Isn’t this a great picture? When people ask me about the research I do for my novels, I list the usual history books, scholarly articles, biographies, autobiographies, and novels written in the Twenties, and then I talk about how much I learn from watching silent movies made in the mid-1920s (ones that tell a contemporary story) and photographs. Here’s a perfect example. I use this one to help me accurately describe street scenes in the mid-1920s. I think it’s New York, and conditions were not so dire in other, smaller cities, but still . . . it gives you a sense of the time. Who knew gridlock has been around for so long!
What was life like for average, middle-class Americans during the Roaring Twenties? In a word, good.
Some trends: women were included in the electoral process, most voted (white women, anyway) and more went to college. Jobs were plentiful–unemployment is estimated to have been below 5% for the entire decade. And people were working fewer hours. Until this decade, the six-day week, ten-hour day was the norm. In the Twenties, eight-hour days became the norm, as did five-day weeks. For example, Henry Ford changed to a five-day week for his factories in 1926. With the price of cars plummeting and more people working, car ownership grew. According to an article in the NY Times by Amity Shlaes, one quarter of American families owned a car in 1920 but half of all families did by 1930. Same with indoor plumbing: at the beginning of the decade, two out of ten American homes had flush toilets; by the end of the decade, half did. Vacuum cleaners–a miracle invention–started to penetrate middle class homes, along with a few other electric appliances, such as toasters.
These are all trends that I try to reflect in my Roaring Twenties mystery series.
The Detroit River separates Windsor, Canada, from the U.S. by less than a mile. This was a funnel or sorts, with 75% of all smuggled Canadian liquor coming across the river. When the river froze in the winter, it was even easier–a car or truck could drive across or a man could pull a sled loaded with hooch. Of course, sometimes there were problems . . .
Canada also made drinking alcohol illegal, but the government shrewdly allowed its manufacture “for export only.” This industry brought lots of jobs and money to Canada.
In THE IMPERSONATOR (due to be published Fall 2013 by St. Martin’s/Minotaur), one of my characters smuggles liquor from Canada, but he does it in the Northwest, where Canadian Sam Bronfman, founded of Seagram’s, cornered the market on making booze and shipping it to America. Many smuggled it into the country over land; others came by sea. Part of the mystery is how my bootleggers got their liquor into Portland.
I’m not a car person (their color is about the only thing I notice about cars), so when I need to use a car in my novels, I have to do some work to ascertain which make and model is appropriate and whether or not that particular vehicle would have been available to my character. Was a car like that sold in her region? (A French import might have been available in New York in the Twenties but not in Iowa, for example.) And if it were available, could my character have afforded it? So I’ve looked into the prices of cars. Oddly enough, while the price of almost everything goes up over the decades, the price of cars falls dramatically.
For example, the Ford Model T cost $1200 in 1909. Five years later, it cost $490 (or about $11,000 in today’s money). By 1921, the same car was $310, or roughly $4,000 in today’s money. Why the big drop? The car didn’t change much over those years, but the real savings comes from Ford’s increasing efficiency at his factory. His wanted to produce a car that average Americans could afford, and by the Roaring Twenties, he had. So I was comfortable having my character buy a Ford in 1924–it didn’t cost her all that much.
By the way, it wasn’t Ford but General Motors that introduced the concept of buying cars on credit, with General Motors Acceptance Corporation (GMAC) in 1919. Instead of paying cash, you could finance through GMAC, bypassing the banks. Sales boomed for GM, as by 1926, 75% of all car buyers were using credit to purchase their cars.
How did police get around in the Roaring Twenties? By walking their beat, of course, but how else?
Horses were common in most cities in the Twenties. And in some places, mounted police are still active today. In the past two years, the lousy economy has forced cities like Boston, Tulsa, San Diego, and Portland to eliminate their mounted police. Larger cities like New York, Los Angeles, Houston, and Chicago have no plans to discontinue theirs, so useful are they in crowd control and public relations.
Although every city had a different timetable, it seems that motorcycles were introduced to police work before automobiles, probably because they were cheaper. Philadelphia was one of the first cities to buy police motorcycles, starting in 1906. A few cities began using automobiles in the Twenties, but they weren’t common until the Thirties. Because I’m focused on Hollywood, I was most interested in the Los Angeles Police Department. I checked into their use of cars and learned that the first type purchased was a touring car. The year was 1913. So for my stories, set in Hollywood in 1925, policemen can drive around in cars, in a limited way at least.
Here’s an amusing bit of trivia: The Ford Model T had a ten gallon fuel tank mounted to the frame beneath the front seat that relied on gravity to make the gasoline flow from the fuel tank to the carburetor. This worked fine on level roads, but it meant that when the car was going up a hill and the fuel level was low, the gas sloshed to the back of the tank and couldn’t reach the carburetor. The car wouldn’t go.
The solution? Drive up hill in reverse!
I’m using this tidbit in my 1924 mystery novel! It’s too much fun to ignore.
In my Roaring Twenties mystery series, I want to get the cars “just right.” But I’m not a car person, so I rely on friends—one in particular—who know a lot about antique cars. One of the few things they didn’t know was the price of cars during the 1920s, so I had to research that myself. It turned out to be a fun project.
My main character needed to buy a modest American car in 1924. The obvious choice of car was the Model T, something Henry Ford engineered to fit the pocketbook of the average American. Until the Model T, only the very rich could afford a car. Once Model Ts started rolling off the assembly lines, nearly everyone with a job could afford one. That was Henry Ford’s intention. “I will build a car for the great multitude,” he said. “It will be large enough for the family, but small enough for the individual to run and care for. It will be constructed of the best materials, by the best men to be hired, after the simplest designs that modern engineering can devise. But it will be low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one.” And he paid the unheard of wage of $5 a day to his factory workers to build it.
I soon learned there were many body types of Model Ts: runabouts, touring cars, sedans, roadsters, and so forth. In researching advertisements of the era, I found one from 1924 that hawked Model T runabouts for $265 (by the way, that works out to be about $3,300 in today’s dollars). So I used that body type and that price for my fictitious character.
Somewhere I heard that Ford’s Model T cars were not actually called “Model Ts” until the end of the Roaring Twenties. So what? Well, if you’re a historian writing a novel set in 1924 and two of your characters drive Model Ts, what are you going to call them in the book?
Slang terms like “flivver” and “tin lizzie” were common back then, but what did people call these cars when they weren’t being irreverent? I searched for old advertisements to see what they called the Model T, and guess what? They called it a Ford (there’s a shocker, huh?) and then used the word for the particular style. Like Ford Runabout, in this ad to the left. Or Ford Touring Car. Ford Coupe. Ford Sedan. Not a single one of the ads I found (dated from 1908 through 1925) used the term Model T. Oddly enough, the Ford models that pre-dated the Model T were called by their letter names. I came across a 1905 ad for the Model B and the Model C.
It wasn’t easy finding old Ford ads–there aren’t a lot out there, which makes you wonder until you learn that the irascible Henry Ford considered paid advertising a complete waste of money. Ford dealers advertised, but the Ford Motor Company itself seldom did. Here’s one dealer ad dating from 1920:
(The prettier ad at the top is one of the Ford Motor Co. ads and dates from 1924.)
I am not a car person. Oh sure, I can tell grey cars from blue cars, and I can identify station wagons, pick up trucks, and convertibles (when their tops are down), but names and makes mean virtually nothing to me because they all look so much alike. So perhaps I am the only person on earth who was surprised to learn what I learned about Model T Fords, the car that my main character drives in my Roaring Twenties stories. (A 1925 version is pictured here.)
Did you know that . . . .?
Model Ts were not even called Model Ts until the middle of the 1920s. People referred to them as Tin Lizzies or flivvers or simply Fords.
15 million of them were manufactured from 1909 to 1927. In the mid-1920s, roughly half the cars on American roads were Model Ts. It was not a luxury car or a beautiful car, but it was cheap, reliable, and within the pocketbook of America’s middle class.
Everyone knows Henry Ford’s famous saying: “You can have any color you like as long as it’s black.” He may or may not have actually said it, but whatever the case, it wasn’t true. Ford factories manufactured Model Ts in several colors. For the first 5 years, customers could choose between red, blue, green, grey, and black. But Henry Ford’s obsession with cost-cutting pushed him to limit the choices to one. From 1913-1925, only black was offered, so perhaps he made that statement in 1913 when they eliminated colors. Why? Because black paint was the cheapest and most durable, and Henry was hell bent on reducing the price of his cars, so black it was. In an attempt to boost sales, he returned to a choice of colors for the last two years of the Model T’s production.
I don’t know about you, but I always thought the Model T referred to a particular car that varied little over its lifetime. The second part of that sentence is true—the design hardly changed from year to year—but there were many different models each year, all built with the same engine and chassis (that’s the frame, for those of you who, like me, didn’t know). The only variable was the body. I discovered that there were roadsters (a la Nancy Drew), speedsters, coupes, coupelets, runabouts, roadster torpedos, town cars, touring cars, and the fordor and tudor sedans (get it? 4-door and 2-door . . . heh, heh.)
Now I need to decide which one my main character drives. Sigh . . . choices, choices . . .