A Science Odyssey
People and Discoveries

Electric consumer appliances proliferate

A booming economy, after several years of "saving for the war effort," made the United States ripe for the explosion of consumer goods and technology that shaped the 1920s. The United States emerged from World War I a creditor nation and a dominant economic power. Business was booming. The idea of paying in installments may not have been new, but it became habit in the "jazz age."

Writers and others have analyzed the time to suggest that having been through a war of shocking horrors, people felt "life was too short" to hold back on anything. And manufacturers obliged them, aided by an advertising industry that grew more powerful, especially with input from behaviorist John Watson. Meanwhile, the mass production techniques pioneered by Henry Ford were applied to industries from food canning to movie-making.

Electric appliances for the household were one of the biggest new market segments in the 1920s. Brooms and carpet beaters were replaced by the Electrolux, introduced in 1921. In 1923, Schick marketed an electric shaver. The spin dryer was introduced. The icebox gave way to the Frigidaire. Birdseye introduced frozen foods. Radios came with speakers instead of headsets (and there were regularly broadcast programs since KDKA began in 1920). While science entered more and more intimidating realms of abstraction, what with general relativity and the uncertainty principle, technology seemed more and more accessible as people mastered the use of machinery in their homes.

But in this climate of high production and low cost, only the biggest corporations survived. From 1920 to 1928, more than 5,000 firms joined in corporate mergers. Among these were the local electric companies. Between 1919 and 1927, 3,7000 local power companies went out of business; by 1930 10 holding companies supplied 72 percent of the nation's electricity.

Related Features

Home | People and Discoveries Menu | Help

WGBH | PBS Online | Search | Feedback | Shop
© 1998 WGBH