The Roaring Twenties saw astonishing changes to American life, including a dramatic break from the technologies and habits of the past. Icemen gave way to electric refrigerators, broadcast radio brought entertainment and news into living rooms, and Lindbergh made flying something everyone wanted to try.
Despite the mechanized horrors of World War I, most people were enchanted by the idea of man and machine coming together to make a better world. In the U.S. the machine-age exuberance was expressed largely in capitalist terms, while many European and Soviet intellectuals saw the machine as integral to the progress of socialism. The Machine-Age Exposition in New York City (May 16-28 at 119 West 57th Street) celebrated all facets through a unique event that brought together architecture, engineering, industrial arts and modern art from a number of nations.
The exhibition, initiated by Jane Heap of the literary magazine The Little Review, included exhibits from the U.S., Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Poland and the Soviet Union. Artists in the exhibition represented a Who’s Who of modernists and futurists — Alexander Archipenko, Marcel Duchamp, Hugh Ferriss, Man Ray and others who celebrated the aural and visual cacophony of the age as well as the gleaming precision of machines and machine-like buildings.
New Yorker writer E.B. White shared in the enthusiasm with this bit for “The Talk of the Town…”
The sleek and glass-walled buildings featured at the Exhibition were fantastic images in 1927, when most large-scale buildings were still being rendered in brick and stone in various neoclassical, federal or gothic styles.
Little did visitors to the Exposition realize that the radical Bauhaus style on display would become ubiquitous in the U.S. in the second half of their century, thanks not to some new machine age of peace and harmony but rather because of the annihilation of the Second World War and the mass migration from Europe of architects, artists, scientists and other professionals fleeing Nazi oppression.
It was also a time when it was believed technology was on the verge of conquering nature, and that the invention of air-conditioning and “Vita-Glass” would create indoor environments with all of the health benefits but none of the discomforts of the outdoors:
The invention of sulfa drugs and antibiotics were still a few years away, so health providers were excited about the possibilities of these artificial environments.
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In the “A Reporter at Large” column, Russell Owen wrote about the intrepid flyers who were vying to become the first to fly nonstop across the Atlantic. He began the piece with a tribute to French ace pilot Charles Nungesser and his one-eyed wartime buddy François Coli, who disappeared during their May 8 attempt to fly from Paris to New York.
Owen also wrote about those who would soon be taking the same daring leap into “the illimitable terror of space”…
Although Lindbergh had yet to accomplish his feat, he had already been singled out as a loner and a bit of an odd duck:
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Editors of “Talk of the Town” also checked in on famed dancer Isadora Duncan, her eldest daughter Anna, and Isadora’s “amazing dancing family…”
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And finally, an excerpt of a poem contributed by Marion Clinch Calkins–who often wrote humorous rhymes for the New Yorker under the pen name Majollica Wattles. Here she riffs on Horace’s “poetry of pleasure…”
Next Time: The Flying Fool…
2 thoughts on “Shock of the New”
Great post. I own a copy of Ferris’s Metropolis book, filled with his designs. I could send you a few scanned if you!d like to see the whackier ones.
You might also find it amusing that Dwight Macdonald, who wrote for The New Yorker for years, had a piece in PR Vol 4 No1 that is a satiric and serious put-down of its ‘Park Avenue’ attitude to the Arts. Annie J
Thanks for your comment. I remember Metropolis from my days long ago as a beginning architecture student. Some of the designs are really far-fetched, but you have to admire his earnestness. As for Macdonald, he tried to have it both ways with the New Yorker. Both critic and defender, he shared the view of Harold Ross and William Shawn that there must be a strict separation between editorial and the advertisements, which usually appealed to middlebrow tastes.