Symbols of the 1920s: New York City Skyscrapers in Photographs and Paintings



The roaring 1920s was an era of dramatic change. Among the most enduring manifestations of this change was the rise of the big city. The centrality of urban growth to the social, political, and economic changes of the 1920s gives it a special place in the study of that decade, the twentieth century, and the United States in the modern century. The changes that took place in New York City, America’s largest city by this time (see the interactive activity in the March 2007 issue of History Now), were in response to the changes that were taking place in the nation. New York, New York, would become the symbol of the nation during this exciting decade.

Rapid urban growth was the source of a whole new range of problems and challenges. The solution to increased population density and demand for office space came from new buildings that enabled the cities to expand upward rather than outward. New technologies and innovations—steel framing, concrete, improved heating and plumbing, and elevators—played a role in the construction of taller-than-ever-before buildings. In America’s preeminent city of the twentieth century—New York—the skyscraper came to be a symbol of America's modernity.


  • Students will examine images from the 1920s in order to analyze the influence of technology on America in the first decades of the twentieth century.
  • Students will examine the rise of the city in the 1920s.
  • Students will be able to compare and contrast new values with traditional values as exemplified by images of the era.

Activity One: Photographs of the City

Divide the class into small groups. Direct the groups to look at the following websites (or other websites on the skyscrapers of NYC that they might find). As the groups look at the photographs, they should consider the following:

  • What economic changes prompted the need for New York City to look upward in building construction?
  • In what ways do the skyscrapers symbolize both New York City and the United States in the first decades of the twentieth century?
  • Do these photographs help us to understand the changes of this era? Be specific.


Building the Empire State Building

Student groups should share their findings and conclusions in a class discussion.

Activity Two: Paintings of the City by Joseph Stella

Direct the class to these three websites:

Analysis of the Stella paintings.

The website beowl will provide some guidance in this activity:

Joseph Stella, American Futurist and Symbolist

Have the class study the paintings. Then begin a class discussion about the kinds of questions the students might ask in order to identify relevant information. Students should consider influences in the artist’s work that may have contributed to painting technique and approach. The artist's experience, studies, and training will help the students understand how experiences may affect an artist’s work.

Have the class look up biographical information about the artist. Some research into his life is likely to provide insight to his painting. Questions about the artist's life, where he lived, and the era in which he lived will clarify the contextual conditions that influence his perceptions.

Have the students write a model for analyzing the paintings with a critical eye. Students should be guided to consider questions that address the works themselves, such as common themes, images, and formal elements. At the same time, students should consider other questions that address the historical context of the 1920s.

Using the model, have the students analyze Stella’s work. Have the class discuss to what extent Stella accurately portrays the city in the 1920s.

Extension Activity: Essay

  • Using the primary documents, discussions, and secondary accounts of the 1920s, respond to the following question:
  • How did the modern skyscraper reflect changes happening in American society in the 1920s?