under construction 4-21-08

Chapter 4: 1921-1930

4:1 Background Information, useful for understanding developments in woodworking

Back to Chapter 4


My research points out convincingly that the 1920s and the 1950s are the pivotal decades in the history of America in the twentieth century, a truth that holds unequivocally for a history of the amateur woodworking movement. 

Starting in the second half of the nineteenth century, with the widening of the railroad network, the accelerated growth of cities, and the mechanizing of many complicated crafts, the impact of mechanization penetrated more and more deeply into the lives of many Americans.

Between 1920 and 1945, the social, economic, and political climate in America was affected by world wars -- at beginning and end -- and the impact of the Great Depression.

But another technological development, not associated with the war effort,  electrification -- outlined in Appendix 19 -- became the driver for social and economic change in the 1920s.

Other inventions --  which necessarily must coupled with electrification -- are the automobile, the radio, and the motion picture

Full mechanization, though, was not completed until a decade or so after World War II. 

During this same period, the nation's population shifted, from a basically rural population to one that was more and more urban. In 1850, about 85 per cent of America's population lived in scattered rural areas, and only about 15 per cent urban. This ratio began slowly to decline around the end of the century. By 1910, less than 1 in 4 of the total population lived on farms.(Sixteenth Census of the United States, 1910,, Agriculture, vol. iii, p.22.)

In the first half of the twentieth century, America’s development is characterized by geographical differences, specifically, a more highly developed urban and industrial core in the Northeast and upper Midwest, bordered to the South and West by extensive, more or less, rural margins. These remoter areas served the industrial core and the centers of capital by supplying labor (especially during the mobilization for World War II), meat and other agricultural products, minerals and petroleum.

Residents of these remoter parts of America had, comparatively, limited access to the consumer goods and other sorts of culture that were transforming the lives of those in the urban core. But,  more significantly, residents of these areas often lacked access to basic modern infrastructure, especially electrification.

Before the Great Depression’s New Deal, fewer than 5 percent of the farms in the South and the Great Plains were on the electrical grid. The result: only a few rural residents could benefit from modern farm equipment, safe and reliable lighting, washing machines, and the electrical water pumps necessary for indoor plumbing.

The 1920s decade was an era of both challenge and change. 

In politics, Women's Suffrage was achieved in 1920, with the Nineteenth Amendment. In Congress, in 1922, the Johnson Amendment legislated into law a repressive immigration policy, based on "Quotas". And, although well-intentioned, rather than a constructive one, Prohibition became a destructive social force. 


Websites on Nineteenth Amendment

Library of Congress webpage: http://www.americaslibrary.gov/cgi-bin/page.cgi/jb/jazz/19tham_1

Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/

Cornell Law School: http://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/constitution.amendmentxix.html

Findlaw: http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/data/constitution/amendment19/

Websites on Prohibition

National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse: http://www.druglibrary.org/Schaffer/LIBRARY/studies/nc/nc2a.htm

Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prohibition_in_the_United_States

Library of Congress webpage: http://memory.loc.gov/learn/features/timeline/progress/prohib/prohib.html

Throughout the decade, a permanent
cycle of poverty contrasted with conspicuous affluence, perhaps most dramatically exemplified by the contrast between the self-indulgent society of the speakeasy and the  the hill people  of the Appalachians. Members of both of these groups, ironically, practiced amateur woodworking, but for reasons that are polar opposite. See Chapter 4:3 
Agriculture suffered extreme droughts, while urban populations had to endure difficulties provoked by the 1929 Stock Market Crash, and subsequent unemployment. 

In the 1930s, the promise of the New Deal and the rise of unions gave hope to the out-of-work factory worker.

Impact of Electrification: Contemporary to the 1920s decade, papers in trade journals on electrification dramatically chronicle how significant, and rapid, the spread of electrical power was in the early decades of the 20th century:


Document 35:  Anonymous, “Electric Service in the American Home,” Electrical World 75 May 15 1920, pp 1133-1137 

An anonymous article in Electrical World in 1920 Study of Reports from More Than 5,000 Central Stations Indicates That 33,008,500 Americans, or 30.7 Per Cent of the People, Live in Electrically Lighted Homes—Houses Wired Number 6,291,160, Farm-Lighting Plants About 340,000


...  Americans are now living in what may be termed the "electrical age," for the field of usefulness of electrical energy is being more rapidly developed in American homes than in the homes of any other people.

Source: Anonymous, “Electric Service in the American Home,” Electrical World 75 May 15 1920, pp 1133-1137  

EW  studied reports from more than 5,000 electrical generating com­panies submitted in connection with the compilation of the 1920 edition of the "McGraw Central Station Directory and Data Book." This study shows information on electric service in over 10,000 cities and towns and the surrounding rural areas. The results are shown graphically in the article's Figure 1, posted below:

wired vs unwired houses

The central stations of the country cover at the pres­ent time territory populated by 62,028,400 people, or about 57.8 per cent of the total population of the United States. Of this population within reach of central-station service, about 55.8 per cent live in electrically lighted houses. Of the total population of the country, however, only 88,008,500, or 80.7 per cent, are enjoying the benefits of electricity in their homes. There is a total of 6,291,160 houses wired for electricity, of which 48.0 per cent are in the Central States. California ranks first in number of houses wired per capita with 79 per cent, while Mississippi ranks lowest with only 8.4 per cent. The total number of stores wired was determined to be 1,459,169. 


Other estimates of this nature have been made in the last few years. In 1915 it was estimated that not more than 10 per cent of the residences of the country, were connected with central stations. The same year the National Electric Light Association conducted a sur­vey in which returns from more than 100 cities of a population of 5,000 or less, taken at random from all… 

 Source: Anonymous, “Electric Service in the American Home,” Electrical World 75 May 15 1920, pp 1133-1137 

Document 9:  In 1921, in the Journal of the American institute of Electrical Engineers, reprinted as  Document 9: "Notes on Progress of the Use of Electricity in the Industrial and Domestic Field" 1921, presents dramatic evidence about the astonishing rapidity of electrification and the equally astonishing impact of the development, production and distribution of the fractional horse-power inductive motor. Below are highlights, but the link above takes you to the article:

The author, P H  Adams (p. 119), notes in Document 9 that, in 1886, in the “industrial field,” about 5,000 small motors were in use. By 1921, in the “domestic field,”


 ... The advent of the efficient fractional horse power motor of today has caused the development of innumerable labor-saving devices for the modern home.

...  The second decade of the twentieth century has brought marked improvement in all household appliances and many new ones.

A partial list of the appliances obtainable today follows:

Motor-Driven. Washing machines, ironing machines vacuum cleaners, grinders, polishing machines, pianos, ice cream freezers, sewing machines, refrigerating machines, talking machines, dish washers, ventilating devices, and many others.

Stationary Devices.
Ranges, heaters, toasters, fireless cookers, toilet devices, medical appliances, and others too numerous to mention.

The number of fractional horse power motors required for washing machines in 1920, by one large manufacturer, is over 500,000. This gives an idea of the extent to which the use of household devices has grown. ...


Document 36: In 1923, another anonymous article in  Electrical World, “Cost of Electricity: Government Figures Show It to Be the One Important Commodity to Decrease in Price,” page 1052: 


... The Bureau of Labor's last quar­terly statistics on the changes in the cost of living in the United States as compared with basic prices in 1918 carry an interesting footnote. Hitherto "fuel and light" have been lumped to­gether in the table and have shown a very large increase, comparable to that in other staple commodities. In the statistics just issued, which include the figures for March, 1923, this manifest injustice to the producers and dis­tributors of electrical energy is rem­edied by a line added after the total and showing an actual decrease In the price of energy as compared with December, 1914. "Fuel and light" com­bined show an increase in the last quarter of 86.2 per cent, compared with 42 per cent for food and 74.4 per cent for clothing, but electricity not only shows a decrease of 2.4 per cent but has shown an increase only once in the last six years—one of 1.2 in December. 1920.

The information contained in the Bureau of Labor's statistics, which are a summarization of the figures for thirty-two cities computed on a 1913 basis, is derived from actual prices which have been obtained from mer­chants and dealers for each of the periods named.

Document 37: In 1924, in the article where he is “Looking Ahead Ten. Years,” the statistical editor of the Electrical World, Robert M. Davis almost ecstatically, declares, pp. 17-24,

American industry and the American family have adopted electrical energy as a source of light, heat and power with such enthusiasm that today the electric light and power industry stands out as one of the greatest economic factors of the nation.


But, Davis  continues, the figures dwindle when we project use of electrical energy in the 1930s. Looking ahead, Davis claims that to meet future demand of electricity in 1933 for homes, farms, mines and factories, over  hundred and twenty-five billion kilowatt-hours of electrical energy need to be generated. Further, Davis notes, between December, 1914 and  September, 1928,  the price of electricity decreased 5.1 per cent.


Document 38: Anonymous, “Electricity in the American Home,” Commerce Monthly 6, no 10 February 1925, pages  3-10.      

Note Rapid Development of Household Appliance Industry in the United States -- in Table A, below -- where, between 1914 and November, 1924, where sales of electrical appliances increased at  remarkable rates (in Table A, '000" omitted).x

annual sales of lectrical applances

Document 39: Citing figures from two issue of Electrical World [73 Electrical World, January 7, 1928, p. 32; January 4, 1930, p. 10.], author Harry Jerome writes, [In  Mechanization In Industry [ NY: National Bureau Of Economic Research, 1934, pp 174-175],


... the 1920s “witnessed a rapid increase in the use of power appliances in the home, primarily by fractional horse-power electric motors.” For the most part, these motors powered washing machines, sewing machines, dish washers, vacuum cleaners.  Estimates claim that, at the beginning to the 1920s decade, the number of people living in homes with electricity increased from about 35 million to around 85 million at the end, or “from 33 to 70 per cent of the total population.

If the six sources above -- five from the 1920s and one from the 1930s -- give us insight into the contemporary scene of the 1920s decade, where electrification was revolutionizing lifestyles, today, in retrospect,  Jesse H. Ausubel and Cesare Marchetti, and Davis Nye, explain the enormous impact electrification had upon the nation. In retrospective era of 1996, for example, Ausubel and Marchetti,  insightfully, add some caveats about the spread of electricity that are worth considering. Because “electricity is a spatial technology,”—for both industry and homes to utilize electrical power, hydro-electric dams, steam- and coal-generating systems, sub-stations,  a grid of many miles of power poles and wires, for hook-ups must be put in place --  its spread did not occur immediately. Instead, necessarily, electrifying homes, cities, rural areas, extended gradually over fifty years, ending around mid-century.  Read more

America underwent a technological revolution: the machine upstaged the hand. 

In woodworking, the implication of the machine had an especial impact, both for the growing legion of amateur woodworkers as well as  professional woodworkers. As we’ll see below, jobs became more specialized but required less skill (hence the coining of the term “deskilling”, which will be covered later), but also more boring and more alienating. (The classic parody of this phenomenon is Charlie Chaplin’s movie, Modern Times.) And wages fell, because higher productivity leads to lower product prices -- massively expanding options on the consumption side as well, which leads to the flip side of mass production, mass consumption: the creation in America of a “middle-class”, a society composed of people living in detached urban or suburban homes, and commuting and shopping using automobiles. 

Shift from the Era of the Skilled Craftsman to the Era of the Unskilled Worker Had Its Price 


But this shift from the skilled craftsman to the unskilled worker had its price, especially upon the worker. Not unexpectedly, people labeled this era "The Machine Age.” 

And society has reacted to the phenomenon in different ways. 

For our purposes, we concentrate on the work of the American industrial designer, Walter Dorwin Teague,  the American architect and philosopher, Lewis Mumford, and the English industrial design- er, David Pye. 

In 1936, under the rubric, the “demands of mass production,” the industrial designer, Walter Dorwin Teague, distinguished handicrafts from manufacturing,  using the following distinctions:

Because beauty in a machine age must be achieved by methods quite different from those which served the craftsmen of old: handicrafts progressed by trial and error, experimentation; machine production by meticulous planning and precision. The chief characteristic of hand craftsmanship is endless variation; of machine production, precision and exactitude. In the simple past a craftsman could shape his work literally under his own hands; ours are put together by hundreds of workmen the designer may never see, operating intricate machines with which he has only a nodding acquaintance, by processes he only theoretically understands. And while the old-timer could alter his second job if the first one did not suit him, the modern designer must accept the appalling responsibility for ten or a hundred thousand identical units in which no revision is possible!
Source: Walter Dorwin Teague, “Art of the Machine Age,” Industrial Education Magazine, November 1936, page 228. 

Later, in 1940, Teague incorporated and expanded many of his thoughts in his famous book, Design This Day.

In the furnishing of our houses, it was inevitable that our early machine-made furniture should attempt to repeat the success of the skilled cabinet-maker and carver — and repeat it very badly. As machine production grew into mass production, the urge to simplify operations and so reduce costs resulted not in the elimination of superfluities but in lowering the quality of workmanship. Most of us have painful childhood memories of those startling concoctions of pressed "carving," jig-saw work and glue which were produced in the eighties and nineties as bedroom and dining-room "suites" — the absolute low-water mark of American taste. The Grand Rapids type of product has gained in finesse since that time, and slowly in fundamental honesty and simplicity.

Gradually there has emerged a realization that wood itself is a beautiful substance, in its virgin purity, unravished and untormented. With the worldwide exchange of products characteristic of these times — at least in years of peace — the number of beautiful woods available to the manufacturer has greatly increased, and this in itself has stimulated our appreciation of the material's possibilities. As a result, there is a growing realization that the perfectly simple, undecorated, geometrically controlled forms most practicable and economical in machine production are also well calculated to bring out the native beauty of any wood. As a result of this trend we have seen magnificent walls of matched Macassar ebony or rift oak or holly, with no break whatever in the expanse of their polished surfaces and glowing with a subdued richness of natural pattern and colour on which any sort of decorative irregularity would have been an impertinent intrusion. At the other end of the economic scale we have seen inexpensive furniture built in simple, graceful forms with no adornment whatever, and only a treatment of thin shellac to preserve the original quality of the wood, composing in its ensemble a gracious and highly civilized setting for life as we lead it today.
Source: Walter Dorwin Teague,  Design This Day: The Techniques of Order in the Machine Age, London: The Studio Publications, 1940, pages 77-78. (The link is to the Google Print online version, but access is restricted.)

In 1952, Lewis Mumford’s famous 1951 Bampton Lectures were published as Art And Technics. In a chapter entitled “From Handicraft to Machine Art,” he says this about craftsmanship: 

He [craftsman] took his own time about his work, he obeyed the rhythms of his own body, resting when he was tired, reflecting and planning as he went along, lingering over the parts that interested him most, so that, though his work proceeded slowly, the time that he spent on it was truly life time. The craftsman, like the artist, lived in his work, for his work, by his work; and the effect of art was merely to heighten and intensify these natural organic processes—not to serve as mere compensation or escape

Source: Lewis Mumford,
Art And Technics  1952 page 62. (The link leads to the Google Print online version.)

Almost at the same time in the 1950s, at Scotland’s University of Aberdeen, the physicist cum philospher, Michael Polanyi, delivered his justly famous Gifford Lectures, affirming the existence of “personal knowledge” as an essential component of any knowledge, whether scientific or practical. Later, in 1958, the University of Chicago published these lectures as Personal Knowledge. His most famous concept, “tacit knowledge”, is about skills that cannot be learned from textbooks. Polanyi maintains that much of a craftsman’s success depends upon tacit knowledge, that is, upon craft skills that have been acquired through practice and that cannot be articulated explicitly.

Polanyi's discussion of the personal element in all forms of disciplined craftwork gives much insight into tacit knowledge. He distinguishes between explicit knowing, such as occurs in the theoretical formulations of projects, and even in everyday practice; and tacit knowing, which is unstated (and in some cases cannot even be articulated) but, is nonetheless the basis for making sense out of experience.

Without acknowledging such capacity, he claims, there can be no logical explanation of certain processes that occur when extrapolating from one point, where much is known, to another point, where nothing is known for certain. In other words, 

...the structure of tacit knowing . . . is a process of comprehending: a grasping of disjointed parts into a comprehensive whole.

Source: Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge Chicago: University of Chicago Press,  page 28. (The link is to the Google Print online version, but access is restricted.)

In mass production, in travel on or above the ground, tempo became a social force. The best treatment/parody of the matter of increased tempo, perhaps, is Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times. The rapidness in which mass-produced products permeated throughout the nation still amazes us: not just automobiles but washing machines, refrigerators, electric irons, electric and gas stoves, and --

relevant to this paper -- mass-produced furniture and related woodworking operations. In other words, while the maids disappeared, a major consequence of mass production was the build-up of capital

goods for single-use for within-the-home production.

Transportation and communication networks expanded—it was the era of the ocean liner, air travel, the family car, railroad vacations to the Southwest, the radio, and the telephone. The automobile impacted urban infrastructures , rural road systems, and house architecture.

New appliances enhanced (and impacted) domestic life,
enough to have the era dubbed by
social historian, Ruth Schwartz Cowan, "The Industrial Revolution in the Kitchen". New designs were created to house them, and were made with new materials. 

The 1920s, in particular, is the decade of consumer appliances: electric sewing machines, electric washing machines, eclectic vacuum cleaners, electric dishwashers, electric mixers, electric stoves, electric toasters, electric irons, electric hot-water heaters, electric space heaters, and electric refrigerators. (More details about the impact of these technological developments are (or will be) in the chapter on the 1920s decade.)

By the start of World War II, 79 percent of households had electric irons; and 50 percent had washing machines, refrigerators, and vacuum cleaners. None of this would have been possible without mass
production operations. 

For social historian Ruth Schwartz Cowan 

kitchens are as much a locus for industrialized work as factories and coal mines are, and washing machines and microwave ovens are as much a product of industrialization as are automobiles and pocket calculators. A woman who is placing a frozen prepared dinner into a microwave oven is involved in a work process that is as different from her grandmother's methods of cooking as building a carriage from scratch difers from turning bolts on an automobile assembly line; an electric range is as different from a hearth as a pneumatic drill is from a pick and shovel...

Ruth Schwartz Cowan (citation not complete)

Domestically, of course, the need by house-holders for maids in homes was eliminated or reduced by the availability of appliances that did the same household chores: clothes washing machines,

dishwashers, and the like .

On both sides of the Atlantic, a revolution occurred in the Arts. For the arts and crafts in Europe, the years between the wars were strained, coming from oppressive policies invoked by Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union and Adolf Hitler in Germany. In 1921, the Communist Party took official control of artistic expression in Russia.

Although he didn't ascend to power in Germany until 1933, in 1920, at the Hofbrauhaus in Munich, Hitler announced his Twenty-Five-Point Program [link] introducing an oppressive period when free expression in Europe was threatened by Soviet repression and the Nazi siege.

When he assumed power in 1933, Hitler ordered "degenerate" abstract art removed from the walls of museums throughout Germany, and the Bauhaus was disbanded. By this time, hundreds of artists had immigrated from Europe to America — authors, architects, designers, painters, sculptors, musicians, and artists working in clay, fiber, glass, metal, and wood.

(Sources: See Documentation for Electrification; Janet Kardon, Craft in the Machine Age, New York: H.N. Abrams, in association with the American Craft Museum, 1995,  especially Kate Carmel's chapter "Against the Grain: Modern American Woodwork", page 74+ and in Loretta Lorance, Promises, Promises: The Allure of Household Appliances in the 1920s; Susan Hegeman, Patterns for America: Modernism and the Concept of Culture Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999; Noel Riley, ed., Elements of Design: A Practical Encyclopedia of the Decorative Arts From the Renaissance to the Present New York: Free Press, 2003, page 378; )