The Roaring Twenties are upon us yet again

The Roaring 20’s are upon us yet again. Generations have passed since the last time we got to say that and civilization has changed so much since then. Life was very different on New Year’s Day 1920. 

The world was on the path to recovery from the First World War. New uses of emerging technologies were starting to take their place in society. Mack Trucks had become a core part of the military arsenal, proving worthy of helping the Allies during the war. 

The first radio news broadcast had not taken place, but this would happen within a few months. 

The average age was 55 years old and living conditions were incredibly poor by 2020 standards. Most work was incredibly dangerous, with the workplace fatality rate 30 times greater than it is today. There was no FMCSA in those days, so historical safety records for transportation are hard to come by. The work day was also much longer, leading to an average work week of 55 hours per week. 

Women were unlikely to be working outside of the home in those days, but male children older than 14 probably were. Only one-quarter of male teenagers under 17 were enrolled in any form of schooling and over half of families were involved in farming as their primary income source. 

Families spent over half of their monthly income on food, twice the current level. Lard was a primary source of calories, with about the same consumption levels of chicken. 

Alcohol would be banned through prohibition in 1920, creating an underground economy dedicated to trafficking and transporting booze. 

America was a country full of renters, with a family four times more likely to rent than own the house they lived in. If they did try to buy a home, it would require around a 50% down payment to secure financing. 

Infant mortality was as high as 10% and women had a 4% chance of dying giving birth (women had far more children in those days as modern birth control had not been invented). Antibiotics had not been invented, so a basic infection could result in death.

Motorized vehicles had only recently been outfitted with electric generators, which allowed lights to be added to trucks at night. Prior to this, trucks would pull over at night and wait for daybreak before continuing along the journey. 

Hours of service did not exist, but motorized vehicles were so finicky that it was unlikely that a truck could go a great distance without having a maintenance issue to tend to. 

Gas stations were also a relatively new thing. From their beginnings in 1914, they provided dedicated gasoline service as a core part of their business. Standards for the quality of gasoline varied widely by station, state and even time of year. Engines were unreliable and produced a loud knocking noise as they ran. Lead would later be added to gasoline to control engine knocking as they burned fuel and allow the fuel to provide higher engine performance (it was a known poison at the time, but added anyways. It was eventually banned).

Trucks ran on gasoline, because the diesel engine had not been invented proven reliable yet for trucks. A national highway system didn’t exist. Railroads were the primary form of freight transportation, as trucks had limited use in long-haul transportation. There were over one million trucks on the highways, but they were mostly used for intra-city and regional runs. The trucks of the day closely resembled box trucks rather than trucks with trailers, because the fifth-wheel had not been invented. 

The airplane was a relatively new invention and although it had proven itself during World War I, its impact on society was uncertain. The first scheduled airmail service had just begun along the East Coast. Zeppelins (airships) were promising technology and the world was optimistic about the power of airborne travel and freight. 

The intermodal container box had not been invented. Ships largely hauled bulk goods and freight that had to be unloaded by hand or through dockside cranes. 

The war-time shipbuilding industry came under significant financial pressure in peacetime. This led to great pressure in Congress to pass legislation to support and encourage a domestic shipbuilding industry. The Merchant Marine Act of 1920, otherwise known as the Jones Act, would be passed in June of that year. It read:

It is necessary for the national defense and for the proper growth of its foreign and domestic commerce that the United States shall have a merchant marine of the best equipped and most suitable types of vessels sufficient to carry the greater portion of its commerce and serve as a naval or military auxiliary in time of war or national emergency, ultimately to be owned and operated privately by citizens of the United States; and it is declared to be the policy of the United States to do whatever may be necessary to develop and encourage the maintenance of such a merchant marine, and, in so far as may not be inconsistent with the express provisions of this Act, the Secretary of Transportation shall, in the disposition of vessels and shipping property as hereinafter provided, in the making of rules and regulations, and in the administration of the shipping laws keep always in view this purpose and object as the primary end to be attained.

Basically, The Jones Act prevented foreign flag ships from hauling between two domestic ports.

The railroads had been taken over by the federal government in 1917, in the interest of national security related to the war effort. The government invested $380 million in the railroads and promised to give the companies back to their owners within 21 months of a peace treaty. 

The U.S. was not a party to the Treaty of Versailles which would have forced the government to turn control to the owners automatically. The unions largely supported the government maintaining control. President Wilson and the public largely disagreed.

Congress ended up passed the Esch-Cummins Act, which ended nationalization on March 1st, 1920 and the railroads were given back to their private owners. The Federal government did increase power over the railroads that it had not possessed prior to nationalization. The ICC was given power to approve/block mergers, to set rates, and approve or reject services. The government also provided some funding guarantees that supported the financial viability of the railroads.

Railroads were still experiencing rapid expansion in terms of new track miles and investment as urbanization became a major driver of economic growth. At peak, railroads would have 260,000 miles of domestic track compared with just 100,000 miles today.

The trucking industry would eventually eat away at railroad freight revenues, while airplanes and the interstate highway system would kill the competitiveness of passenger trains. According to the Slate, railroads did not make a profit from passengers after the late 1930s. This was largely blamed on union contracts and hangovers related to the Esch-Cummins Act.

The decade ahead of us is going to be completely different from the last. Looking back at the state of the world in 1920, we have a lot of reasons to be optimistic about the progress of society over the next 10 years. In future articles, we will make predictions of what freight will be like over the next decade.