Learn about Life in the 1920s

New methods of transportation like air travel, cruise ships, and cars made the world a smaller place and facilitated distant travel.

Ocean Liner

Travel and Transportation

Prior to the 1920's only the very wealthy could afford to travel the world. Everyone else had to be content to read published travel narratives to learn about the world outside their town or city.


With the increase in wages driven by entrepreneurial employers like Henry Ford, Americans for the first time had the time and money to travel. Mass production methods made automobiles affordable for the masses instead of just the rich. By 1921, the number of automobiles in the United States had passed the ten million mark necessitating President Warren G. Harding spending $75 million to improve the nation's roads. More and more Americans chose the low-cost, high-freedom option of travelling by automobile while vacationing. Motoring vacations to destinations like sunny California in the winter became possible for those living in colder states.

A network of small railways criss-crossed America providing relatively low cost transport for freight and passengers. Major efforts were made to consolidate the small railways into larger units in an effort to improve productivity and profitability.

In the 1920's, trains and ocean liners were the dominant mass transportation methods, providing comfortable, reliable transport to millions of American vacationers. Trains had opened up the continent and ships the world, but newer methods of transport captured the imagination of the public and reduced travel times. The Suez Canal was enlarged to handle the rapidly increasing size of ships that desired to use the shortcut. Winter cruises to warmer climates became very popular, and the resulting tans of the tourists became a status symbol.

Travel Poster

Air travel, though still in its infancy, captured America’s imagination during the 1920s. It held great promise in speeding communications and commerce throughout the continent and overseas. Airplanes were mainly used in peacetime for mail delivery but started to be used for passenger transport as planes became larger and more reliable toward the end of the decade.

At this time ocean liners were symbols of modern technology, wealth, and national pride, but it appeared that giant airships (dirigibles) might one day replace their ocean giants. The first commercial air passenger service across the Atlantic was inaugurated by the German airship Graf Zeppelin in October 1928. It carried 20 passengers with a crew of 43.

By 1929, airship technology had advanced to the point that the first round-the-world flight was completed by the Graf Zeppelin in September.

Airships could carry larger amounts of freight and passengers in more comfort than planes but their reign came to an end due to the negative publicity generated by the destruction of the Hindenburg by lightning in 1937.

The main method of crossing the Atlantic Ocean in the 1920s was by steamship and ocean liner. Businessmen meeting overseas clients, entertainers on tour, and tourists making leisure trips travelled on ocean liners in upper class berths. Also travelling with them in lower class berths were vast numbers of emigrants coming to the United States and immigrants returning abroad. A large ocean liner might have a crew of 1,100 to service as many as 3,400 passengers. Shipping Line owners competed against each other to produce the fastest and most luxurious ocean liners. The Ile de France which was France's flagship in 1927 was a typical example of an opulent liner.