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Charles Sheeler, Ford Plant, River Rouge, Coke Oven Area

Long before the 1920s, the industrial age had delivered innovations that would revolutionize modern life—the automobile, airplane, radio, telephone, and motion pictures among them. But not until the Twenties with the standardization and commercialization of these "machine age" icons did they become standard fare in American life and define "modern" for the masses. A luxury item in 1918, the AUTOMOBILE by 1930 dominated the roads and placed traffic management at the top of city planners' priority lists. The RADIO went from a military-industrial communications system to a household necessity after commercial radio broadcasting began in 1920. The AIRPLANE in 1918 was an entertainment spectacle and wartime phenomenon for Americans; by 1930 they could receive "air mail" delivery, travel on commercial airlines, and fly their own Ford "air flivvers." And Henry Ford one-upped himself in 1927 with the new Model A Ford, assembled in his huge new River Rouge plant in Detroit that redefined "factory" for a new age. In this Theme we place ourselves amidst the awe, dazzle, and debates of the 1920s "Machine Age."

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?

Sections in MACHINE

Each section presents primary resources, introductory notes, classroom discussion questions, and supplemental links.

Collapse all | Expand all
  1. "Machine Age"
  2. Factory
  3. Automobile
  4. Airplane
  5. Radio
  6. Movies

Image: Charles Sheeler, American Landscape, oil on canvas, 1930. Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY. Gift of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, 166.1934. Reproduced by permission.