After World War I, research and development propelled the United States and other
industrial countries into the age of modern technology. Advances in transportation,
communication, and manufacturing allowed middle-class consumers to buy cars, radios,
and home appliances, which they saw advertised in magazines and newspapers. In their
leisure time, people crowded into palatial movie theaters to gaze at films featuring
their favorite stars. Near the end of the decade, the Great Depression would cause
consumer spending to drop precipitously. It would not return to its 1920s levels
until the economic boom following World War II.
Driving Cultural Change
Wartime innovations like electric starters and air-filled tires made modern automobiles possible.
No longer resembling boxes on wheels, cars now became sleek vehicles graced with chrome-plated bumpers.
Before the war, only the rich could afford such cars. But when prices dropped after the war, demand
skyrocketed and manufacturers increased production. Now car ownership came within range for middle-class
buyers. The popularity of the automobile fueled lifestyle changes. In Europe and the United States, roads
were built and new businesses opened. People began to move to the suburbs and commute to work.
Guglielmo Marconi had conducted the first successful experiments with radio in 1895. But only
during World War I did developed countries fully begin to exploit the advantages of wireless
communication. The world's first commercial radio station, KDKA in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania,
began broadcasting in 1920. Within a few years, almost every major city in the United States
was broadcasting news, plays, music, and sporting events. Just as during the 1950s large numbers
of families began buying television sets, in the 1920s most families bought their first radio.
Outside the home, popular entertainment in the 1920s meant going to the movies. In the
1920s, an average Indiana town of 35,000 boasted nine movie theaters. These movies stayed
open from 1 P.M. to 11 P.M.
every day of the year. In addition to the United States, countries from Cuba to Japan also produced
movies. But 90 percent of all movies came out of the Los Angeles suburb of Hollywood.
How did Americans in the 1920s find the time to enjoy these new forms of entertainment? During
this period, machines, such as vacuum cleaners, washing machines, and refrigerators, increased
leisure time by reducing the time it took to do housework.
Credits: Model T © Bettmann/Corbis; Iron Advertisement The Granger Collection,
New York; Gas station © Corbis; Couple listening to radio © Culver Pictures;
Rudolph Valentino © Archive Photos/Picturequest; Washing machine ad The Granger Collection, New York.
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