Going up? Elevators in the 1920s

I learned something useful in this week’s Economist magazine. Until the twentieth century, the higher the floor, the lower the rent. The most desirable floor in a high-rise was the first floor (not the grand floor); after that the second; after that, the upper floors were for servants or the middle/lower classes. Think starving artists in garrets. What changed? The invention of the elevator.

Sure, the elevator was invented in 1854, by Elisha Otis, but it wasn’t very successful at first or widely used. People were leery of riding such a contraption. But by the twentieth century, elevators permitted buildings to be built taller than ever, and suddenly, the desirability order was reversed. By the 1920s, the penthouse was the most expensive floor. 

From the 1400s onward, penthouse meant at attached building with a sloping roof, like a shed. Something not glamorous. In fact, some Middle English homilies describe Jesus’ birthplace in the manger as a “penthouse.” But in the 1920s, the meaning of the word shifted and it became the desirable top floor of a tall building, accessed by an elevator. 

What was an elevator like in the 1920s? Check this Otis elevator ride. 

I can use this bit of information in my books–I’ll have Jessie step into an elevator (with an attendant, of course) and he’ll slide shut the gate before pressing the button. A tiny detail, to be sure, but these things help bring the Twenties to life. 

Published in: on January 2, 2018 at 3:25 pm  Comments (2)  

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  1. Would the attendant press a button or rotate a bar? I remember (yes, I’m old enough but not 1920s old!) a bar that moved a pointer in an arc which pointed to a floor. Of course, that might have been for a few floors only (say, 5). Once there were lots of floors I’m sure the button was easier!

  2. Fascinating!
    This reminds me of the elevator that used to be in my town’s hospital. I was just a kid back then, but I remember quite clearly because I was frightened to ride that elevetor. From what I remember, I think it must have been from the 1930s or 1940s.
    It was encased in a wired cage inside the stairs well. It had a rail door just like the one in the video, but the actuall elevator was made up of wood slets, which didn’t really match so that we could see the elevator mooving through the crakcs (that was what frightened me so much as a kid).
    The elevator was removed some 30-35 years ago, replaced by a new one – of course, being a hospital. But I’m kind of sad that it just disappeared.

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