Motion Pictures, the Spread of Electricity, and Penicillin

Motion Pictures, the Spread of Electricity, and Penicillin

Aaron K-B and Seth Lifland

Thesis: Motion pictures, the spread of electricity, and penicillin all helped unify American society during the 1920s, as each of these three social events represented the beginning a beloved facet of our modern American identity: the first motion pictures helped unify American society as they represented the beginnings of national popular culture, the spread of electricity helped unify America as it allowed for and was caused by the development of a consumer culture in America, and the discovery of penicillin represented the spirit of innovation that helps unify America to this day.

How Motion Pictures, the spread of electricity, and penicillin helped unify American culture:

Motion Pictures:

The industry boomed in the 20's:
Charlie Chaplin movie poster

  • capital investment totaling over $2 billion
  • over 20 Hollywood studios
  • averaged output of 800 films a year; by far the greatest number in American history

The great success of the movie industry has it's roots in the same techniques as many other famous American industries:
  • Monopolization: 5 huge studios produced over 90% of films. The top five for the 20's included Warner Bros, Paramount, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (think framed roaring Lion), Fox, and RKO Pictures. Of these, all but RKO are still huge forces in the industry today.
  • Factory System: Vertically integrated processes were rigidly controlled by studio production chiefs and their publicity departments. Monotonous movies focused on the same endlessly recycled plots.
  • A large number of lesser studios attempted to break through to the big time, led on by the example of Disney, who broke the stranglehold of the "Big Five" in the late 30's.

The result was one, nationalized film industry. The same films could be seen in California and on the east coast, leading to nationally recognized stars, such as romantic film stars Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell, who starred in Seventh Heaven (1927). A sense of national unity was derived from the newly formed nation-wide celebrity circuit.
One of the first motion picture theaters.


Electricity had a slow start, but boomed in the 1920's.
Radio advertisement emphasizing how amazing radio seemed, and how it brought the family together

  • The lightbulb was invented in 1879 by Thomas Edison
  • The first central power plant—Pearl Street Station in lower Manhattan—began generating electricity on September 4, 1882.
  • In 1920 only 34.7 percent of American dwellings had electricity; by 1930 67.9 percent had electric power.
  • in cities, the boom was even faster: 84.8 percent of all urban homes by 1930, compared to only 47.4 percent in 1920
  • huge drop in the cost of electricity: an average of 16.2 cents per kilowatt-hour in 1902 changed to 2.3 cents in 1964.

The sudden spread of electricity coevolved with the spread of new electrical appliances that improved the standard of living.
  • refrigerators
  • stoves
  • irons
  • washing machines
  • improved electric lamps
  • radios

All of a sudden, anyone could buy an appliance such as a refrigerator on credit! The spread of electricity facilitated the spread of a consumer culture based on credit, a culture which heavily defines America to this day. At the same time, however, appliances such as washing machines saved women a great deal of work, and eventually resulted in women expanding their spheres of influence beyond the household, and causing a certain amount of disunity as they became involved in social issues.
Advertisment for a refrigerator -- emphasizing that it keeps itself cool


Alexander Fleming at his microscope

Penicillin was discovered in the late 1920s, but it was not widely used until more than a decade later. However, its discovery is characteristic of important technological innovations that occurred during the 1920s, and the spirit of innovation is one that unites Americans to this day.
  • Officially discovered September 28, 1928 by Alexander Fleming.
  • However, the use of bread with a blue mould (presumably penicillium) as a means of treating suppurating wounds was a staple of folk medicine in Europe since the Middle Ages.
  • Cecil George Paine achieved the first recorded cure with penicillin, on November 25, 1930, but the drug was mostly abandoned as useless until the 1940's.
  • Began common usage in 1942 with a newly discovered powdered form, where it was widely and effectively used during WWII.

Advertisement for penicillin during WWII


  • Americans still disagree on many things, but the things that unify them were represented by these three developments
  • Pop culture -- regardless of political views, religious affliation, or ethnic background, Americans are obsessed with their celebrities, whether it is Brad Pitt, Barack Obama, or Rush Limbaugh who they are most interested in
  • Many Americans like the same music, movies, sports, TV, books -- mainstream culture is something which all Americans have in common, though some deviate from it more than others
  • Consumerism -- nowadays, just about everyone owns luxuries like cell phones, iPods, and even more basically refrigerators, stoves, TVs, computers, and cars; we live so that we can work and we work so that we can buy whatever fancy new technology we see advertised
  • Innovation -- no one wants to think that they're doing useless work, so most Americans strive (or at least hope) to see technologies improve, so that people can live longer and better, and be entertained in more and more extreme ways
  • Innovation can come in the form of developing consumer technology, but there are many fields of science devoted towards solving the problems posed by an ever growing poplation -- eg. new energy technologies