Monday, October 22, 2012


Every so often, there’s a brief span of years in which innovation comes thick and fast.  In the area of building technology, the Roaring Twenties was such an age.  The houses of this decade were chock full of new ideas that, quaint as they seem to us now, let Americans live more comfortably than ever before.

The homes of the 1920s were, for one, the first to truly integrate electricity.  In prior years, clumsy surface installations of switches and wiring were still common, along with lighting fixtures that often consisted of little more than a naked bulb at the end of a cord.  The Twenties brought the wide use of two-button switches flush-mounted in brass plates, with the  “on” button elegantly marked by a circle of mother-of-pearl.  Electric wall sconces became the lighting fashion of the day, while electrical outlets moved from jury-rigged affairs screwed to the wall to being inconspicuously flush-mounted in the baseboard.  Granted, few rooms had more than one or two receptacles, but then this was an era of few electrical gadgets besides floor lamps and radios.

Another high-tech feature unique to the era was a built-in aerial serving that entertainment mainstay of the day, the console radio.  Rather than mounting an ugly mast on the roof as was later done for television, builders of the Twenties cleverly looped wire through the attic to form a giant hidden antenna. 

A simpler but equally useful convenience was the pass-through mailbox, in which letters dropped through a slot beside the front door slid into a small inside compartment behind a grillework door.  Alas, this charming device could never accomodate today’s huge quantities of junk mail. 

The 1920s also brought the wide use of speaking tubes, the low-tech ancestor of those garbled intercoms we’ve all learned to hate. Used mainly in upscale apartment buildings, speaking tubes were simply a network of tin pipes leading from a central panel at the front door into each apartment. Each end of the tube had a trumpet-like opening, allowing visitor and occupant to communicate without need for electronics. 

Also found in better apartment houses was central electric refrigeration, the forerunner of today’s home refrigerators.  In this system, a compressor in the basement furnished the cooling power for a small refrigerated cabinet in the kitchen of each apartment.  Cumbersome as it sounds, this was still a big advance over the standard cooling device of the era: A block of ice.  

No doubt the most technically sophisticated building innovation to take hold during the Twenties was air conditioning, a luxury so expensive that it was initially found only in movie palaces and in the best class of public buildings.  In those days, the machinery required to air-condition a building took up roughly the space of a four-car garage, and was deemed so impressive that at least one theater installed plate glass show windows to let passersby admire their mechanical wonder from the sidewalk.  

One innovation of the Twenties that never did catch on was a patented radio speaker hidden in a chandelier--a device that probably had more than a few startled dinner guests choking on their dumplings.  Then again, even this curiosity might have succeeded if the Great Depression hadn’t stopped it cold, along with all the other hijinks of this exuberant era. Thankfully, the greatest legacy of the Roaring Twenties--some of the most charming and livable houses in America--still largely survives.

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