The Cost of Prosperity: Mass Consumption and Mass Production in the 1920s

The lesson will focus on two intertwined ideas: mass production and mass consumption. Students will examine these ideas through primary sources in class to define them and get a sense of how these economic changes of the 1920s also affected life in the U.S. Primary source activities in class will be supplemented with homework reading to help provide context and background.

Historical Background

The 1920s is often seen as a decade of prosperity for the U.S. economy and a large part of that supposed success came from the use of mass production and mass consumption. Mass production, employed by industrialists such as Henry Ford, allowed American economic output to grow at rates never before seen. Mass consumption raised the standard of living for a large cross-section of the American population, with appliance and other luxuries more affordable than ever before. And while it is true that these economic changes led to a business boom and a new sense of consumerism, the negative impacts should not be ignored either. As the nation’s economy changed after World War I, these changes would ultimately help to create the worst financial disaster in American history.

The most obvious change was in the physical production of goods. Highly skilled independent craftsman and the system of piecework production gave way to ideas of scientific management and a highly industrialized system that churned out enormous quantities of goods. However, the same system that was responsible for an increase in available goods also resulted in an increase of low skill assembly line jobs. Less visible was the change in commercial advertising. Just as production was refined with scientific precision, advertising became more and more a game of psychology. The reactions of American businessmen, workers, and consumers to these changes help to illustrate many of the conflicts central to 1920s America.

Lesson Objective

Students will be able to define mass production and mass consumption in the context of the 1920s.

Students will be able to evaluate the effects of mass production and mass consumption brought to America through primary source analysis and writing dueling editorials.



  1. Day 1: Defining Mass Production
  2. Warm Up: Students will view a chart detailing the price of the Model T Ford in different years.
  3. Students will complete a “What do you see, what do you wonder?” activity.
  4. Students will record one thing that they notice from looking at the chart and one question that they have from what they see.
  5. Class discussion will follow, the discussion should focus on the fact that the price fell dramatically as the years went by. Possible observations also that the price remained unchanged from 1914-1918.
  6. The main question the class should move towards asking is why the price of the car fell.
  7. Class Work: Students will record a definition of “mass production” onto their capture sheet: The production of a large amount of goods that significantly reduce the cost of producing each one.
  8. Students will examine a photograph of Ford’s assembly line as a class to predict what made mass production of the Model T possible. Photograph available at
  9. Student volunteers will share their ideas and support them with evidence from the photograph.
  10. Class Work: Following their observations from the photograph, students will individually corroborate their ideas of how Ford could mass produce his products through reading an excerpt from a Ford essay entitled “The First Assembly Line,” available at
  11. Conclusion: Students will list two to three things Henry Ford did that allowed for the mass production of the automobile. Students will then identify one possible advantage and disadvantage for each of Ford’s actions.
  12. Day 2: Effects of Mass Production
  13. Warm Up: Students will discuss the homework reading with a focus on how Ford was able to mass produce the automobile.
  14. Guiding questions for discussion: How did Ford organize the physical space of his factory to enhance mass production?
  15. Based on what you read last night, how do you think Ford’s workers felt about their jobs and mass production?
  16. Class Work: Students will work as a class to read an excerpt of a letter from the wife of a Ford assembly line worker and complete half of the chart on Hand Out 2. Class discussion will focus on the validity of the source. Full letter available at
  17. Guiding questions for discussion: Is this a valid source that can be trusted? Why or why not? How would you characterize working conditions on the assembly line at Ford? What evidence do you have from the source to support your claim?
  18. Class Work: Students will work with a partner to read part of an interview with someone who worked at one of Ford’s factories and complete the chart on Hand Out 2. Interview available at
  19. Guiding questions for discussion: Is this a valid source that can be trusted? Why or why not? Does this interview confirm or contradict what was described in letter? Does this source add to the authenticity of the first source any way?
  20. Class Work: Students will watch a three to four minute segment of the movie “Modern Times.” The clip will be shown twice.
  21. Students will simply watch it the first time. Students will fill out an observation and source analysis sheet on the second viewing. Discussion will follow. Film clip available at:
  22. Guiding questions for discussion: Is this a more valid historical source than the interview? Why or why not? How does the film support or refute the description of working conditions from the interview?
  23. Closing: Using evidence from today’s sources, students will record four appropriate adjectives that could be used to describe the working conditions on the assembly line.
  24. Homework: Students will complete reading the article “The Model T: Impact of Mass Production” from MCPS U.S. Curriculum Guide 9.4 and take notes in either Cornell or outline format.
  25. Day 3: Encouraging Mass Consumption
  26. Warm Up: Based on their homework, students will record a definition of mass consumption on their Day 3 Hand Out in their own words. Volunteers will share their definitions.
  27. Guiding questions for discussion: Why was mass consumption so important for mass consumption?
  28. Class Work: Think-Pair-Share. Students will be asked to think of a recent memorable commercial and share with a partner why that particular commercial was so memorable.
  29. Class discussion will shift topic towards the methods used by ads to sell products and connect the idea with mass consumption.
  30. Guiding question for discussion: Why are today’s ads so effective at getting people to buy something?
  31. Students will examine an advertisement from a newspaper in the 1800s and as a whole class analyze how it attempted to get people to buy a good or service. Advertisement available at
  32. Class Work: Students will examine a Paris Sock Garter ad from the 1920s and analyze how it attempted to get people to buy a good or service. Students will them compare the advertisements from the 1800s and 1920s by filling in a chart for both sources. Class discussion will follow. Advertisement available at
  33. Guiding question for discussion: Which advertisement do you think is more effective? Why?
  34. Closing: Students will answer the following reflection questions: How did advertising techniques change from the 1800s to the 1920s? How did this change relate to mass consumption?


Day 1: Homework: Students will read half of the article “The Model T: Impact of Mass Production” from the MCPS U.S. Curriculum Guide 9.4 and take notes in Cornell or outline format. This will review mass production and preview mass consumption.


Students will show their mastery of mass production and mass consumption by creating dueling editorials. Students will create a t-chart on a piece of notebook paper. On one side of the t-chart, they will write a brief editorial from the position that mass production and mass production are two wonderful innovations for the economy. One the other side, they will write a second brief editorial from the position that mass production and consumption are harmful. Students will decide the details, such as the specific person they choose to write each editorial as. However, the basis of their arguments should come from the facts learned from the document analysis.


Day 1: Students will only read one or two teacher selected quotes from the essay to add context to the image analysis. Potential unknown words will be defined with a glossary on the paper to help clarify confusion.

Day 2: Students could read the letter either with a partner or individually. For lower level students, an excerpt of the interview may be more appropriate. Students may also just utilize one of the two written resources, as they each illustrate similar working conditions. A brief paragraph will be included to help provide historical context to the document. Potential unknown words will be defined with a glossary on the paper to help clarify confusion.

For higher level students, the closing question could be more analytical, such as “Did mass production have more benefits or drawbacks for assembly line workers? Explain using evidence from today’s sources.”

Day 3: Text documents have been heavily modified and shortened to help students access the material. Documents could be presented closer to their original form for an honors class. An honors class would also need less modeling and whole class activities and could focus more on small group, paired, and individual work. For students who need more advanced activities, additional sources could be provided to encourage further corroboration of evidence.


“1928 Ford Model A on Assembly Line at the Rouge Plant, 1928.” Photographic Print. Detroit: The Henry Ford, March, 8, 1928. From The Henry Ford, General Photographs series, (accessed December 9, 2012).

Bradburn, Jaime. “Vintage Toronto Ads: Boosting Your Sox Appeal.” Torontoist, entry posted April 20, 2010, (accessed November 28, 2012).

Bramann, Jorn K. “Modern Times,” in Educating Rita and Other Philosophical Movies,” (Cumberland, MD: Nightsun Books, 2009),, (accessed November 30, 2012)

Casey, Bob & Dodge, John, “Henry Ford and Innovation,” The Henry Ford,, (accessed December 1, 2012).

Ford, Henry. “The First Assembly Line,” in Eyewitness to America, ed. David Colbert (New York: Pantheon Books, 1997, pp. 383-384),, (accessed October 25, 2012).

“Interview with Tom Jelley.” People’s Century: On The Line,, (accessed October 10, 2012).

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