America on Wheels

If any one thing changed America in the 20th century, it was the automobile and the Twenties was the decade when the horseless carriage burst upon the scene. In less than twenty years, the car went from being a novelty to a convenience to a necessity of everyday life.

1920s Deusenberg

At the dawn of the century, 4,000 cars were produced annually. By 1929, 4.8 million automobiles rolledout of factories yearly. During that same time period, horse-drawn vehicle production dropped from 2 million to only 10,000. Out of every $5 we spent in the 1920s, $1 went toward automobiles, and 26 million were on the road by 1930, one for every five people. The auto industry drove the economy, consuming 90% of the country’s petroleum products, 80% of the rubber, 20% of the steel, 25% of the machine tools and 75% of the plate glass.

The great innovator and genius behind the industry was Michigan’s own Henry Ford, who mastered the assembly line, made the car affordable for nearly everyone while making his workers some of the best paid factory hands in the land. Ford’s ingenuity with assembly lines and scales of production reduced the rate at which manufacturers turned out autos from one every 14 hours in 1913 to the astonishing number in 1925 of one every 10 seconds.

The changes brought by the rise of the automobile affected nearly every aspect of American life. More cars necessitated more and better roads. Federal expenditures for highways rose from $75 million in 1921 to $690 million in 1929, and individual states wound up spending even more. In 1914, there were 750 miles of concrete roads nationwide; by 1930 that number rose to 126,000. New laws and government bureaucracy were created to issue driver’s licenses, establish speed limits and oversee car insurance. Visitors to national parks jumped from 200,000 annually in 1910 to 2.7 million in 1930.

view of "America on Wheels" area of exhibit

The rise of suburbia was inevitable as people could commute to work from their homes away from the cities. During the 1920s, the population in the Detroit suburb of Grosse Point rose 724%, Cleveland's Shaker Heights 1000%, and Beverly Hills outside of Los Angeles a whopping 2,485%. To farming families, the car became such a necessity that many mortgaged their farms to be able to afford the luxury of commuting to town. Public school buildings became larger with the advent of school buses, eliminating most one room schoolhouses located near populations. New home design had to conform to the needs of a car causing houses to be located closer to curbs and garages added, while lawns and gardens were sacrificed for a driveway.

Along the nation’s imposing roads rose those things we see today – gas stations, advertising, diners, and the “motel,” a term first coined in 1925. Businesses were created for the comfort of the traveler. Women experienced a mobility they had never had before and shopping centers, the forerunner of today's malls, began to dot the landscape. And the youth of the day took advantage of escaping from their parents’ peering eyes as young men and women found remote areas to be alone with their dates.