Presentation - National Humanities Center

January 5, 2018 | Author: Anonymous | Category: Social Science, Political Science
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The Car and the City: Popular Culture in the 1920s An Online Professional Development Seminar Henry Binford Associate Professor of History Northwestern University National Humanities Center Fellow


To deepen understanding of the how cars changed American culture in the 1920s with a special emphasis on how they shaped the growth and meaning of the city

To provide fresh primary resources for use with students


FROM THE FORUM Challenges, Issues, Questions What was it like when the idea of getting somewhere fast was brand new? What did fast mean in the 1920s? How did Americans develop their obsession with the car? How did the car affect things like courtship, urban design, and politics? How did the car liberate women? How did the new mobility affect people’s world view?

How did the car change rural America?


FROM THE FORUM Challenges, Issues, Questions How did the car change family life in the 1920s? What roles do the car and the city play in The Great Gatsby? Teacher recommended resources: • an essay by Paula S. Fass called “Sex and Youth in the Jazz Age” • the PBS film of Fitzgerald's "Bernice Bobs Her Hair" • clips from 1920s films like It and The Jazz Singer as well as some Chaplin • films 20s era advertising from the LOC American Memory Project ( • Beth Bailey, From Front Porch to Back Seat: Courtship in Twentieth Century America • Inherit the Wind


Henry C. Binford Professor of History Northwestern University National Humanities Center Fellow 1990-91 The First Suburbs: Residential Communities on the Boston Periphery, 1815-1860 The Invention of the Slum: Poverty and the Remaking of Urban Space in America, 18301890 (Forthcoming)


Framing Questions Henry Ford thought his mass-produced cars would democratize America. Did motor vehicles make the United States more democratic? Many writers have talked about motor vehicles as producing a “revolution” in American culture between the nineteen-teens and the Great Depression. What changed, exactly, in the American economy, in society, in politics in this period? What did not change?


Outline of the Seminar


Background. How did we become a motorized nation?

II. Automobiles, the Right of Way, and Travel Expectations. III. Motor Vehicles and the City Periphery. IV. Motor Vehicles and the City Center. V. Motor Vehicles and American Culture.

The Bicycle Craze, 1880 - 1900

Pope Bicycle Factory, Connecticut


Three Steps to Automobility Olds




Chevrolet Utility Coupe Advertisement (1923) Is Your Wife Marooned During the Day? Have you ever considered what is meant by the hundreds of cars parked in the business sections during the working hours?

The wife finds it of every day utility for shopping, calling, taking the children to school in bad weather, etc.

Most of them carried business men to work, leaving their wives and families at home, marooned because the family’s one car is in daily use by the husband and father.

Its price and upkeep are low yet the quality is high.

That is one reason why architects and builders now find that all suburban and many city homes must be provided with twin garages. The Chevrolet Utility Coupe with Fisher Body makes an ideal extra car, especially in combination with a 5-passenger touring or sedan.

Chevrolet Motor Company

Who owns the road? What are streets for? What is driving for? “Automobile Party Mobbed by Boys,” New York, 1902 “Mr. Thomas was highly indignant at the treatment he and his party had received and promised to push the matter in the courts.

“It was only last Thursday that Justice Freedman in the Supreme Court handed down a decision against Mr. Thomas, ordering him to pay a verdict of $3,125 to Frank E. Thies, whose son, Henry, seven years old, was run down and killed by Mr. Thomas’s automobile, the White Ghost, on Lincoln’s Birthday.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, 1925 “We saw the three or four automobiles and the crowd when we were still some distance away. “’Wreck!’ said Tom. ‘That’s good. Wilson’ll have a little business at last.’ “He slowed down, but still without any intention of stopping, until, as we came nearer, the hushed, intent faces of the people at the garage door made him automatically put on the brakes. “’We’ll take a look,’ he said doubtfully, ‘just a look.’”

Plans for Lincoln Highway (1912) and Dixie Highway (1914)

Carl G. Fisher (1874-1939)


Motor Roads for the Nation “The happiness, comfort and prosperity of rural life, and the development of the city, are alike conserved by the construction of public highways. We, therefore, favor national aid in the construction of post roads and roads for military purposes.“ -Plank in Democratic Party Platform, 1916, drafted by Woodrow Wilson


How did the car change suburban life? J.C. Nicols, Country Club District, Kansas City, MO, 1923

Radburn, NJ, 1926

“Community features can be the means of giving character and distinction to suburban property.”


Cars and Suburban Status Sinclair Lewis, Babbitt (1922)

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1925)

“Babbitt sniffed the earth…. He was, to the eye, the perfect office-going executive – a well-fed man in a correct soft brown hat and frameless spectacles, smoking a large cigar, driving a good motor along a semi-suburban parkway….

“[Gatsby] saw me looking with admiration at his car. “’It’s pretty, isn’t it, old sport!’ He jumped off to give me a better view. ‘Haven’t you ever seen it before?’

“It was with the manner of a Good Samaritan that he shouted at a respectable-looking man who was waiting for a trolley car, ‘Have a lift?’ … Whenever I see a fellow waiting for a trolley, I always made it a practice to give him a lift – unless, of course, he looks like a bum.”

“I’d seen it. Everybody had seen it. It was a rich cream color, bright with nickel, swollen here and there in its monstrous length with triumphant hat-boxes and supper-boxes and tool-boxes, and terraced with a labyrinth of wind-shields that mirrored a dozen suns. Sitting down behind many layers of glass in a sort of green leather conservatory, we started to town.”

The Urban-Rural Differential


Cars and the City Center: Terminal Tower Complex, Cleveland, 1930

Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, c. 1930

Big City “Dream Palaces:” Uptown Theater, Chicago, 1925


Aragon Ballroom, c. 1935


Reimagining the City

Lewis Hine, “Icarus”

Charles Ebbetts, “Lunchtime”


Empire State Building with zeppelin docking station

Hugh Ferriss, “Skyscraper Hanger”


Final slide Thank You


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