The 1920s: How Normal were the 1920s?

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Editor: Robert J. Allison
Date: 2000
From: History in Dispute(Vol. 3: American Social and Political Movements, 1900-1945: Pursuit of Progress. )
Publisher: St. James Press
Document Type: Viewpoint essay
Length: 4,612 words
Content Level: (Level 5)
Lexile Measure: 1390L

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Page 174

The 1920s: How Normal were the 1920s?

Were the 1920s a “return to normalcy?” Or, were they the “Roaring Twenties,” when women broke out of Victorian era constraints and long-accepted social norms were broken? The 1920s did seem to mark a new era in American life. Americans experienced more technological change in this decade than in any other period in history. Radio and the telephone brought Americans closer together, speeding communication in ways previous generations could not have imagined. It was possible to speak to a person across town or across the country, and millions of Americans could simultaneously hear the president’s voice or listen to a World Series game as it was being played.

Radio, telephones, airplanes, refrigerators, electric power, all changed the way Americans lived. Yet, on the other hand, the 1920s was a time of resurgence in religious fundamentalism, in racial and religious bigotry enforced by a newly invigorated Ku Klux Klan, and a stifling of political dissent. The Ku Klux Klan drew its greatest support in America’s heartland, the Midwest, winning control of legislatures in Oklahoma and other states.

While the 1920s in many ways was a high point in American cultural life, the writers of the decade such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Langston Hughes, Sinclair Lewis, Dorothy Parker, Eugene O’Neill, Ernest Hemingway, T. S. Eliot, and Sherwood Anderson were either harshly critical of American society for its smug complacency or spent much of the decade in Paris. America, writers and artists suggested, was no place for culture, at the time when they were producing the most enduring works of American letters.

The federal government was embarked on a “noble experiment,” Herbert Hoover’s description of Prohibition. However, Prohibition, which had been enacted to protect Americans from the baneful influence of alcohol, was so widely violated as to be a either a national joke or a national disgrace. To enforce Prohibition required a federal police force of more than 1,500 new agents, sent to enforce the national law at the same time as the Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover administrations were calling for reducing the role of the federal government. Certain individuals found ways around the law, growing rich or profiting off of the illegal actions of otherwise law-abiding citizens.

The 1920s were years of contrasts—different from the years before and the years after, but still with many curious echoes and resonances of times past and future in American life.

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Viewpoint: The 1920s were years of prosperity for the United States

Warren G. Harding promised Americans a “return to normalcy” in his 1920 run for the presidency. Then, as now, the definition of normalcy remains a mystery and raises a number of questions. What did Harding mean by normalcy? Did the Republicans succeed in returning the nation to normalcy, whatever their definition of it was?

To answer the first question on its most basic level, that is, what did Harding and the Republicans mean by normalcy, one needs to look at the context in which the pledge was made. “Not nostrums, but normalcy” was the slogan Harding used against the record of his opponents, the Democrats, who had held power for eight years. Woodrow Wilson was not a candidate for reelection, but his administration was much at issue. Wilson had won the election of 1916 with a pledge to keep the nation out of war; six months later the United States was in World War I, and Wilson was announcing to the world his plan for achieving international peace.

“The Archangel Woodrow,” as journalist H. L. Mencken called the president, wanted to reform the world to be a more peaceful place. In fighting the war, Wilson had found it necessary to reshape the federal government, taking total control of the national economy. The U.S. government took over the running of railroads and merchant ships, as well as the mining of coal; it rationed food and fuel; and to ensure that grains were not wasted, it prohibited the manufacture and sale of alcohol. All these policies were aimed at making for a stronger and healthier citizenry. In addition, to insure that Americans were not thinking thoughts that might weaken the war effort, the Wilson administration enforced censorship of newspapers and magazines, inspected the mails, and arrested and deported socialists, anarchists, and other troublemakers.

Part of Wilson’s grand plan was to have the United States join the League of Nations, an international body that would mediate disputes between nations. Just as Wilson had regarded the executive branch as an administrative agency that could govern all America, the League of Nations would be an administrative agency to govern the entire world, under the guidelines of Wilson’s “Fourteen Points.” President Georges Clemenceau of France muttered about the “Fourteen Points” that “God only has ten points.” Membership in the League, however, would violate a long-standing American policy of steering clear of entangling alliances.

Wilson had left for Europe in 1918 to negotiate a settlement to the war with the British, French, and Italians. Just before his departure the Republican Party captured control of Congress. The nation was disillusioned with the war and its strange settlement. Further, in the fall of 1918, a strange influenza virus struck the United States, killing hundreds of thousands of people in recurring bouts of illness. When Wilson returned to the United States in 1919, he too was ill, and the nation was weary. (Wilson had suffered a stroke in Pueblo, Colorado.) Americans were tired of Wilson’s moralistic attempts to govern the world and of his administration’s control of the economy. Naturally, businesses wanted less government regulation, but most Americans also wanted less government interference in their lives. This desire was the message of the 1920 election. The United States would not return to the society of 1914, but its government would retreat into its traditional role of not interfering in the economy.

The 1920s were a prosperous time. Technological changes made impossible any return to the way life had been. Electricity made American manufacturing more productive than it had been before the war. In 1913 the Ford Company could produce a car in fourteen hours. By 1914, after Ford switched from steam to electric power on its assembly lines, it could produce a car in ninety-three minutes. By 1924 Ford was rolling a car off its assembly line every ten seconds. American industrial production doubled between 1914 and the 1920s, as American industry adopted electricity. More productive factories meant that employers could both raise wages and cut working hours. In 1923, with gentle suggestions from the Harding administration, the steel industry cut the workday from twelve to eight hours, and Ford introduced the five-day work week in 1926. By 1929 the American per capita income was $681, the highest wages at any time in the history of the world.

These technological changes made labor unions seem unnecessary. The unions had fought the steel industry for a ten-hour workday in the 1890s; they lost and had been crushed by armed force. Now, the steel industry willingly granted an eight-hour day. Socialists, anarchists, and communists had agitated for these things, and because industry before the war had not been willing to budge, the radicals called for revolution. The Wilson administration had unleashed a wave of repression, jailing socialists and anarchists, as well as deporting others to Russia. The Harding and Coolidge administrations were less troubled by radicals. Harding pardoned socialist leader Eugene V. Debs in 1921. Though anarchists exploded bombs on Wall Street, and Massachusetts prosecuted Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo

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A Prohibition Era speakeasy

A Prohibition Era speakeasy - (Brown Bros.)

Vanzetti in 1921, the threat of anarchy was so slight that American liberals could rally to the defense of socialists and anarchists.

American society was changing in the 1920s, without interference from the Harding or Coolidge administrations. The changes would come about through natural economic forces. The American people were becoming healthier: infant mortality dropped between 1900 and 1930, with life expectancy going from forty-nine years in 1900 to fifty-nine years in 1930. In 1900 one out of ten eligible Americans attended high school, and only one out of thirty-three went to college. By 1930, one out of two eligible Americans went to high school, and one out of seven went to college. This meant a better-educated population, one less likely to be fodder for a communist revolution. There were more opportunities for economic advance. The radio and motion pictures brought news and culture to a wider audience.

Harding and the Republicans were not so much arguing for a return to normalcy, as an establishment of normalcy. The great prosperity of the 1920s, the fact that America, alone of the Western industrial powers, did not have its economic infrastructure destroyed, meant that Americans began the 1920s with advantages over the rest of the world. (Japan, too, had emerged from the war unscathed; the fact that the United States and Japan both escaped damage in the war would have profound implications in the 1930s.)

The United States now exported to Europe and the world, and until 1929 the American industrial economy was driven by its exports. This new fact helped establish the United States as the cultural norm throughout the world. American culture would be perhaps the biggest U.S. export. Before 1914 those wishing to achieve culture did so in Europe. Now, with Europe destroyed, Americans could create new cultures, using technology and industrial power created in the twentieth century.

American novelist Sinclair Lewis opened his 1920 novel Main Street with a declaration: “Main Street is the climax of civilization. That this Ford car might stand in front of the Bon Ton Store, Hannibal invaded Rome and Erasmus wrote in the Oxford cloisters. What Old Jenson the grocer says to Ezra Stowbody the banker is the new law for London, Prague, and the unprofitable isles of the sea; whatsoever Ezra does not know and sanction, that thing is heresy, worthless for knowing and wicked to consider.”

Lewis was a harsh critic of the small-town complacency of Americans. His indictments of Page 177  |  Top of Articlesmall-town America, in Main Street, Babbitt (1922), and Elmer Gantry (1927), suggest how pervasive this complacency was. It is one of the great ironies of the 1920s that writers such as Lewis became celebrities in American culture for their savage attacks on that culture. Remove the satirical cynicism from Lewis’s books and there will hardly be enough left for a character sketch, let alone a novel. Other writers, such as Dorothy Parker, Sherwood Anderson, and Eugene O’Neill attacked American society as narrow and provincial at the same time as that society rewarded them for their honesty.

While writers such as these attacked American society for its complacency, others criticized it for abandoning its old beliefs. The 1920s was a good time for evangelists. Aimee Semple McPherson built her Four-Square Gospel Temple in Los Angeles, with ten thousand members and its own radio station to broadcast her Pentecostal message to hundreds of thousands more. Undoubtedly many of McPherson’s faithful were country people who had moved to the city—in one dramatic episode she came before her congregation carrying a milk pail and asked them how many had grown up on a farm. All rose. Cities were growing in the 1920s. In 1910 there had been sixty-eight American cities with a population of more than 100,000; by 1920 there were ninety-six, and for the first time a majority of Americans lived in cities. Just as important as urban growth were changes in the nature of American cities. Steel-beam construction and the development of the elevator allowed buildings to rise higher, and the automobile allowed cities to spread out. Los Angeles is a good case in point, as the city expanded into the desert foothills, with disparate communities linked together by paved roads.

The development of the automobile created a demographic situation in the 1920s that is only now being recognized. At the precise moment that more Americans lived in cities than in small towns, the automobile was allowing Americans to work in the city but live in a small town. The rise of suburbs, with no viable economic base other than their connection to the city, with its working populations driving between their homes in suburbs and workplaces in the city, began in the 1920s.

As the United States was becoming an urban society linked by roads, telephones, and radio, the American people were also trying to hold onto an ideal of an earlier America. It is clear that the 1920s could not have been a time of “normalcy” if one understands the word to mean a return to the way things were. In fact, the 1920s was a time of normalcy if one considers the term in a different way. American culture began to take on the tone and character it would have for the rest of the century. The small-town values satirized by Lewis and other writers became the norm for American society, transmitted by movies and other media to the rest of the world. The decade opened with Lewis mocking Americans for their small-town complacency. It ended, in 1930, with Lewis being the first American awarded the Nobel Prize in literature.

American culture, a culture of middle-class values and complacency, came to full fruition in the 1920s. Harding may not have meant this type of society when he pledged a return to normalcy, but before October 1929 few Americans were dissatisfied with what the Republicans had delivered.


Viewpoint: The 1920s were not a “normal” decade at all, but a new period of social activism reflected in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Amendments and by participation in international peace conferences

“America’s greatest need,” argued presidential candidate Warren G. Harding in 1920, “is not heroics, but healing, not nostrums, but normalcy.” Sensing that the national appetite for reform had reached an ebb, Harding continued to sound this theme throughout 1920, and with his landslide election victory that fall analysts took Harding’s prescription to heart, and the return to normalcy became the dominant way of understanding the decade. While Harding never defined normalcy, his 1920 audience, and those that later repeated the phrase, would have immediately recognized it as a rejection of the crusading spirit of the Progressive Era. As economic and social changes had swept over America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, politicians and social reformers fought back by trying to use the press, ballot box, and political stump to create a more equitable society. While Progressives, as the reformers were labeled, did not always agree on the solutions to the nation’s ills, they consistently presented both its problems and their solutions as spiritual and emotional crusades. Journalists, such as Lincoln Steffens, exposed public corruption and wrote of the “shame” of the cities; when Theodore Roosevelt split from the Republican Party in 1912 to form his own Progressive Party, he appeared as the revivalist preacher, declaring to his followers that they were “Standing at Armageddon and fighting for the ord”; finally, Woodrow Page 178  |  Top of ArticleWilson brought this reform spirit to its culmination in 1917, leading America into an overseas war in order to “make the world safe for democracy.”

However, normalcy was not just a rejection of the politics of the previous period, but it also appealed to a sentimentalism and promised a return to a previous age of simpler economics and politics. Implicit within the term was the desire to return to a bygone era and a standard of “normal” behavior that existed before the turn of the twentieth century. Not only did America need normalcy, said Harding, it needed “restoration”—which could be understood only as a return to a time of economic simplicity, social quiet, limited government, and a primary focus on events in North America (with occasional forays into the Western Hemisphere). While Harding’s appeal rested on this romanticization of the distant past and rejection of the immediate past, when judged on either standard one can see that the 1920s were anything but normal and the unresolved problems of the Progressive Era continued to dominate public and political activity in America.

One of the characteristic features of the Progressive period was the prevalence of highly visible government investigations into political, economic, and social conditions in the nation, and while the sheer number of these investigations may have dropped in the 1920s, the connection of private businessmen to political power continued to draw great attention after World War I. Only a few months after World War I had ended, reform-minded Senator Robert M. La Follette (R-Wisconsin) looked to a bright future for political activism, noting, “If I get a few good Democrats on Manufactures [the Senate committee of which La Follette was chairman] I’ll be able to turn a few tricks through investigations.” Within a few years the Teapot Dome investigation (1922)—one of the most notable scandals in American political history–fulfilled this prediction.

The Teapot Dome investigation began with the discovery that the Secretary of the Interior, Albert Fall, had transferred some government-controlled oil wells to a group of private refiners. La Follette and other Progressive conservationists saw this as a classic example of business-oriented politicians allowing private businessmen to gain profit at government expense, and they began an investigation to reveal the continued excessive power of private corporations in government. The investigation that followed revealed this connection and more. It demonstrated that Fall had received a payment of $100,000 from Edward L. Doheny, the same man to whom the oil wells were transferred. The revelation produced a voracious scandal (one political cartoonist pictured the investigation as a giant pig, devouring everything it its path) that resulted in the resignations of the Attorney General Harry M. Daugherty and Secretary of the Navy Edwin Denby, as well as Fall’s ultimate conviction for bribery in 1929. With Harding’s death in 1923, and Calvin Coolidge’s ability to distance himself from Fall’s actions, the Republicans survived the scandal, but beyond the bribery itself, Teapot Dome showed that the Progressive Era concern with the power of business over public and political affairs had hardly abated, and much of the population remained fearful of businessmen’s power to corrupt as well as to create.

If Teapot Dome was a continuation of the anti-monopolists’ crusade against the connection between business and government, Herbert Hoover presented a response that continued the Progressive Era conversation on the relationship of business and government. Throughout the first twenty years of the twentieth century, business-oriented Progressives had argued that in an increasingly complicated economy, businessmen needed the means and opportunity to come together to rationalize and plan economic activity. As Secretary of Commerce from 1921 through 1929, and then as president, Hoover proved the continuing champion of corporate-leaning Progressivism in the 1920s. He believed that government could act as a coordinator and adviser to businessmen, providing them the opportunity to talk, plan, and coordinate their actions in order to produce goods more efficiently. In essence Hoover’s program took the old goals of business-oriented reformers of the past decade and provided them with a new and more efficient means—the Commerce Department. With the rising importance of Hoover and the Commerce Department, business-oriented Progressivism may be argued to have outdistanced its antimonopoly and anticorruption variants, but within this change, it is remarkable that the fundamental conversation of the Progressive Era continued along similar lines into the 1920s.

Harding had issued his proclamation of normalcy in the wake of the Senate fight over the Treaty of Versailles (1919) and the League of Nations, and few could have missed the clear dismissal of Wilson’s idealism and the rejection of a permanent American commitment in European affairs in his choice of words. However, the same global interests that had provided impetus for American entry into the war hardly declined in the years after 1919, and despite the immediate rejection of Wilsonian diplomacy, the 1920s marked a continued period of American international involvement and expansion. While America did not sign on to the commitment to make

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The woman of the 1920s shocked many mate observers with her dress, make-up, and behavior. One author, writing in The New Republic, provided the following humorous description of this new style.

She strolls across the lawn of her parents’ suburban home, having just put the car away after driving sixty miles in two hours. She is, for one thing, a very pretty girl. Beauty is the fashion in 1925. She is frankly, heavily made up, not to imitate nature, but for an altogether artificial effect—pallor mortis, poisonously scarlet lips, richly ringed eyes—the latter looking not so much debauched (which is the intention) as diabetic. Her walk duplicates the swagger supposed by innocent America to go with the female half of a Paris Apache dance. And there are, finally, her clothes.

These were estimated the other day by some statistician to weigh two pounds. Probably a libel; I doubt they come within half a pound of such bulk. Jane isn’t wearing much, this summer. If you’d like to know exactly, it is: one dress, one step-in, two stockings, two shoes.

… Her dress, as you can’t possibly help knowing if you have even one good eye, and get around at all outside the Old People’s Home, is also brief. It is cut low where it might be high, and vice versa. The skirt comes just an inch below her knees, overlapping by a faint fraction her rolled and twisted stockings. The idea is that when she walks in a bit of a breeze, you shall now and then observe the knee (which is not rouged—that’s just newspaper talk) but always in an accidental, Venus-surprised-at-the-bath sort of way. This is a bit of coyness which hardly fits in with Jane’s general character

Jane’s haircut is also abbreviated. She wears of course the very newest thing in bobs, even closer than last year’s shingle. It leaves her just about no hair at all in the back, and 20 percent more than that in the front—about as much as is being worn this season by a cellist (male); less than a pianist; and much, much less than a violinist. Because of this new style, one can confirm a rumor heard last year; Jane has ears.

Source: Bruce Bliven, “Flapper Jane,” The New Republic (9 September 1928).

the world safe for democracy through the League of Nations, American diplomats continued to believe that making the world a less contentious place would make for a safer America. In 1921, with a potential naval-arms race between the former allies of the United States, Great Britain, and Japan brewing in Asia, American Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes called a conference to limit naval competition. In a remarkable series of events the representatives at the Washington Conference agreed to restrict future shipbuilding, and the leading powers (the United States, Great Britain, and Japan) even signed on to dismantle seventy total ships to reduce the world’s naval arsenal. While the motivations behind the reductions and limitations were based more on cold calculations of cost than idealism, this was a remarkable international achievement, and it showed a remarkable American commitment to managing future conflict. Furthermore, the agreement tacitly recognized a long-term three-way rivalry in Asia between Great Britain, Japan, and the United States, a hardheaded acceptance of international rivalry and entanglement that was hardly consistent with a return to limited international commitments.

While the Washington Conference showed that the idealistic goals of managing conflict in advance could be achieved through hardheaded motivations, the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 showed that the idealistic streak that Wilson had tapped into remained near the surface in the 1920s. In signing the Kellogg-Briand treaty the United States became one of sixty-two nations to agree that war was by definition against international law. While this was not enough to deter future aggression, as an ideological statement it was a remarkable endorsement of Wilson’s motivations in pushing for the League of Nations. In effect, American endorsement of the outlawing of war put it on record as having disagreed with the means of Wilson’s League of Nations, but wholeheartedly in agreement with such idealism. In the end, American diplomacy in the 1920s cannot be classified either as Wilsonian-internationalist nor isolationist. America hoped to avoid Page 180  |  Top of Articlewar and lessen international involvement, but, in doing so, it entered into a series of agreements that both reflected its growing international presence and tacitly recognized a long-term American involvement in foreign affairs. There was no return to a policy of limited involvement; each attempt to manage conflict in order to limit American commitments only drew America into closer and more complex contact with nations around the globe.

Finally, in looking at the course of the Eighteenth Amendment (1919) and national alcohol prohibition, perhaps the most notable aspect of the 1920s, one sees that the decade was anything but normal. Harding inherited the job of enforcing a national ban on alcohol sales, which officially began in early 1920. While the Progressive Era involved much more than expanding government involvement into the day-to-day lives of American citizens, this was unquestionably one of its most marked aspects, and the federal government’s attempt to police what Americans chose to put in their bodies was the ultimate extension of the Progressive tendency toward legislation that defined private behavior as a public problem. Furthermore, if Harding’s appeal to normalcy included a reduction in government activity, prohibition produced just the opposite. Enforcing prohibition required major increases in the federal bureaucracies and courts, and while these increases never succeeded in cutting off the supply of alcohol in American society, they fundamentally reinforced the increasing power of the federal government that had begun during the Progressive Era. Finally, Americans in short order regretted the experiment of Prohibition, and in 1933 the Twenty-first Amendment overturned the Eighteenth Amendment. The 1920s were, in fact, the only “dry” decade in federal history, on the surface a most abnormal situation.

In the end, Harding’s normalcy was doomed from the start. America could not return to the politics and social values of earlier times because the society, economy, and culture of that time was long gone. While Americans could reject the intense commitment of the Versailles Treaty and League of Nations, they could not turn their back on increasingly volatile and interdependent world politics. America’s economy, overseas interests, and prestige were now unquestionably caught up in events overseas, and thus the Kellogg-Briand Pact and Washington Conference are alternative means to the same, and somewhat inevitable, end of permanent engagement in world politics. Similarly, Hoover’s government-business cooperation and the anticorporatism of the Teapot Dome investigation continued the Progressive Era conversation over how best to adjust the government to a corporate economic order. If a line was to be found between the reforms of the Progressive Era and the later years of the twentieth century, that dividing line would be found after the 1920s.



James Boylan, ed., The World and the 20s: The Golden Years of New York’s Legendary Newspaper (New York: Dial, 1973);

Paul A. Carter, The Twenties in America (New York: Crowell, 1968);

John Milton Cooper, Pivotal Decades: The United States, 1900–1920 (New York: Norton, 1990);

Brett Flehinger, “’Public Interest’: Robert M. La Follette and the Economics of Democratic Progressivism,” dissertation, Harvard University, 1997;

Burl Noggle, Teapot Dome: Oil and Politics in the 1920s (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1962);

Geoffrey Perrett, America in the Twenties: A History (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1982);

Elizabeth Stevenson, Babbitts and Bohemians: The American 1920s (New York: Macmillan, 1967);

Page Smith, Redeeming the Time: A People’s History of the 1920s and the New Deal (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1987)Æ

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2876300030