Presentation - National Humanities Center

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
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?
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
• 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
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
Chevrolet Utility Coupe Advertisement
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
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby,
“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
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
“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
“[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
“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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