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Ford Introduces Assembly Line

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The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere. With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in 2014, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 88th installment in the series. 

October 7, 1913: Ford Introduces Assembly Line

Although engineers had been tinkering with internal combustion engines in “horseless carriages” since the late 19th century, it was the cheap, reliable Ford Model T that truly opened the automobile age. In the four years after the first Model T rolled out of Henry Ford’s Piquette Plant factory in Detroit on September 27, 1908, production jumped from 10,660 in 1909 to 82,388 in 1912.

Model T sales were almost doubling annually, but Ford wasn’t satisfied: In a country with a burgeoning population growing wealthier every year, he knew there was huge unmet demand for the status and convenience afforded by a family automobile. The key to tapping this demand was simple: producing vastly more vehicles at an ever-cheaper price. Ford vowed: “I will build a car for the great multitude … it will be so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one.”

Ford had already sped up production by simplifying and standardizing parts, but the crucial step came on October 7, 1913, when the company started using a moving assembly line for the Model T chassis at its new factory in Highland Park, Michigan. Following some earlier tests with assembly line production for individual components, the chassis itself would now be towed across the factory floor by a rope attached to a steam-powered windlass.

Although Ford is often credited as the inventor of the assembly line, it was actually a team effort by his top executives, including Charles E. Sorensen (“Cast-Iron Charlie”), Clarence Avery, Ed Martin, and Walter Flanders, who together pioneered what would later be termed industrial rationalization or “Fordism.” Ford and his managers broke the Model T construction process down into 45 separate tasks, handled in sequence by around 140 workers positioned on both sides of the tow rope (later conveyor belt), each concentrating exclusively on one job.

By enabling workers to become proficient at a single task, the assembly line technique accelerated production while decreasing the level of skill and training needed, thus increasing the pool of potential employees to draw from. The time required to build one Model T fell from over 12 hours to just under six hours, then three hours not long after; within a year additional improvements reduced it to a mere 93 minutes. With 52,000 workers forming three 14,000-person shifts, by the 1920s new Model T cars were rolling off the assembly lines at the rate of one every 24 seconds.

Mass production was accompanied by a steep decline in price: where the first model cost $950 in 1908 and the 1912 model cost $690, the price for a new Model T dropped to $550 in 1913, $440 in 1915, and just $360 in 1916 (an especially impressive achievement considering the effects of wartime inflation). With prices tumbling, sales soared from 170,211 vehicles in 1913 to 735,020 in 1917, and by 1918 half of all cars on the road in the U.S. were Model T’s of various types. Ultimately, 15 million Model T’s would be sold around the world.

The rise of car culture literally transformed the American landscape, as private groups, cities, states, and eventually the federal government began pouring money into building and improving roads, funded by taxes on gasoline—one of the few instances in American history where there was broad public support for new taxation. Tennessee’s chief tax collector summed it up in 1926: “Who ever heard, before, of a popular tax?” In fact Americans were so eager to get on the road that some of the first national highways, or “auto trails,” were actually the work of private (or hybrid private-public) groups like the Lincoln Highway Association and the National Old Trails Road Association, both formed in 1912; the Pikes Peak Ocean to Ocean Highway Association, formed in 1914; and the Yellowstone Trail Association, formed in 1918.

Meanwhile assembly line techniques were critical to the war efforts of all the major combatants in the First World War—a “total war” or “war of production,” where advantage went not necessarily to the side with the best generals or bravest soldiers, but rather the biggest and best-organized industrial base.

Among the Allies, French industrial giant Citroën built a munitions plant with a moving assembly line at Quai Javel in 1915, where 13,000 workers were soon producing 35,000 shells a day; the same year saw French aircraft makers create assembly lines for fighter plane engines in new factories at Toulouse (still the center of the French aviation industry today) while Italian industrial concern Fiat used assembly line techniques for its new vehicle factory at Lingotto. Back in France, the Vénissieux plant opened by Berliet and Renault in 1917 employed 10,000 workers on assembly lines producing trucks and tanks.

Inevitably, the adoption of assembly line techniques went hand in hand with a huge increase in power consumption, and electricity production became another key front in the “war of production.” In Britain total power consumption doubled from 2.5 billion kilowatt-hours in 1913 to 4.9 billion in 1918, while Italy also doubled from 2 billion to 4 billion, and Germany jumped from 8 billion to 13 billion over the same period.

The introduction of assembly lines (along with the loss of skilled workers to the military) also shook up industrial labor relations: in Britain, unions agreed to suspend rules about which employees could do what tasks, allowing managers to break down complicated jobs—previously performed by a few skilled workers—into smaller tasks that could be handled by unskilled laborers.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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You Can Now Rent the Montgomery, Alabama Home of Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald Through Airbnb
Chris Pruitt, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

The former apartment of Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, perhaps the most famous couple of the Jazz Age, is now available to rent on a nightly basis through Airbnb, The Chicago Tribune reports. While visitors are discouraged from throwing parties in the spirit of Jay Gatsby, they are invited to write, drink, and live there as the authors did.

The early 20th-century house in Montgomery, Alabama was home to the pair from 1931 to 1932. It's where Zelda worked on her only novel Save Me the Waltz and F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote part of Tender Is the Night. The building was also the last home they shared with their daughter Scottie before she moved to boarding school.

In the 1980s, the house was rescued from a planned demolition and turned into a nonprofit. Today, the site is a museum and a spot on the Southern Literary Trail. While the first floor of the Fitzgerald museum, which features first-edition books, letters, original paintings, and other artifacts related to the couple, isn't available to rent, the two-bedroom apartment above it goes for $150 a night. Guests staying there will find a record player and a collection of jazz albums, pillows embroidered with Zelda Fitzgerald quotes, and a balcony with views of the property's magnolia tree. Of the four surviving homes Zelda and F. Scott lived in while traveling the world, this is the only one that's accessible to the public.

Though the Fitzgerald home is the only site on the Southern Literary Trail available to rent through Airbnb, it's just one of the trail's many historic homes. The former residences of Flannery O'Connor, Caroline Miller, and Lillian Smith are all open to the public as museums.

[h/t The Chicago Tribune]

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Maynard L. Parker/Courtesy of The Huntington Library in San Marino, California
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The Concept of the American 'Backyard' is Newer Than You Think
A home in Long Beach, California, in the 1950s.
A home in Long Beach, California, in the 1950s.
Maynard L. Parker/Courtesy of The Huntington Library in San Marino, California

Backyards are as American as apple pie and baseball. If you live in a suburban or rural area, chances are good that you have a lawn, and maybe a pool, some patio furniture, and a grill to boot.

This wasn’t always the case, though. As Smithsonian Insider reports, it wasn’t until the 1950s that Americans began to consider the backyard an extension of the home, as well as a space for recreation and relaxation. After World War II, Americans started leaving the big cities and moving to suburban homes that came equipped with private backyards. Then, after the 40-hour work week was implemented and wages started to increase, families started spending more money on patios, pools, and well-kept lawns, which became a “symbol of prosperity” in the 1950s, according to a new Smithsonian Institution exhibit.

A man mows his lawn in the 1950s
In this photo from the Smithsonian Institution's exhibit, a man mows his lawn in Long Beach, California, in the 1950s.
Maynard L. Parker/Courtesy of The Huntington
Library in San Marino, California

Entitled "Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Back Yard," the exhibition includes photographs, advertisements, and articles about backyards from the 1950s and 1960s. The traveling display is currently on view at the Temple Railroad & Heritage Museum in Temple, Texas, and from there it will head to Hartford, Connecticut, in December.

Prior to the 1950s, outdoor yards were primarily workspaces, MLive.com reports. Some families may have had a vegetable garden, but most yards were used to store tools, livestock, and other basic necessities.

The rise of the backyard was largely fueled by materials that were already on hand, but hadn’t been accessible to the average American during World War II. As Smithsonian Insider notes, companies that had manufactured aluminum and concrete for wartime efforts later switched to swimming pools, patio furniture, and even grilling utensils.

A family eats at a picnic table in the 1960s
A family in Mendham, New Jersey, in the 1960s
Molly Adams/Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens, Maida Babson Adams American Garden Collection

At the same time, DIY projects started to come into fashion. According to an exhibit caption of a Popular Mechanics article from the 1950s, “‘Doing-it-yourself’ was advertised as an enjoyable and affordable way for families to individualize their suburban homes.” The magazine wrote at the time that “patios, eating areas, places for play and relaxation are transforming back yards throughout the nation.”

The American backyard continues to grow to this day. As Bloomberg notes, data shows that the average backyard grew three years in a row, from 2015 to 2017. The average home last year had 7048 square feet of outdoor space—plenty of room for a sizable Memorial Day cookout.

[h/t Smithsonian Insider]

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