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1900-1945: Emergence of Modern America

The United States proved itself a military, technological, and economic giant on the world stage while it faced economic and social disparity on the home front. Post–World War I prosperity ended with the Great Depression and did not return until the nation mobilized for World War II. 

The objects in this section illustrate some of the major themes of the first half of the 1900s: world war, innovation, financial instability, and the emergence of modern popular culture.

Currently on view

Trophy Awarded to Gertrude Ederle, 1926

Olympic medalist and the first woman to swim the English Channel

In the 1920s, women not only gained the right to vote, they increasingly competed in amateur and professional sports. In the Olympics and other contests, women excelled in individual sports such as golf, tennis, and swimming, proving they could be great athletes at a time when some still argued that competitive sports put too much strain on women’s health and their role as nurturing caregivers.

Gift of Gertrude C. Morrison

Bowl, 1920s–30s

Made by a Mexican American potter at Hull House Kilns in Chicago

The pottery studio was established at Jane Addams’s settlement house in 1927, a time when thousands of Mexicans were migrating to the neighborhood surrounding Hull House. Created in part to teach marketable skills to neighborhood residents, the pottery capitalized on the contemporary fashion for brightly colored, Mexican-inspired household goods. With little or no previous ceramic training, the primarily Mexican students created tablewares such as this bowl, as well as hand-thrown art pieces.

Gift of James M. and Michelle M. Robinson

Vase, 1893–96

Made by Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company, Corona, New York

Unprecedented wealth in the upper social classes in the late 1800s and early 1900s contributed to affluent consumers’ growing desire to own and display the newest luxury goods. Louis Comfort Tiffany helped define American taste by making and selling exquisite artistic furnishings such as this vase. At the same time, larger producers helped make more affordable decorative wares available to a wide market.

Art Deco-Style Jewelry, 1915–30

Designed by Paul Flato

Modern, bold, and a distinct break with the past, the decorative style known as Art Deco originated in France and found expression in American art, architecture, and fashion in the 1920s and 1930s. One of the best-known American jewelers of the time, Paul Flato, designed this aquamarine and ruby set.

Gift of Langer von Langendorff

Jazz Bowl, about 1931

Made by Viktor Schreckengost at Cowan Pottery Studio, Rocky River, Ohio

This bowl celebrates the energy of the Jazz Age—the music, nightlife, and architecture of the 1920s. But the Roaring Twenties were years of contradictions, falling between the end of World War I and the beginning of the Great Depression. Issues such as ethnic and racial conflict, global politics, labor unrest, and Prohibition also helped define the modern age in that decade.

Gift of Estate of James Stubbleline

Wheel, 1927

From a Ford Model T four-door sedan

With the introduction of the Model T in 1908 and the moving assembly line in 1913, the Ford Motor Company streamlined automobile production, transformed transportation, and kick-started American car culture. The assembly line meant that the company could produce more cars at less cost, making them more affordable. By the 1920s, the impact of the automobile was profound, affecting everything from daily life to the economy to the environment.

Gift of Columbus and Greenville Railway, Inc.

Mirror Apparatus, 1924–26

Used by Albert A. Michelson to measure the speed of light

The growing accuracy of scientific methods and observations in the late 1800s and early 1900s led to an extraordinary profusion of information about the natural world. Albert A. Michelson, a Polish immigrant, was the first American to win a Nobel Prize in science. His work on the speed of light helped set the stage for Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity.

Gift of Preston R. Bassett Dian

Sample of Penicillin Mold, 1928

Produced by Alexander Fleming

In the modern world, few innovations occur in isolation. British bacteriologist Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in his lab in 1928, but its benefits were unproven. Not until 1941, when British researchers brought a small sample of penicillin to a U.S. lab, was it discovered to be the most effective and safe antibacterial agent known.

Gift of Alexander Fleming

World War II Service Medals, 1942–47

Awarded for military service during World War II

In 1941, the United States entered the ongoing conflict as one of the most powerful militaries in the world. By war’s end, more than sixteen million American men and women had served, either as fighting forces or support troops. These medals were awarded based on where a soldier served, no matter which branch of the military.

Loan from U.S. Armygift of Mrs. T. C. Phillips; gift of Wendy C. O’Bert

Buddha Statue, 1943

Carved by Teruo “Ted” Murata at Poston internment camp, Arizona

Americans were proud of their role in fighting against totalitarianism and for democratic ideals during World War II. But the nation sometimes failed to live up to its principles, most obviously with the imprisonment of Japanese Americans in internment camps during the war. Citing fears of espionage, the federal government violated the civil liberties of over 100,000 people, many of them U.S. citizens.

Gift of Alice Murata

Camilla Gottlieb's Purse with Identification and Immigration Paperwork, 1930s–40s

Carried by a European émigré to the United States in 1946

Anti-immigration laws enacted in the 1920s limited the number of European refugees trying to enter the United States to escape Nazi persecution in the 1930s and 1940s. Austrian Jews Camilla and Hermann Gottlieb sent their daughter to the United States before World War II but were themselves unable to enter at that time. They were sent to Theresienstadt, a Nazi concentration camp, where Hermann died in 1943.

Gift of Robert and Susan Bodansky

War Ration Book, 1942

Issued during World War II

World War II had a profound impact on the American home front. Populations shifted as workers migrated toward military-industrial centers, and wartime labor shortages meant more women and minorities were able to enter the workforce. The federal government took on new roles, such as requiring that civilians ration gasoline, food, textiles, and other goods in short supply during the war.

Gift of Judith S. Cottle 

Plutonium-239, 1941

First sample in which nuclear fission was detected

In 1940, scientists working at the University of California, Berkeley, discovered plutonium. Further testing revealed that it was fissionable, meaning it could produce nuclear energy. As part of the massive government sponsorship of science to support the war effort, Manhattan Project physicists tested the first nuclear bomb in July 1945.

Gift of Glenn T. Seaborg and Emilio Segrè

Dorothy's Ruby Slippers, 1938

From the 1939 MGM The Wizard of Oz

In the modern fairy tale The Wizard of Oz, a brave American girl relies on ingenuity, courage, and imagination to make her way home from a faraway land. Released near the end of the Great Depression and just a month before Germany’s invasion of Poland sparked World War II, the film’s message of friendship and triumph over evildoers resonated with millions of viewers.

Anonymous gift

Bowl

Opened in 1929
From the Lau Yee Chai restaurant in Waikiki

Starting in the mid-1800s, tens of thousands of Chinese immigrated to Hawai’i to labor on sugar plantations.  Many left this demanding work to open their own businesses.  By the late 1800s the majority of restaurants in Hawai’i were operated by Chinese.  Most catered in part to non-Chinese clients, perhaps none more so than Chong Pang Yat’s exotic Lau Yee Chai restaurant which drew tourists and locals alike.

Gift of Waikiki Lau Yee Chai (through John Ooi)

The objects below are no longer on view

Baseball, about 1930

Used by Negro League pitcher Sam Streeter

Segregation and racial violence throughout the United States in the early 1900s led black Americans to create separate institutions. Prohibited from playing on white baseball teams, black players formed their own teams and leagues. Negro League games drew millions of fans until Jackie Robinson integrated the National League in 1947.

Gift of Sam Streeter

Baseball, 1929

Signed by Babe Ruth

As Americans gained more leisure time and disposable income in the early 1900s, the popularity of spectator sports boomed. In the 1920s, professional sports became a big business and successful athletes became national celebrities. Babe Ruth, one of America’s greatest sports heroes, helped turn baseball into the popular, power game it is today.

Gift of Juliana C. and Robert M. Jones in memory of their father, Thomas J. Jones

Uniform, 1942

Worn by Irving Berlin in This Is the Army

Within days of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the United States was at war, and Americans prepared to send loved ones overseas to fight. Composer Irving Berlin’s Broadway musical and subsequent film This Is the Army helped raise money to support the military. It featured a cast of enlisted soldiers working together to put on a morale-boosting show.

Gift of Mary Ellin Barrett, Linda L. Emmet, and Elizabeth I. Peters 

Cello Made by Antonio Stradivari, Cremona, Italy, 1701

Purchased by Charlotte Bergen in the 1930s

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, wealthy Americans embraced high culture, founding museums, libraries, performance halls, and some of the great orchestras. Charlotte Bergen took her love of music one step further and purchased this rare instrument to play at home and, occasionally, in recitals.

Gift of Charlotte Bergen

CBS Microphone, 1930s

Used by Franklin Roosevelt for his radio Fireside Chats

In his twelve years as president, Franklin Roosevelt led the country through two major crises: the Great Depression and World War II. He used the radio to appeal directly to the public to boost morale, clarify complicated concepts and events, and build public support for government, ushering in a modern approach to media outreach.

Gift of Columbia Broadcasting System and WTOP Radio, through Mr. Roy Meachum, Director of Radio Promotion, and Mr. G. Klink, Staff Eng., WTOP radio

New Deal Cane, about 1932

From Franklin Roosevelt’s presidential campaign

Franklin Roosevelt won his first presidential election promising his “New Deal” would lift the country out of the Great Depression. The ensuing legislation and relief measures created the most dramatic peacetime expansion of government in U.S. history and directly benefited many. But economic recovery was slow and millions remained out of work through the 1930s.

Gift of David R. Ramage and Diane R. Ramage

Navajo "Chief's" Blanket, about 1917

Made by Navajo Nez Basa for her son in the army in World War I

In an effort to assimilate Indians into mainstream American life, the federal government outlawed traditional religious ceremonies. It required children to attend English-language schools, and granted U.S. citizenship to some Native Americans. Although non-citizen Indians could claim a military deferment, up to a third of all adult American Indian men served in the U.S. armed forces in World War I. This helped convince Congress to grant full citizenship to all American-born Indians in 1924.

Gift of John Boyce