Social Change- Motion Pictures, the Spread of Electricity, and Penicillin

Motion pictures, the spread of electricity, and the discovery of Penicillin show the social change created in the 1920s as a result of technological and scientific advancements which were able to unify the country.

The 1920s were a time of tremendous change in America. Science and technology played a vital part in delivering the economic and cultural good times that most of America enjoyed during the 1920s. In the 1920s, pop culture thrived. The decade marked the start of the sound movies. The popularity of the "talkies" led to the rise in fame of movie stars and even further technilogical advancement in movies. By the 1920s, almost every one had electricity, and it ultimately altered the way people lived in their own homes. The discovery of Penicillin in the 1920s would soon lead to further research that would ultimately prove its value as a powerful drug.

Motion Pictures

Films were extremely popular in the 1920s, expanding upon the foundations of film from earlier years. By the mid-20s, movies were big business (with a capital investment totaling over $2 billion), and by the end of the decade, there were 20 Hollywood studios, and the demand for films was greater than ever. In fact, the greatest output of feature films in the US occurred in the 1920s and 1930s, averaging about 800 film releases in a year. Today, it is remarkable when production exceeds 500 films in a year.

Throughout most of the decade, silent films were the predominant product of the film industry, having evolved from vaudeville roots. But the films were becoming bigger, longer, more expensive, and more polished. They were being manufactured, like an assembly-line, in Hollywood's 'entertainment factories,' in which production was broken down and organized into various components (writing, costuming, makeup, directing, etc.).

Even the earliest films were organized into genres, with instantly recognizable storylines, settings, costumes, and characters. The major genre emphasis was on swashbucklers, historical extravaganzas, and melodramas, although all kinds of films were being produced throughout the decade. Films varied from melodramas and biblical epics, to westerns (such as Cruze's The Covered Wagon (1923)), horror films, gangster/crime films, war films, the first feature documentary or non-fictional narrative film (Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North (1922)), romances, mysteries, and comedies (from the silent comic masters Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd)

Although the first movie in color, "Toll of the Sea", came out in 1922, until the late 1920's, motion pictures were silent except for musical accompaniment of live orchestras in the theatre. To this point, movies had enjoyed a wide degree of popularity, but they still remained a secondary form of entertainment because of their lack of sound.

All of this changed in 1926 when Warner Brothers, along with Western Electric, introduced a new sound-on-disc system, called the Vitaphone. In this system, sound effects and music were recorded on a record that would later be synchronized with the film projector. In order to exhibit this new technology, Warner Brothers released "Don Juan", the first motion picture to have a pre-recorded score and synchronized sound effects. Although "Don Juan" proved to be a box-office hit, many movie studios still refused to adapt to talking picture technology, believing that they would never replace silent pictures. However, the premiere of "The Jazz Singer" in October of 1927 changed these opinions, and in doing so, changed the history of motion pictures forever.

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The Jazz Singer
"The Jazz Singer" triggered the "talkie" (talking-picture) revolution. Based on Alfred Cohn's story "The Day of Atonement," and Samson Raphaelson's popular Broadway play of the same name, the film starred Al Jolson as a Jewish boy who attempts to become a Broadway star. Even though "The Jazz Singer" was not the first film to use sound, it was the first one to use spoken dialogue as part of the action. The combination of Jolson, America's most popular singer, and the new sound system helped to produce a profit of $3.5 million, allowing Warner Bros. to begin its rule as one of Hollywood's top studios. When Warners Bros follow-up films with sound, such as "The Lights of New York" also became box-office hits, the rest of Hollywood switched to sound with startling speed, hoping to adapt to the new technology. A year after its release, Hollywood recognized the importance of "The Jazz Singer" with regard to motion picture history by honoring the film with a special Academy Award.

List of Popular Movies in the 1920's

Toll of the Sea (1922) - the first all-color feature
Don Juan (1926) - the first feature with sound effects and music
The Jazz Singer (1927) - the first sound feature to include limited talking sequence
Lights of New York (1928) - the first all-talking feature film
Dinner Time (1928) - the first sound cartoon was released
On with the Show (1929) - the first all-color, all-talking feature film
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List of Popular Actors and Actresses in the 1920s

  • Rudolph Valentino: "The Conquering Power", "The Sheik"
  • Charlie Chaplin: "The Kid", "The Gold Rush", "The Circus" (cameo roles in the latter two)- founded the United Artists film distribution company
  • Clara Bow: "It", "Down to the Sea in Ships"
  • Rin-Tin-Tin (dog star!)
  • Alfred Hitchcock (director): "The Pleasure Garden", "Blackmail" (talkie)
  • Mary Philbin: "The Phantom of the Opera", "The Man Who Laughs"
  • Lon Chaney ("The Man of a Thousand Faces"): "The Phantom of the Opera", "London After Midnight"


      • Before the 1920's, most appliances were operated using a crank. When electricity became more widespread during the 20's, however, more household appliances began to be electrified.
      • General Electric, National Electric Light Association created
      • Electricity was mostly marketed to women as a clean, safe energy source that would allow her to have a life (no longer tied down by cleaning and housework)
      • Many women are included in electricity ads
      • Household appliances called "electric servants"
      • New appliances include: Refrigerators, lightbulbs, vacuum cleaners, toaster, electric stove, fan, and washing machine
      • Most popular: the iron and the vacuum
      • Appliances were championed as almost magical devices available at the flip of a switch: no longer would the housewife have to remove rugs and curtains to clean them! No longer would she have to handle a hot, heavy iron to press her clothes! With electricity, she was allowed to stay safe and get more housework done while her husband was away.
      • Coal now limited to stoves and fireplaces: electricity was much cleaner, was invisible (no smoke!) and available from a plug in the wall.
      • Housewives no longer need servants to do their work: idealized household
      • Refrigerators able to preserve the quality of food, especially meat: no salting needed
      • Buckminster Fuller: Dymaxion House (1928-29): Idealized house that had no need for servants: raised one story above the ground to provide room for servants and the family's vehicle: all appliances were "servant-free" and did cooking, cleaning, dusting, etc. for the housewife- all she had to do was operate them. This project was never advanced beyond the model stage.
Fuller and his "Dymaxion House" model.
Fuller and his "Dymaxion House" model.

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Penicillin is one of the earliest discovered and widely used antibiotic agents, derived from the Penicillium mold. Antibiotics are chemicals, effective at very low concentrations, created as part of the life process of one organism, which can kill or stop the growth of a disease-causing microbe--a germ. In 1929, Alexander Fleming, a doctor and researcher at St. Mary's Hospital in London, England, published a paper on a chemical he called "penicillin", which he had isolated from from a mold, Penicillium notatum. Through his research, Fleming found that Penicillin had prevented the growth of a neighboring colony of germs in the same petri dish. Dr. Fleming was never able to purify his samples of penicillin, but he became the first person to publish the news of its germ-killing power. Howard Florey, Ernst Chain and Norman Heatley expanded on Fleming's work in 1938 at Oxford University. They and their staff developed methods for growing, extracting and purifying enough penicillin to prove its value as a drug.

external image Alexander_Fleming2.gif
Connection to Today

      • The legacy of the film industry lives on today: Hollywood still spends loads of money on movies, which people spend loads of money to see. Actors and actresses, in some cases, are household names, and current fashion and culture is often showcased in movies and other videos (ex. movies about the fashion industry like "The September Issue" or teen movies like "Superbad", as well as recorded fashion shows).
      • Were it not for the discovery of technology in filmmaking, we would not have cameras, camera phones, etc.; were it not for the invention of the "talkie" movie, we would not have voices in our videos, either.
      • The idea of the "celebrity" came about: celebrities still exist today, and so do the awards shows with celebrities in and hosting them.
      • Electricity did not become a full countrywide phenomenon until the 1950's, but the household appliance greatly simplified life: refrigerators helped improve the meat-packing industry, vacuums were a useful tool in cleaning the home more efficiently, etc. Homes are now cleaner and more efficient than they were previously.
      • The discovery of penicillin revolutionized medicine: the drug did not become widely available until the 1940's, but it was used as a powerful antibiotic thereafter.


The 1920's - Roaring Twenties - The Nineteen Twenties in History [[]]

Vintage Ad Index [[ ]]

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At Home in a Century of Progress? 1920-50 [[ ]]

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Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia [[]]
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The Roaring Twenties: A Historical Snapshot of Life in the 1920's [[]]