Automobiles and Airplanes: Americans on the Move

Learning Objectives

  • Explain how the innovations and changes Henry Ford brought to the automobile industry impacted American culture
  • Identify key advancements in airplane technologies

Cinema was not the only major industry to make great technological strides in this decade. The 1920s opened up new possibilities of mobility for a large percentage of the U.S. population, as automobile manufacturers began to mass produce what had once been a luxury item, and daring aviators both demonstrated and drove advancements in aircraft technology. The most significant innovation of this era was Henry Ford’s Model T, which made car ownership realistic for average Americans. 


Ford did not invent the automobile. The Duryea brothers in Massachusetts, as well as Gottlieb W. Daimler and Karl Friedrich Benz in Germany, pioneered the first viable designs. By the early twentieth century, hundreds of car manufacturers existed. However, they all made products that were too expensive for most Americans. Ford’s innovation lay in his focus on using 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. As prices dropped, more and more people could afford to own a car. 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 twenty-three million automobiles on American roads.

An advertisement entitled “Watch the Fords Go By” features drawings of two Ford automobiles. The prices are listed at $780 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.”

Figure 1. This advertisement for Ford’s Model T ran in the New Orleans Times-Picayune in 1911.

The Ford Assembly Line

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 they had to be, in Ford’s words, “no smarter than an ox.” Ford’s reliance on the moving assembly line, scientific management, and time-motion studies added to his emphasis on efficiency over craftsmanship. Henry Ford’s assembly line, which advanced production strategies practiced within countless industries, made automobiles accessible and further drove the spirit of consumerism. By 1925, Ford’s factories were turning out a Model-T every ten seconds.

Ford’s emphasis on cheap mass production brought both benefits and disadvantages to its workers. Ford would not allow his workers to unionize, and the boring, repetitive nature of the assembly line work generated a high turnover rate. However, he doubled workers’ pay to five dollars a day and standardized the workday to eight hours (a reduction from the norm). Ford’s assembly line also offered greater equality than most manual labor work of the time, as 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.

Watch It

Would you have wanted to work at Henry Ford’s factory, manufacturing Model Ts? Why or why not?

You can view the transcript for “Model T Ford Assembly Line” here (opens in new window).

The Failed Fordlandia Experiment

Ford even bought a plot of land in the Amazonian jungle twice the size of Delaware to build a factory town he called Fordlandia. Workers there rejected his midwestern Puritanism even more than his factory discipline, and the project ended in an epic failure. In the United States, however, Ford shaped the nation’s mode of industrialism—one that relied on paying decent wages so that workers could afford to be the consumers of their own products.

The Automobile’s Impact on the Economy and Society

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.

As the automobile became more popular and more reliable, more people traveled more frequently and attempted greater distances. Women increasingly drove themselves to their own activities as well as those of their children. Vacationing Americans sped to Florida to escape northern winters. In order to serve and profit from the growing number of drivers, Americans erected gas stations, diners, motels, and billboards along the roadside. Automobiles themselves became objects of entertainment: nearly one hundred thousand people gathered to watch drivers compete for the $50,000 prize of the Indianapolis 500. Another societal change due to the automobile was the creation of drive-in movies. People would meet at the nearest movie location, park their cars in front of the huge screen, and watch the films in comfort. Drive-in theatres became a major gathering spot for newly mobile teenagers, who would take their dates to the movies. Families could pack into the car with their snacks, and watch movies late into the night.

The number of registered cars ballooned from just over nine million in 1920 to nearly twenty-seven million by the decade’s end. Americans owned more cars than Great Britain, Germany, France, and Italy combined. In the late 1920s, 80 percent of the world’s cars could be found on American roads.


Once World War I was over, several national governments sold their planes at low prices, and many pilots bought them and spent the 1920s barnstorming. That is, they would go from small town to small town, landing at a farm and showing off their piloting skills. Many times, they would allow passengers to fly with them, too. Because airplanes were new and dangerous, pilots were celebrities wherever they went. It wasn’t long before the barnstormers had organized themselves into airshows, where pilots would compete in races, acrobatic stunts, and even mock battles. The new competitions helped the pilots and mechanics to recognize the flaws in their own designs and learn from each other, helping them customize and refine their aircraft as they continued to make aviation a popular feature in everyday life. Barnstorming also helped to popularize a few names. The biggest of the time was Amelia Earhart, who was as good or better than most of her male counterparts. Other famous women flyers included ‘Pancho’ Barnes, Georgia ‘Tiny’ Broderick, Mabel Cody (a niece of Buffalo Bill), and Bessie Coleman.

Airplanes revolutionized transportation. The original use for the airplane was in mail transportation. Airplanes were initially built of lightweight materials like wood and canvas, but continual developments in the aviation industry over the first decade of powered flight led to increased use of metal parts and panels until all-metal airplanes became the norm. In 1928, 4,600 American airplanes were built and 104 different models were exhibited at a single airshow, leading Henry Ford to predict that there would have to be consolidation within the industry. The airplane provided the only rapid worldwide transportation network, which made it essential for global business. It generated economic growth, created jobs, and facilitated international trade and tourism.

The First Solo Transatlantic Flight

The 1920s not only witnessed a transformation in ground transportation but also major changes in air travel. By the mid-1920s, men 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 thirty-three hours.

Photograph (a) shows Charles Lindbergh standing in front of a plane labeled “Spirit of St. Louis.” Photograph (b) shows Bessie Coleman posing on the wheel of a plane.

Figure 2. Aviator Charles Lindbergh stands in front of the Spirit of St Louis (a), the plane in which he flew from New York to Paris, France, in 1927. Because American flight schools barred Black students, stunt pilot Bessie Coleman (b), the daughter of Texas sharecroppers, taught herself French to earn her pilot’s license overseas.

Lindbergh’s flight made him an international hero, and the best-known American in the world. On his return, adoring crowds of Americans greeted him with a ticker-tape 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 skies by mastering a 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 U.S. domestic air passengers was just over 450,000 annually. By the end of the decade, that number had increased to nearly two million.

Appliances and New Technology

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.

Figure 3. 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.”

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. Recently developed innovations like radios, phonographs, vacuum cleaners, washing machines, and refrigerators emerged on the market during this period. While these items were expensive, new consumerism-enabling innovations like store credit and installment plans made them available to a larger segment of the population. Many of these 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.

The Growth of Advertising

Despite the promise of more leisure time via technologies of convenience going unfulfilled, the appeal of this idea lingered in the new consumer society. This aspiration 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 ads decorated the pages of these publications and became a staple in American popular culture.

The form of the advertisements, however, was not new. These colorful print ads were merely the modern incarnations of an advertising strategy that went back to the nineteenth century. The joy of buying spread to a growing number of Americans in the early twentieth century as the rise of mail-order catalogs, mass-circulation magazines, and national branding campaigns further stoked consumer desire. The new medium for advertisers in the 1920s, the one that would reach out to consumers in radically new and innovative ways, was radio. Spurred on by these many inducements, expenditures for household appliances grew by more than 120 percent between 1919 and 1929.

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Model T: the first car produced by the Ford Motor Company that took advantage of the economies of scale provided by assembly-line production and was therefore affordable to a large segment of the population

moving assembly line: a manufacturing process that allowed workers to stay in one place as the work came to them