7 Things You Would Find on a City Street 100 Years Ago

  • Model T Fords at beach
Model T Fords at beach
Minnesota Historical Society/ Corbis Historical via Getty Images

If we could travel back 100 years and land on a typical city street, we’d probably be mightily discombobulated. Some things would seem familiar: the buzz of the urban environment, people walking this way and that, and buildings with facades that could well still exist today. But looking around, we’d soon realize that we weren’t in Kansas anymore — or if we were, it would be Kansas City in the 1920s. 

A century ago, America was going through a monumental change. For the first time in U.S. history, more people were living in urban areas than in rural areas. The cities were booming, and for many middle-class Americans, the 1920s were a decade of unprecedented prosperity. People were earning more and spending more, advertising had reached new levels of sophistication, and the automobile was changing the way we live. 

So, before you step into that time machine, you’d better brace yourself. Here are seven things you’d find in a city street a century ago, back in the dizzying days of the Roaring ’20s. 

Photo credit: DEA / BIBLIOTECA AMBROSIANA/ De Agostini via Getty Images

Incandescent Street Lights

Before the development of practical light bulbs, street lights typically used piped coal gas, oil, or kerosene as fuel. The first electric streetlights were installed in Paris in 1878, but these used unwieldy and harsh arc lamps. Then came inventors such as Joseph Swan in the U.K. and Thomas Edison in the U.S., both of whom patented revolutionary incandescent light bulbs in 1880. Incandescent street lamps became the norm in many cities throughout the world, and the 1920s saw a wave of patents filed for innovative new street lighting. These electric lights, however, were often placed where they were needed rather than lining a whole street. So, 100 years ago, a city street at night would not have been as brightly lit as it is today, and pedestrians would often find themselves walking from one pool of yellowish light to the next. 

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