Learn about Life in the 1920s

The First World War (1914-18) hastened the development of aeroplanes which were then in their infancy, so that by the early 1920's they were much more reliable and capable of flying longer distances and carrying heavier loads. This made possible the carrying of passengers and freight on a commercial basis.

Pilot and Navigator in front of large plane

New Planes, Dirigibles and Flight Records

The ability to travel long distances quickly but with relatively light loads meant that the earliest commercial freight services were mainly mail deliveries. To speed up mail deliveries the Post Office Department at one time considered putting flat roofs on Post Offices to act as landing strips.

Airplanes were initially built predominantly of lightweight materials like wood and canvas but continual developments in the aviation industry over the first decade of powered flight led to increasing use of metal parts and panels until complete all-metal airplanes became the norm. 4600 American airplanes were built in 1928 and 104 different planes were exhibited at an airshow, leading Henry Ford to predict that there would have to be consolidation within the industry.

Before the world war, planes were rare, and you were lucky if you had even seen one. In 1920 the English air force auctioned off 10,000 surplus airplanes and 30,000 aircraft engines, many of which had seen service in the world war. All of a sudden there were planes everywhere with aircraft manufacturers releasing new, bigger and better models every year.

Pilots who returned from the WW1 supported themselves by travelling all over the country visiting small towns and showing off their flying skills, as well as taking paying passengers for rides. A paddock or fair ground with sufficient distance to take off and land was sufficient for these early barn-stormers as they were referred to. Entrepreneurs would rent a landing strip, hire a pilot, get permits and then charge passengers $1 per minute of flying time.

It was only in 1927 that an airport terminal in the form of a waiting-room and ticket-office for airplane passengers, said to be the firstin the USA, was erected at the Ford Airport, at Dearborn, Michigan. By 1929 a few principal airports had passenger terminals with comfortable waiting-rooms, but most of the existing airports were nothing more than open fields.

The increased capabilities of 1920's planes also created the opportunity for daring men and women aviators to break and set aviation speed and distance records. They captured the imagination of the public who loved the flying machines and who followed their exploits, treating the pilots like royalty or movie stars. Crowds would be waiting to greet pilots after epic flights and huge street parades would be held in their honor where whole towns and cities turned out.

The use of airplanes facilitated aerial exploration and surveying of inhospitable areas like the Antarctic that were difficult to explore by traditional ground-based methods.In 1929 Commander Byrd was able to discover many previously unknown features of Antartica with his flights generating numerous aerial photographs for later analysis and mapping.


The first transatlantic flight had been done in stages by the crew of the NC-4 in May 1919, with the first non-stop flight made by Alcock and Brown in June 1919. Charles Lindbergh gained international fame as the first pilot to fly solo and non-stop across the Atlantic Ocean, flying from New York to Paris on May 20-May 21, 1927 in his single-engine airplane The Spirit of St. Louis, taking 33.5 hours for the trip. One of the early barn-stormers, Amelia Earhart, was the first female pilot to achieve many records such as crossing of the Atlantic and the English channel.

Airships (dirigibles) were commonly used in aviation at the same time as fixed wing aircraft and had much greater load carrying capacities than aircraft of the time. The first crossings of the Atlantic were made by airship in July 1919 by His Majesty's Airship R34 and crew when they flew from Scotland to New York and then back to England. By 1929, airship technology had advanced to the point that the first round-the-world flight was completed by the Graf Zeppelin in September and in October. Zeppelin airships were also used for the first commercial transatlantic service. Although there had been previous dirigible crashes, the age of the dirigible ended in 1937 with the terrible fire aboard the Zeppelin Hindenburg. People stopped using airships, despite the fact that most people on board survived.

Charles A. Lindbergh carved a place in Aviation history when he flew a tiny plane, "The Spirit of St Louis", from Long Island to Paris in 1927, to create the first non-stop solo transatlantic flight. Suddenly the world had become smaller. Lindbergh became an aviation consultant and campaigned for a World Air Code to overcome the difficulties of different regulations in each country, in order to facilitate international air-travel.