In the 1920s, assembly line production and easy credit made it possible for ordinary Americans to purchase many new consumer goods. 

Overview

  • For many middle-class Americans, the 1920s was a decade of unprecedented prosperity. Rising earnings generated more disposable income for the purchase of consumer goods.
  • Henry Ford’s advances in assembly-line efficiency created a truly affordable automobile, making car ownership a possibility for many Americans.
  • Advertising became as big an industry as the manufactured goods that advertisers represented, and many families relied on new forms of credit to increase their consumption levels as they strived for a new American standard of living.

Consumption in the 1920s

The prosperity of the 1920s led to new patterns of consumption, or purchasing consumer goods like radios, cars, vacuums, beauty products or clothing.
The expansion of credit in the 1920s allowed for the sale of more consumer goods and put automobiles within reach of average Americans. Now individuals who could not afford to purchase a car at full price could pay for that car over time -- with interest, of course!
With so many new products and so many Americans eager to purchase them, advertising became a central institution in this new consumer economy.

Affordable automobiles

New possibilities of mobility opened up in the 1920s for a large percentage of the US population. Once a luxury item, cars became within reach for many more consumers as automobile manufacturers began to mass produce automobiles. The most significant innovation of this era was Henry Ford’s Model T Ford, which made car ownership available to the average American.
By the early twentieth century, hundreds of car manufacturers existed. But they all made products that were too expensive for most Americans. Ford’s innovation lay in his use of mass production to manufacture automobiles. He revolutionized industrial work by perfecting the assembly line, which enabled him to lower the Model T’s price from $850 in 1908 to $300 in 1924, making car ownership a real possibility for a large share of the population. Soon, people could buy used Model Ts for as little as five dollars, allowing students and others with low incomes to enjoy the freedom and mobility of car ownership. By 1929, there were over 23 million automobiles on American roads.
An advertisement entitled “Watch the Fords Go By” features drawings of two Ford automobiles. The prices are listed at 780and780 and 725, along with details about each model. In the center of the advertisement, an illustration shows a couple driving along an idyllic country road. At the bottom is the text “Ford Cars Sold by Russell Motor Car Co. 2120-2130 Canal Street, New Orleans, LA. See Our Exhibit Booth at Show”.
This advertisement for Ford’s Model T ran in the New Orleans Times Picayune in 1911. Note that the prices had not yet dropped far from their initial high of $850. Image credit: OpenStax College.
The assembly line helped Ford reduce labor costs within the production process by moving the product from one team of workers to the next, each of them completing a step so simple that workers had to be—in Ford’s words—“no smarter than an ox.” Ford’s reliance on the assembly line placed emphasis on efficiency over craftsmanship.
Ford’s focus on cheap mass production brought both benefits and disadvantages to his workers. Ford would not allow his workers to unionize, and the boring, repetitive nature of the assembly line work generated a high turnover rate.
A photograph shows assembly line workers producing Ford automobiles.
In this image from a 1928 Literary Digest interview with Henry Ford, workers on an assembly line produce new models of Ford automobiles. Image credit: OpenStax College
On the other hand, Ford doubled workers’ pay to five dollars a day and standardized the workday to eight hours—a reduction from the norm of the time. Ford’s assembly line also offered greater racial equality than most employment of the time; he paid white and black workers equally. Seeking these wages, many African Americans from the South moved to Detroit and other large northern cities to work in factories. Ford shaped the nation’s mode of industrialism to rely on paying decent wages so that workers could afford to be the consumers of their own products.
The automobile changed the face of America, both economically and socially. Industries like glass, steel, and rubber processing expanded to keep up with auto production. The oil industry in California, Oklahoma, and Texas expanded as Americans’ reliance on oil increased and the nation transitioned from a coal-based economy to one driven by petroleum.
The need for public roadways required local and state governments to fund a dramatic expansion of infrastructure, which permitted motels and restaurants to spring up and offer new services to millions of newly mobile Americans with cash to spend. With this new infrastructure, new shopping and living patterns emerged, and streetcar suburbs gave way to automobile suburbs as private automobile traffic on public roads began to replace mass transit on trains and trolleys.

Airplanes

The 1920s not only witnessed a transformation in ground transportation but also major changes in air travel. By the mid-1920s, men—as well as some pioneering women like the African American stunt pilot Bessie Coleman—had been flying for two decades. But there remained doubts about the suitability of airplanes for long-distance travel. Orville Wright, one of the pioneers of airplane technology in the United States, once famously declared, “No flying machine will ever fly from New York to Paris [because] no known motor can run at the requisite speed for four days without stopping.” However, in 1927, this skepticism was finally put to rest when Charles Lindbergh became the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, flying from New York to Paris in 33 hours.
Charles Lindbergh stands in front of his plane Spirit of St. Louis.
Charles Lindbergh in front of the Spirit of St. Louis in 1927. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
Lindbergh’s flight made him an international hero: the best-known American in the world. On his return, Americans greeted him with a parade. His flight, which he completed in the monoplane Spirit of St. Louis, seemed like a triumph of individualism in modern mass society and exemplified Americans’ ability to conquer the air with new technology.
Following his success, the small airline industry began to blossom, fully coming into its own in the 1930s as companies like Boeing and Ford developed airplanes designed specifically for passenger air transport. As technologies in engine and passenger compartment design improved, air travel became more popular. In 1934, the number of US domestic air passengers was just over 450,000 annually. By the end of the decade, that number had increased to nearly two million.

The lure of technology

Technological innovation influenced more than just transportation. As access to electricity became more common and the electric motor was made more efficient, inventors began to churn out new and more complex household appliances. Newly developed innovations like radios, phonographs, vacuum cleaners, washing machines, and refrigerators emerged on the market during this period. These new items were expensive, but consumer-purchasing innovations like store credit and installment plans made them available to a larger segment of the population.
Many of the new devices promised to give women—who continued to have primary responsibility for housework—more opportunities to step out of the home and expand their horizons. Ironically, however, these labor-saving devices tended to increase the workload for women by raising the standards of domestic work. With the aid of these tools, women ended up cleaning more frequently, washing more often, and cooking more elaborate meals rather than gaining spare time.
Despite the fact that the promise of more leisure time went largely unfulfilled, the lure of technology as the gateway to a more relaxed lifestyle endured. This enduring dream was a testament to the influence of another growing industry: advertising. The mass consumption of cars, household appliances, ready-to-wear clothing, and processed foods depended heavily on the work of advertisers. Magazines like Ladies’ Home Journal and The Saturday Evening Post became vehicles to connect advertisers with middle-class consumers. Colorful and occasionally provocative print advertisements decorated the pages of these publications and became a staple in American popular culture.
An advertisement headlined “Keep That Wedding Day Complexion” features an illustration of a rosy-cheeked, elaborately dressed bride. An image of Palmolive soap is shown alongside a lengthy description of the soap’s benefits. At the bottom, to illustrate that the soap contains oils used by Cleopatra, an image depicts two rosy-cheeked, white women dressed in flowing garments and seated in a room whose décor is reminiscent of ancient Egypt.
This advertisement for Palmolive soap, which appeared in Ladies’ Home Journal in 1922, claimed that the soap’s “moderate price is due to popularity, to the enormous demand which keeps Palmolive factories working day and night” and so “the old-time luxury of the few may now be enjoyed the world over.” Image credit: OpenStax College

What do you think?

Would you have wanted to work at Henry Ford's factory, manufacturing Model Ts? Why or why not?
Do you think the United States was destined to become a nation of car owners and highways? How might the country be different if cars weren't the default form of transportation?
What were the benefits and drawbacks of buying on credit?
Do you think the new "labor-saving" devices actually saved women any time spent on household labor?

Attribution

This article is a modified derivative of "Prosperity and the Production of Popular Entertainment" by OpenStaxCollege, CC BY 4.0.
The modified article is licensed under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.
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