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America on the Move
Collection Exhibition Themes
Transportation in America before 1876 Community Dreams: Santa Cruz, California, 1876 Delivering the Goods: Watsonville, California, 1895 A Streetcar City: Washington, D.C., 1900 People on the Move Crossing the Country: Somewhere in Wyoming, 1903 Americans Adopt the Auto Lives on the Railroad: Salisbury, North Carolina, 1927 The People's Highway: Route 66, 1930s-1940s Roadside Communities: Ring's Rest, Muirkirk, Maryland, 1930s Family Camping: York Beach, Maine, 1930s On the School Bus: Martinsburg, Indiana, 1939 Suburban Strip: Sandy Boulevard, Portland, Oregon, 1949 City and Suburb: Chicago and Park Forest, Illinois, 1950s On the Interstate: I-10, 1956-1990 Transforming the Waterfront: San Francisco and Oakland, California, 1960-1970 Going Global: Los Angeles Introduction New York Connected The Oak Port Traffic
6: The Connected City: New York, New York, 1920s

New York Connected

New York in the 1920s had nearly 6 million residents and was a center of manufacturing, commerce, and culture. Immigrants entering through the port and migrants coming by road and rail fed the city’s thriving economy. In 1923, New York produced 1/12th of all manufacturing in the nation.

As part of the great migration from the south to northern cities, some 200,000 African Americans moved to New York between 1917 and 1925. In addition to the lure of jobs, many were drawn to the cultural life of Harlem, on the city’s East Side.

The island of Manhattan, March 9, 1927
The island of Manhattan, March 9, 1927

Transatlantic Travel

Almost everyone who crossed the Atlantic Ocean in the 1920s did so by steamship. Businessmen meeting overseas clients, entertainers on tour, and travelers making leisure trips booked passage on ocean liners of all sizes. They sailed alongside vast numbers of emigrants coming to the United States and immigrants returning abroad. The Leviathan and its crew of 1,100 ferried as many as 3,400 passengers to or from New York City each week. German-built in 1914 but used as an American troopship during World War I, the Leviathan was the largest American merchant ship of its day.

The Leviathan in New York, 1923
The Leviathan in New York, 1923
First-class dinner menu from S.S. Leviathan, 1929
First-class dinner menu from S.S. Leviathan, 1929
Concert program from S.S. Leviathan
Concert program from S.S. Leviathan
Model of S.S. Leviathan, bow view
Model of S.S. Leviathan, bow view

Air travel, still highly experimental, captured America’s imagination during the 1920s. It promised to speed communication and commerce among peoples and nations. At a time when ocean liners symbolized modernity, wealth, and national pride, it was exciting to think that giant and graceful airships might one day replace their ocean rivals. The German dirigible Graf Zeppelin inaugurated the first commercial passenger service across the Atlantic by air in October 1928. It carried 20 passengers at a time, with a crew of 43.

The Graf Zeppelin over Manhattan, 1928
The Graf Zeppelin over Manhattan, 1928
Model of rigid airship Graf Zeppelin
Model of rigid airship Graf Zeppelin

Immigrant City

Although the United States began to restrict immigration in 1924, 1920s New York was still a city with a large immigrant population. Foreign-born residents played a crucial part in the city’s economic, social, and cultural life. At a time when America’s ready-made clothing industry was centered in New York, immigrants provided much of the labor that made the nation’s suits, coats, and dresses.

Workers at the Kops Bros. clothing factory, New York City, 1928
Workers at the Kops Bros. clothing factory, New York City, 1928
Singer industrial sewing-machinehead, 1917
Singer industrial sewing-machine
head, 1917
Tailor’s scissors
Tailor’s scissors

Cultural Connections

In the 1920s many African American artists and performers were drawn to New York to take part in Harlem’s dynamic jazz and blues music scene. One such migrant was Georgia native Fletcher Henderson, who led the most successful African American jazz band in the decade. Other musical talents who made New York home in the twenties were Coleman Hawkins (from Kansas City); “Duke” Ellington (Washington, DC); “King” Oliver, “Jelly Roll” Morton, Louis Armstrong (New Orleans); and Bessie Smith (Chattanooga). Jazz became a powerful expression of New York’s cultural life and was exported through recordings, radio broadcasts, and live performances abroad.

Clarinet in B-flat, made by Harry Pedler Co., about 1920
Clarinet in B-flat, made by Harry Pedler Co., about 1920
Tenor saxophone, made by C. G. Conn, Ltd., about 1920
Tenor saxophone, made by C. G. Conn, Ltd., about 1920
“Sugar Foot Stomp” sheetmusic, 1926
“Sugar Foot Stomp” sheetmusic, 1926
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