THE ROARING TWENTIES
*For Americans the 1920s were a time of great prosperity. Manufacturing was booming, Liberty Bonds were paying interest, and there was plenty of work in the cities. People were able to enjoy movies, new styles of music, and new products they had not known before, many of them taking advantage of electric power.
*The 1920s saw the first shopping centres, the first fast food restaurants, and the first billboards.
*What made all this consumption possible was the idea of buying on credit or the instalment plan. This was new to Americans, who had traditionally been a thrifty, cautious race, saving their money against a rainy day (in part because they knew the government would not bail them out of a tight spot). Now, however, manufacturers and stores offered to let consumers make a down payment, and then pay a little bit every month (with interest, which was usually high). Factories did this because they were producing good faster than people could buy them, and businesses needed a way to sell them and make some money off them, or else they would go out of business. In the short run this seemed good for Americans, as people had luxuries they had never before enjoyed, but in the long run it created a debt-ridden nation.
*Possibly the greatest icon of both new and affordable luxury and the ease with which such things were produced in mass quantities was the Ford Model T, available in any colour you wanted, as long as it was black. Using Taylor-style efficiency plans, Ford adapted the assembly line for his factories, allowing each worker to do one task repeatedly as automobiles in progress moved past him on the line. This let Ford build automobiles faster and cheaper than anyone ever had before, until he could eventually produce cars cheap enough that his workers, who at $5 a day were among the best paid factory-workers in the world, could afford them. By 1911 a Model T cost $390.
*Much of America’s prosperity was attributed to her presidents. After the turmoil of war, Warren G Harding was elected president in 1920 with the slogan ‘a return to normalcy.’ His presidency saw a return to prosperity for America, but also corruption among his wide circle of friends and supporters. Poorly educated, an adulterer, a hard drinker even during Prohibition, and a Ku Klux Klansman, Harding was most famous for the graft of his political associates. The most famous scandal surrounded the Federal oil reserves at Teapot Dome, Wyoming, which the Secretary of the Interior leased to friends at a personal profit. There is some debate about how deeply Harding was involved in the scandals, but most historians feel that he was at the very least aware of them, and probably deeply involved. In any event, he died unexpectedly (some suggest from murder) on 2 August, 1923.
*Calvin Coolidge, Vice-President and former governor of Massachusetts, was visiting his parents in Vermont when he heard the news. His father, a local justice of the peace, swore him in on the family Bible by the light of an oil lamp. He finished Hardin’s term and was elected in his own right in 1924. He adopted a laissez-faire approach to business, which allowed it to prosper during the post-war boom.
*In 1928, Coolidge coolly declined to run again, and was replaced by one of the world’s greatest heroes, Herbert Hoover. Hoover was a self-made millionaire, so widely-respected before the Great War that when it began the British government offered him a seat in the cabinet. Hoover declined, however, and organised world-wide relief efforts to bring food to a war-torn Europe. He easily defeated Alfred Smith, and anti-Prohibition man, and the first Catholic ever nominated for the Presidency. Everyone expected the prosperity of the Coolidge years to continue.
*Despite the prosperity of the 1920s, they were not a perfect time. Gangsters and bootleggers circumventing the laws of Prohibition created a new crime wave. As gangsters made money in bootlegging, they expanded to other areas of crime, such as prostitution, gambling, and extortion. In the process, they became involved in turf wars that, combined with their extortion rackets, made many northern cities dangerous places to live. Even gangsters needed a holiday occasionally, so Johnson City, Tennessee (or ‘Little Chicago’) was declared neutral ground, and was one of the favourite vacation spots of Al Capone.
*Internationally, America was beginning to turn away from the world. Disillusioned by the Great War and its aftermath (such as the dismemberment of Wilson’s Fourteen Points and the Central Powers, the Communist Revolution, and the Turks’ massacre of the Armenians), America began to favour isolationism, and never joined the League of Nations of signed the Versailles Treaty. America did make one last effort at ending war, however, helping to create, and signing, the Kellog-Briand Pact in 1927. This outlawed war itself, but (naturally) lacked any military power to back it up.
*The Great War led to a great crisis of faith for the whole world, America included. Hitherto, western civilisation had believed in technology, science, progress, and the favour of God—all these things were theirs and guaranteed an ever-improving world. Instead, the world got the Great War.
*The war had led to unbelievable death, nearly wiping out entire generations. Much of Europe was impoverished. The Northeastern region of France looked like the surface of the moon from the shells, some of which still remain unexploded and unlocated. A generation was disillusioned with the whole world, sinking into despair and doubt. In America this came to be called the Lost Generation, but the phenomenon existed throughout Europe. Art, music, and literature focussed on the surreal, for nothing seemed to make sense any more. After all, four years before, a 19-year old kid shot two people, and as a result 14 million men died and the world as we knew it was destroyed. What could be more surreal?
*Many Americans, especially artists and writers, felt disconnected from the consumerism of America in the 1920s, and were still horrified by the war and by man’s inhumanity to man. this ‘Lost Generation’ included such writers as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemmingway, and Edna St. Vincent Millay.
*Some Americans, rather than sinking into despair, found new hope in religion. Although much of Europe began to question the Church during the decades after the War, Americans became more and more religious. Many Christian ministers preached in favour of prohibition. Others took advantage of the radio to broadcast their revivals all over the country. Some new religions and branches of old religions developed, but perhaps the most influential was the opposite—the return to that Old-Time Religion. The 1920s saw the rise of the Fundamentalists, who believe that the Bible, being inspired of God, is entirely true and contains no errors. Their beliefs led to the Scopes Monkey Trial in Dayton, Tennessee.
*Aware of the Communist Revolution in Russia, and seeing anarchist, communists, and other radicals in every new immigrant, America went through what was called a Red Scare—the phenomenon of seeing Communists everywhere, and of harsh reaction against Communists, real or supposed. The most dangerous elements in society, of course, were immigrants—especially those from Eastern or Southern Europe, where many people were strange, radical, and even Catholic.
*Communists, socialists, anarchists, union members, and other potential troublemakers were harassed, imprisoned and, if they were new immigrants, sometimes deported. Although most of those who suffered from the Red Scare were probably innocent, it was seen as necessary to protect Democracy, America, God, and apple pie.
*The most famous victims of the Red Scare were Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, a pair of Italian immigrants know to be anarchists. They were arrested as potential suspects in a recent robbery and murder at a shoe factory. Sacco turned out to own the gun used in the crime, or at least one much like it. Vanzetti was only tenuously linked to the case, but, being a left-wing type, was presumed dangerous although, unlike Sacco, he was probably innocent. Both men were condemned and electrocuted, but there was a public outcry against this, and the Red Scare diminished, although hostility towards Communism and immigrants did not end.
*One of the groups most opposed to immigration, and most other changes to society, was the Ku Klux Klan, which recreated itself in the 1910s. Although the Klan hated blacks, especially the more mobile and relatively wealthy blacks freed from the farm by war-time factory work and work on the railroads, that was not all. Now the Klan hated foreigners, Catholics, Communists, and advocates of evolution, too. They also wanted government reform and help for poor rural whites—they were not all bad, just probably mostly so. Violence against blacks was certainly high during this period, and not just from the Klan. Lynchings and other private or semi-public attacks were common. Sometimes people even sold souvenirs at a good lynching.
*In response, black racism rose as well. Marcus Garvey’s militaristic United Negro Improvement Association created black businesses, a black private army, black nursing organisation, black civic societies, and even a black cruise line intended to take blacks back to Motherland Africa. Oddly, because both groups believed in racial separation, Garvey and some leaders of the Klan got along well. W.E.B. Dubois criticised Garvey for his segregationist policies and his bad business practises, which finally caught up with him, resulting in his imprisonment for mail fraud and later deportation to Jamaica. Unlike white racism, however, black nationalism rarely blossomed into violence in this era.
*Despite all the problems of the 1920s, most Americans were rich and had many luxuries to enjoy. Automobiles were affordable, as were record players and radios and many other sundry trifles. Movies, and later talkies, entertained America. The first movie to have sound was The Jazz Singer.
*For most people, Jazz was the characteristic music of the 1920s. It was wild, and exciting, and, according to some, rather suggestive. It was also mostly played by black men, which worried some white folks. Nonetheless, it was an international sensation.
*Some Americans, hoping for a return to traditional values, discovered country music. It had never really been lost, having been preserved in the ballads and hymns of the mountain people of Appalachia. In 1927, the Carter Family of Scott County, Virginia, recorded their first record. Soon old-time ballads were popular, and the Carter Family’s old hobby had become big business.
*For most of America, the 1920s were
a time of prosperity and adventure, although perhaps a time of the desperate
enthusiasm of a generation trying to forget the horrors they had seen in
the Great War. The 1920s were a glorious time for many Americans,
but, increasingly debt-ridden, Americans, especially those who followed
the stock market, would learn that what goes up must come down.
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This page last updated 3 November, 2003.