In the late 1920s and early 1930s, photographer Clifton R. Adams was commissioned by the National Geographic to document life in England. Adams’ beautiful autochromes—a process of producing color images by using potato starch—present images that capture the last of an England that was slowly heading towards modernity.
Adams, who died in 1934, was instructed to record its farms, towns and cities, and its residents at work and play. The color images were produced using the Autochrome Lumière, which was the most advanced color photographic process of the day. The plates were covered in microscopic potato starch grains colored red, green, and blue-violet, with about four million per square inch.
The gaps between the grains filled with lampblack, and the coated layer allowed the exposure to capture a color image. The light passed through the color filters when an image was taken, with the plate then processed to produce positive transparency.
The 1920s was a decade of contrasts. The First World War had ended in victory, peace had returned and with it, prosperity. This was a transitional period between two kinds of society and two economies. There was a depression yet generally living standards were rising. Steam power was gradually replaced by electricity. Transport became petrol engine powered.
Early plastics were often used instead of basic metals and man-made fibers such as regenerated rayon, called artificial silk (known as art silk) were increasingly supplementing cotton and silk. The resultant expansion of the chemical industry created jobs which helped the economy change from the domination of the heavy industry.
The position of women in Britain was changing. In 1918 after the war ended women over 30 were given the vote if they were householders. By 1928 all women over 21 were given the vote. Even so, a patronizing attitude toward women still existed and women were in some circles still regarded as the decorative appendages of men with no other purpose but to bear children.
Slowly women were breaking down old attitudes. The war had given ordinary working women an alternative to domestic employment. They found they liked working on the land, in factories, and on buses. Families were of a smaller size compared to those in Victorian families while children were educated until the age of fourteen.
In 1921 the Education Act raised the school leaving age to 14. State primary education was now free for all children and started at age 5; even the youngest children were expected to attend for the full day from 9 am to 4.30 pm.
In the country, pupils at some schools were still practicing writing with a tray of sand and a stick, progressing to a slate and chalk as they became more proficient. Classes were large, learning was by rote, and books were shared between groups of pupils, as books and paper were expensive. Nature study, sewing, woodwork, country dancing, and traditional folk songs were also taught.
From a decade that started with such a ‘boom’, the 1920s ended in an almighty bust, the likes of which weren’t to be seen again for another eighty years.
(Photo credit: Clifton R. Adams / National Geographic Creative / Corbis / Mashable / Daily Mail UK).