The Machine Age

A machine with large gears is operated by a white man wearing a coat, looking down at a sheet of plastic.
A worker cuts pieces of Pyralin, a new type of plastic used by Joseph Urban in the Wormser bedroom. “Cutting to the customer's specifications,” E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Company, Arlington, New Jersey, 1932. DuPont Company Product Information photographs, Audiovisual Collections and Digital Initiatives Department, Hagley Museum and Library.

Much as people today are aware of the internet shaping their daily lives, Americans in the 1920s and ‘30s noted the strong influence of machines on society. After World War I, the U.S. entered a period of rapid technological and industrial development. Ford Motor Company’s innovation of the assembly line in the early 1910s made automobiles more affordable; by 1930, over half of American households owned a car. Radios, airplanes, ocean liners, and cars compressed both space and time and became emblems of the era’s fascination with speed. Aerodynamic forms inspired the clean lines of modernism, evident in the pair of zeppelin-shaped urns depicted in Elaine’s bedroom.

Black and white photo of Elaine Wormser’s bedroom, with her bed in the center and two bookcases to the left and right. On each bookcase is a silver urn shaped like a rocket. The urns are circled in red in the image.
The pair of silver metal urns resting on Elaine’s bookcases evoke the sleek forms of zeppelins and airplanes. Joseph Urban, Bedroom for Elaine Wormser, Chicago, 1930. Photography by Alvina Lenke Studios. Private Collection.

Refinements in the production of materials such as plastics and aluminum encouraged their use in the manufacture of goods that were cheaper to produce and available at lower price points. Yet the modern materials, such as Pyralin and Vitrolite, that Joseph Urban used in Elaine’s bedroom did not imply cheapness, but rather the possibilities of technological progress.