Introduction to the 1920s: Henry Ford, The Model T, Art Deco and The Great Gatsby


It can be argued that the real beginning to the 20th century was that time between the end of World War I and October 24th, 1929. For the first time the world had an almost immediate communication system in the form of commercial radio. Movies showed how others lived, told stories of love, hate, revenge, comedy and tragedy.

The art was Deco. The music was jazz, and the drug of choice was illegal booze. This was also a health threat. Some of the more disreputable distillers cut the alcohol with methanol and denatured alcohol. The results were blindness and/or death. This was not the only health hazard. TB was the scourge of the early 20th century. In 1920, 113.1 people per 100,000 died from this disease.

Being a member of the KKK or the Communist Party was on the same level as belonging to the Rotary or Lions Clubs. Women were demanding the vote and equality in the bedroom.

People were moving from rural America to the cities in droves. Movies, magazines and popular books taught these new comers how to survive living in a new environment. Farmers were feeding the country, but many were going bust doing so.

According to the Kingwood College Library of American Cultural History website there were 106,521,537 people living in the forty-eight states. Unemployment was a low 5.2%, and the average annual earnings were $1236. This was mostly due to Henry Ford. He set the standard for mass production assembly line jobs and high wages.

Travel was no longer limited to the horse and buggy. Henry Ford gave the average American the Model T. Unfortunately, paved and well maintained roads were rare outside of the larger cities. Riding in a car could be a dirty, dusty, wind blown event.

Perhaps, the defining symbols of this decade are the flapper doing the Charleston to frenetic jazz, collegiate men wearing raccoon coats and gangsters like Al Capone. To many the book that defined the age is THE GREAT GATSBY by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Like most symbols they are too broad to apply to Joe Worker and Jane Homemaker. But, there was a sense of optimism that wouldn’t be felt again until the end of World War II. This unfettered confidence led to consumers buying on the lay-a-way plan and/or the monthly installment plan. Joe and Jane could now have an electric stove and refrigerator, a radio for entertainment, and read by the ambient glow of electric light.

The world seemed to be moving at an accelerated speed. For some it was too much too fast. For others it was a time of long awaited change. For citizens of the 20th century it was the start of the profound adjustments that led to a life intertwined with technology and visions of a future where the quality of life is improved through this joining.