The 1920s: Prosperity and Cultural Tensions

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Date: 1999
Publisher: Primary Source Media
Series: American Journey
Document Type: Essay
Length: 3,971 words
Content Level: (Level 5)
Lexile Measure: 1340L

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Various names have been used to define the period: the Jazz Age, Flaming Youth, the Decade of Prosperity. We think of the Roaring Twenties as a period of prosperity from the end of World War I (1914-1918) to the start of the Great Depression of the 1930s. Sandwiched between Progressive reform and the New Deal, the decade of the 1920s often serves as the stepchild of modern America—a self-contained unit that was different from what came before and after.It was marked by contrasts of economic progress and hard times for some, mass production and individual heroes, mass advertising and political mediocrity, hints of modernity and cultural conflicts. The period proved more interesting and complex than later generations would grant.

The decade began with the election of Warren G. Harding (1865-1923) as president. He promised a "return to normalcy," which also brought about a series of political scandals, giving fuel to political humorists such as Will Rogers (1879-1935). Harding's successor, Calvin Coolidge (1872-1933), bore the nickname "Silent Cal" amid an economy, society, and culture that appeared to be "roaring." Corporations carried on the managerial revolution and brought forth unprecedented prosperity after 1922. Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon (1855-1937), a modern-day Alexander Hamilton, convinced Congress to pass three major tax cuts. While it seemed that the Republican administrations of Harding and Coolidge revived laissez-faire economic policies, Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover (1874-1964) also tried to use his Cabinet department as a planning body that would bring together business leaders, government officials, philanthropists, and social scientists to create a new kind of state. Through this "associative state," Hoover hoped to bridge the gap between 19th-century individualism and 20th-century interest groups to forge voluntary cooperation between business and government. New Era leaders like Hoover sought to bring aspects of the new administrative state created by Progressive reformers in concert with voluntary organizations to avoid the coercive power of the centralized state.

Novelist Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951) satirically captured the spirit of the age in a best-selling novel, Babbitt (1922). In the opening pages, George Babbitt's house showcases the trappings of the modern consumer economy, with a listing of the mass-produced things that prosperity has made possible for the Babbitt family. Cultural critic Samuel Strauss, quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), declared that "things are in the saddle," and he raised troubling questions about the new impact of mass consumption. Nevertheless, the decade of prosperity undeniably brought the United States out of the depression of 1920-1921 and steered the country away from scarcity economics into an economy and society of abundance.


What made this economic progress possible? Business leaders and politicians alike proclaimed that the country had entered a New Era of industrial capitalism, based on a secular faith in mass production, mass consumption, and high wages (though this last often lagged behind the others). The rise of big business had created the capacity to produce. Mass marketing and consumption now made it possible to bring prosperity to the masses—at least, to those Americans who had high enough incomes. Coolidge coined the motto of the age: "The business of America is business." He went on to say, "The man who builds a factory, builds a temple. . . . The man who works there worships there." Between 1922 and 1928, the index of industrial production increased by 70 percent. From 1921 to 1929, real gross national product rose 45.6 percent, with an annual average 6 percent growth rate. Prices remained relatively stable, while real disposable income per capita (the money left to each American after paying bills) increased from $543 in 1920 to $693 in 1929. Boston, Massachusetts, department store owner Edward A. Filene (1860-1937) argued that American business had become the agent of social progress. Managerial leadership, technological innovation, mass marketing, and the rise of consumer credit were some of the major reasons for New Era prosperity.

By the 1920s, business management emerged in its modern form, even though it had begun much earlier during the corporate revolution of the Gilded Age (1877-1900). By developing multidivisional corporate structures, American business managers at General Motors led the way into the future of big business. Automobile pioneer Henry Ford (1863-1947) had established the moving assembly line at his Highland Park, Michigan, plant in 1914 in delivering on his promise to bring an affordable car to the public; the Model T, affectionately called "the flivver," formed American economic, social, and cultural life. Nevertheless, Ford offered only one model of car, supposedly saying that Americans could have it in "any color as long as it's black." Under the leadership of Alfred P. Sloan Jr. (1875-1966), GM began offering consumers a choice from basic transportation in the Chevrolet through higher-status cars in the Buick and Oldsmobile line to the ultimate in luxury in the Cadillac. When GM passed Ford in sales in the late 1920s, Henry Ford did not respond to the challenge.Throughout the period, he preferred to wax nostalgic about the preindustrial past, symbolized by Ford's building of Greenfield Village near Dearborn, Michigan, bringing together 19th-century artifacts from all over the country. He was also old-fashioned in his virulent antiunion stand and the anti-Semitic articles that he wrote for the Dearborn Independent, blaming Jews for America's social ills. Meanwhile, as the corporate revolution continued, the nation's industrial plant moved from reliance on steam power to electric power.Application of German industrial patents seized by the federal government during World War I led to advances in America's chemical and plastics industries that increased the output of artificial fabrics such as rayon. Consumer appliances began using Bakelite as an insulating material, and families started using cellophane from a new Du Pont plant that opened in Buffalo, New York, in 1925.

Though not a new idea, mass marketing reached new heights in the 1920s. In 1917, only $400 million had been devoted to advertising. By 1929, the figure had risen to $2.6 billion. Executives in advertising firms worked at new ways of marketing older, declining products while developing consumer demand for new ones. A few critics challenged the social utility of ad campaigns aimed at changing the law of supply and demand, but practitioners like Earnest Elmo Caulkins insisted that changing the tastes and buying patterns of the consuming public was merely a means to the larger end of bringing prosperity to the ordinary American. Magazines published advertisements suggesting links between the past and the present to reassure any doubting consumers who might be troubled at the thought of mass-produced goods not being as good as products from an earlier, simpler age. These methods of convincing Americans to act out their roles as consumers, rather than as producers, went beyond narrowly defined economic functions to reflect broader social and cultural trends.

Consumer credit, which by 1929 was the tenth-largest business in the United States, made mass consumption viable in the short term. With annual sales of $7 billion by the end of the decade, "buying on time" was rapidly becoming an all-American institution. In 1929, 20 percent of retail sales depended on consumer credit. Personal indebtedness was rising two and a half times faster than income. The General Motors Acceptance Corporation (GMAC) offered loans to purchasers of GM vehicles as early as 1919, while Ford Motor Company waited until 1929. By 1928, Americans were buying many of the goods of the New Era on the installment plan, including 85 percent of furniture, 80 percent of phonographs, 75 percent of washing machines, 70 percent of refrigerators, and more than 50 percent of sewing machines, pianos, and vacuum cleaners. Historian W. Elliot Brownlee (1941-) notes that the era provided Americans with "a glimpse of modernity."


While Americans experienced economic growth at home, the nation's foreign policy slipped back from Wilsonian internationalism into a period of relative quiet often referred to as isolationism. U.S. diplomats negotiated naval disarmament treaties at the Washington Conference of 1921-1922 that provided for a battleship tonnage ratio of 5:5:3 for the United States, Great Britain, and Japan in the Pacific Ocean, respectively, and lesser amounts for France and Italy in the Mediterranean Sea. When the United States signed the Kellogg-Briand Pact on August 27, 1928, it agreed with fourteen other nations to "renounce war as an instrument of national policy" and to settle dispute with other signatory nations through "pacific means." Forty-seven additional nations signed the peace pact, but countries such as France, Britain, and the United States expressed national reservations that made the agreement more honored in rhetoric than in actual international diplomacy. Falling back on the 1823 Monroe Doctrine, official U.S. diplomacy concentrated on the Western Hemisphere while essentially ignoring changes in Europe and Asia.

For much of the period between the two world wars, private businesses played a key role in promoting American interests abroad. Chicago banker Charles Dawes (1865-1951) helped negotiate the Dawes Plan of 1924, which led to U.S. bank loans to Germany. In turn, Germany used that money to pay a fraction of the huge war reparations called for in the Treaty of Versailles. Five years later, Owen D. Young (1874-1962), chairman of the board of both General Electric (GE) and the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), renegotiated the deal by drafting the Young Plan of 1929, which scaled down total German reparation payments. Reparations would be suspended in the early years of the Great Depression. Meanwhile, direct American investment abroad increased from $3.8 billion in 1919 to $7.5 billion by 1929. Major corporations penetrated markets in other countries. GE moved into Canada, England, and Germany. Car manufacturers such as Ford Motor Company built new automobile plants in Japan, Turkey, and the Soviet Union. Ford transferred production of its farm tractors to England. Retailers such as Woolworth's, Montgomery Ward, the Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company, and the Safeway grocery chain established foreign branches that made American goods in other nations. By the end of the 1920s, the International Telephone and Telegraph (IT&T) corporation, which before World War I had been a small company based in Puerto Rico, had more employees working in other countries that any other U.S. firm and owned or supplied most of the world's telephonic equipment.

American international economic expansion included not only production and sales of U.S. goods abroad, but also a search for the raw materials needed to fuel the mass-production economy. In the 1920s, U.S. firms joined with British oil companies in the Iraq Petroleum Company, while an Anglo-Persian and Standard Oil cartel moved into Iran. Oil companies expanded into South American countries such as Columbia and Venezuela, making the latter country the world's greatest exporter of oil by 1928. U.S. firms also invested in rubber plantations in Liberia, the Dutch East Indies, and Brazil. American businesses controlled 75 percent of the world production of copper by investing in new deposits discovered in Chile and Peru. The United Fruit Company continued its large investments in Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Honduras.

While Republican foreign policies of the 1920s focused on U.S. national interests in the Western Hemisphere, private firms' expansion into other parts of the world economy created what historian Warren Cohen (1934-)calls "an empire without tears." Businesses received encouragement from the Bureau of Foreign and Domestic Commerce, inside the reorganized Department of Commerce led by Herbert Hoover. The U.S. government retreated from international commitments in Europe and Asia, but private firms continued their penetration of the world's economy not only in Central America but also in Europe, the Middle East, and South America.


Prosperity during the New Era brought about a new national mass culture, reflected in the exploding popularity of the automobile, the medium of radio, and other mass entertainment such as movies and sports. Automobile production rose from one and a half million new cars in 1919 to four and a half million by 1929. Motor vehicle registration increased from 9.2 million in 1920 to 26.7 million by 1929. By the end of the New Era, one in six Americans owned a mass-produced automobile. Car manufacturing drew on 20 percent of the nation's steel production, 25 percent of the machine tools, 75 percent of the plate glass, 80 percent of the rubber, and 90 percent of the petroleum. Local, state, and federal government spending for road construction was four times that for railroad tracks. The automobile industry stimulated economic, social, and cultural spin-offs involving highway construction, gasoline stations, motels, road markers, roadside stands, and vacation spots. Automobility took white, middle-class Americans out of the center cities to the rapidly expanding suburbs, including the fastest-growing areas around Detroit, Michigan, and Los Angeles, California.

When radio was introduced commercially in 1922, there were only four stations in the entire country. By 1929, 576 stations sent radio programming and advertisements over the airwaves. Radio sales increased from $1 million in 1920 to $400 million by 1925. By 1929, more than ten million American homes had at least one radio to go along with new kitchen ranges, refrigerators, and vacuum cleaners. In the 1920s, millions of Americans participated in the search for other ways of relaxing and re-creating their lives. Weekly sales of movie tickets increased from forty million in 1922 to one hundred million in 1930 (in part because of the new sensation, talking pictures). Sports heroes gave many the elated feeling that individualism still mattered in this society of mass culture and conformism. Professional baseball, college football, boxing, tennis, and golf became social diversions for many Americans in their newfound leisure time. In the Roaring Twenties, so did dance crazes like the Charleston. For the first time in U.S. history, America had a truly national culture centered around the use of cars, radio programs, movies, sporting events, home appliances, and off-the-rack clothing. By 1929, Americans could purchase toasters, antifreeze, color movie film, paint sprayers, Pyrex dishes, oil furnaces, wristwatches, nylon stockings, cosmetics, and a host of other consumer items that the New Era faith in mass production, mass consumption, and high wages promised to all.

New popular magazines such as Reader's Digest (1922), Time (1923), The New Yorker (1925), and Fortune (1930) created and reflected the new mass culture of modern America. In February 1922, Reader's Digest began with 1,500 readers; by 1929, the mass-marketed magazine had signed up more than 500,000 subscribers. A small number of intellectuals decried the growing debasement of high culture, overlooking trends that included a growth in the publication of 5,700 new titles in 1919 to 11,000 in 1929. In 1926, two national book clubs began. The Book-of-the-Month Club and the Literary Guild became the mainstay of middlebrow readers from an increasingly literate middle-class audience. Psychological self-fulfillment soon entered the thinking of millions who fit the description by social satirist H.L. Mencken (1880-1956) of what it meant to be an American.


The quality of American life appeared to be better than it had ever been. Yet prosperity, technology, consumption, and mass culture disrupted values, beliefs, customs, and behavior, which social scientists such as William Fielding Ogburn (1886-1959) and Charles E. Merriam (1874-1953) called the problem of "social lag." While voter participation in the national elections of 1920 and 1924 was among the lowest in the 20th century, many Americans focused their attention on divisive cultural issues. A kind of cultural politics flourished along the fault lines of this nervous generation of people, in terms of ethnic nationality, race, religion, gender and age. Beneath the surface of prosperity, a heady mix of cultural issues stewed that made New Era America a complex and anxious place for many to live and work in.

During the 1920s, a second generation of the Ku Klux Klan emerged in the wake of prewar racial tensions, wartime distrust of foreign-born immigrants, and immediate postwar economic reversals. Klan leaders exploited techniques of public relations and ideas of boosterism and 100 percent Americanism to recruit "native-born, white, gentile Americans" to the cause of racial and religious purity. Adapting rituals from 19th-century Protestant fundamentalist faiths, Klan branches sang "Onward Valiant Klansmen" to the tune of "Onward Christian Soldiers," while adopting "The Old Rugged Cross" as the group's semiofficial anthem. Members of this new Klan were often newly arrived migrants from rural and small towns to cities such as Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Dayton, Ohio; Detroit, Michigan; Indianapolis, Indiana; Chicago, Illinois; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and Denver, Colorado. The largest and most influential Klaverns arose in Indiana and Ohio, where Klan power led to the election of hundreds of political leaders. Klanswomen supported the work of Klansmen in controlling the social and sexual behavior of native-born whites while aiming much of their rhetorical hatred and nativist power against Roman Catholic and Jewish sons and daughters of the New Immigration, as well as against blacks, the most common target of the 19th-century version of the group. In three years of the early 1920s, Klan groups organized successfully to elect six state governors, three U.S. senators, and hundreds of state legislators, mayors, judges, police commissioners, prosecutors, and sheriffs. In the mid-1920s, Klan members proudly marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC, waving the American flag. The Klan claimed to be engaged in a "fight for Americanism", which included the enforcement of traditional Protestant morality among the native-born who broke their older moral code of conduct. When Indiana Klan leader David C. Stephenson (1891-1966) himself broke the code with violent criminal behavior, Klan membership and influence waned in the face of what struck some Americans as moral hypocrisy. In some places, immigrant Americans fought back, defending their wartime patriotism and postwar record of loyalty, hard work, and participation in the American way of life.

While some white Protestants felt threatened by modern values and the secular world of the culture of consumption, black Americans entered a period of racial pride, in spite of continued hardships. As more blacks left the South in the wake of the Great Migration, they settled in northern and midwestern cities. They were often trapped in racially segregated neighborhoods, unable to find the decent housing, good-paying jobs, and better education for their children for which they had traveled north. Black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey (1887-1940) brought more blacks from the lower classes into the Universal Negro Improvement Association than any other black group of the 20th century. Harlem, the black ghetto in the north end of Manhattan in New York City, became the new cultural capital of black America. In March 1925, philosopher Alain Locke (1886-1954) introduced Americans to the New Negro in a special issue of Survey Graphic about the Harlem Renaissance. Poet Langston Hughes (1902-1967) and writer Zora Neale Hurston (1891?-1960) were among those celebrating the strength of black Americans' culture and art. Hughes reminded whites Americans that "I, too, am America.". In New York City and other big cities, musicians reveled in the newfound popularity among whites of jazz and the blues, native American forms of music that arose out of black communities. Philanthropist Arthur A. Schomburg (1874-1938) led the effort to rediscover and preserve black history. In other cities, such as Chicago, blacks also made gains, despite the ongoing efforts of whites to restrict housing, jobs, and opportunity through a variety of means.

Fundamentalist Protestants felt threatened by the advance of modern values in science, technology, business, and material consumption. In 1925, William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925), the Defender of the Faith, went to Dayton, Tennessee, to help prosecute a high school substitute teacher, John T. Scopes (1900-1970), who challenged the constitutionality of a Tennessee state law that prohibited the teaching of natural evolution as the foundation of modern scientific biology. Bryan faced famed defense attorney Clarence Darrow (1857-1938) in a trial sponsored by business leaders in Dayton who hoped to bring fame and tourist dollars to their town. When Bryan and Darrow became the focus of the "Monkey trial," what began as a reflection of local boosterism and economic progress, so common to the decade, turned into a show trial with comic as well as serious aspects. In the draft of an undelivered speech, Bryan—who died only days after being humiliated on the witness stand by Darrow—defended the 19th-century values of fundamentalist Protestantism against the onslaught of modernity. Although Scopes was found guilty of having violated the Tennessee law, his sentence and a small fine were later overturned on a technicality. To the almost 25 percent of Americans in the decade who remained devout fundamentalists, the trial was far from the end of a cultural battle that they would continue for the remainder of the century.

Perhaps the best-known image of the 1920s was that of the Jazz Age dominated by the "flaming youth," as captured in some of the works of the Lost Generation of disillusioned literary intellectuals. A new youth culture was emerging, centered on school and college life—although in many parts of the country, as would also be true later in the 20th century, most young people played no part in such a youth culture but instead left school early to go to work on farms or in factories. Still, enrollment in public colleges and universities, especially in the Midwest, increased, and journalist Frederick Lewis Allen (1890-1954) described what ensued as a "revolution in manners and morals." Young women who had seen employment opportunities and social freedom begin to broaden in the prewar years emerged during the 1920s under the rubric of "the New Woman". The social reality of these new women proved more interesting than the cultural stereotype, as described by such women as Crystal Eastman (1881-1928), who recalled the strong influence of her mother and her friends as she grew up. Young men and women who grew up in the shadow of World War I and the end of Victorian culture found themselves experimenting with values and behavior that shocked their parents, teachers, and authority figures but that proved less revolutionary than they appeared to some at the time.


As a decade of contrasts, the 1920s fascinates historians who have began seriously reexamining the history of New Era America. The Republican administrations of Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover dominated national political life. Most Americans paid more attention to the economic prosperity and cultural conflicts of the time than they did to partisan politics. New Era industrial capitalism promised to bring the fruits of industrialization to the mass public by creating a culture of consumption that more and more ordinary Americans could enjoy. In an age dominated by private corporations engaged in mass production at home while exporting American-made goods and acquiring raw materials abroad, Americans thirsted for popular heroes who could reassure them that the individual still mattered. The most famous of these was pilot Charles A. Lindbergh (1902-1974), who captured the public's imagination on May 20-21, 1927, with the first nonstop Transatlantic flight ever, from New York City to Paris, France. Met with overwhelming admiration in France, "Lucky Lindy" returned home to a hero's welcome in New York City.

Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, General Motors executive Alfred P. Sloan Jr., and cultural mavens in the advertising industry conducted some of the most innovative work of the period. Yet most Americans were more interested in hearing about the new celebrities in the movies, on the radio, and in professional and amateur sports. Henry Ford, baseball legend George Herman ("Babe") Ruth (1895-1948), Charles A. Lindbergh, and a bevy of Hollywood movie stars and sports figures provided the symbolic reassurance that many craved in an age rocked by the tensions and conflicts of nationality, race, religion, age, and gender. The New Era was a time of material prosperity and cultural confusion, business confidence and a fear that individualism no longer counted, a foreign policy of alleged isolationism and rampant international economic expansion, and political conformity and cultural conflict. The era proved more interesting and exciting than the usual images of jazz, Flaming Youth, and the Ford Model T suggest.

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Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|EJ2164000016