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article number 156
article date 08-21-2012
copyright 2012 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Social Impact of the Automobile From a 1920’s Perspective
by Preston William Slosson

From the 1930 book, The Great Crusade and After. 1914 -1928.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The first third of this article seems to be about Henry Ford. It does discuss him a lot but in terms of the changes he made to working society. The rest of the article really gets into the changes which automotive transportation caused or enabled in our country.

If any one feature of American life was uniquely characteristic of the nation and the age it was the ubiquity of the automobile. In 1896 there were but four gasoline cars in the United States, the Duryea, the Ford, the Haynes and the imported Benz. By 1914 more than half a million passenger cars were sold each year; twelve years later about four million, besides nearly half a million trucks. In 1928 over twenty-four million cars, old and new, were in use, and more Americans had automobiles than telephones. The industry employed directly 375,000 workmen in the construction factories and used either directly or indirectly the services of 3,700,000 persons, counting factory workers, makers of accessories or supplies, salesmen, chauffeurs, garage attendants and the like. It was America’s largest industry as measured by the money value of its product, outranking even the packing industry and the steel manufacture.

In the postwar years the day of “one family—one auto” had almost arrived, and the general European impression that “in the United States everyone drives an automobile” was at least more nearly correct than most foreign impressions of American wealth. For the continental United States there was almost one automobile to each five persons, and in some Western states the proportion was one to each three or four. Ownership was no longer a class distinction in 1928 as it had been in 1914 and still was in all European countries. The decreasingly small minority who did not yet own cars was composed mainly of elderly or timid folk or dwellers in the city apartment houses who preferred the safety of the trolley car or the professional skill of the taxicab chauffeur.


The effect of the rise of the automobile industry on American business as a whole would be hard to overestimate. By 1928 the automobile accounted for more than four fifths of the rubber used in the United States. It had made this nation the world’s chief rubber market, and created the great industry of plantation rubber in the East Indies, Dutch and British. The automotive industry consumed also half the plate glass, eight per cent of the copper, eleven per cent of the iron and steel, sixty-five per cent of all leather upholstery, and more than seven billion gallons of gasoline annually.

Not the automobile itself but its universality was the real American contribution. Europe had had imagination enough to envisage the automobile but not enough to picture it becoming almost as cheap as a bicycle, as commonplace as a donkey, and as necessary as the four walls of a house. Many factors favored its growth in the United States, apart from the characteristic American bent for quantity production and a wide market. Most raw materials of manufacture were to be found within the country and usually in abundance. Methods of organization and salesmanship for making and pushing new commodities were more highly developed than anywhere else.

The consumer was eager, having an Athenian fondness for whatever was novel in doctrine or in invention. The general prosperity enabled many to buy even in the early days of the industry, and increasingly so as prices went down with more wholesale production. The Yankee tradition for tinkering with machinery, already well practiced on bicycles, farm machinery and domestic appliances, encouraged even novices to dispense with a chauffeur. The huge size of the Western farms, the distance between farm and market town, the remoteness of the cities from each other, and the national habit of travel, all placed a premium on rapid locomotion. Europe, excepting always impoverished and backward Russia, was at once more crowded and less migratory.

While the automobile as a machine is the culmination of decades of invention, the automobile as a social force is as definitely associated with one man as the steam engine with Watt or the electric light with Edison. Other young inventors in the experimental 1890’s had tinkered with motors, but only Henry Ford had had the vision of the automobile as an engine of democracy rather than as a ball mark of aristocracy. His career was the story of the popular automobile at popular prices. The Ford factories were far more novel, interesting and important than the Ford itself. His famous Model T, a convenient little car painted in sober black like a Venetian gondola, was for a long time his sole product and it sold more widely in its day than all other automobiles combined. The butt of a thousand jokes, in which affection was blended with amusement, the “flivver,” the “tin lizzie,” became the family pet of the nation.

On May 26, 1927, Henry Ford and his son Edsel Ford drove the fifteen-millionth automobile which had come from his factories. As soon as they reached Dearborn old Number One was brought from the museum, a two-cylinder veteran of 1903. It proved to be still in good driving condition, so short was the space that separated the beginning of the automobile from its universal prevalence. But even Model T eventually joined the pageant of history. In 1927 Ford shut down for several months, thus reducing the aggregate automobile output in America by almost a quarter as compared with 1926.

Henry Ford with 1rst and 15 millionth.

There had been no sign of a satiated market, but competition was keener and Ford had a new idea and it must be tried! Of course the experiment was costly, a conservative estimate was fifteen million dollars spent to January 1, 1928, in the preparations for launching the new car. As usual, the car itself was far less novel than the improvements in the methods of production. In some respects the new Ford more greatly resembled rival automobiles than did the old Model T; the great individualist had partly capitulated to current standards of car form and equipment. But the machinery for production was improved beyond recognition. The company boasted that raw iron ore at the docks at eight Monday morning could be marketed as a complete Ford car on Wednesday noon, allowing fifteen hours for shipment.

Certainly up to the end of the twenties the American idea of mass production had never been carried further than in the Ford factories. Many European industrialists from Britain to Russia, but especially perhaps in Germany, made a painstaking study of the Ford methods as literally a “god from the machine” to cure underproduction and all the poverty which it causes. Mr. Ford himself had no doubts on the matter, for in numberless newspaper interviews he expatiated with a certain modest vanity on the reign of universal prosperity that would be sure to follow the adoption of his policies by industry at large, including agriculture.

These policies might be summarized as: (1) centralized management; (2) control of raw materials by the manufacturer; (3) tools and machinery made to order, and with a view to maximum output without much regard to initial cost; (4) subdivision and specialization of labor to the greatest possible extent; (5) motion study and efficient shop arrangement; (6) high wages and short hours but no tolerance of shop rules or trade-union demands that might curtail production; and (7) abolition of all traditions, custom, office ritual and red tape that might limit output. Each of these concepts deserves a word of comment.

Centralization of control in the Ford factories was almost absolute. The Ford Company enjoyed the same advantage as France under Napoleon or Prussia under Frederick. There could be no question of conflicting jurisdictions; one man’s will wove every strand of policy into a common fabric. His chief fellow stockholder was his own like-minded son. Rivals within his company withdrew, in some cases to found automobile companies of their own (as, for example, the Dodges). Managers who opposed his policies had to conform or resign. His enemies termed him an autocrat and even his admirers had to admit that he was a “benevolent despot.”

Centralization of management was backed up by centralization of production. Needing iron ore, Ford bought iron mines and built blast furnaces and steel mills. Needing wood, he acquired forest properties. Needing steel parts, he bought and dismantled one hundred and ninety-nine freighters from the shipping board at a cost of $1,697,470. Needing rolling stock for hauling materials, he took over the decrepit Detroit, Toledo and Ironton Railway and put it on a profitable basis. The tools used in his shops were for the most part made in his shops; the rest were custom-ordered according to his specifications. He operated meat and grocery markets in Detroit, mainly for the use of his own employees but open also to the public, a step which nearly created a panic among retail merchants. He even branched out into aviation, turning his attention to the possibility of a cheap and practical airplane.

The Ford ideas of factory management were the subject of endless comment and not a little criticism. The plant had room for many experts and specialists in machine and tool designing, but the majority of the employed were unskilled and set to the most routine tasks imaginable, tasks that required neither strength (since the machines themselves did all the “blacksmithing”) nor skill. Ford dealt frankly with this question of soul-deadening monotony, saying that while he himself could never endure a life of routine he had many workmen, good, industrious men, who were unhappy at anything else. Other critics complained that the speed of operation was too great, that even with short hours there was a nervous strain that meant short lives. Again Ford replied that he timed his machines by experiment to find the best speed at which work could be done without loss of efficiency.

Certainly there was something almost uncanny in the endless process of a Ford plant. Efficiency experts so arranged the order of operations that no workman need stir from his place or stoop to pick up anything. On principle, no human labor was used for any operation that a machine could perform, and no skill was employed where deft, routine motion would do as well. The workman did become a part of the machine, an adjustable bit of mechanism to connect one operation with the next while the river of motor or chassis parts flowed by at unvarying speed. It became the Paradise of the motion-study expert, and perhaps the Purgatory of the artist soul, but beyond question it was the cheapest way of making automobiles!


Ford’s labor policy was equally criticized and commended. It reflected alike the highly individualistic philosophy and the humane temper of the man himself. He disclaimed, with perhaps unnecessary indignation, any reproach of being a philanthropist and mixing business with charity. “Efficiency” was his sole motto. But his conception of efficiency included the prevention of human waste as well as of other kinds. Everyone who wanted work must be given a fair chance in the factory.

If he made good he could stay, and Ford would stand by him in fair weather or in foul, as he stood by his German workmen during the World War when many criticized the retention of men of “enemy alien” birth at a moment when the Ford plants were working for the war needs of the government. During a period of slackness in industry, good workmen should be retained even at the employer’s cost. There must be safe machinery, high wages, short hours, good housing. But factory discipline might not be questioned. Trade unions should be ignored—they did not harmonize with enlightened despotism. In the Ford coal fields, near the border of West Virginia and Kentucky, the average daily wage in 1928 was seven dollars a day as compared with an average of $4.40 for rival companies, but the “open shop” prevailed. Detroit was an open-shop town.

In January, 1914, the Ford factories adopted the eight-hour maximum working day and the five-dollar minimum wage. Such an announcement would have created little stir after the war, with the shorter working day the rule and wage scales trebled to meet the enhanced cost of living, but in 1914 it placed Ford operatives in a class by themselves. Liberal bonuses were added for workmen of good conduct, especially those with families to support. Unfortunately the definition of “good conduct” involved an investigation of the home life of employees, which was sometimes resented as paternalistic interference.

This bonus-on-conduct system was later modified, but the general principle still prevailed of dividing the profits of the Ford industries with the employees. One interesting phase of the labor policy was the abolition of any sharp distinction between “bench” jobs and “desk” jobs. Very few executives had titles and very often superfluous clerical employees were forced to transfer to the shops. Administration never long remained in a rut—the restless owner of the business was too apt to come around and shake up the whole organization. Ford mentioned as one reason for his success the fact that he wasted no time in “conferences.

In direct philanthropy Ford gave less than most multimillionaires. He did not give as lavishly to universities as Rockefeller, to libraries as Carnegie, or to museums as Morgan. Yet he was popular with millions of the very people who looked on Rockefeller, Carnegie and Morgan as the diabolic trinity of Capitalism. Until he put a stop to the talk by endorsing President Coolidge’s administration, there was a strong popular movement to boom him for the Democratic presidential nomination, a compliment which would have been offered to no other man of comparable wealth.

The newspapers found him better “copy” than any other private citizen, and not just for a week or so, as might be the case with an athletic hero, but year in and year out. This great popularity rested in part on the Ford policy of reducing costs to the consumer and raising wages to the worker out of his own profits, instead of letting wealth accumulate and then distributing it as charity; but in part it must be explained by the pleasant personality of Henry Ford himself.

In a manufacturing plant Ford was an exceptional man, a genius for organization. But anywhere else he was merely a very agreeable and expansive Middle Westerner. He had the democratic geniality and “folksiness” which Michigan and her neighbor states ranked as the chief of human virtues. He was interested in colonial furniture, in old American folk music and in birds. His camping parties with Edison and John Burroughs were his pleasantest recreation. In politics he proved the cheaper type, and a thousand would purchase one of the better grade. Moreover, the purchaser received more for his money than earlier.

Most automobile firms strove to introduce each year some improvement over the car of the year before. Some of these changes were merely for the sake of a new fashion, but almost always there was some added advantage or value as well. When the Ford became “dressy” in 1927 to meet the competition of the more colorful cheap cars, it was evident that mere cheapness, convenience and a good engine were no longer all that the clerk or farmer expected. The spread of luxury was shown in the increased proportion of closed cars: twenty-eight per cent of the production in 1922; seventy-four per cent in 1926, and the tendency continued. On the other hand, hardly one car in a hundred was a “sport model” specialized for speed. The cheap car still ruled the market, but the buyer insisted on better value every year.

New Ford Model A.

Ford’s nearest rival for the general market was a company with many strings to its bow, the General Motors Corporation, first established in 1908. William C. Durant, who fathered this combine, abandoned the once profitable manufacture of buggies for the newer field. But instead of becoming more and more concentrated under a single management and confined to a single type, the General Motors came to take in more than seventy thousand stockholders with very decentralized management under Alfred Sloan as “easy boss,” and to develop different types of car for every need.

At one time the General Motors produced the Chevrolet, the Pontiac, the Oldsmobile, the Oakland, the Buick, the LaSalle and the Cadillac passenger cars, besides making trucks, taxicabs and, last but not least, the Frigidaire domestic refrigerators. The Chevrolet at popular prices rose to about a million customers and had much to do in compelling the manufacture of a newer type of Ford. Third in the industry was the combine of the Chrysler with the Dodge, consummated in 1928. The Ford, the General Motors and the Chrysler-Dodge companies controlled in that year about four fifths of the whole industry, a very high degree of trustification for an industry that rests on no natural monopoly. Yet the motor trust, if one may use the word in a popular and inexact sense, did not share the unpopularity of the oil, steel and meat-packing combines or of the railways and mines. The public felt that in automobiles, at any rate, consolidation meant better values and lower prices for the consumer.

As a supplement to the private car and a rival to the steam railroad and electric trolley, the motor bus became of increasing importance. In 1926 some seventy thousand auto busses were in use. More than half of these operated as common carriers, but about twenty-seven thousand were used to take children to and from school. During the period 1916-1926 about twenty-five hundred miles of electric railway track were abandoned, and bus service substituted for four fifths of the lost mileage. Not all the discontinued trackage can be laid directly to bus competition, however, as in many cases the electric railway went out of use some time before the motor-bus line filled its place. The competition of the passenger automobile sufficed to drive out of use many small-town or suburban electric lines. The steam railroads, too, suffered a loss from bus competition estimated at anywhere from a tenth to a quarter of their passenger revenues; in a few cases the sale of local tickets had dropped one half by 1925.


At first, in fact down to about 1926, motor busses engaged almost exclusively in short-haul operations within the limits of a hundred-mile radius and usually within the limits of a single state. The average trip was about thirty miles. But in 1926-1928 a few companies began to operate a through passenger service, divided of course into several stages marked by the large cities, almost across the continent. One series of lines linked up Detroit with the Pacific Coast. The advantages to the passenger were obvious. The motor bus was not smoky, nor did it proceed through the city slums and railroad yards; it could offer clean air and an interesting landscape. It could exploit a thinly settled route where there was some traffic but not enough to justify the Cost of laying track.

The railroads bitterly complained that the automobile represented “unfair competition” since it did not have to meet all the conditions and restrictions laid down by law for railway companies or in the charters of the street-car companies.

Many of the wiser carriers did not content themselves with bemoaning the competition of the gasoline auto, but determined to enlist the new force in their own service. Early in 1928 steam railroads, either directly or through subsidiaries, operated more than a thousand motor coaches over some ten thousand miles. A magazine journalist gives a typical instance of a stumbling- block turned into a stepping-stone.

One Western street-railway company, hard pressed by free-lance “jitney” cabs, installed ten motor coaches to parallel its electric line until competition was killed off, and then planned to discard the busses. But in this particular case, the railway company’s plan worked in an unexpected way. . . . No sooner was the service established than all the jitney operators on the line were compelled to quit. The public appreciated the difference between uniformed chauffeurs, clean cars, dependable time tables, and proper organization, and the kind of service furnished by the irresponsible jitneys. Incidentally the traffic on the electric cars did not decrease, but instead slightly increased, while patronage on the motor line jumped by leaps and bounds. The company abandoned the idea of discarding its most profitable asset.

What the motor bus was to the railway passenger car, the motor truck was to the freight train, at once a useful auxiliary and a dangerous rival. By 1928 more than three million motor trucks were in use in the United States. These fell into three general classes: the common carrier, the contract carrier and the owner-operator. The common carrier operated between fixed points on a regular schedule, like a freight train; the contract carrier hauled for anyone on terms and conditions agreed between shipper and truckman; the larger manufacturing companies ran their own fleets of trucks. The contract- carrier class was by far the largest, replacing to a great extent the old-fashioned drayman and his team of Percherons.

In the period 1914-1928 the number of horses reported on American farms decreased by nearly a quarter, but the number employed in the city streets by more than half. One or two curious survivals remained: for example, milk wagons were still for the most part horse-driven. The reason was simple: a milk wagon must stop at nearly every door, and a horse knows enough when signaled to move ahead while the motor car remains passive until its driver climbs aboard and goes through some rather complicated mechanical operations. The only real advantage of the horse over the motor was in such situations as this that require “horse sense.”

Even some milk-wagon horses have been put out of work.

Obviously the main advantage of auto trucking over railroad freighting was in the short haul, within a thirty-mile radius. But it was not possible to fix any definite limit to the possible utility of the truck in special cases. A man living in New York who must move his household goods to Philadelphia or even to Washington might prefer to pay slightly more per mile and save the bother and cost of elaborate packing and crating and the risk of breakage from rough handling at the freight terminals. For certain classes of spoilable food the truck was particularly useful. Two million boxes of Hood River apples were annually shipped by truck to the railway terminals; and the poultry district around Petaluma, California, changed from railroad to motor truck for its fragile annual export of four hundred and fifty million eggs.

The farmer probably profited more than anyone else from motor traction. The passenger automobile, though rarely more expensive than the Ford, ended his rural isolation and enabled his wife to visit town at will. The truck carried his perishable fruit and vegetables to market, and in 1926 seven per cent of the farmers operated their own trucks, while many others used the common carriers or contract truckers. The tractor made an even greater difference in the farmer’s life than car or truck. Henry Ford was prouder of his Fordson tractor than of his Ford car, described it as a “versatile power plant,” and boasted that it had not only plowed, harrowed, cultivated and reaped, but also threshed, run gristmills, sawmills and the like, pulled stumps, cleared away snow, hauled with tires on the roads and with sledge runners on the ice, and been used in ninety-five lines of service, including the supply of power to get out an edition qf the Dearborn Independent during a coal famine!

Fordson tractor. The tractor made an even greater difference in the farmer’s life than car or truck.

The automobile brought with it two serious highway problems: the repair of roadways and the safety of automobilists and pedestrians on the streets. American highways in the 1920’s carried about three times the volume of goods carried by all the railways. Roads wide enough and strong enough for horse and wagon were soon torn to pieces by the hammering wheels of motor trucks. The cost of repairs and improvements, along with increased school expenses, was the main reason for the heavy burden of local taxation. The federal bureau of public roads estimated that the total expenditure for rural-road maintenance amounted to more than one billion dollars a year, while the cities spent about a third as much on their own streets.

Federal aid extended highway construction at an average rate of about ten thousand miles a year. The through highways, designed primarily for motor traffic, were surfaced with asphalt or concrete. During the period 1914-1926 the mileage of artificially surfaced highway increased from 257,291 to 521,915; about one sixth of all roads were surfaced. In many states the chief issues of state politics were: how much should be spent on new highways, where they should be located, and what share of their cost automobile owners should pay, in gasoline tax or otherwise. Sometimes road appropriations were little short of collective bribery, a governor or highway commissioner urging special facilities for “loyal” rural districts. A politician, such as Governor Small of Illinois, sufficiently “liberal” on the roads issue had much tolerance from an electorate who lived on wheels.


But it was not enough to construct highways; they had to be made safe for the new democracy of motordom. During eight years (1919-1927) over 137,000 persons were killed and 3,500,000 injured in automobile accidents—a heavier toll of deaths and wounds than suffered by the American armies in the World War. The number of accidents grew year by year, but this was not a sign of increased recklessness or a proof that safety-first campaigns had altogether failed. The increase seems to have been due solely to the multiplication of cars on the road, for there was an actual decline in the proportion of fatal accidents to the number of automobiles in use.

Perhaps the wonder is, considering the national vice of recklessness and the ownership of high-powered motors by many persons with no mechanical aptitude, that the death toll was not ten times as great. Much popular indignation was roused by the so-called “hit- and-run” drivers who left their victims on the road while they hurried ahead to cowardly security. As about a fourth of the motor victims were children, the schools in most parts of the country introduced safety drills on the proper method of crossing the roads. An increasing number of states required prospective drivers to pass examinations demonstrating their skill in operating a car.

The democracy of the road created by the cheap automobile made the American people more than ever a migratory folk. An ever restless people, whose grandsires were immigrants and whose fathers were pioneers, who had almost abandoned the very idea of an ancestral homestead and were accustomed to change their jobs and their homes a dozen times in the course of a single career, would naturally welcome the new opportunity for independent travel provided by Henry Ford and his fellow manufacturers. In the day of the buggy and the bicycle, five or six miles from town was a good distance for a picnic, and a two weeks’ vacation camping trip was usually spent at the nearest sea beach or mountain resort. But the automobile opened up a hundred miles for the most impromptu picnic, and the whole United States for a serious vacation.

The demand for accommodations en route created the supply. Not only were service stations, road houses, inns and curio shops set up along the speedways to meet the needs of the car, the man at the wheel and the wife on the back seat, but well-appointed camping grounds were established wherever tourist traffic was heavy. This made the “tin-can tourist” independent of hotels. Many vacationists instead of making the automobile a mere equivalent of the railway, a means to get to the summer resort, kept on the road during their entire trip.

When night came the car would be transformed into a tent by a little spread of portable canvas or, if the party were large enough to need more elaborate housing, tents might be set up on the camping ground or the shelter of a wooden roof rented for a nominal sum from the tourist-camp owner. In the winter of 1925, Florida had one hundred and seventy-eight certified tourist camps with accommodation for six hundred thousand persons. Sixty per cent of the Florida transients came in automobiles; and about two out of every five visitors to southern California. The lower proportion in the latter case is, of course, explained by the fact that many preferred to save time by taking a railroad trip over the Rocky Mountains.


Pleasure-resort owners, local chambers of commerce and railroad companies serving particular regions saw the advantage of exploiting the growing tourist industry. This involved a certain rivalry: Europe as a whole against America; one state or section against another. The virtual cessation of European travel from 1914 till 1920 by pleasure seekers, gave a great impetus to the movement to “See America First.” The reader who was detached from all local patriotism or local interests might read with a certain cynical smile how many parts of the country claimed in their advertising to be “The Playground of America.” Every state had some places attractive to tourists, and these “talking points” were played up with the most skilled salesmanship.

Four types of appeal were principally stressed: historic associations, scenic beauty, opportunities for sport, and climate. The greatest of these was climate. “Icicles or Roses. . . . Which do your children see at the window-pane?” pertinently inquired a leading booster association, Californians Incorporated, of the frost-bound East and Middle West. In the summer months the most urgent appeals came from those northern climes “where you have to sleep under blankets every night,” to quote the stereotyped phrase of a thousand circulars. But the argument from climate did not always work in the obvious way. Taking a leaf from the recent history of Switzerland, the mountain resorts of New England and various parts of Canada began to sell the idea of winter sports where unbroken ice made them really possible.


New England, which had long suffered from the competition of Western farms and more recently of Southern cotton mills, was fortunately able to combine the appeal of history with that of climate and scenery in developing the tourist industry. The motorist along Cape Cod and around Plymouth was greeted every few miles with billboards advertising not commodities but historic events. A huge pen pointed to a huger open book on which was written, in letters so bold that he who rode might read, the chief event that had taken place in the village the traveler was approaching. In Virginia every battlefield of the Civil War bore a memorial tablet on the highway. Legends were as useful as history. Longfellow’s Hiawatha proved to be worth millions to the upper peninsula of Michigan (“Hiawathaland,” as the advertisers called it), and was scarcely less profitable to Minnesota where Minnehaha was conventionally supposed to have dwelt.

The sentimental revival of American antiquities had its comic side in the multiplication of “Lover’s Leap,” “Ye Olde Inne” and houses where Washington slept; its sordid side too in the sale of pseudo-antique furniture. But on the whole, it was one of the most amiable aspects of the strong nationalist feeling of the time. The motor tourist must be credited with a large share in bringing again to the consciousness of America the romance of her history, the beauty of her scenery and the inspiration of her literature.

More important than the seasonal migration of the casual tourist, was the permanent settlement of health and pleasure seekers in the land of sunshine. Until very recently, work and not play had been the determining cause of the more important movements of population in the United States. If men went to Wyoming it was not for mountain scenery and cloudless skies but to raise cattle. If they went to California it was not so much to enjoy an eternal summer as to dig for gold or to plant fruit trees. If they went to Florida it was not for the leisure and warmth of the tropics but because oranges grew best where there was no frost.


For many years, to be sure, some invalids had sought a new climate on the advice of a physician; Colorado, California and Arizona drew a trickle of immigration from this source. Others of the small leisure class, sought seasonal recreation, playing golf at Asheville, North Carolina, fishing for tarpon in Florida, or hunting in the Maine woods and the Adirondacks. But migration by the million, not to make a living but to enjoy life under sunnier skies, was a phenomenon peculiar to the period after 1914, and was made possible only by the wave of prosperity which enabled large classes to turn from business to recreation and thus establish recreation as a profitable business.

The Farther West and the Lower South profited most by the rapid expansion of the tourist industry. The clean, dry air of Colorado and Arizona was more than ever sought by sufferers from lung trouble. The national parks, much developed under the wise direction of Secretary F. K. Lane of the interior department (1913-1920), offered a score of pleasure grounds to the tourist, and the automobile made them all accessible. “Dude wrangling,” the popular cowboy name for the entertainment of visitors to the ranches, in many cases turned out to be more profitable than the herding of sheep and cattle.

But the richest growth of tourism lay beyond the Rockies, in California. The census of 1910 ranked California twelfth in population, less than New Jersey; that of 1920 placed her eighth, ahead of Missouri and not far behind Michigan. Only Arizona and Montana showed a more rapid proportionate increase for the decade, and the absolute increase was almost as great as that of New York State. When Congress failed to reapportion seats after the census of 1920, California was reckoned the greatest loser of any state by that injustice. Of course California attracted settlers by her fruit farms and growing industries as well as by her bid for tourists, and still possessed great mineral wealth. But the metallic gold which attracted the forty-niners, and even the liquid gold of the oil wells, were overshadowed in commercial importance by the golden sunshine which welcomed the pleasure seeker.

Los Angeles, the metropolis of southern California, was, it is true, as famous for its motion-picture industry as for its tourist trade. But both owed their importance mainly to the climate. If the skies of California had been dull and cloudy there never would have been a city of movie actors in Hollywood, Los Angeles’s best-known suburb. Moreover, the moving-picture industry offered yet another attraction to the tourist, who delighted to see his favorites in person and who not infrequently cherished the hope that his own latent talent might be discovered by discerning directors.


Los Angeles in 1910 was a city of 319,000, quite overshadowed by her northern rival San Francisco. The census of 1920 indicated a startling leap to 576,000, placing her about 70,000 ahead of San Francisco and making her the largest city lying between St. Louis and the Pacific Ocean. Official estimates after 1920 indicated an unslackening growth, attaining by 1926 some 1,300,000 inhabitants. Building progressed at a rate of about $150,000,000 a year, and $15,000,000 was invested in transforming an open roadstead into a good harbor.

As the community was both new and wealthy, its houses and those of its suburbs were very attractive modern examples of architecture, usually following, in a general way, the old Spanish style introduced into California by the earliest white settlers and well suited to a warm, dry climate much like that of Spain. One of the most notable structures was the Hollywood Bowl, a concrete stadium where forty thousand people might gather to hear summer evening concerts under the stars.

Simultaneous with the Los Angeles boom was a similar one in Florida. The two regions being much alike, their rivalry was keener. Both Florida and California are rich in history and romance, dating back to the days of Spanish occupation. Both have an almost winterless climate, attractive alike to fruit growers and to tourists. Both were, in a sense, almost “frontier” states, for although they had long been settled, their great expansion of wealth and population had been very recent and very rapid. Both attracted colonies of the wealthy, and both passed through flurries of real-estate speculation almost without parallel. Each had a skeleton in the closet— California taunted Florida with her Atlantic hurricanes, and Florida retorted with allusions to earthquakes.

Florida is the paradox of these United States. St. Augustine is the oldest city in the nation. Spaniards under Ponce de Leon had sought in Florida the waters of eternal youth a century before the English colonized Virginia or Massachusetts. Yet it was not until the twentieth century that Florida stepped into the limelight as a state capable of great economic development. There were in truth two Floridas. The northern part of the state belonged socially, politically and economically to the Lower South, the “cotton kingdom.” It had a large Negro population who worked as plantation slaves until the Civil War, when Florida, like her neighbors, joined the Confederacy, endured the war and suffered reconstruction. Citrus fruits, garden vegetables such as potatoes and celery, corn, peanuts, sugar cane, tobacco, livestock, turpentine and phosphate rock were the chief economic assets of the state. Industry and commerce were little developed, and education was rather backward.

This elder Florida, growing gradually in prosperity, remained the politically dominant half of the state. But its supremacy was increasingly threatened by the development of modern or tourist Florida farther south.

Southern Florida lay almost empty till within the twentieth century. Midway on the western coast stood Tampa, marking the southward limit of development. The east coast had many scattered settlements, but south of Jacksonville they were very small … Miami, one of the most important, having in 1910, only fifty-four hundred inhabitants. Between the coast towns of the southern half of the peninsula was a flat, swampy plain culminating in the marshes of the Everglades, a land of alligators, malaria and wild Seminole Indians, as forbidding to settlers as the alkali deserts of eastern Nevada, and thought to be forever incapable of profitable development.

Stuart Florida.

The main factor that kept back southern Florida was difficulty of access. To be sure, the chief advantage that Florida had over California was geographical. As an Eastern state, near to the great centers of population, she could draw many tourists who would not take the time to cross the continent. But until Florida had good highways and good railroads, she could take no advantage of her location. Bad roads or none are a more significant form of distance than mere miles.

Much of the ground for future prosperity in Florida was prepared when Henry M. Flagler undertook to build a through railway down the Eastern Coast. The Florida East Coast Railway not only linked the villages of the Atlantic shore and enabled them to grow into towns and cities, but even extended across the keys or islets to the port of Key West, the line across the keys being completed in 1912. In 1925 the railway began to double-track its line north of Miami. In the meantime, the Seaboard Air Line began to penetrate southern Florida from the north, and Henry B. Plant built a line in the west, aiming to develop the Gulf of Mexico shore as Flagler had the Eastern Coast. The Atlantic Coast Line took over and developed Plant’s undertaking, and several connections were completed between the Florida lines and the great railway systems of the East and the Middle West.

However unwittingly, Henry Ford must be ranked with Henry Flagler and Henry Plant as one of the builders of southern Florida. The white coral sand of the coast made excellent speedways, and the laws were indulgent to fast driving. Along the new roads came automobiles by the tens of thousands. Some were the touring cars of wealthy men who preferred the freedom of the open road to the confinement of even the most luxurious Pullman car. But the majority were the humble flivvers of men who could not have afforded a Florida vacation if Ford and his fellows had not democratized the automobile. Sometimes the car represented the entire capital of the immigrant, except a little cash in hand with which to buy a lot in Florida.

For several winters the influx of winter tourists was more than equal to the entire permanent population of the state, and they spent during the season from six hundred million to one billion dollars. That many settled permanently, is shown by the growth of the population from 752,000 in 1910 to 968,000 in 1920, and an estimated 1,263,000 in 1925, when the boom was at its height. Palm Beach was one of the first resorts in lower Florida to be developed, and even before the World War readers of the pictorial sections of the Sunday papers were accustomed to pictures of the sons and daughters of the very wealthy in bathing costume at Palm Beach in winter, very like the pictures of the same individuals at Newport or Bar Harbor in summer. But it was only after the war, when growing prosperity and assured peace permitted the realization of many a postponed wish, that the envious readers of these papers sought to taste for themselves the attractions of the American tropics.


Miami, still farther south than Palm Beach, became the focus of the new migration. Not much more than a village before the war, even the census of 1920 granted it less than thirty thousand inhabitants as compared with more than fifty thousand for Tampa in the west and over ninety thousand for Jacksonville in the conservative north. From 1920 to 1926 Miami expanded with the ominous acceleration of a snowball rolling down a mountainside. In the latter year a special count placed its population at more than one hundred and thirty thousand.

Where the crowds came, other crowds followed for that very reason. Many who cared little about climate for themselves hoped that they could reap a fortune in real estate by selling that commodity to others. Soon real-estate values soared far above what could be justified on the basis of existing agriculture, or even tourist traffic, and represented nothing more substantial than the hope of the speculator to sell at a still higher price before the boom broke. Real-estate agents and advertisers found it an earthly paradise. Local newspapers broke two world records. The Miami Daily News, owned by James M. Cox of Ohio, former Democratic candidate for president, printed in 1925 a special edition of 504 pages, the largest newspaper issue ever printed. The Miami Herald in the same year broke the world’s record for total volume of advertising (mainly real-estate) carried in a single year.

Many fortunes were made and many lost in the land boom of 1925. Something like a quarter of a billion dollars changed hands in real-estate sales that year, but many transactions were on credit. The best business lots sold at from one to five thousand dollars a front foot. In one case a man sold a lot for $40,000 which had been given him fifteen years before free of charge on condition that he build a garage on it. In another case a purchaser paid $35,000 for a lot which he himself had sold for $2500 two years earlier. But of course, many who sold either too soon or not soon enough suffered for the gambler’s risk they had taken, After 1925 speculation became less acute, prices sagged and the feverish phase of the boom was over.

Other winter resorts shared in but slightly less degree the prosperity of Miami. Palm Beach, West Palm Beach, Hollywood (not its namesake in California), Coral Gables and other East Coast resorts were built up, rebuilt, and expanded until they almost formed a single continuous city along the Atlantic. As in California, the Spanish architecture, traditional to the land, was tastefully adapted to the modern hotel and cottage. Tampa, the chief city of the western shore, claimed a population rivaling that of Miami. In 1924 D. P. Davis dredged and pumped from the half-submerged marshes of Tampa Bay an island, which within a few months was covered with hotels, cottages, country clubs and amusement parks.

In September, 1926, a hurricane from the Atlantic struck directly across Miami and southern Florida. Hundreds of houses and business buildings were wrecked, and the Red Cross rushed in aid to rescue the homeless. The town of Moore Haven suffered the most as the overflow from Lake Okeechobee practically drowned out the community. But rebuilding started at once at Miami and every preparation was made for another busy season. The northern part of the state had suffered little, and the south recovered as rapidly as did Chicago and San Francisco after their great fires. The only permanent harm done to the state was nature’s tactless demonstration that even the most amiable climate may have its eccentricities.

In order to encourage the investment of capital and attract the patronage of business men on a holiday and induce them to make Florida their permanent home, the laws were made peculiarly favorable to wealth. In 1924, by a constitutional amendment ratified by popular referendum, it was made illegal to levy any state inheritance or income tax on any citizen or resident of the state. At the time, forty-six of the forty-eight states had inheritance taxes and eleven had income taxes (to make no mention of federal income and inheritance taxes which, of course, remained effective in Florida as everywhere else).

Eulogists of Florida boasted that this “progressive” legislation placed Florida in the lead of all other states, though certain other states, such as Wisconsin, had usually termed “progressive” the opposite policy of laying heavy burdens on great fortunes for the public weal. Other features of Florida legislation, such as laws making easy the establishment of corporations and permitting counties and municipalities to levy taxes for publicity purposes, showed a similar desire to put no political obstacle in the way of economic expansion.

Behind the tourist came the farmer. Southern Florida, with tropic warmth and often rich soil (when once drained), proved an important factor in the American fruit market. The great enterprise of draining the Everglades has been compared by many writers with Holland’s project of draining the Zuyder Zee. The northern and central parts of the state also greatly improved the yield of their farm lands. Great progress, too, was made in educational lines. But the development of Florida in agriculture, industry and general public welfare can be paralleled in the contemporary development of other Southern states. Where Florida remained unique was in the swift discovery and exploitation of her natural heritage of sunshine and sea.

Foreign travel, too, became a growing habit of the well-to-do American. In 1927, tourists from the United States spent in foreign lands about $770,000,000 as compared with $175,000,000 when Taft was president. For the year 1925, the French estimated that there were 220,000 Americans visiting France and spending in that one country $226,160,000. The richest two per cent, vaguely termed “millionaires,” spent $5000 or more to a trip; the next most prosperous eighteen per cent averaged $1760 each; eight per cent, traveling for business, not pleasure, $1500; forty-four per cent, “middle-class” tourists, $850; and the remaining twenty-eight per cent, including employees on short vacations, students earning their way, and others who had to study economy, $425.

Here again the automobile played its part. Most in the first two classes took their cars with them to Europe, and nearly all the rest economized time and effort in sightseeing by using chars-a-banc, or hired cars, to reach Shakespeare’s birthplace or the battlefields of France. Herbert Hoover declared in 1928 that “our tourist expenditure alone in Europe since the war, would enable them to take care of the entire amount” of their annual debt payments to the United States.

The automobile conditioned American life in its every aspect. As we have seen, it greatly complicated the crime problem by giving every criminal who had three hours’ warning, a circle with a hundred-mile radius in which to conceal himself from the police. It gave fresh urgency to the liquor problem by turning the simple drunkard into the more sinister figure of the drunken driver. It multiplied national parks and playgrounds and made tourism a leading industry. It placed mortgages on homes when the automobile was a luxury, and took them off farms when the motor truck became a necessity.


It enabled the farmer to use the services of the town physician and send his children to a consolidated town school. It took this farmer, too, straight by the neighboring hamlet to trade in the city twenty or thirty miles away, causing the country store to languish and the mail-order houses to worry. The latter, to meet these new conditions, straightway set up chain department stores in the smaller cities to recover their losses.

The motor car replaced the parlor and porch as the courting ground of the new generation. It made the American people more than ever a nation of mechanicians and, according to some hostile witnesses (such as Sinclair Lewis), swallowed up all other topics of male conversation from religion to politics. It gave a new aspect to feminism by making the flapper a gay and gallant chauffease.

It freed the nation from provincialism, though at the heavy cost of increasing standardization of manners. It necessitated wider units of rural and suburban administration and, according to one high authority, did “more in two decades to revolutionize the areas of local government than all the events of history since the battle of Hastings.” It opened a new age of the nomads. In a word, it is the main subject not of this chapter only, but of the volume as a whole.

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