated Jews, Catholics, Blacks, Mexicans, homosexuals, intellectuals, and anyone else that didn’t fit the mold of the America they saw slipping away. They hated the Jewish producers who dominated Hollywood at Paramount, 20th-Century Fox, Columbia, Universal, MGM, Warner Brothers, and paradoxically overlapped with the Catholics mainly responsible for regulating films (Chapter 4). For the Klan, early movies celebrated the drinking, womanizing, and criminal behavior they associated with Catholic immigrants and modernity, and they didn’t want gangsters or adulterous women depicted in movies unless they suffered punishments for their actions.
KKK Sheet Music
This was the golden age of the new Klan, the original chapters of which originated during Reconstruction when Union troops occupied the South after the Civil War. The federal government outlawed that original Klan during Reconstruction, but Birth of a Nation spurred renewed interest, and it was released at just the right time to capitalize on renewed xenophobia. Newspaper editor William Simmons called for a meeting to rejuvenate the dormant group and they burned a ceremonial cross at Stone Mountain, outside Atlanta. Simmons served as Imperial Wizard from 1915-39.
KKK Marching Down Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D.C., 1928, National Archives
The 1920s was the one decade in American history when the Klan went mainstream enough that they could march proudly through the streets of any town, including 40k through Washington, D.C. They sponsored baseball teams, baby beauty contests, christenings, road rallies, father-son outings, and junior leagues. The Klan became a nationwide phenomenon, especially in the Midwest, standing for family and nation and supporting Prohibition. Indiana was ground zero, in fact. Future president Harry Truman felt compelled to sign on briefly when he ran for office in Missouri in 1924, though he quickly withdrew his membership. At its peak, the organization counted from 3-5 million members, before corruption and sex scandals contributed to its decline. According to the best-selling book Freakonomics (2005), the Klan thrived as a pyramid scheme, with members being paid to sign up new initiates and sell paraphernalia like costumes and an assortment of schwag starting with a K. Promoters called “klegals” signed up new members and “kluxed” the money upward toward the leaders. The Klan built on the post-WWI spirit of Red Summer when white Northerners lashed out at Blacks and Mexicans who’d moved north in the Great Migration.
Postcard of Leo Frank’s Lynching, Frey’s Hill (Frey’s Mill?) Cobb County, Georgia, 1915, Kenneth G. Rogers Collection, Atlanta History Center
Mary Turner, By Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, 1919
New southern chapters also tapped into the post-Civil War resentment toward Yankee carpetbagger businessmen south of the Mason-Dixon Line, such as Jewish factory superintendent Leo Frank, whom they wrongly suspected of strangling a 13-year-old girl. He was pardoned posthumously in 1982, but in 1915 Georgia politicians used the trial to encourage a Klan revival. More wholesome Klan gatherings tapped into the decade’s penchant for nostalgic Americana and white pride, but lynchings like that of Frank or suspected black criminals also drew enthusiastic crowds and were the subject of a thriving postcard trade. In Valdosta, Georgia in 1918, a white mob lynched African American Mary Turner for protesting her husband’s lynching the day before, then stomped to death her eight-month-old newborn infant when it fell to the ground.
Tulsa Riot Postcard, 1921
In Tulsa, Oklahoma, Blacks had followed the advice of activists Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. Dubois by opening their own banks to lend to black entrepreneurs. White banks wouldn’t lend to Blacks, making it impossible for them to start businesses. Following the purported rape of a white woman by a black man, angry Whites destroyed Tulsa’s Black Wall Street entirely in 1921, burning down 30 square blocks of “Little Africa” and killing 300 in a series of drive-by shootings, arsons, and even small bombings from private airplanes. The Tulsa Race Riots were not unprecedented. In Abraham Lincoln’s hometown of Springfield, Illinois, an entire black neighborhood was destroyed in a smaller 1908 riot that led white progressives to help co-found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The NAACP also used Mary Turner’s case in its anti-lynching crusades. While the prospect of black-on-white rape fueled much racism and paranoia and was featured in Birth of a Nation, rape was just the pretext of the Tulsa Riots. Whites sent Blacks a clear message to steer clear of finance or running small businesses. Similarly, white mobs razed neighborhoods and massacred Blacks in Occee, Florida (1920) and Rosewood, Florida (1923), with virtually no one punished. Not everyone went along with the vigilantism. In Texas, Williamson County District Attorney Dan Moody, Jr. courageously prosecuted four Klansmen for beating and killing a white northern salesman and was later elected state governor.
Family Leaving Damaged Home After 1919 Chicago Race Riot, New York Public Library-Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
From time to time, an Austin mob would scrap the skin off a young black man by dragging him up and down Congress Avenue behind a Model T, just to send a message. Blacks couldn’t swim in pools, try on clothes at stores, rent out ice skates, or attend movies at the Paramount or Stateside. Former plantation owner George Brackenridge donated Zilker Park to the city on the condition that no black child ever swim in Barton Springs. In 1928, the city established a formal plan to move all minorities to the east side, with Blacks and Hispanics north and south of 6th street, respectively. No minority outside the boundary could get utilities. (More in Chapter 15).
Don’t Give Us Your Tired, Your Poor, Your Huddled Masses
Famine and industrialization — including factories, improved rail and sea transportation, and the mechanization of agriculture — spurred emigration from Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Many went to Britain or America, especially the U.S., Canada, and Brazil, in search of economic opportunity and religious freedom (see peaks above). In the 1920s, though, racism and nativism virtually closed off immigration to the U.S. The Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and Johnson-Reed Immigration Act of 1924 tied future immigration levels to then-current ethnic ratios. Slowing migration from northern Europe thus curtailed the flow of immigrants from the Middle East and southern and eastern Europe. The Immigration Act was engineered by lobbyist Harry Laughlin, America’s leading eugenicist and superintendent of the Eugenics Records Office, mainly to block “dysgenic” Italians and Eastern European Jews.
Other laws cut off Asian immigration altogether, renewing restrictions from the late 19th century. Additionally, the U.S. repatriated huge numbers of Mexican-Americans back across the border, many of whom had been in the U.S. for generations working the railroads and cotton fields of Texas and the Southwest. Although the Statue of Liberty had a bronze plaque that read “Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses,” the door more or less slammed shut between the mid-1920s and mid-60’s. In one of the poorest argued cases in their history, the Supreme Court ruled in 1923 that Indian-American Bhagat Singh Thind, a WWI veteran, wasn’t an American citizen because he “didn’t fit the common man’s perception of a white man.” The 1924 Racial Integrity Act, set up to reinforce sterilization policies and prevent interracial marriage and oblivious to what we now know about DNA, officially divided all Americans into “white and colored.”
Cover of Theater Programme for Israel Zangwill’s play “The Melting Pot,” 1916, University of Iowa Libraries Special Collections
Despite America’s occasional fits of xenophobia, keep in mind that most countries didn’t populate themselves entirely through immigration the way the U.S. did, and today some disallow immigration altogether. For instance, while Denmark is invoked as a successful model of democratic socialism with free healthcare and college tuition, it protects its mostly white working class with strict immigration laws. People are more likely to share in homogenous societies. America’s unique history makes all anti-immigration sentiment, other than that of American Indians, hypocritical, and even Indians’ ancestors immigrated from Asia thousands of years ago. As depicted in this 1870 Thomas Nast cartoon “Throwing Down the Ladder By Which They Rose,” any American who opposes immigration is throwing down the same ladder his or her family used. However, the U.S. is an attractive enough country that it can’t begin to accommodate everyone who would come if it threw open the gates and completely opened its borders in the spirit of the plaque on Lady Liberty. The question is: who gets in and who doesn’t?
Today, many people see strength in diversity whereas, in the 1920s, the term melting pothad negative connotations, coined by those lamenting that America had become one. People came to America from all parts of the world, but not to hug each other and sing “Kumbayah.” They came hoping for better economic opportunities and to enjoy political and religious freedom, despite the annoyance of having to be around different people. That’s why American cities weren’t melting pots so much as mosaics — patchwork quilts of contiguous ethnic enclaves.
Scopes Monkey Trial
New ideas also put off traditionalists, especially Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Many states forbade the teaching of evolution in public schools, including Tennessee with the Butler Act of 1925. In Dayton, Tennessee, businessmen and the school board thought they could drum up attention and tourist dollars by assigning a textbook with sections on evolution, extinction, and eugenics to a substitute public high school biology teacher, John Scopes. Evolution and extinction are intertwined ideas because they both deny the (unchanging) immutability of species implied in a fundamentalist reading of the Bible, instead endorsing transmutation and the idea that extinction is part of the evolutionary process. Evolution was widely accepted after the 1870s and generated surprisingly little controversy in the late 19th century. What changed was the widespread advent of high schools during the Progressive Era; now mainstream Americans had to confront the theory and its unsettling implications.
The case was somewhat of a farce insofar as the state had actually approved the text (despite the Butler Act) and Scopes wasn’t even sure at first if he’d taught anything having to do with evolution. Nonetheless, he agreed to go along with it at the urging of the American Civil Liberties Union, who was advertising for a test case in the Chattanooga Times. The text, George William Hunter’s A Civic Biology (1914), would also stand out today because of its racist eugenic passages, but the controversy at the time was over evolution. Scopes was indicted and the resulting Scopes “Monkey Trial” was one of the most famous in American history. It was the first trial broadcast on radio (WGN Chicago), creating a media sensation similar to the O.J. Simpson murder trial in 1994. It pit two high-profile attorneys against each other: Clarence Darrow of Chicago arguing for the defendant and Fundamentalist Christian William Jennings Bryan arguing for the plaintiff, Tennessee. You may recognize Bryan. He was a three-time Democratic presidential candidate (losing in 1896, 1900 and 1908), Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson and, some say, the inspiration for the Lion in Frank Baum’s Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
Clarence Darrow (left) and William Jennings Bryan (right), ca. 1925 Dayton, Tennessee
Scopes pitted reason and modernity against faith and tradition, going straight to the heart of the rural/urban split in 1920s America. While Darrow was an agnostic, his superior knowledge of the Bible allowed him to argue circles around the aging Bryan, who thought evolutionary theory opened the door for a ruthless, survival-of-the-fittest, capitalist society. Not all Creationists are the same. Bryan was a “day-age” creationist insofar as he saw each of the seven days in the Genesis creation story as representing a long geological epoch, but he thought evolution constituted a slippery slope to atheism (right). Sadly, after several days arguing the high-profile case in the stifling heat of the crowded courtroom and then outdoors, Bryan died of a heart attack shortly after. A few tourist dollars came in with a carnival atmosphere and even caged monkeys but, for the most part, the city planners’ gambit was a bust.
Bryan and Tennessee won the case, though the State Supreme Court later acquitted Scopes. The case helped galvanize Fundamentalists in their effort to keep evolution illegal in public schools, up until the 1968 Epperson v. Arkansas Supreme Court case. Texas outlawed evolution in its public schools shortly after the Scopes case, spearheaded by Governor Miriam “Ma” Ferguson. The debate continues on today in the form of evolution/natural selection versus intelligent design or fine-tuned universe, “equal time” and “teach the controversy” debates, with evolution’s inclusion in public school curriculums motivating many parents to home-school their children or send them to private schools. As for Dayton, Tennessee, they continue to cash in on “evo-tourism” dollars by hosting an annual Scopes Trial Play & Festival, vindicating the town fathers’ original strategy.
Al Smith, Bain Collection-Library of Congress
Politically, Scopes wasn’t Democrat versus Republican; mostly it was rural Democrats versus urban Democrats. In that charged rural/urban environment, Democrats failed to unite working classes on the national level in the 1920s. How could they, when they represented both intellectuals and Fundamentalists, and both ethnic immigrants of the northern factories and mines and the remnants of the Confederacy that hated them? The Klan ran four state legislatures, not just in Texas and Oklahoma, but also Indiana and Oregon. The Democratic Solid South could dominate local and state elections, as could the Democratic machines of northern cities, but they couldn’t find a common platform when they gathered for their national convention in New York’s Madison Square Garden to nominate a presidential candidate. The KKK tried to take over the boisterous 1924 Convention as northern Democrats failed to add anti-lynching legislation to the plank.
The same was true in 1928. When Irish Catholic New Yorker Al Smith campaigned across the country for president, Texans and Oklahomans jeered and pelted him with rotten fruit — the preferred projectile of rural Americans who wanted to harass but not seriously harm others. Many Southern Democrats didn’t appreciate his (mild) New York accent, religion, or wetness (his endorsement of re-legalizing alcohol). Bob Jones, founder of the university bearing his name, spoke for some reactionaries when he said of the Yankee, “I’d rather have a n****r in the White House than see Al Smith as president.” Scores of other conservative Protestants didn’t share Jones’ bigotry and Smith managed to win portions of the Deep South. Yet, it wasn’t enough and the Democrats ended up shut out of the White House for the entire decade. As is often the case with the major parties, the Democrats of the 1920s struggled trying to unite a diverse coalition under a single umbrella. Comedian Will Rogers quipped, “I belong to no organized political party…I’m a Democrat.” Rogers also captured the indecision over Prohibition, joking that his home state of Oklahoma “would vote dry for as long as people can stagger to the polls.”
L-R: President Warren G. Harding, First Lady Mrs. Florence Harding, Mrs. Grace Goodhue Coolidge, Vice President Calvin Coolidge, ca. 1921, National Photo Company-Library of Congress
GOP In Control
The GOP was better suited to the laissez-faire (free market) tendencies of booming economies, anyway, and the 1920s were booming. They didn’t repeal the Progressive legislation of the previous thirty years, though. That’s because Progressivism hadn’t killed off business so much as it improved life for workers and strengthened the middle class, laying the foundation for 1920s prosperity. A decently paid workforce with more time off provided the customers to buy products as the U.S. moved toward a consumer-driven economy. Still, the prevailing political mood of the country was to let the new economy run without further interference. Progressive Robert La Follette (R) garnered 16% of the vote in 1924 on a Progressive ticket, but just siphoned votes from the Democrats. Of three Republican presidents in a row – Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover – the first two, especially, shared their Secretary of Treasury Andrew Mellon’s view that Washington shouldn’t be poking around Wall Street or the wider economy. Mellon cut the top tax rate from 77 to 24% and loosened up stock market restrictions, allowing investors to leverage their bets by going in debt, or on margin (you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to suspect that we’ll hear more about that in the next chapter).
Calvin [“Get Cool with”] Coolidge, future president Ronald Reagan’s favorite president, captured the tone of the era when he said, “The business of America is business.” Other than farming, which suffered due to the rebuilding of Europe after the war and dry weather, Harding and Coolidge presided over a strong economy that manufactured nearly half of the goods in the world. Like China and Southeast Asia today in the popular imagination, the U.S. was the “workshop of the world” (really, it’s still the U.S.). Even wheat farming on the Southern Plains boomed for most of the 1920s, right up until drought set in at the end of the decade. Underlying the strong industrial economy was electricity going mainstream, now a half-century after Thomas Edison first developed an efficient light bulb and a century after Georg Ohm and Michael Faraday laid the groundwork for electrical engineering.
Building out the electrical grid not only powered homes, offices, and factories, but the whole economy insofar as it created markets for electronic appliances. About two-thirds of the country was juiced by 1930, augmenting the already thriving Industrial Revolution. Replacing steam engines, electric “dynamos” powered factory assembly lines, many dedicated to making plug-in appliances like refrigerators, washers/dryers, vacuum cleaners, and radios that ran on electricity themselves. Not only did new sectors open up in consumer durables, but also electricians were needed to wire homes and buildings. Times were good for both management and labor, as the 40-hour workweek became the norm for blue-collar workers. Railroad workers won the right to the eight-hour day and time-and-a-half for overtime with the Adamson Act of 1916. Other industries followed suit when the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Adamson Act.
Power Company Setting Pole, Southern California, 1915, Source: Water & Power Associates
Some workers worked in nicer conditions, too, because of air conditioning. AC, along with elevators and telephones, enabled skyscrapers, making it bearable to work on high floors that would otherwise get too warm and be too hard to get to by stairs. Willis Carrier introduced the first real system at a movie theater in New York in 1929. Hollywood was suffering lower ticket sales in the summer because theaters were too stuffy. No AC, no summer blockbusters. Carrier modeled home units at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. Air conditioning raised worker productivity, home comfort levels — probably lengthening lives — and CO2 levels in the atmosphere (but only about half as much as heaters). Air conditioning led to the demise of front porch socializing but contributed to Southern industrialization. Textile mills, for instance, could now set up nearer cotton fields. Assembly lines moved south as well. James Duke made over four million cigarettes per day in Durham, North Carolina. Steel mills like those in Pittsburgh, Gary, Baltimore, and Cleveland popped up in Birmingham, Alabama after the discovery of hematite (red ore) at nearby Red Mountain.
Ultimately, AC led to a demographic shift in America away from the industrial Northeast toward the Sunbelt, booming cities like Miami, Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, and Phoenix. This occurred gradually over the next century, accelerated by construction of the interstate highway system in the 1950s-60’s. In 1909, Las Vegas had fewer than a thousand residents. It would’ve stayed that way without air conditioning, better highways, and construction of Hoover Dam (next chapter).
Meanwhile, Clarence Birdseye’s breakthroughs led to prepackaged foods when he figured out how to flash-freeze food without destroying nutrients and flavor. His epiphany came when living among the Inuit fishermen of Labrador, among whom he discovered that the quicker the freezing process, the smaller the ice crystals; the smaller the crystals the fewer the nutrients lost and flavor destroyed. America had entered the age of frozen foods, making two-income families more practical.
Auto Industry & Henry Ford
In manufacturing, Henry Ford led the way among dozens of automakers around Detroit, Michigan, aka the “Motor City.” He, too, moved to eight-hour shifts in the 1910s, increasing production in the process. Ford didn’t invent the automobile — German Karl Benz did 25 years earlier — but he was a brilliant mechanic and businessman who understood the need to build an affordable, practical car for the masses. Ransom Olds had a similar notion and started building the Oldsmobile Curved Dash on an assembly line in 1901, but Ford’s post-1911 line, engineered by Danish immigrant William Knudsen, was bigger and, eventually, powered by electricity — similar in scope to a meatpacking plant except in reverse: assembling cars rather than disassembling pigs and cows. While most early “horseless carriage” makers were obsessed with winning races, Olds and Ford realized the potential mass-market appeal of cars long before roads, bridges, and gas stations were there to service them. Ironically, Ford had to win races to make a name for himself in the auto industry and attract investors — “win on Sunday, sell on Monday,” as the saying goes. Racing stayed relevant as the testing ground of cars, leading to innovations like the rearview mirror, disc brakes, seat belts, and fuel injection.
Ford wasn’t trying to spur the growth of cities, highways, and suburbs. Rather, he thought cars could save rural America by making it easier for farm families to get around. He understood the isolation of rural life and rightly thought that improved transportation would make living in the country more amenable. Despite a limited education, Ford knew his way around the courtroom, too. He was among the first to profit from the government’s anti-trust movement, as he won a case in 1911 against the ALAM (Association of Licensed Automobile Manufacturers) cartel that controlled automotive patents, the same year the government broke up Standard Oil. He also branched out beyond cars. As was the case with horseless carriages, Ford didn’t invent tractors but he was first to mass-produce them (Fordsons). He was involved in the advent of modern supermarkets and airports and started a utopian rubber plantation in Brazil called Fordlandia — utopian not so much for the workforce, but for Ford in terms of securing cheap supplies of rubber (vertical integration). He had hopes for mass marketing planes he called “flying flippers,” as flipper was slang for car. But earth-bound flippers were Ford’s bread and butter.
Ford synthesized the assembly-line systems pioneered by Olds and meatpackers and attention to detail and efficiency promoted by Frederick Winslow Taylor and Richard Sears. He started Ford Motor Company in 1903, working his way through the alphabet with Models A-S. Each had a weakness he was dissatisfied with until he finally struck gold with the two-speed, four-cylinder, 20 HP Model T in 1908, one of the game-changing machines in world history. At his Highland Park plant outside Detroit, Ford tinkered with production just as he tinkered with transmissions. Gone were the movers and pushers of his early garages, replaced first by a rolling track, then gravity, and finally by a conveyor belt moving in front of stationary workers as Ford hovered nearby with his stopwatch. By 1923, his crew could bang out a Model T every 15-40 seconds, with each car taking about an hour-and-a-half to build start-to-finish. Ford built parts in Michigan and distributed knock-down kits for assembling Model T’s in West Coast cities, Japan, and throughout Europe and Latin America.
Between 1908 and 1927, 15 million “Tin Lizzies” rolled off the assembly line. Because of the efficiency of scale, the price plummeted from $850 to $260, making it affordable for the middle-classes. The Model T chassis could be converted into pickups, delivery trucks, etc. They proved their durability as ambulances on the Western Front in World War I. Each no-frills car came with few options outside the toolkit under the driver’s side seat. At first, even windshields were optional. Its hand-cranked magnetic generator powered the lights and ignited the engine. With few mechanics, owners had to do most of the maintenance and just starting it was a tedious 10-step process. While it doesn’t look the part to modern eyes, the Model T was sturdy enough to handle dirt and gravel roads in an era with few paved roads. For that matter, the Western Front in WWI didn’t have paved roads between trenches and field hospitals. Ford started building enclosed passenger cabins after the Essex company pioneered the trend away from open touring cars in 1922.
Ford paid decent wages but turned his line up to maximum capacity at around a foot per minute. He disallowed talking, laughing, or whistling on the line. Although the work required more mechanical skill than commonly thought, it was monotonous. Despite being among the first factory owners to give employees two days a week off (1926), many workers couldn’t take the grind, leading to high turnover known as “Forditis.” He also reserved the right for his Sociological Department to enter workers’ homes to make sure they were clean and that the workers were married and weren’t drinking, spending their paychecks frivolously, or sending checks back to their home countries. If this sounds extreme, understand that today’s companies have the right to secretly screen, test, spy on, and track employees in ways that would make Ford blanch; at least he was transparent.
Immigrants studied at Ford’s own ESL school before graduating at the Pageant of the Ford Melting Pot, in which graduates in native costumes went into a giant pot where teachers stirred giant spoons before graduates emerged in American clothes waving a U.S. flag. In 1914, he raised wages to $5/day, or what comes to around $14.50/hr. or $30k/year gross, adjusted for inflation — exactly double the 2015 minimum wage. Ford argued that good pay makes workers less likely to quit and better able to afford the cars themselves. Unlike Karl Marx or most of the 19th-century industrialists who opposed Marx, Ford saw workers not just as the exploited proletariat but rather as potential consumers. His assembly line workers drove Model-T’s. For Ford, that included Blacks and the immigrants from Poland, Russia, and the Middle East that he assimilated.
Many working-class Americans idolized Ford because he’d done so well for himself despite not having gone past 8th grade. The more the press rode him for his ignorance of American history, etc., the more common people rallied behind him. But Ford’s melting pot workforce belied a deeper bigotry. His anti-Semitism showed the underbelly of intellectual ignorance and he took advantage of his stature to spread that ignorance. Ford dealerships across the country distributed his Dearborn Independent weekly that explained how Jews were destroying the country and world. This was typical fare: “The Jews are the scavengers of the country…wherever there’s anything wrong with the country, you’ll find the Jews on the job there.” The paper ran Protocols of the Elders of Zion in serial form, a translated forgery from Czarist Russia depicting a Jewish conspiracy to take over the economy and media. The KKK bound and published 96 of the articles as The International Jew, the World’s Foremost Problem.
According to testimonies at the Nuremberg Trials after the Holocaust, The International Jew influenced Nazi ideology. The works attracted the attention of Adolf Hitler, who had a photo of Henry Ford in his office and who had him write the forward to his American edition of Mein Kampf. Nazis awarded the aging industrialist the Grand Cross of the German Eagle in 1938. His subsidiary in Germany, Ford Werke, worked Jewish slaves. Ford, then, represented not only the efficiency of the new industrialism but also the xenophobia of the 1920s. For him, Jews were “mere hucksters…traders who didn’t want to produce, but make something out of what someone else produces.” But Ford wasn’t a Nazi himself; he’d even been somewhat of a pacifist when he tried to organize peace talks to end World War I. Stay tuned to this story because, despite his toxic and influential anti-Semitism, Ford’s manufacturing technique contributed to America’s victory in WWII.
River Rouge Ford Plant, Dearborn, Michigan, ca. 1927, Library of Congress
Despite Ford’s anti-Semitism, Jewish architect Albert Kahn designed the Highland Park plant and its successor. From 1916 to 1928, Ford and Kahn built the largest factory in world history at River Rouge, near Ford’s farm outside Detroit. It was a model of vertical integration, complete with its own blast furnaces to smelt ore, foundries, tool works, power plant, fire department, security, and railroad connections to feed its 120 miles of conveyors belts. They dredged the nearby river to allow for freighters. The plant used more water daily than the cities of Detroit, Cincinnati, and New Orleans combined and employed 75k workers. Though he and Kahn conceived this colossal vanguard of industrialization, the River Rouge Complex was so gigantic, noisy, and heartless that Ford grew to hate it and gradually quit visiting. He put his time into a nostalgic 19th-century village called Greenfield and transplanted to the village his original small factory, the Wright Brothers’ bicycle shop from Dayton, Ohio, and his idol Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park from New Jersey. Today, it’s the biggest museum in America.
In the 1910s, Ford sold over half the cars in the world, but a consortium of other manufacturers including Pontiac, Buick, Oldsmobile, and Cadillac formed General Motors (GM) to whittle away at Ford’s market share. Cadillac was the remnant of one of Ford’s own earlier companies. GM tried to buy out Ford, too, but his $3 million asking price was too high. Walter Chrysler retooled GM along the lines of Ford’s efficient assembly. After GM ousted its CEO, William Durant, Durant hired Swiss racer/designer Louis Chevrolet (right) to form his own company and, after Durant bought enough stock to regain leadership in GM, Chevrolet joined GM. Ford’s chief engineers, Horace and John Dodge, were unhappy that Ford never paid out dividends to his original minority investors (including the Dodge brothers), instead reinvesting back into the company. Ford hired his son Edsel as president to send fear into Wall Street, driving down Ford’s price enough that he could buy back his minority investors’ stock cheaply until he owned 100% of it himself (for perspective, consider that John Rockefeller never owned more than 25% of Standard Oil). Edsel was an innovative engineer and had a mind for business, but Henry never intended on letting his son run the company for as long as he was alive; the stock ruse was a classic “poop and scoop” as opposed to the reverse “pump and dump.” The Dodge Brothers, whom Ford bought out for $25 million, left to form their own company but both died from complications of the flu epidemic at the end of World War I. Chrysler, who didn’t get along with Durant, then left GM and bought Dodge, renaming it Chrysler. There were hundreds of car companies around the turn of the century, but clear winners emerged by the 1920s that enjoyed an economy of scale: the resources for efficient mass production. The “Big Three” that dominated for the next half-century was in place: Ford, GM, and Chrysler.
GM and Chrysler/Dodge attacked Ford where he was weakest: the stodgy Model T never changed and its 20 HP engine wasn’t particularly strong. The Dodge brothers introduced the 35 HP all-steel unibody chassis Model 30 Series, which became a favorite of moonshiners during Prohibition. General Motors pioneered hydraulic brakes and electric starters while Ford stuck with mechanical brakes (friction) and the hard-to-use hand crank until 1919. GM excelled at planned obsolescence, introducing different colors and yearly model changes into a sector that suffered from too much durability. If Ford sold practicality, GM under Alfred P. Sloan marketed the aspirational. To maintain status, upwardly-striving Americans could dream of moving up the chain from Chevy to Cadillac. The other two companies followed GM’s tier business model, with Ford adding Mercury and Lincoln on top while Chrysler slotted Dodge and Plymouth below.
Ford stubbornly refused yearly model changes at first, even firing advisors who suggested it. He shot down and ridiculed Edsel’s ideas and Knudsen left for GM in 1924. Finally, by 1927, Ford discontinued the Model T and diversified into the revived Model A, built at River Rouge with an electric starter and available in a range of colors on installment plans. Edsel (right) designed the Model A and widened the valves to give it 40 HP but Henry took the credit and resented his son’s contribution. GM experimented briefly with the more powerful eight-cylinder engine, but Ford was first to mass-produce the iconic V8 in 1932. By now, he’d also publicly recanted his anti-Semitism because, as he un-remorsefully explained on his deathbed, “too many Jews were driving Chevys.” In his last interview in 1947, he said, “I’ll take my factory down brick by brick before I’ll let any of the Jew speculators get stock in the company.”
Automobiles came to occupy a similar place in the American economy that trains had earlier. Cars and trucks were not only one of the country’s biggest businesses for manufacturers and dealers, they provided markets for steel, rubber, oil, gas, upholstery, mechanics, and road builders. That fact made news in 2009 as the government debated bailing out General Motors. For every job at GM, there were ten more from companies feeding into GM. After the 1920s, cities built suburbs around highways, shopping malls went up at highway intersections, and drive-in restaurants, theaters, and dry cleaners sprouted up along roads. Better roads and cars gave rise to family vacations that had previously been limited to train routes. Dating habits changed, despite Ford shrinking the size of the Model T’s backseat to restrict procreation. While jazz and speakeasies were the faces of the 1920s, it was really cars that ushered in modern American life and cars were more important than any other industry in boosting the economy. Most cities had streetcars early in the twentieth century but, outside of the East Coast and Chicago, where density made subways and urban rail practical, most tracks were abandoned or torn up and replaced with highways as Americans came to favor cars and trucks. Buses filled in the gaps for other commuters. The state and federal governments taxed gasoline to pay for a new system of bridges and paved highways made of concrete or asphalt, a sticky petroleum by-product mixed with gravel.
L-R: Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, President Warren G. Harding, and Harvey S. Firestone, 1921, NYT Photo Archive
Los Angeles was the most notorious and influential example, where a city (or series of cities in their case) destroyed mass transit infrastructure in favor of freeways. Critics since have bemoaned the L.A. Streetcar Conspiracy because the city took money from GM and oil and tire companies, and GM actually bought the trains to destroy them. But the public was trending in that direction anyway, as people preferred the freedom cars afforded them. Later, freeway and street congestion offset the freedom of cars, so western cities scrambled to rebuild the mass transit they’d taken out earlier in the 20th century.
Ford was influential on other industries, as Harley-Davidson motorcycles, Hershey chocolate (eventually 25 million Kisses® per day), Coca-Cola®, Wrigley gum and Max Factor’s makeup all applied the mass-production assembly line system and built global businesses. All had five-day, 40-hour weeks and paid fair wages in a safe workplace. With improved working conditions and fewer hours, a new consumer market emerged in the 1920s: mass entertainment. The years after WWI saw the convergence and maturation of key inventions and industries, including movies, records, and radio (or wireless). Motion pictures started to come of age in the 1910s, but the 20’s saw the first large-scale proliferation of theaters. By the early 30’s, they were often air-conditioned at a time when few homes were, making them summer retreats. Theaters were owned by big companies that churned out movies on an assembly line of their own called the studio system. The vertically integrated studios not only owned the theaters, they owned the actors, in a sense, whom they kept under contract. Stars rarely branched out on their own with talent agencies until after WWII.
Harry Houdini, 1899
Mary Pickford, 1920
The 1920s saw the first generation of movie stars, most notably Mary Pickford and comedian Charlie Chaplin. By 1927, engineers discovered how to merge film and sound, creating the first talkies and driving many actors/actresses out of the business whose accents didn’t fit the WASP ideal. Movie stars weren’t the only ones who could be filmed. Film magnified the advantage of performing unlikely feats like walking on a trapeze wire, escaping out of a coffin thrown into a river, or flying stunts. The dancers doing the Charleston on a skyscraper beam we mentioned at the top of the chapter wouldn’t have risked their lives if they weren’t showing off for a camera. Escape artists like Harry Houdini, a poor immigrant from Hungary, made a living by daring escapes, but it wouldn’t have paid the bills or attracted live audiences for upcoming stunts if film hadn’t spread his feats to millions.
Radio had an equally big impact after improvements in vacuum tube technology. By 1930, 60% of Americans owned one, transforming sports, entertainment, and — as we’ll see in coming chapters — politics. Radio brought large spectator sports like baseball, prizefights, horse races, and college football into Americans’ living rooms for the first time. By increasing interest in sports, radio paradoxically led to greater attendance at live events. Prior to radio, only people in big cities who went to games ever experienced major league baseball and there were no big league teams in the South or West. Everyone else had to follow box scores in newspapers the next day and boys collected player cards from cigarette boxes. Radio and advent of the home run fence re-energized an already popular game, turning stars like the Yankees’ Babe Ruth into household names. Ruth’s notorious drinking and womanizing symbolized the decade’s trademark hedonism.
Babe Ruth, 1920, Library of Congress
Colleges now had sufficient alumni to fund and take an interest in football, which grew into a big sport before its professional counterpart. In an age of WASP dominance, Notre Dame rallied underdog Catholics all over the country, generating a national following for the small Indiana school. They cleverly exploited the situation by taking trains to opponents on the West Coast and New York (Army) to attract nationwide radio-listening fans and recognition for their team. In Los Angeles, a small Methodist school built a good team first, then used the proceeds to build most of their campus. Today, USC (Southern Cal) remains a football powerhouse.
At first, most other radio entertainment was 19th-century fair — minstrel shows