Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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Teaching the American Twenties: Exploring the Decade through Literature and Art

Capital and Labor

The Automobile

Emblematic of the era, consumer demand for the automobile was high. Henry Ford's refinement of his innovative assembly line at the Model T Automobile Plant in Highland Park, Michigan, meant production reached unprecedented efficiency — as many as 1,000 new "Tin Lizzies" rolled out every day. And as efficiency went up, prices went down. By 1928, a basic Model T Ford had a price tag of only $295, down from $1200 in 1909.

By this time, General Motors was also a powerhouse, covering a broader consumer base. Shortly after GM President Alfred P. Sloan, in his 1924 Message to Shareholders, announced GM's strategy of "a car for every purse and purpose," the first Pontiac was introduced. It featured a six-cylinder engine and amenities that placed it firmly between the Model T and GM's luxury line, the Cadillac.

Such industry-wide successes enabled growth in resource industries — steel, rubber, leather, glass — and post-production industries, like gasoline, road construction, and travel. Furthermore, manufacturing innovations in other industries echoed those made by Ford and GM, bringing all manufactured goods, including exciting new consumer items, within the reach of more people.

Americans wanted everything new. The automobile was now considered a necessity, no longer a luxury. Kitchen appliances like refrigerators, clothes washing machines, and vacuum cleaners became indispensable. Retailers made it easy for people to acquire these items with the introduction of "installment plans." By 1925, 75% of all automobile purchases were made on installments, and people plunged into debt. This demand fueled the industries into frenzied production levels, even if they were only running on the fumes of future payment.

America's robust business climate generated great optimism in capitalist circles. Businessmen like Ford and those of an older generation, like John D. Rockefeller Sr., attained cult or folk hero status in some circles. In 1925 Bruce Barton, an advertising executive (also an emerging field) went so far as to call Jesus "the founder of modern business" and his apostles "the greatest sales force in history." Business was no longer merely a vocation but a spiritual calling.

Photograph of a service station
Photograph of a service station
Eugene O. Goldbeck

The fuel and oil industries exploded with the growth of the automobile. This service station's promotion of a free can of oil with the purchase of "that good Gulf gasoline" was too good a deal for these motorists to pass up.

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