Automobile, Will Rogers, Silent Films, America in the 1920s, Primary Sources for Teachers, America in Class, National Humanities Center (2024)

Full screen

« Previous Next »

3. Automobile

"Why on earth do you need to study what's changing this country?" exclaimed an Indiana resident during an interview in 1929. "I can tell you what's happening in just four letters: A-U-T-O!"1 What more was there to say? Plenty, it seemed, as the media of the day were saturated with commentary on the a-u-t-o and where it was taking America at breakneck speed. Literally. Accident rates soared, road construction lagged, traffic congestion dominated cities' woes, and the need for more parking space seemed like a national emergency. Yet the automobile did reduce travel time, did reduce rural isolation, did increase life's pleasures, did a lion's share of boosting the economy. In the 1920s, as never before, the automobile became a must-have item for the successful American, and it was changing everything.

  • Collected commentary. There were certainly as many words written about the automobile as there were new cars on the road every year. We sample a small portion here, in three broad topics: first, the auto's direct effects such as traffic congestion, pedestrian deaths, and reduced travel time; second, its psychological effects as status symbol, guarantor of personal independence, token of one's individual worth, and herald of progress in the MACHINE AGE; and finally, one of the pivotal events of the decade, Ford's introduction of the modern Model A in 1927. Compare the commentary with that on other marvels of the decade, the airplane, the radio, and movies. You will find that humor appears more often in the automobile commentary: why? Selections can be divided among students for research and classroom discussion. (13pp.)

  • Humorist Will Rogers on traffic safety. Renowned as the "cowboy-philosopher" of the 1920s and 1930s, Rogers began a nationally syndicated column of witty yet pungent news commentary in 1922. Becoming popular across the partisan divide, he traveled nationwide delivering his humorous take on the day's events. His folksy humor always delivered a punch, as is evident in his syndicated column of April 4, 1926, in which he challenged Americans' seeming acceptance of mounting traffic fatalities, and in his brief address to traffic chiefs, recorded in June 1923, in which he offered five "rules" for reducing traffic accidents (see transcript). What harsh realities could Rogers address through humor? what political messages? To see and hear him in action, view the one-minute newsreel of his 1928 appearance with Speaker of the House John Nance Garner in Washington, DC.

  • Wheels of Progress, ca. 1927. Produced by the U.S. Bureau of Roads, this silent film contrasts the early days of auto travel in the 1890s with the rapid changes of the 1920s. "What has wrought this change? Motors—Good roads—Personal transportation." Placing its promotional message for roads within the educational film, the Bureau reminded the driving and taxpaying public that "like the hen and the egg—the motor car and the road are indispensable to one another's progress." Print the intertitles text (black-panel text) to aid your viewing of the film. (14:13) INTERNET MOVING IMAGE ARCHIVE

  • Silent newsreels. Produced in the Motor City by the Detroit News, these newsreels present light-hearted vignettes on the pursuit of safer brakes. In "Motorists try brakes for police department" (1927), drivers receive a sticker if their cars successfully brake within a specified distance. In "Had your automobile brakes tested yet?" (1928), we are introduced to the "decelerometer," a device for measuring how quickly an auto can brake to a stop. How did these newsreels function as entertainment as well as safety messages?

Discussion Questions

  1. From the resources in this section, list the major benefits, problems, and challenges presented by the automobile in the 1920s.
  2. How did the automobile's influence change and accelerate in the 1920s, compared to the previous two decades?
  3. What psychological effects did the automobile have on individual Americans and on the nation as a whole?
  4. How did the nation differ in 1930 from 1920, based on the automobile alone?

Contemporary commentary and Will Rogers's humor ____

  1. From the commentary, collect the superlative statements about the automobile, such as "No phenomenon in history presents any parallel for this sudden rush to the roads" (New Republic, July 7, 1926). Compare them with superlative statements in Twenties commentary on the airplane, the radio, and movies. How was the automobile's effect on society seen as more profound?
  2. Also note the assertions that the automobile's effect on the future would be incalculable and difficult to project. Why was this unsettling while thrilling?
  3. What did Clarence Darrow mean by the "automobile complex" that has "taken possession of mankind"? How did the auto "symbolize both good and evil"?
  4. Present arguments for and against the proposition of the English writer and statesman Thomas Macaulay (as quoted by A. D. Albert) that those inventions that "have shortened distance have done the most for humanity."
  5. What did A. D. Albert define as the "most comprehensive change" wrought by the automobile? Why?
  6. Albert states that "[H]ow almost without a pause in our thinking have we adjusted our lives to these factors new since yesterday!" What adjustments are mentioned in the commentary, films, and Will Rogers's humor? Were they seamless or awkward adjustments?
  7. Most of the commentators were middle-aged or older. How did they predict the younger generation's response to the changes wrought by the automobile?
  8. What perspective was offered by the European commentators? In what ways were they in awe of the American relationship with the automobile? What did they perceive as a unique American response to the automobile?
  9. How did humor add to the discussion of the automobile's effect on America? Why, do you think, were traffic accidents and pedestrian injuries a major topic of the humor in the early 1920s, more than other consequences of the automobile?
  10. How did Will Rogers use humor and hyperbole to underscore the severity of traffic fatalities?
  11. How did the Los Angeles Times incorporate humor into its 1925 traffic "ten commandments"? Would the humorous commandments be more or less effective than a straight list of traffic tips, in your opinion?
  12. How did Charles Merz use a humorous fictional dialogue ("The Once Open Road") to dramatize the psychological effects of automobile ownership in the 1920s? To what did he ascribe the owners' competition and one-upmanship?
  13. What aspects of America's obsession with the automobile did Sinclair Lewis incorporate in the dinner table conversation in Babbitt? What did he mean that the desire to own a car was like an "aspiration for knightly rank"? How did he achieve this as a novelist, not an essayist?
  14. Why did William Ashdown assert that the car was replacing the house as an "indicator of social position"? How did he judge this transition?
  15. Summarize the "three great gifts" promised by the automobile, as outlined by Stuart Chase. Why did he choose the word "gifts" instead of "benefits" or "advantages"?
  16. Which commentators admit that, while they have great concerns about the effect of the automobile, they have succumbed to its allure? How did they explain their behavior?
  17. Why did most clergymen reply in a 1921 poll that, overall, the automobile had proved an "ally to the church"?
  18. According to E. S. Martin, why was the 1927 introduction of the Ford Model A an "Event" with a capital E? How did the new design say progress?
  19. What take did Will Rogers, Frederick Lewis Allen, the U.S. Bureau of Roads, and other commentators have on the equation AUTOMOBILE=PROGRESS?
  20. What was clergyman Reinhold Niebuhr's response to the new Model A? Why?
  21. How did Frederick Lewis Allen perceive the introduction of the Model A from a few years' perspective? How did its public launch resemble a 21st-century publicity extravaganza?
  22. For Allen, how did the automobile change the "face of America"?
  23. For all commentators, how did the automobile change Americans?
  24. Select one statement from the commentary below and use it to introduce an essay summarizing the Twenties' discussion of the automobile and its consequences. Include your 21st-century perspective on the issue. Strive to include a literary device in your essay, e.g., humor, hyperbole, satire, paradox, analogy, etc.
    • - "The day of the horse is gone. The automobile has driven him from the roads."

      Clarence Darrow, 1932

    • - "I'll go without food before I'll see us give up the car."

      Resident of Muncie, Indiana, interviewed in 1924-1925

    • - "Why on earth do you need to study what's changing this country? I can tell you what's happening in just four letters: A-U-T-O!"

      Resident of Muncie, Indiana, interviewed in 1924-1925

    • - "[W]e have got to find some way to conquer this machine which appears to have conquered us."

      W. P. Eaton, 1923

    • - "[The traffic fatalities are] part of the price we have to pay for the new era which, whether it is worth what it costs or not, is certainly here to stay."

      The New Republic, 1926

    • - "[The automobile] has captured our psychological interest, as nothing has ever done before, and as perhaps nothing will ever do again."

      Stuart Chase, 1929

    • - "If we have lost out by the coming of the motor car, the fault is in ourselves. . . . The bane or blessing of anything we have in this world depends on ourselves."

      Episcopal minister, 1921

    • - "What is there left for Americans to make epics of, if not their motors?"

      Charles Merz, 1925

Film and newsreels ____

  1. What was the goal of the U.S. Bureau of Roads in producing the silent film Wheels of Progress? How is the goal evident in the intertitle text?
  2. How did the film present the automobile's benefits to rural and urban residents of America? How would better roads accelerate the auto's benefits?
  3. How did the newsreels present the issue of brake safety as entertainment?
  4. What does this glimpse of auto safety innovations illustrate about the time?

Framing Questions

  • How did "machine age" innovations change American life in the Twenties?
  • How did fans and critics of the changes, including artists, express their views?
  • What longterm effects on American society did they predict from the innovations? To what extent were they accurate?
  • How does their commentary resemble 21st-century discussion about technological innovation and social change, e.g., the Internet, social networking, robotics, nanotechnology, informatics, and more?


Collected commentary
Will Rogers, syndicated column
Will Rogers, sound recording
Film, Wheels of Progress
Intertitles text
13 pp.
2 pp.
Listen online.
1 p.
View online.
1 p.
View online.
17 pp.

Supplemental Sites

Automobile magazine issues in Prosperity and Thrift: The Coolidge Era and the Consumer Economy, 1921-1929 (Library of Congress)

Automobiles in the Progressive and New Eras, 1900-1929 (WPA Life Histories, Library of Congress)

America on the Move, online exhibition (National Museum of American History/Smithsonian)

Automobile in American Life and Society, online exhibition (University of Michigan-Dearborn and the Benson Ford Research Center)

The Automobile in "Middletown" (Muncie, Indiana), excerpt from Lynd & Lynd, Middletown: A Study in American Culture, 1929 (Prentice-Hall)

Resources from The Henry Ford

Model A introductory film, silent film, Ford Motor Co., 1928 (23:17; Internet Moving Image Archive)

Newsreels related to automobiles (Detroit News Pictorial/Wayne State University)

"Henry Ford's Model A," song recorded by Oscar Ford, 1929 (Internet Moving Image Archive)

"Henry's Made a Lady out of Lizzie," song by Walter O'Keefe, 1928 (David Gartman)

"Automobiles and milady's mood," advertisem*nt for Paige-Jewett cars, 1927 (History Matters: George Mason University and the City University of New York)

Good Roads Movement: conduct an Internet search on "good roads" and the name of your state to study the Good Roads movement in your area. Examples include:

  • - Great Plains (Encyclopedia of the Great Plains)
  • - Kansas (Kansas Historical Society)
  • - North Carolina (N.C. Museum of History)
  • - Tennessee (Tennessee Encyclopedia of History & Culture)
  • - Texas (Texas State Library & Archives Commission)
  • - Wisconsin (Wisconsin Historical Society)

Newsreels of Will Rogers (British Pathé News)

1 Robert S. Lynd & Helen Merrell Lynd, Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1929).

– Model A assembly line in Ford River Rouge (Detroit) plant, photograph, 1928 (detail). Ford Motor Company Archives. Permission request in process.
– Traffic in downtown Detroit, Michigan, at Michigan and Griswold, photograph, ca. 1920 (detail). Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library, DPA4395. Reproduced by permission.
Los Angeles Times, digital images of news articles (details): "Can't Control Modern Traffic," November 8, 1926, and "Traffic Trips in Bible Parlance," August 2, 1925. Permission request in process; digital images courtesy of ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
– Automobile accident, Miami, Florida, photograph, 1925. State Archives of Florida, RC21029. Courtesy of the State Archives of Florida.
– "Modern Traffic," illustration, The Nation, Sept. 15, 1926. Copyright not held by The Nation. Artist signature illegible.
– Luther W. Coleman and his Chevrolet, Saint Petersburg, Florida, photograph, November 12, 1924. State Archives of Florida, N047517. Courtesy of the State Archives of Florida.
– "Girl in machine," photograph of young woman at steering wheel of automobile, 1921; original copyright by F. C. Quimby. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-100382.
– Automobiles in window of the Washington Cadillac Co., Washington, DC, photograph, 1927. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, National Photo Company Collection, LC-USZ62-111329.
– Rear view of automobile on a dirt road, Wisconsin, ca. 1920; photograph title: "The Auto is King of the Road," probably a marketing photo of the International Harvester Company. Wisconsin Historical Society 48772. Reproduced by permission.
– Overturned automobile, Aurora, Illinois, photograph, December 1926. Wisconsin Historical Society 75521. Reproduced by permission.

*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.

1. "Machine Age" 2. Factory 3. Automobile 4. Airplane 5. Radio 6. Movies

Automobile, Will Rogers, Silent Films, America in the 1920s, Primary Sources for Teachers, America in Class, National Humanities Center (2024)


How did the automobile change American life in the 1920s? ›

Cars revolutionized American life. They eased the isolation of rural families and let more people live farther from work. A new kind of worker, the auto commuter, appeared. Other forms of urban transportation, such as the trolley, became less popular.

What were the negative effects of automobiles in the 1920s? ›

Cars were blamed for most urban problems, including pollution, energy exploitation, congestion, scores of traffic fatalities, suburban sprawl, and the demise of downtowns.

What were the pros of the automobile in the 1920s? ›

Yet the automobile did reduce travel time, did reduce rural isolation, did increase life's pleasures, did a lion's share of boosting the economy. In the 1920s, as never before, the automobile became a must-have item for the successful American, and it was changing everything.

What type of consumer goods altered daily life in the 1920s? ›

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.

What are three ways the automobile changed American life? ›

More specifically, the Lynds found that the automobile had such effects as the following: (1) family budgets had changed dramatically; (2) ministers complained that people drove their cars rather than going to church; (3) parents were concerned that their boys and girls were spending too much time together "motoring"; ...

What major effect did automobiles have on American society in the 1920s? ›

Effects of the Automobile

Freedom of choice encouraged many family vacations to places previously impossible. Urban dwellers had the opportunity to rediscover pristine landscapes, just as rural dwellers were able to shop in towns and cities. Teenagers gained more and more independence with driving freedom.

How has the automobile positively or negatively impacted American society? ›

Teenagers gained more and more independence with driving freedom. Dating couples found a portable place to be alone as the automobile helped to facilitate relaxed sexual attitudes. Americans experienced traffic jams for the first time, as well as traffic accidents and fatalities.

What are 3 negative effects of the automobile? ›

The modern negative associations with heavy automotive use include the use of non-renewable fuels, a dramatic increase in the rate of accidental death, the disconnection of local community, the decrease of local economy, the rise in cardiovascular diseases, the emission of air and noise pollution, the emission of ...

What was the impact of the automobile quizlet? ›

What was the impact of the automobile? * On American life, it liberated the isolated rural family who could travel to the city for shopping and entertainment, gave families the opportunity to vacation in new and faraway places, women and young people are more independent, and workers can live miles from their jobs.

What was the most significant innovation for cars in the 1920s? ›

Many of the automobile innovations that we assume of as being modern were in fact introduced in the 1920's. For example, front wheel drive, four wheel drive, electric powered cars, and even hybrid fuel/electric cars. The braking system of the cars improved as cars became more powerful and traffic increased.

How did technology change American life in the 1920s? ›

American life changed dramatically in the 1920s, which saw the first trans-Atlantic phone call, the first movie with sound, the first enclosed car at popular prices, and the discovery of penicillin. This car, rigged with two pistols, was used to measure a motorist's reaction time in applying the brakes.

What was life like before automobiles? ›

Before the invention of trains and automobiles, animal power was the main form of travel. Horses, donkeys, and oxen pulled wagons, coaches, and buggies. The carriage era lasted only a little more than 300 years, from the late seventeenth century until the early twentieth century.

How did cars affect the 1920s? ›

The automobile also changed the way farm products were brought to market. By the 1920s, motor vehicles laden with eggs, milk, or vegetables destined for the nearest market were common sites on rural roads. Transportation costs were lowered and prices of agricultural products in urban areas declined as a result.

What could a dollar buy in 1920? ›

Your dollar would get you two pounds of coffee, at $0.47 per pound, or two dozen eggs at $0.47 a dozen. Bread was $0.12 for a one-pound loaf, so you could get eight loaves of bread for a dollar. Butter to put on your bread would cost about $0.70 a pound.

What were the positive changes in society in the 1920s? ›

The 1920s are often referred to as the decade of great change. Women gained the right to vote, movies evolved from silent to talkies, there was an explosion of activity in arts and literature, assembly lines were in full swing, and the list goes on and on.

How the automobile influenced American culture and society during the 1920s? ›

Here are three ways it changed the society: Transportation: The automobile revolutionized transportation, allowing people to travel faster and farther. This led to the growth of suburbs and the decline of public transportation. Economic Changes: The automobile industry boomed, creating jobs and stimulating the economy.

How did car culture change American life? ›

The automobile and the Interstate became the American symbol of individuality and freedom, and, for the first time, automobile buyers accepted that the automobile they drove indicated their social standing and level of affluence. It became a statement of their personality and an extension of their self-concepts.

Which impact did the automobile have on the United States in the 1920s quizlet? ›

(1) Cars tremendously increased the mobility of Americas because they allowed people to travel where they wanted when they wanted (2) The ability of people to now drive to work allowed people to live farther away from the workplaces leading to the growth of suburbs around cities (3) Spreading car use led the government ...

Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Van Hayes

Last Updated:

Views: 5430

Rating: 4.6 / 5 (46 voted)

Reviews: 93% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Van Hayes

Birthday: 1994-06-07

Address: 2004 Kling Rapid, New Destiny, MT 64658-2367

Phone: +512425013758

Job: National Farming Director

Hobby: Reading, Polo, Genealogy, amateur radio, Scouting, Stand-up comedy, Cryptography

Introduction: My name is Van Hayes, I am a thankful, friendly, smiling, calm, powerful, fine, enthusiastic person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.