Culturally and socially, the Roaring Twenties were a heady time of rapid change, artistic innovation, and high-society antics. Popular culture roared to life as the economy boomed. New technologies, soaring business profits, and higher wages allowed more and more Americans to purchase a wide range of consumer goods. Prosperity also provided Americans with more leisure time, and as play soon became the national pastime, literature, film, and music caught up to document the times.
Much of the impetus for this modernization came from America’s so-called second Industrial Revolution, which had begun around the turn of the century. During this era, electricity and more advanced machinery made factories nearly twice as efficient as they had been under steam power in the 1800s.
Perhaps the greatest increase in efficiency came when Henry Ford perfected the assembly-line production method, which enabled factories to churn out large quantities of a variety of new technological wonders, such as radios, telephones, refrigerators, washing machines, and cars. The increasing availability of such consumer goods pushed modernization forward, and the U.S. economy began to shift away from heavy industry toward the production of these commodities.
The automobile quickly became the symbol of the new America. Although Americans did not invent the car, they certainly perfected it. Much of the credit for this feat went to Ford and his assembly-line method, which transformed the car from a luxury item into a necessity for modern living. By the mid-1920s, even many working-class families could afford a brand-new Model T Ford, priced at just over $250. Increasing demand for the automobile in turn trickled down to many other industries. The demand for oil, for example, boomed, and oil prospectors set up new wells in Texas and the Southwest practically overnight. Newer and smoother roads were constructed across America, dotted with new service stations. Change came so rapidly that by 1930, almost one in three Americans owned cars.
Its effect on the U.S. economy aside, the automobile also changed American life immeasurably. Cars most directly affected the way that Americans moved around, but this change also affected the way that Americans lived and spent their free time. Trucks provided faster modes of transport for crops and perishable foods and therefore improved the quality and freshness of purchasable food. Perhaps most important, the automobile allowed people to leave the inner city and live elsewhere without changing jobs. During the 1920s, more people purchased houses in new residential communities within an easy drive of the metropolitan centers. After a decade, these suburbs had grown exponentially, making the car more of a necessity than ever.
American cities changed drastically during the 1920s because of factors above and beyond those related to the automobile. First, the decade saw millions of people flock to the cities from country farmlands; in particular, African Americans fled the South for northern cities in the post–World War I black migration. Immigrants, especially eastern Europeans, also flooded the cities. As a result of these changes, the number of American city dwellers—those who lived in towns with a population greater than 2,500 people—came to outnumber those who lived in rural areas for the first time in U.S. history.