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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 on the Automobile PDF file
  • 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. (13 pp.)

  • Will Rogers, Auto Fatalities and Progress, syndicated column, 1926, PDF file
  • 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.
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," advertisement 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: 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.

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