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. 

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