Clio’s Notes: The 1920s The Period’s Noteworthy Trends The 1920s were marked by a number of important trends.
1. Politically, conservatives gained power. Three successive
Republican presidents were elected in the decade. 2. Economically, the nation experienced a severe recession at the start of the decade, a boom in the middle, and the biggest crash in its history at decade’s close. 3. New technologies changed the American landscape. The country was electrified, replaced horses with cars, and tuned into new sounds over radio waves. 4. Social boundaries were pushed, as traditionalists were challenged by modernists. Americans fought over drinking, music, art, and evolution. 5. Much change occurred in the decade. Cities grew, blacks moved from South to North, jazz emerged, flappers kicked up their heals, women asserted new social and political rights, African Americans experienced a cultural rebirth in the Harlem Renaissance, and people flew and talked on the phone. Some resisted this all of this change. Fundamentalists fought for the literal interpretation of the Bible. And the KKK fought for holding onto a racist tradition, a bulwark against blacks, immigrants, and Catholics. Presidents of the 1920s The three presidents of the 1920s were all Republicans, probusiness, and relatively conservative. The hey day of the Progressives was over. Warren Harding, the first president of the 1920s, worked to repeal taxes set during WWI by Democrat Woodrow Wilson. Tax cuts boosted the economy. That was the good news. On the flip side, the president’s own people were caught up in scandal. The most famous of these scandals was called Teapot Dome. It involved Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall in the sale of government oil leases for personal profit. When Harding died in office, Calvin Coolidge took over. Coolidge is famous for the statement, “the business of America is business.” Like Harding, Coolidge set out to cut taxes and reduce the size of government. “Silent Cal,” a man of few words served one prosperous term. Herbert Hoover, the last of the Republican presidents of the 20s, echoed the thoughts of Horatio Alger in his book, American Individualism. He stated that Americans could
achieve any goal through hard work, moral actions, and individual initiative. Hoover, too, promoted business interests. He believed in “associationalism,” getting business leaders together to improve efficiency. Civil Liberties in the 1920s The 20s opened in domestic and economic turmoil. Recession marked by high unemployment spurred labor unrest. Strikes were common across the country. Some feared that the labor unrest would lead to more dangerous political results. In 1917, Bolsheviks ushered in a communist system in Russia. Lenin, the Soviet leader, argued that the Russian Revolution was just the beginning of a worldwide worker’s revolution. Nervous Americans wondered if general strikes in Seattle and Boston threatened American democracy and the free enterprise system, which led to the first Red Scare. A bomb exploded on the front steps of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer’s house. Palmer ordered a round up of suspected radicals. 6,000 people were arrested in the Palmer raids led by Palmer’s assistant, J. Edgar Hoover (later the head of the FBI). Many people, mostly foreign born or recent immigrants, were held without evidence or charge. Some were placed on a ship and sent to the Soviet Union. Throughout the decade civil liberties suffered as people who were “different” were attacked. The KKK led the way. It grew to some 4 million members in the decade and terrorized African Americans and others. Immigrants were targets too. Immigration laws severely restricted entrance from Southern and Eastern European countries through a quota system that would last for the next four decades. Some blacks decided they could not live in such a harsh climate. Led by Marcus Garvey, they worked to set up separate black businesses, schools, and churches in the U.S.. Garvey even established a steamship company to transport blacks to Africa in an effort to move blacks “back to Africa.” Some organizations emerged to fight intolerance. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) fought and still fight government threats to civil liberties (individual rights protected by law.) The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) worked to gain social and political rights for African Americans. The AntiDefamation League (ADL) worked to end anti-Semitism, discrimination targeted against Jews. Like the other two organizations mentioned here, the ADL is still active and influential.
Prohibition Drinking alcoholic beverages was made illegal by the 18th Amendment in 1919. This was a triumph for prohibitionist groups like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) who had argued against the evils of drink for decades. However, prohibition was a failure. Americans did not stop drinking. Alcohol consumption and diseases did drop, but crime grew, as organized crime responded to the insatiable appetite for liquor. Al Capone made a fortune, mostly selling beer—illegally. Booze moved freely across the border from Mexico and Canada. Homemade booze became a common product at social gatherings and in the “speak easys.” Over time, people began to oppose prohibition due to the lawlessness and crime created by the bootlegging industry. After less than 15 years the “noble experiment” was abandoned when the 21st Amendment was passed and the 18th amendment was repealed. Advances for Women Women’s lives changed significantly in the 1920s. At the outset of the decade, women gained the right to vote with the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920. Suffragettes--people in favor of awarding women the right to vote--had worked for decades to gain this amendment. As a result, Jeanette Rankin became the first woman elected to Congress in 1917. In addition to the vote, women gained greater job and educational opportunities. The number of female high school graduates doubled in the 20s. Several organizations were key in gaining women’s rights: the League of Women Voters promoted women’s issues before Congress and in the states. The National Women’s Party, led by Alice Paul, pushed, unsuccessfully, for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the Constitution. Planned Parenthood was founded by Alice Paul, a birth control advocate, who said, “No woman can call herself free who does not own and control her body.” Women gained social freedoms in the 20s, too. Young women, especially, who gained the label flappers, took steps to liberate themselves from prevailing social norms. They traded long dresses for shorter ones without sleeves, high collars for cleavage, slow ballroom dancing for the lively Charleston, and bare faces for lipstick and rouge. These were all considered signs of an emerging “modern woman,” a liberated woman, who could smoke, drink, and use saucy language if she chose.
Progress for African Americans: The Harlem Renaissance The Harlem Renaissance was a flowering of African American culture in the 1920s. It exhibited itself in the art, music, literature, and social life of blacks and was centered in New York, a northern city. By the 20s many African Americans had moved north in the Great Migration. They brought with them a culture that blossomed in a more free environment than was available in the South. Contributing to the Harlem Renaissance were writers, artists, and musicians. Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington paved the way in music, pioneering a lively new style—Jazz. Writers of this movement included Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, and Zora Neale Hurston, the author of Their Eyes were Watching God. Artists like Jacob Lawrence and Aaron Douglas added great works of art to the accomplishments of the era. The Harlem Renaissance celebrated African American culture and revealed the struggles of African Americans to gain justice in an era of racial hatred. Radio and Movies Change American Culture Radio burst onto the scene in 1920 when radio station KDKA made its first broadcast. The technology spread rapidly, and soon Americans across the country were listening to and talking about what they had heard on the radio—the results of their favorite sports team, the new recording by their favorite musician, the latest fad, or their favorite radio series. Like radio, the popularity of movies grew rapidly in the 20s. At the start of the decade movies were silent. After the release of the first talkie, The Jazz Singer, in 1927, they couldn’t shut up. Movies and radio had a huge impact on the U.S. and the world. Popular culture grew. This means that rather than having local stars, we had national or international stars. Radio and movies gave everyone access to the same information, the same entertainment. This explains why stars like Babe Ruth, Charlie Chaplin, Clara Bow, Charles Lindbergh, and Louis Armstrong got so big—everyone could now listen to them or hear them—without actually seeing them live.
New Technologies, Mass Production Techniques, and Urbanization Change the Nation New technologies accelerated changes in the 20s. Key among these technologies was electricity. Invented around the turn of the century, electricity spread by the 20s and gave birth to the toaster, the electric iron, the vacuum cleaner, and the radio. The growth of the advertising industry created new demand for these mass produced goods. In addition, mass production of the automobile gave Americans new opportunities. Henry Ford’s Detroit assembly lines churned out one black Model T after another. Mass production on the assembly line made autos cheap and dependable. The car changed how Americans courted, how they traveled, what they ate, and what they did for work. Electricity and the automobile truly revolutionized American life. They increased prosperity and changed the landscape. New technologies drew more and more Americans to cities. Cities were where the jobs were, where the excitement was, where the sports stars played, and where the music played the loudest. As in previous eras, cities became more and more important to American life.