United States History I & II
United States History I & II

United States History I & II

Lead Author(s): Sara Eskridge

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Transform your teaching with the power of digital pedagogy. This book features: an interactive timeline, live learning feedback, embedded primary source video, automatic grading, and full customizability.

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Our U.S. History textbook extends beyond the page with interactive graphing tools, real-world news clips and articles that relate to current events, and examples that are relevant to millennial audiences.
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Comparison of U.S. History Textbooks

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Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed

Norton

Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition

MacMillan

Roark, Johnson, Furstenberg, Stage, and Igo, The American Promise, 2 Volumes, 8th Edition

Pearson

Keene, Cornell, and O’Donnell, Visions of America, 2013

Pricing

Average price of textbook across most common format

Up to 40-60% more affordable

Lifetime access on any device

$63.90

Hardcover print text only

$87.99

Per volume

$79.60

Digital only

Always up-to-date content, constantly revised by community of professors

Constantly revised and updated by a community of professors with the latest content

In-Book Interactivity

Includes embedded multi-media files and integrated software to enhance visual presentation of concepts directly in textbook

Only available with supplementary resources at additional cost

Only available with supplementary resources at additional cost

Only available with supplementary resources at additional cost

Customizable

Ability to revise, adjust and adapt content to meet needs of course and instructor

All-in-one Platform

Access to additional questions, test banks, and slides available within one platform

Pricing

Average price of textbook across most common format

Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed

Up to 40-60% more affordable

Lifetime access on any device

Norton

Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition

$63.90

Hardcover print text only

MacMillan

Roark, Johnson, Furstenberg, Stage, and Igo, The American Promise, 2 Volumes, 8th Edition

$87.99

Per volume

Pearson

Keene, Cornell, and O’Donnell, Visions of America, 2013

$79.60

Digital only

Always up-to-date content, constantly revised by community of professors

Content meets standard for Introduction to Anatomy & Physiology course, and is updated with the latest content

Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed

Norton

Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition

MacMillan

Case, Fair, Oster, The American Promise, 2 Volumes

McGraw-Hill

McConnell et al., Visions of America, 2nd Edition

In-book Interactivity

Includes embedded multi-media files and integrated software to enhance visual presentation of concepts directly in textbook

Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed

Norton

Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition

MacMillan

Case, Fair, Oster, The American Promise, 2 Volumes

McGraw-Hill

McConnell et al., Visions of America, 2nd Edition

Customizable

Ability to revise, adjust and adapt content to meet needs of course and instructor

Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed

Norton

Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition

MacMillan

Case, Fair, Oster, The American Promise, 2 Volumes

McGraw-Hill

McConnell et al., Visions of America, 2nd Edition

All-in-one Platform

Access to additional questions, test banks, and slides available within one platform

Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed

Norton

Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition

MacMillan

Case, Fair, Oster, The American Promise, 2 Volumes

McGraw-Hill

McConnell et al., Visions of America, 2nd Edition

About this textbook

Lead Authors

Sara Eskridge, Ph.DRandolph-Macon College, VA

Dr. Eskridge is a Professor of History at Western Governors University. She specializes in Civil Rights, Cold War, Southern, and Cultural History. She is the author of Rube Tube: CBS as Rural Comedy in the Sixties (University of Missouri Press, 2019) as well as several articles and book chapters on southern mediated images during the Civil Rights Movement and the Cold War.

Contributing Authors

Andrew WegmannLoyola University

Michael CarverCalifornia Polytechnic State University

Michael FrawleyUniversity of Texas of the Permian Basin

Linda ClemmonsIllinois State University

Angela HessCameron University

Sam NelsonRidgewater College

Volker JanssenCalifornia State University

Lance JandaCameron University

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Chapter 22: Return to Normalcy


Chapter Overview

The excesses of the 1920s hinted at a concerted collective effort by Americans to forget their dark, horrifying memories of World War I. Many who lived during the “roaring twenties” consumed large quantities of alcohol, in defiance of Prohibition. They spent money they did not have in order to purchase the latest consumer goods. Young Americans took advantage of the growing prevalence of automobiles to break away from adults and engage in behaviors that would have horrified their parents. But the fads and fashions of the twenties and the emphasis on fleeting pleasures obscured the decade’s political realignment from progressivism towards conservatism that characterized the decade’s politics. While those who emerged from the trenches of war-torn Europe as disillusioned members of the “Lost Generation” looked with disdain upon traditional institutions, others believed in them more fervently than ever. Rapid changes in the nation, driven by technological advances and growing prosperity, held the promise of progress and modernity. Simultaneously, those same forces created fear of instability, detachment, and dislocation brought about by a rapidly changing cultural landscape where young people, women, and minorities pushed for greater political and economic opportunities.

Learning Objectives

  • Examine the chaos of the postwar period and how it promoted opposition to organized labor and immigration
  • Assess the ways Republican presidencies promoted business interests and their reasons for doing so
  • Determine how political and economic advancements afforded new opportunities to women and African Americans during the 1920s
  • Understand how the 1920s proved to be a largely conservative era, as evidenced by Prohibition and the Scopes “Monkey Trial”
  • Explore how technological innovations transformed America’s cultural landscape and promoted a national culture


The start of the 1920s found the nation at a crossroads, unsure of its long-term commitment to the world. World War I, the Spanish influenza, and the Red Scare connoted the dangers of American involvement in matters outside its established sphere of influence in the Western Hemisphere. The rocky transition from a wartime to a peacetime economy brought with it much upheaval. Fueled by higher inflation, prices on virtually everything doubled while wages remained unchanged, the ideal recipe for labor unrest, including lockouts and strikes, from one end of the nation to the other. War-weary soldiers returned from the battlefields of France tasked with suppressing rioting workers and protecting factories. Adding further difficulty, the federal government lacked an adequate plan to oversee the return of two million men from military service to the jobs they’d left behind. Many women and people of color resisted abandoning the employment that brought them some degree of economic security and autonomy for the first time in their lives. Instances of racially motivated violence occurred all too frequently, no longer limited to the Southern states, but spilling out onto the streets of Chicago and the nation’s capital. Having escaped legal segregation in the South, African Americans often found the North to be just as uninviting, and peaceful coexistence just as elusive.

Economic and political conditions stabilized as the 1920s continued. America took its position as the world’s foremost economic power, driven by an industrial sector with little competition from a Europe still emerging from the rubble of war. With the economic improvement Americans increasingly distanced themselves from the progressive ideals that held sway in the previous decades. Conservatism promoted by a Republican-dominated Washington set the tone for the 1920s. A free market seemed best equipped to improve the lives of the American people, not an activist federal government. Reduced taxes, balanced budgets, and limited regulation of business topped peoples’ expectations for the government. President Calvin Coolidge captured the mood in his characteristically succinct style: “The business of the government is business.”  

22.01 - Level 3

Which of the following did NOT contribute to postwar instability?

A

Labor strikes

B

Race riots

C

A measles pandemic

D

A severe drought in the Midwest

E

Floods in the western states


Question 22.02

22.02 - Level 5

Imagine you are an American soldier who went to fight in Europe during the First World War. Consider the experiences of war, the events of 1918 and 1919, and the post-war world. What do you think your outlook would be? Are you disillusioned? Why or why not?

Click here to see the answer to Question 22.02.

Continued Resistance to the Left

Those harboring radical leftist views in America during the 1920s risked ostracism or worse, particularly those of foreign birth. The Red Scare of 1919 left the American people unsettled and suspicious of anyone and anything suggestive of communism. This residual paranoia served to promote greater hostility towards leftist ideologies and a growing support of conservatism. Russia’s ongoing civil war between communist revolutionaries and their opponents stoked fears of similar violence descending upon America. Leftist uprisings raged across Europe after World War I, giving weight to rumors of an international communist conspiracy. The world hardly seemed to be “made safe for democracy” as Wilson had intended. It proved all too easy to connect the growing bloodshed abroad with civil unrest at home in the form of strikes and demonstrations. Following the mail bombings and the subsequent raids and arrests led by Attorney General Palmer, the government expelled to Russia nearly 250 suspected seditionists harboring radical political views.

Very few dedicated communists, most in larger Eastern cities, operated in the United States. Such limited numbers appeared non-threatening, but Americans understood Lenin’s success in sparking a revolution in Russia with only a few disciples. Labor unions and advocacy groups, such as the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), came under increased scrutiny as possible havens for communist agitators, robbing them of much of their public support for shorter workdays and higher wages. A federal embargo on strikes during the war preceded a flurry of labor unrest when the conflict ended; labor unions organized 3,000 strikes in 1919 alone. This included a strike in September by the Boston Police Force, which deprived the city of law enforcement for three chaotic days. As shown below, Massachusetts Governor Calvin Coolidge deemed it necessary to call in federal troops to restore order to the city (Figure 22.1). The frequency of these strikes caused public sentiment to favor the employers rather than the workers, a perspective eagerly and effectively exploited by business leaders. Congress blocked efforts by President Harding to reduce the workweek to six days with fewer hours per shift. Intolerance for labor unions eroded membership during the 1920s from 5 to 3.5 million.

Figure 22.1:​ Massachusetts governor and future president Calvin Coolidge poses with a pair of state militia members called in to help resolve the strike by the Boston Police in September 1919. The strike’s participants walked out on their jobs following a protracted period of negotiations that yielded nothing. Coolidge replaced nearly every single striker and spoke for a generally unsympathetic public when he said, “there is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, anytime.” [1]


Other groups felt the tightening grip of anti-communist fervor during the decade. University professors suspected by students or school administrators of harboring extremist political views faced the prospect of dismissal unless they signed loyalty oaths. Recent immigrants from eastern and southern European countries similarly fell under a darkening shadow of distrust. Such prejudices took center stage in the trials of a pair of Italian anarchists, Nicola Sacco, a shoemaker, and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, a fish peddler, accused of murdering a guard during a 1920 payroll robbery in Bainbridge, Massachusetts. An avowedly biased judge oversaw the pair’s trial the following year where the prosecution presented mostly circumstantial evidence against them. The jury found Sacco and Vanzetti guilty, readily dismissing the defense attorney’s claims that hysteria caused by the Red Scare was to blame for their unlawful arrest. Sympathizers of the defendants, contesting the trial’s lack of impartiality, rallied to their cause, raising money to fund a series of unsuccessful appeals until their execution in 1927. In death, they achieved martyrdom on behalf of leftists and advocates for tolerance in America and beyond. Vanzetti realized as much when he observed, “I am suffering because I am a radical and indeed I am a radical; I have suffered because I was an Italian and indeed I am an Italian...If you could execute me two times, and if I could be reborn two other times, I would live again to do what I have done already.”

22.03 - Level 1

Americans after World War I grew increasingly fearful of this political ideology

A

Liberalism

B

Communism

C

Conservatism

D

Libertarianism


Question 22.04

22.04 - Level 5

Based on your readings in previous chapters, how does the correlation between foreign immigration and political radicalism in the post-World War I era compare with anti-immigration movements of earlier decades? How is it different?

Click here to see the answer to Questions 22.04.

22.05 - Level 2

Click on the state in which a strike by the police department forced the governor to call in the National Guard to restore order.


Congress continued its vigilance in limiting immigration to the United States. In the brief period from 1919 to 1921, immigration grew from 140,000 to over 800,000, a six-fold increase. Accordingly, Congress imposed a rigid quota system with 1921’s Emergency Immigration Act, which restricted new immigrants into the U.S. annually to 3% of foreign-born nationals based on the National Census of 1910. A second law three years subsequently scaled back the quota to 2% based on data from 1890. The selection of these dates revealed a clear intention to restrict the immigration of Jews and Catholics from from Eastern and Southern European nations. Congress further renewed the Chinese Exclusion Act to maintain the existing embargo on Asian immigration. Modernizing Japan, seeking to relieve pressure on its dwindling raw materials due to its expanding population, was particularly impacted by America’s unwillingness to accept Asian immigrants. Already taut diplomatic relations between the two nations would continue to deteriorate in coming years. The new immigrant quotas exempted those born in the Western Hemisphere, allowing nearly half a million Mexicans and twice as many Canadians to establish residence in the United States. 

22.06 - Level 2

Choose the nation least impacted by American immigration restrictions in the 1920s.

A

Japan

B

Russia

C

China

D

Mexico


22.07 - Level 3

Which of the following immigrants would have been least likely to be accepted after the Emergency Immigration Act passed in 1921?

A

A Mexican farmhand

B

An English businessman

C

A Canadian teacher

D

A Japanese surgeon


22.08 - Level 3

The trial of Sacco and Vanzetti and the Emergency Immigration Act suggest that the 1920s were an era that fell prey to which irrational fear?

A

Xenophobia

B

Arachnophobia

C

Agoraphobia

D

Triskaidekaphobia


22.09 - Level 4

Sort these countries according to the number of immigrants they would have been allowed to send to the United States under the Emergency Immigration Act and Chinese Exclusion Act, from highest to lowest.

A

Germany

B

England

C

Japan

D

Poland


The Harding Presidency

Three successive progressive presidencies stretched over the previous twenty years left many Americans in support of a return to a less interventionist presidency that willingly played a secondary role to Congress. Wilson’s futile attempts to establish a postwar world with the U.S.devoted to the preservation of peace embodied progressivism at its apogee; the movement could only contract. Americans desired a retreat from internationalism and futile crusades. The unprecedented loss of life and destruction wrought by the First World War convinced most Americans the nation should refrain from involving itself in international affairs. Sensing the mood, Republican leaders thwarted Wilson’s efforts to include the U.S. in the League of Nations. Growing fears of communist infiltration, made most vivid during the bombings of 1919’s “Red Scare,” added further impetus to the United States’ focusing on domestic concerns. The prevailing anxiety about leftist ideologies such as socialism, communism and anarchism played into the hands of the conservative Republicans seeking to retake the White House in the election of 1920. Warren G. Harding seemed their ideal candidate.

Harding, an affable if none-too-bright Republican senator from Ohio with a background in the newspaper business, ran an effective “front porch campaign” from his home in Marion (Figure 22.2). 600,000 supporters and journalists made the trip to meet the candidate in the months leading up to the election. Even without an ambitious itinerary of public appearances, news spread of Harding’s effective oratory, ease of manner,and distinguished comportment. He at the very least appeared presidential. Harding pledged to return the nation to “normalcy”, to its prewar state of calm and isolation. In a May 1920 speech in Boston, Harding said, “Let us stop to consider that tranquility at home is more precious than peace abroad, and that both our good fortune and our eminence are dependent on the normal forward stride of all the American people.”His promises of a less interventionist and reformist government spoke to an American people disillusioned with progressivism. Another Ohioan, former Governor James Cox, ran as the Democratic nominee alongside an ambitious young politician from New York with an impressive pedigree and recognizable family name, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But despite the Cox campaign’s vigorous efforts, he represented a party divided by its commitment to progressivism. Harding won the election easily, securing 404 electoral votes to Cox’s 127, all of them from reliably Democratic southern states. Harding also enjoyed a clear victory in the popular vote at 60%. 

Figure 22.2: Warren G. Harding seemingly in his element: on a front porch in 1920. Harding championed the values of small-town America, of which he was a product. His relaxed, informal and folksy demeanor stood in marked contrast to the moralistic and high-minded approach of his predecessor, Woodrow Wilson. [2]


22.10 - Level 1

President Harding’s presidential platform supported:

A

America joining the League of Nations

B

A withdrawal from international affairs

C

Continuing the progressive policies of Wilson

D

Leniency for suspected communist agitators

E

Encouraging immigration from Asian nations


Question 22.11

22.11 - Level 5

What made Warren G. Harding such an appealing candidate in 1920? How did his political agenda differ from that of Woodrow Wilson?

Click here to see the answer to Question 22.11.

Warren G. Harding’s election marked a clear break from the dynamic presidencies of Roosevelt, Taft and Wilson. The president-elect pledged to scale back the degree of federal involvement in business regulation and foreign affairs. Unlike his predecessors, Harding had little ambition of using the presidency as a position from which he might direct social improvement. Instead, Harding evoked earlier presidencies in his commitment to letting Congress set the agenda of the federal government. When it came to complicated matters such as the tariff and taxes, Harding found himself almost immediately lost. He acknowledged the limitations of his intellect and ambition as a president, wishing only to remain in the good graces of his constituents. Luckily for him, they remained unaware of his rampant gambling, drinking and extramarital affairs, pastimes that were inconsistent with his projected image as a moralist and defender of traditionalism.

Harding, though a reasonably honest politician himself, proved a bit too hands-off when it came to monitoring the activities of his cabinet, many of whom he selected from the so-called “Ohio gang” of cronies and card-playing pals with little to no experience in government who followed the president-elect to Washington. What they lacked in competence they made up for in chicanery and dishonesty, including numerous scandals that would tarnish Harding’s presidency. One such scandal concerned abuses by a Harding appointee, Charles Forbes, the head of the Veterans Bureau, who pocketed funds designated for the agency. Attorney General Harry Daugherty embroiled himself in illegal liquor plot. But the disgrace that topped all others involved Harding’s Secretary of the Interior Albert B. Fall making available millions of acres of federally protected land in an area of Wyoming called Teapot Dome for oil drilling. Fall accepted bribes in the total of $400,000 from oil companies in exchange for access to oil fields reserved for the U.S. Navy located at Teapot Dome, a felony that led to his subsequent removal from office and prosecution, a first for a member of a presidential cabinet.

During the expanding of postwar conservatism, Harding’s four appointees to the Supreme Court, including the new Chief Justice William Howard Taft, used the court as an instrument to roll back progressive policies. The Taft Court rendered decisions that eliminated laws against child labor and a minimum wage for women workers. It also did little to redress the discrimination of segregation and Jim Crow laws in the south. 

When it came to racial injustice, Harding exhibited a degree of sensitivity and a willingness to lead the nation is a discussion on race, far more than his predecessor. The president deplored the ongoing violence directed against African Americans in the South and the spread of racially motivated hostility in the West and North as a result of the wartime migration of blacks in search of work. This was far removed from Woodrow Wilson’s restoration of segregation to much of the federal government during his years in the White House. Harding died from a stroke in August 1923, before anything productive might be done on behalf of African Americans; Congress refused to pass the anti-lynching legislation he supported. His passing also occurred before the full extent of his shockingly corrupt administration came to the public’s attention.

22.12 - Level 2

Please click on the state where the Teapot Dome naval oil reserve was located.


22.13 - Level 2

On which issue was Warren G. Harding arguably more “progressive” than his predecessor, Woodrow Wilson?

A

Workers’ rights

B

Women’s rights

C

Race relations

D

Foreign relations


Calvin Coolidge Takes Over

Vice President Calvin Coolidge assumed control over a nation grieving for its fallen president. The former governor of Massachusetts who’d gained national attention for his handling of a Boston police strike in 1919, Coolidge emulated Harding’s lack of political activism and deference to Congress. Coolidge came to be known more for his avoidance of activity during his six years as president, which included two-hour naps taken daily, than for any dramatic action. But the American people appreciated his direct manner and lack of dazzle. He also proved capable of action: Coolidge purged the federal government of many of its more corrupt officials, some of whom were brought up on criminal charges. But the new president was no reformer; his primary focus was on promoting and maintaining the country’s rising prosperity. He observed, “The man who builds a factory builds a temple, that the man who works there worships there, and to each is due, not scorn and blame, but reverence and praise.”By the election of 1924, the outlook for the economy looked favorable, and so did Coolidge’s reelection prospects. Coolidge won with little difficulty, securing the majority of the popular votes from Americans who thought it best to “keep cool with Coolidge" (Figure 22.3). 

Figure 22.3: President Calvin Coolidge congratulates the Washington Senators star pitcher Walter Johnson on his team’s victory in the 1924 American League Championship. Notoriously taciturn, a woman attending a White House function once bet “Silent Cal” she would get more than three words out of him before the end of the evening. “You lose” he replied. [3]


Question 22.14

22.14 - Level 5

How does the start of Coolidge’s presidency resemble the presidencies from before the Progressive Era?

Click here to see the answer to Question 22.14.

U.S. Foreign Policy in the 1920s

America’s participation in World War I continued to be a contentious issue, much more so when it was revealed that British and French journalists had fabricated stories about German atrocities to lure the United States into the fight. Congress’ decision not to ratify the Treaty of Paris and commit the nation to the League of Nations further tarnished the war’s legacy in the collective memory of Americans. Although support for U.S. involvement in affairs beyond its national boundaries remained tepid, American participation in a series of international conferences regarding arms reductions and possible disarmament demonstrated some interest on the part of the government in global affairs. British, French, Japanese and Italian delegates attended the 1921 Washington Naval Conference at the behest of President Harding. With Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes presiding, the five participating countries pledged to maintain fleets of a specific tonnage and reduce their existing number of warships, a stunning commitment to disarmament. Continuing this trend, fifteen nations signed the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928, an official renouncement of war. The agreement was an admirable gesture, but one without an effective means of enforcement.

The United States proved an even more active participant in global economics during the 1920s. A number of American corporations, such as Ford, became multinational entities by establishing offices and production facilities abroad. U.S. Fruit owned massive plantations across Central America, stifling local competition and influencing local governments. American banks operated foreign branches to better facilitate the flow of investments from the U.S. The United States supplanted Great Britain as the world’s foremost investing nation, and the American dollar becoming the standard currency for international trade. Ongoing American loans provided to European countries made possible the ongoing rebuilding efforts and promoted short-term political stability. Unwilling to cancel the wartime debts owed the U.S. by the British and French governments, payments which came largely from the reparations paid by Germany per the Treaty of Versailles, Washington took action. The Young Plan of 1924 and the Dawes Plan of 1928 mapped out an elaborate system whereby the United States provided Germany with $2.5 billion in loans to invest in its economic recovery and meet its scheduled reparations payments to the French and British, who would then make payments on the loans made available to them by the U.S. during the war. So long as America made funds available, the economy of Europe retained a degree of stability that discouraged the rise of political extremist groups.


22.15 - Level 1

The Washington Naval Conference took place in what year?


22.16 - Level 2

What did participants to the Washington Naval Conference agree to do?

A

Reduce the number of warships in their respective fleets.

B

Not use chemical weapons in warfare.

C

Increase the number of warships in their respective fleets.

D

Support each other in times of conflict.


Question 22.17

22.17 - Level 4

How do you account for the numerous peace talks during the 1920s? Why would the U.S., despite its emphasis on isolationism, be a participant?

Click here to see the answer to Question 22.17.

22.18 - Level 2

Sort the following foreign policy related events of the 1920s in chronological order.

A

Washington Naval Conference

B

Signing of Young Plan

C

Signing of Kellogg-Briand Pact

D

Formation of League of Nations


Spotlight on Primary Source



Radio proved one of the most transformative technologies of the 1920s. It brought convenient access to sources of news and entertainment to households across the United States, as well as the opportunity for elected officials to reach out to their constituents on a personal level. The following two audio clips and one speech feature the three Republican presidents who served during the 1920s, Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover. Their messages can help us gain insight into the ways they viewed their office and the responsibilities of the federal government. 

Question 22.19

22.19 - Level 5

According to Harding, what are the needs of postwar America? How does his message reflect Wilsonian principles? How does it deviate from Wilson’s vision?

Click here to see the answer to Question 22.19.

Question 22.20

22.20 - Level 5

In what respects does Coolidge’s viewpoint of government align with Harding’s? According to Coolidge, what can the example of Abraham Lincoln teach Americans of the 1920s?

Click here to see the answer to Question 22.20.

Question 22.21

22.21 - Level 5

How does Hoover’s speech build upon the concepts highlighted by Harding and Coolidge? What does he hold up as the primary responsibilities of the federal government?

Click here to see the answer to Question 22.21.


Government’s Commitment to Business

Following the brief recession at the start of the decade, the “Roaring Twenties” reverberated with the hum of growing wealth and prosperity for most Americans. Once they regained their footing after the postwar upheaval, American corporations enjoyed rising profits and stocks paying higher dividends. Consumers, happily eschewing wartime sacrifices and a limited selection of goods, drove the economy as they acquired a dizzying array of appliances and devices promising an easier life. New refrigerators, vacuum cleaners, and automobiles rolled off assembly lines across the country, with no sign of the demand subsiding in the near future. America had entered an era of material progress and boundless optimism. It seemed any American wanting to join the middle class could do so.

Federal policy did much to encourage the growth of business in the 1920s, emphasizing deregulation and economic freedom. Europe’s battered economy and American wartime profits provided American industry with advantages that propelled it to the top. Harding set the pro-business tone in Washington and Coolidge cemented it. Coolidge advocated for reduced taxes and fewer restrictions on business, a marked return to a laissez-faire approach to relations between government and private enterprise. The participation of business leaders in governmental agencies during World War I also served to synchronize commercial and political interests, primarily by avoiding any significant regulation of business, a stark contrast to the policies of previous progressive administrations. The Republican-dominated Congress raised import duties from 27% to 41% with the Fordney-McCumber Tariff in 1922, overturning the reduction put into place in 1913 under President Wilson.

In Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon, wealthy Americans, to which Mellon belonged, found an advocate and defender during three successive presidencies starting with Harding. He prescribed reduced federal spending and lower taxes on higher-income Americans as measures to steady the economy during this period of conversion. These policies continued throughout the 1920s. The creation of the Bureau of the Budget and General Accounting Office offered Mellon another means of overseeing the federal budget and streamlining government spending. His recommended increased tariffs on European chemical and metal products had the effect of hampering the recovery of Germany’s economy and hindered its ability to pay the reparations it owed France and Britain.

Wall Street became the great oracle of the decade’s continued prosperity. Although comparatively few Americans owned stock or understood the complexities of the market, the steady ascension of shares bought and sold during the 1920s reassured the nation that the good times would continue unabated, offering the prospect of great wealth to anyone willing to apply themselves. The rise of American millionaires by 400% by the end of the 1920s confirmed the unquestioned faith in Wall Street and discouraged any impetus on the part of the federal government to regulate the market or investigate illegal trading practices. Even small villages inhabited by few, if any, stockholders displayed outdoor billboards tracking the performance of stocks on Wall Street, like the score of a local baseball game. The click of the stock ticker seemingly became the heartbeat of the nation’s economy.

In marked contrast, American farmers did not experience the sort of improving prospects enjoyed by those in industry. During World War I many farmers acquired land and new equipment during the war years by securing loans, hopeful Europe’s demand for food and the rising profits from wheat and cotton would continue for years. When the war ended, so did Europe’s need of American crops, causing a jolting contract of the market. Massive overproduction and collapsing prices of agricultural products made foreclosure the only viable option for many farmers. Coolidge, ever the acolyte of American business, dismissed the plight of American farmers as endemic to their profession and beyond federal control. Overproduction was simply one of the grim realities faced by farmers. The president accordingly vetoed legislation supported by congressmen from agricultural states to subsidize the dumping of agricultural goods on foreign markets.

Question 22.22

22.22 - Level 4

Discuss how American economic policies affected European markets and vice versa. Consider the issues of war debt repayment, tariffs, and demands for crops.

Click here to see the answer to Question 22.22.

Had Coolidge and his advisors recognized the growing dangers of overproduction in American industry, driven by advances in efficiency and productivity, a looming crisis might have been prevented. Factory owners invested their rising profits back into their plants to boost production but failed to significantly lower prices or to raise the real wages of workers. The Republican-dominated Congress’ commitment to reducing taxes on the wealthiest Americans further complicated matters.

Figure 22.4: The U.S. Stock Market, 1920-1929. ​


22.23 - Level 2

Which of the following occupations experienced the least economic prosperity in the 1920s?

A

Farming

B

Banking

C

Automobile manufacturing

D

Steel manufacturing


America Goes Dry

American society during the 1920s found itself caught between the forces of traditionalism and change. Women gained the right to vote at the start of the decade, a culmination of decades of political activism. This growing sense of independence and empowerment came through in the unconventional dress and behaviors of younger women. Darwinist principles of evolution and whether or not they should be taught in schools provided another arena of debate for the American people by the mid-1920s. A landmark trial in Tennessee in 1925 called attention to the issue and garnered national exposure, thanks to the growing prevalence of radio across the country.

Social movements of the Progressive Era influenced the passage of laws in the years following World War I. The efforts of anti-alcohol groups such as the Anti-Saloon League and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and religious leaders encouraged numerous state governments to pass laws prohibiting the production, sale and distribution of beverages with an alcohol content above 3.2% in the years prior to Congress’ passage of the National Prohibition or Volstead Act in 1919 to enforce the Eighteenth Amendment, ratified by Congress in early 1920. Drinking rates had fallen during the war as the nation committed itself to achieving victory by making sacrifices. The perception of the conflict as a moral struggle carried over to other venues in American life and anti-German sentiment (German-American families owned most breweries in the U.S.) further discouraged the consumption of alcohol. A federal prohibition on the production and sale of alcohol seemed a natural progression of things, even if Congress provided few measures of effective enforcement.

Prohibition preceded a drop in drinking rates among lower class Americans, but drinking increased among those Americans who could afford to purchase illegally produced liquor, the middle and upper classes. The decision to stop drinking often became a choice based more on financial concerns than legal ones. Serving alcohol became a mark of distinction among those who’d previously viewed the practice as one done by those beneath them. Entrepreneurs, hungry for profits and willing to run the remote risk of police raids, opened illegal drinking establishments known as “speakeasies.” New York City alone supported thousands of these underground saloons, some catering exclusively to the city’s leading citizens. The continued desire for alcohol fostered the rise of illegal activities such as producing and distributing alcohol, known as “bootlegging,” or bringing in alcohol from outside sources, usually Canada. Organized crime in urban centers such as New York City and Chicago took advantage of the expanding black market and battled one another to dominate the liquor trade. The increasingly violent escapades of “gangsters” and the brutal leadership of mob bosses such as Al Capone, who dominated the illegal liquor trade in the Midwest, fascinated and disgusted the American public in equal measure. In prohibiting alcohol, the government inadvertently promoted a host of other illegal activities that persisted long after the Volstead Act’s repeal in 1933 with the Twenty First Amendment. Prohibition proved a failed social experiment, one that never enjoyed much support from the public.

22.24 - Level 1

In what year did Prohibition go into effect?


Question 22.25

22.25 - Level 5

Why do you think prohibition failed? What would have been necessary to make it successful?

Click here to see the answer to Question 22.25.

22.26 - Level 3

Identify the following as either causes or consequences of the 18th Amendment.

Premise
Response
1

Growth of organized crime

A

Cause

2

Anxieties over new immigrant groups

B

Consequence

3

Growth of alcohol consumption among upper classes

C

Consequence

4

Anti-German sentiment

D

Cause


The Changing Status of Women

Wartime employment afforded American women the opportunity to demonstrate both their ability to perform challenging labor tasks and showcase their patriotism. The time seemed right at the end of World War I for Congress to ratify the 19th Amendment in 1920, granting American women the right to vote as a bode of thanks for their efforts. After decades of political activism on the part of women to gain enfranchisement, achieving this monumental victory drained the women’s rights movement of much of its previous fervor. Many American women withdrew their support for other causes they’d supported during the Progressive Era, such as eliminating child labor, improving public education, and promoting social justice for African Americans.

Other women pressed for still more political and social parity, the most controversial figure perhaps being birth control advocate Margaret Sanger. Sanger’s experiences as a nurse and midwife tending to the needs of poor women living among the tenements and slums of Manhattan in the early 1900s did much to inform her views on birth control. Her campaign to educate the lowers classes of methods to prevent unwanted pregnancies began with the distribution of pamphlets in 1912. It continued with her founding the nation’s first birth control clinic in 1916 and the formation of the American Birth Control League in 1921, an organization committed to raising awareness among medical professionals and women alike. Her scandalous views included an endorsement of sterilization of those judged to be mentally unfit to raise children as well as African Americans, an outlook that harkened back to the arguments favoring eugenics in the late 1800s.

Other challenges to traditional views of American womanhood came courtesy of young women, known derisively as “flappers”, who flagrantly challenged accepted behaviors and social mores by dressing provocatively with plunging necklines and rising hemlines, smoking, and consuming prohibited alcohol. Bobbing their hair, listening to the new music form of jazz and engaging in dance crazes such as the “Charleston” and the “Lindy Hop,” flappers startled conservatives with their flagrant sexuality and willingness to explore it. Hollywood was quick to produce films with flapper protagonists who upended traditional roles by pursuing their leading men and embracing their sexual allure, making stars of young actresses such as Clara Bow and Joan Crawford (Figure 22.5). The notion of a woman disrupting accepted social patterns by placing her personal interests ahead of those of her family was an unsettling prospect. The increased availability of automobiles facilitated the ease with which young people could attend social events such as parties and sporting events. Access to cars also facilitated the ease with which one could slip away and engage in objectionable behaviors, free from the scrutiny of a chaperone, leading automobiles to earn a reputation as “brothels on wheels.”

Figure 22.5: Hollywood starlet Joan Crawford, shown here in 1927, (born Lucille Fay LeSueur) appeared in a number of motion pictures produced specifically to appeal to young American women who identified themselves as “flappers” during the “Jazz Age.” The two most financially successful were 1928’s Our Dancing Daughters, the film that made Crawford a star, and the following year’s Our Modern Maidens. The cloche hat, brocaded dress and bobbed hair on display became fashion staples for the flapper set. [4]


Significant numbers of women continued to participate in the American workforce, following the pattern established before World War I. The growing number of co-ed universities and colleges paved the way for more women to enter careers once considered the exclusive domain of men, such as law and medicine. But most women continued to perform their expected gender roles as wives and mothers maintaining a household. A plethora of labor saving devices, including vacuum cleaners and washing machines, held the promise of making the life of a housewife easier, providing more free time to pursue personal interests.

22.27 - Level 3

The American Birth Control League, founded by Margaret Sanger in 1922, is the original name of which contemporary organization?

A

Planned Parenthood

B

The American Life League

C

The American Civil Liberties Union

D

The Susan G. Komen Foundation


The Evolution Debate

For many Americans threatened by the forces of change on display in the 1920s, the greatest source of sanctuary came from religion. Evangelical speakers such as Billy Sunday and Aimee Semple McPherson toured the country with a message of Christian fundamentalism that entranced millions. Other religious advocates used radio programs to deliver their message of salvation to millions of listeners. This spiritual awakening put the teaching of evolution in American schools in jeopardy; by the mid-1920s, most Southern state legislatures had passed bills abolishing the teaching of Darwinism in public schools, including that of Tennessee, where a landmark legal struggle over evolution took place during the especially hot summer of 1925.

The Scopes Trial called national attention to the growing controversy surrounding the teaching of evolution in American schools. In many respects, the events that unfolded in the rural community of Dayton, Tennessee seemed more a publicity stunt than a legitimate trial. The leaders of the small town wished to drum up interest in their community and settled on a legal case surrounding the teaching evolution. The town elders enlisted high school science teacher John T. Scopes to willingly break state law by teaching evolution to his students, knowing full well the ramifications of doing so. Radio and newspaper journalists covering the events of the trial helped to make it one of the first media events that Americans followed on a daily basis as it unfolded. The case attracted two of the nation’s foremost legal experts, William Jennings Bryan, long a prominent national figure and staunch Christian, as an assistant prosecutor, and Clarence Darrow, a shrewd trial lawyer from Chicago brought in by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), for the defense. The trial embodied many of the clashes that characterize the 1920s: urban vs. rural; modern vs. traditional (Figure 22.6).

Figure 22.6: John T. Scopes (right) pictured with his chief legal representative in the landmark “Monkey Trial” of 1925, Dr. John R. Neal, Jr. Though largely overshadowed by Clarence Darrow, another member of Scopes’ legal defense team, Neal had a checkered career of his own, including his 1923 dismissal from the University of Tennessee’s law school, supposedly for defending a colleague’s right to teach evolution. [5]

One of the first events to receive national media coverage via radio, the city of Dayton assumed a carnival-like atmosphere as people descended upon the community, attracted to the unfolding drama in the stiflingly warm local courthouse. When the temperature became too unbearable, the presiding judge would relocate the trial outside, to the delight of those unable to secure a seat in the overcrowded courtroom. Champions of evolution and strict adherents of the Bible came to show their support for both sides of the hearing, which put the concept on evolution on trial along with Scopes. Americans across the country, as they followed the goings-on in Tennessee, found themselves confronted by an issue many had never considered: Where should they place their faith, in God or science?

The trial reached its crescendo when Darrow opted to call Bryan as a witness on the stand so that he might ask him questions regarding the age of the earth and his opinions of Adam and Eve. Darrow's rigorous, day-long, questioning culminated in a frustrated Bryan pounding his fist, refusing to step down and yelling "I am simply trying to protect the word of God against the greatest atheist or agnostic in the United States!" After eight days of debate the hearing ended with a guilty verdict for Scopes and the imposition of a $100 fine, an outcome that surprised few. But it laid bare the opposing worldviews that increasingly divided America and would continue to do so.

Nativism and the Return of the Ku Klux Klan

The changing demographics in America during the late 1800s and into the 1900s did much to encourage the return of the Ku Klux Klan in 1915 after more than thirty years of dormancy. First reappearing in Georgia, the reborn Klan spread across the entire country, no longer a Southern phenomenon. Taking as its symbols the Christian cross and the American flag, new Klan chapters in Midwestern states such as Ohio and Indiana proved as popular and committed as their Southern counterparts. Foreign-born Catholics and Jews, many of them with leftist views, and African Americans migrating out of the South caused distress among native-born, white Protestants who feared the loss of their perceived sense of nativism or “Americanism.” The 1915 release of the racist and revisionist historical epic motion picture, The Birth of a Nation, directed by D. W. Griffith, depicted the Klan of the Reconstruction in a heroic light and served as a useful recruitment tool for the Klan during its revival.

Accepting only Protestant members born in the United States, this reincarnated Klan further differed from the Klan of the Reconstruction Era in its significantly larger membership (5 million by 1925), its inclusion of women (half a million, by some estimates), and its demonizing of Jews and Catholics as well as African Americans. The new Klan functioned in many ways as more of a fraternal organization than the secret society it had once been; its members included members of Congress and state governors. Some viewed belonging to the new Klan as a civic duty. It appeared rooted in a strong sense of morality opposed to those who threatened the traditional values of the nation. Americans living in small rural towns proved particularly vulnerable to the message of the Klan. The swiftly changing social patterns and the growing prevalence of cities with their large segments of foreign-born and African American residents encouraged many living in more isolated locations to seek solace in the KKK, secure in the company of those just like them. 50,000 Klansmen participated in a march through the streets of Washington, D.C. in 1927 in a clear demonstration of the so-called “invisible empire’s” widespread prevalence and visibility (Figure 22.7).   

Figure 22.7: A sight unthinkable even during the Reconstruction Era: a column of Ku Klux Klan members marching down Pennsylvania Avenue. Such a sight could happen by 1927, with chapters of the group extending as far North as Canada, a nation confronting similar problems to those of the United States. [6]


The modern Klan, though larger and more public than its predecessor, retained an emphasis on ceremony and ritual, best symbolized by the wearing of elaborate robes and the burning of large wooden crosses. It further preserved a penchant for violence and intimidation against those it perceived as enemies, both black and white. Klan members participated in over 200 known lynchings during the 1920s, frequently in broad daylight and in public spaces, attracting hundreds of gleeful spectators. This does not factor in the hundreds of other such murders carried out by Klan members and non-members without the formal participation of the KKK. Picture postcards of lynchings came to be a popular souvenir for those travelling in the South.

22.28 - Level 2

Click on the state where a new iteration of the Ku Klux Klan formed.


The African American Experience During the 1920s

Increased African American political activism by the start of the early 20th century posed another threat to the status quo. Younger African Americans, born after the existence of slavery, demanded more political rights than their predecessors and demonstrated an assertiveness many whites found unsettling. Many went North during the war as part of the 1.5 million participants in the Great Migration, looking for work as mechanization in the South came to replace much of the agricultural work once available. As they took up residence in predominantly white neighborhoods, fears of lower property values and fiercer competition for low-paying jobs all too often gave way to violence.

Once established in Northern cities, many African Americans reveled in the opportunity to use the political rights frequently denied them in the South where laws prevented all but 10% of eligible voters from casting their ballots. Blacks became critical in the winning of local and state elections in the north, actively courted by both Democratic and Republican candidates. The recently created NAACP continued to challenge racism in the legal arena under the leadership of James Weldon Johnson. With the backing of the NAACP, three anti-lynching bills went before Congress in 1919, carrying forward the legacy of one of the organization’s co-founders, Ida B. Wells. Not one was passed. Another of the NAACP’s co-founders W. E. B. Du Bois helped to organize meeting of the 1st Pan-African Congress in Paris in 1919 at the same time as the peace talks between the Allied leaders. The Congress’ petitions to restore the governance of African colonies to the African people gained little traction but illustrated the burgeoning sense of African identity that extended well beyond Africa.

Jamaica-born Marcus Garvey possessed a far less optimistic view of race relations than those of DuBois or Booker T. Washington. Arriving in New York City in 1916, following his founding of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), Garvey confronted African Americans with the harsh possibility that they would never coexist peacefully with whites. Rather than strive towards a future that would never come to pass, Garvey advocated for the establishment of an African nation that would expand upon the existing African country of Liberia. Garvey encouraged the formation of black nationalism and a rejection of integration. Some African Americans drawn to Garvey’s vision established businesses that catered exclusively to black consumers; others accepted his interpretation of Christianity, joined fraternal organizations, or read the newspaper he published. Criticism from established black leaders such as Du Bois, who dismissed Garvey as a dangerous radical, did little to stifle his following. Garvey claimed to have millions of members in the UNIA by 1923, the same year the state of New York charged him with fraud, claiming his steamship line, Black Star, intended to ferry passengers to Africa was a sham. Du Bois’ appeal to the attorney general set the wheels in motion that would bring down Garvey, who spent two years behind bars before President Coolidge repatriated him to Jamaica in 1927. But his message of celebrating black identity and black pride resonated with African Americans long afterwards. The idea of the “new negro” applied to those willing to take a stand against prejudice and celebrate their race rather than view it as shameful.

Question 22.29

22.29 - Level 5

How did Marcus Garvey’s opinion and argument about African American life differ from those of other black leaders?

Click here to see the answer to Question 22.29.

22.30 - Level 2

Which of the following civil rights activists was least optimistic about the possibility for racial harmony in American society?

A

Marcus Garvey

B

Booker T. Washington

C

Ida B. Wells

D

W.E.B. DuBois


Artists, writers and composers perhaps did the most during the 1920s to promote a distinct notion of black identity, particularly in the New York City borough of Harlem on the island of Manhattan, a haven for people of color arriving from the American South and the Caribbean. Their creations added a great deal to a distinctive modern American identity that transcended race and culminated in a movement that came to be known as the Harlem Renaissance. The innovative music form that came to be known as jazz first appeared in New Orleans, a hybrid of European and West African music styles that emphasized driving rhythms and improvisation. Jazz’s restless tempo drove it north to Chicago and Harlem for further exploration and refinement by African American musicians and composers such as Duke Ellington. Its popularity and acceptance catapulted it from Harlem venues, such as the Cotton Club, to Carnegie Hall where orchestras performed pieces by composers influenced by jazz, George Gershwin foremost among them. The Harlem Renaissance became better identified with the literary contributions of black writers drawing inspiration from their surroundings and seeking to give a voice to the African American community. Poets such as Claude McKay, Jean Toomer and Langston Hughes composed works that reflected the challenges of discrimination and poverty as well as the ascendant feeling of pride.

22.31 - Level 1

Arrange these events in proper sequence of occurrence.

A

The establishment of the NAACP

B

The 1st Pan-African Congress

C

Marcus Garvey expulsed from the United States

D

The Great Migration


22.32 - Level 2

During the Great Migration, African Americans fleeing Jim Crow in the South generally found a more welcome and inclusive atmosphere in the cities of the North.

A

True

B

False


America’s Love Affair with the Car Begins

World War I seemed in many ways a violent rejection of the traditional, the start of a modern era accelerating away from Victorian hypocrisies. Many Americans placed their faith in concepts and movements that emphasized progress and innovation, particularly when linked to science and technology. Skyscrapers grew ever taller to dominate cityscapes, monuments to America’s ascendance. Urban centers came to set the tone for much of the country, as the production centers for new forms of entertainment and enlightenment. City power plants eventually made electricity available to rural areas where previously gas and kerosene provided light and warmth. Most American homes featured electrification by the end of the 1920s.

No technology so fundamentally transformed American life during the 1920s than the automobile. The car became emblematic of many characteristics of the period, as an indication of financial success, a means of escaping one’s surroundings, but above all a sense of personal freedom. Henry Ford, the pioneer of assembly line production, lowered the prices of his Model T and later Model A, making it possible for the average American worker to own an automobile, provided they approved of the black body paint, the only color available to buyers of the Model T. The relative ease with which Americans could purchase a car added to the growing sense of national equality and prosperity. Skyrocketing automobile sales stimulated the expansion of existing industries such as glass, steel and petroleum, and encouraged the appearance of new businesses such as gas stations, repair shops and roadside diners. The automobile industry proved one of the decade’s most critical creators of new jobs and further promoted the expansion of cities by facilitating daily commutes from urban business centers to the surrounding suburban areas.

Automobiles redefined Americans’ sense of leisure, offering the prospect of a day’s pleasure in the countryside or a week spent touring the nation’s ever-expanding interstate highways. Shopping plazas opened, catering specially to customers on wheels. Motor hotels, or “motels,” appeared across the countries. In a pattern similar to the advance of railroad lines, new communities appeared along newly built highways. By 1925, the federal government invested a billion dollars towards the construction of new roads, tunnels and bridges that provided an expanding infrastructure promoting trade and a stronger sense of a single national identity. Route 66 connected Chicago to California, allowing motorists to gain a greater sense of the diversity of the nation. More than half of all American households owned an automobile by the end of the 1920s, 23 million in total, making the United States truly “a nation on wheels.”


Figure 22.8: Number of cars in the U.S., by year. ​


America Tunes In

The other consumer good no American household could be without during the 1920s was the modern radio. It entered the decade as a device owned by a few hobbyists and exited it as the most common source of news and entertainment. Its most enthusiastic supporters believed radio might bring education and enlightenment to isolated areas with few such opportunities. Stations first appeared in Northern cities such as Detroit, Pittsburgh and New York, offering very limited programming. But a forest of radio towers sprang up across the country in a few short years with a trio of corporations, the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) and the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) dominating the emergent broadcast industry. Its rapid growth caught the attention of the federal government, which responded with the creation of the Federal Radio Commission in 1926.

The daily transmissions of transmissions of concerts, comedy shows and news events served to unite all Americans by creating a shared experience that unified the nation. This was certainly the case with the airing of sporting events such as baseball and football games. The gridiron heroics of college football stars such as Harold “Red” Grange and Jim Thorpe came through millions of radio speakers during the 1920s. But the sports figure that eclipsed all others was George Herman “Babe” Ruth of the New York Yankees. His record of 60 home runs in 1927 stood as one of the great athletic achievements of the era.

Question 22.33

22.33 - Level 5

How might the spread of new technologies like cars and radios help to unite Americans but also raise anxiety in American society?

Click here to see the answer to Question 22.33.

America Takes Flight

Also in 1927, a young American aviator Charles Lindbergh stole some of the national spotlight from Babe Ruth by being the first person to fly solo nonstop across the Atlantic Ocean in his “Spirit of St. Louis” monoplane. Following his return trip back to the United States from France, the city of New York threw him the most lavish celebration since the festivities marking the end of World War I. His magnificent accomplishment led many to consider him to be perhaps the greatest living American, a figure who bridged the nation’s time-honored reverence for rugged individualism and trailblazing with the growing emphasis on modern technology and innovation  (Figure 22.9).

Figure 22.9: Charles Lindbergh accompanied by his mother meets with President Coolidge following his historic 1927 transatlantic crossing. Lindbergh’s notoriety lingered long after his accomplishment. He advocated for American neutrality during World War II as a leader in the “America First” organization. [7]

Aviation, still less than twenty years old, entered the 1920s having already transformed the nation by carrying mail for the U.S. Postal Service. Mail routes became safer and more efficient with advances in weather forecasting and improved radio communication between pilots and airfields. Mail planes began to carry the occasional passenger, first in open cockpits and then in increasingly larger enclosed cabins as all-metal designs took the place of wood and canvas. The Ford Trimotor airplane, introduced in 1926, became an increasingly common sight in the skies above America, ferrying mail and passengers. Other aviation companies, including Lockheed and Boeing, produced their own planes of increasing speed, size and safety to be added to the growing fleet of airline companies including United Airlines and Pan American Airways, which launched a trans-Atlantic route in 1927. The earliest airports lacked such amenities as a waiting room.

Lindbergh, or “Lucky Lindy,” while the best-known, was only one in a growing pantheon of heroes from the world of aviation who smashed speed and distance records. Wiley Post, Richard E. Byrd and Amelia Earhart seized hold of Americans’ imaginations with their feats of exploration and courage, crossing the Pacific and reaching the South Pole among other accomplishments. Other fliers showcased their bravery as “barnstormers”, making appearances at county fairs and other venues to take up hardy passengers for a short ride or perform aerial acrobatics before thrilled crowds.

Many of these barnstormers acquired their skills as pilots during the First World War. Warplanes evolved quickly during the conflict, performing myriad tasks that included observation, troop support and, most ominously, bombing. Some far-seeing military leaders theorized the next war would be fought largely, and possibly won, by airplanes, particularly if used to attack civilian populations. Brigadier General Billy Mitchell lobbied hard for the government to put greater funding and emphasis on American air power in the event of a future war, something he believed to be inevitable. In a series of 1921 exercises to showcase the growing efficiency of air power, Mitchell directed bombers to sink a target battleship with aerial bombs. The tests’ overall efficiency divided the U.S. military, with the Navy particularly dismissive of the results. To suggest otherwise invited a reduction in government funds to the Navy, the most prestigious branch of the armed forces. Mitchell's outspokenness resulted in his eventual court martial, but his efforts convinced most of America’s military of the need for an effective air force.

The Navy did put a great deal of funds into its fleet of dirigibles, large rigid airships that might someday transport passengers in safety and comfort. One Navy dirigible, the U.S.S. Shenandoah completed a transcontinental crossing of North America in 1924, just one year before it crashed when it encountered violent turbulence over Ohio. Some skyscraper constructions of the 1920s included mooring masts for these airships to use when docking.  

22.34 - Level 1

Match the following Americans with the reason for their fame:

Premise
Response
1

“Babe” Ruth

A

One of first aviators to fly solo over the Atlantic Ocean

2

Amelia Earhart

B

Developed assembly line

3

Henry Ford

C

Home run champion

4

Billy Mitchell

D

Advocated for U.S. air power


Projecting New Lifestyles

America’s economy during the 1920s came to be largely dependent upon consumerism. So long as the demand existed for latest model of radio, refrigerator or automobile, there seemed little reason to fear a contraction of the economy. Corporations did much to stimulate the market by investing millions of dollars on advertising promising not only an improved quality of product but an improved quality of life as well. Hollywood cast its own spell over the masses, selling a product that often reinforced materialism and acquisition. Now ensconced in California, with its wide variety of filming locations and generally pleasant weather, the film industry cranked out its product with clock-like regularity to sate the public’s growing appetite for mass entertainment.

Mass advertising, a product of Gilded Age industrialization and centralization, became inescapable in the 1920s, reaching far beyond the printed pages of newspapers and magazines. Highway billboards and radio marketing influenced and shaped consumerism more than ever before. Specialists in advertising developed new methods of manipulating consumers. Roadside advertising utilizing bright, garish colors and attractive models marketed everything, from chewing gum to men’s shirts. Some ads emphasized the health benefits of a product (including cigarettes such as Lucky Strikes and Listerine mouthwash), but the more common practice involved an emphasis on sex appeal through the use of youthful and attractive models who seemed much happier, thanks to their purchase. Celebrity endorsements also proved effective in promoting sales of consumer goods.

The motion picture industry in some respects offered billboards come to life to audiences. The movies provided not only a few hours’ entertainment, but also exposed attendees to a limitless horizon of fashions, furniture styles and cars that set new trends. In a few short decades, movies gained ground in availability and credibility. The converted storefronts in urban centers showing short films to largely immigrant spectators for five cents, thus the name “nickelodeons”, gave way to larger and more lavishly decorated “movie houses” and “movie palaces” that catered to members of the middle and upper classes. Some contended film might prove to be America’s greatest contribution to the arts, but studio owners concerned themselves more with the mediums’ contribution to commerce and liked what they saw: 40 million Americans went to the movies weekly by 1922. At the end of the decade, the number stood at 100 million, more than those attending religious services. Audiences witnessed film’s rapid advancement in the 1920: some movies featured two-strip Technicolor and by the end of the decade they featured recorded music, sound effects and the voices of performers.

Beyond the consumer goods featured in their products, America’s film industry further sold the actors and actresses headlining their releases, giving rise to celebrity culture in the process (Figure 22.10). The first national celebrities of the modern age were those who appeared on radio programs, singers and humorists such as Ruth Etting, Will Rogers and Edgar Bergen. But their fame could not approach that of movie stars who became the idols of millions. Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, two of the era’s top office draws, married in 1920 to become Hollywood’s premier couple. Thousands of hysterical fans attended the funeral of smoldering romantic lead Rudolph Valentino after his untimely death in 1926. Some bereft young women reportedly committed suicide. Comedic actor Charlie Chaplin’s character of “The Little Tramp” was perhaps the most internationally recognized figure in the 1920s. 

Figure 22.10: Harold Lloyd, shown here in 1922, perhaps best embodied the spirit of the 1920s silent comedians. Unlike his primary competitors, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, Lloyd’s characters in his feature films were grounded in reality rather than vaudeville traditions. He depicted go-getters, hustling for success and recognition in business and college, and doggedly achieving it despite any number of usually humorous obstacles placed before him. [8]


Those seeking to emulate the lavish lifestyles depicted on billboards or projected on movie screens, but lacking available cash or savings, could still do so, courtesy of the new innovation of buying on credit. The incomes of Americans in the 1920s rose by an impressive 35%, but the emphasis on avoiding debt and not living beyond one’s means evaporated in the face of American consumer culture and its emphasis on materialism. It was possible to acquire new clothing, appliances, furniture and cars with a nominal down payment up front and subsequent installments paid on a monthly basis. Banks happily provided low-interest loans to make up the difference. By the end of the decade, American consumers purchased nearly three-fourths of all furniture on credit. There seemed little reason to worry; the national economy displayed no signs of flagging.

22.35 - Level 2

American consumer activity changed during the 1920s as a result of all of the following except:

A

Lower pay for American workers

B

The ability to buy on credit

C

The prevalence of advertising

D

The development of new appliances


Conclusion: America Commits to Conservatism

1920 marked the year when more Americans lived in urban rather than rural communities, a clear indication of the United States transformation from a nation with an industrial, rather than an agricultural, economy. The growing acceptance of industry as the prime mover of the American economy did much to promote a generally conservative outlook in America, one that persisted until the collapse of the stock market in 1929. Presidents of the 1920s made the protection and promotion of American business the focal point of their administrations.

In the lead-up to the presidential election of 1928, the Republicans nominated Herbert Hoover, a self-made millionaire from mining who made a name for himself as the head of the Food Administration Board in World War I. He vowed, if elected, to continue the government’s lack of intrusion in economic matters and promised “a chicken for every pot.” So long as the American economy continued to expand and ample employment opportunities existed, there seemed little reason for the federal government to involve itself to the degree it had during the Progressive Era. The Democrats made a far bolder choice in selecting their candidate, settling on Al Smith, the Governor of New York. For the first time, a Catholic ran for president, just one mark against Smith in the minds of conservative voters who found disfavor with his Irish lineage, his pledge to repeal Prohibition, and his rumored sympathy for people of color. Hoover won the presidency easily, taking even Smith’s home state.

The growing political activism of Americans on the fringes (women, African Americans, leftists) also illuminated the limits of most Americans’ acceptance of how interventionist the federal government should be. America’s rapid and disorienting metamorphosis from an agricultural to an industrial nation encouraged its citizens to cling to certain bedrock principles identified as inherently “American” in nature, prosperity among these. But what if something should disrupt America’s good fortunes? Not since 1893 had the United States experienced a violent economic contraction that destroyed employment and destabilized the entire country. In October 1929, the nation would find itself about to embark upon another treacherous journey away from the prosperity and steadiness of recent years. A new depression, more disruptive than any before it, was on its way.

Pre-Class Discussion Questions 

Class Discussion 22.01

Class Discussion 22.01 - Level 3

Identify some of the ways progressivism continued to be influential in the 1920s.

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Class Discussion 22.02

Class Discussion 22.02 - Level 2

What federal policies promoted business interests in the 1920s?

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Class Discussion 22.03

Class Discussion 22.03 - Level 4

What sort of debates during 1920s America illustrated the tensions between tradition and modernity?

Click here to see the answer to Class Discussion 22.03.

Class Discussion 22.04

Class Discussion 22.04 - Level 4

Compare the experiences of women and African Americans in the 1920s. In what ways did both groups achieve a measure of progress during the period?

Click here to see the answer to Class Discussion 22.04.

Class Discussion 22.05

Class Discussion 22.05 - Level 4

What developments of the 1920s indicated fundamental changes in American culture?

Click here to see the answer to Class Discussion 22.05.



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Suggested Additional Material 

Huggins, Nathan Irvin. Harlem Renaissance. Oxford University Press, 2007.

Larson, Edward J. Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion. Basic Books, 2006.

Murray, Robert K. Red Scare: A Study in National Hysteria, 1919-1920. McGraw-Hill, Inc., U.S, 1964.

Orkent, Daniel. Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. New York: Scribner, 2011.


Answers to In-Chapter Discussion Questions

Answer to Question 22.02

A great many American soldiers returning from the war were understandably dissatisfied with the state of things. Women working jobs once held by men, African Americans in large numbers living in Northern cities, strikes caused by low wages and higher prices: such factors did not bode well for a prosperous and stable future. America’s failure to join the League of Nations disillusioned veterans who believed in internationalism and the nation’s role in promoting it. Instead lurked the dangers of communism and anarchy.

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Answer to Question 22.04

Anti-immigration movements from before and after World War I shared a similar concern regarding the suspected loyalties of new arrivals. Nativists of the late 1800s suspected Catholic immigrants owed their allegiance to the Vatican rather than their adopted country. They, like Jews, were seen as threatening in their willingness to support policies and leaders that would undermine traditional Protestant values. In the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, immigrants came to be viewed as likely anarchists and communists, still committed to destroying the United States, but with a decidedly more political interpretation.   

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Answer to Question 22.11

Harding represented a radical departure from the high-minded idealism of Woodrow Wilson. He promised the American to scale back the nation’s involvement in international affairs and the federal government’s adherence to progressive idealism. Harding offered a simple, straightforward vision of what the nation should be during complicated times. Prosperity at home, not stability abroad, was the crux of Harding’s concept of “normalcy”. 

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Answer to Question 22.14

Coolidge as president represented a return to the more hands-off approach to the White House employed by the presidents of the last decades of the 19th century. He willingly stepped aside to allow Congress to retake its position as the most powerful of the three branches. Coolidge further resembled Gilded Age presidents in his commitment to using the power of the federal government to promote business interests. 

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Answer to Question 22.17

The frequent peace talks held during the 1920s first and foremost indicate that most nations wished fervently to avoid a war comparable in size and destruction to the First World War. There existed a postwar willingness to reduce the size of armies and navies that brought diplomats together to determine what quotas to set and how to enforce them. Though not a member of the League of Nations, the United States desired lasting peace and readily participated in negotiations did would not entail the possibility of sending troops into action. The U.S. also enjoyed a reputation as a peace-broker that began with Theodore Roosevelt’s arbitration in the Russo-Japanese War and extended to the Paris Peace Talks.     

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Answer to Question 22.19

Harding urges Americans to move past the trauma of the recent war and the upheaval that came afterwards, and embrace a more optimistic and sensible view of things. He emphasizes a return to “normalcy” and “note revolution but restoration”. In short, a rejection of the sort of noble crusade Wilson wished that World War I might be. Like Wilson, Harding advocates for the importance of representative democracy and free trade, but seems more interested in America transforming the world by its example rather than through interventionism. 

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Answer to Question 22.20

Coolidge echoes some of Harding’s advocacy for America’s constant willingness to strive for improvement rather than undergo radical transformation. Lincoln serves as the embodiment of that most uniquely American virtue, the ability to transcend poverty and obscurity to reach dizzying heights of success. 

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Answer to Question 22.21

Hoover speaks of the importance of individualism and equal opportunity as bedrock principles in the United States. He holds up the government’s involvement in economic affairs in the war as a temporary necessity that had no reason to continue when the conflict ended, a stance consistent with Harding’s plea for a return to the status quo. Hoover’s speech draws upon Coolidge’s belief that the federal government best serves the needs of business with a laissez faire approach; any deviation from such a policy will only disrupt business and possibly corrupt the government.

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Answer to Question 22.22

America enjoyed a dramatic boost in trade during World War I, due to European nations committing their economic resources to victory. The U.S. continued to be critically important in the immediate postwar period, as wartime production in Europe made the gradual transformation back to peacetime production. Billions of dollars in loans made available by American lenders to France and Britain further cemented ties between the U.S during the 1920s, as both nations attempted to meet their payment deadlines. The federal government undermined Europe’s recovery to a degree with its use of tariffs on foreign made industrial products. But such taxes did not extend to foreign-grown agricultural goods, to the mounting frustration of American farmers. 

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Answer to Question 22.25

The failure of prohibition can be understood starting with the precept that most Americans did not subscribe to a belief that the federal government should promote a moral agenda. Religious institutions and individual households, rather than the state, were viewed as the appropriate venues for shaping moral character. Progressivism was losing much of its influence by the time the Volstead Act went into effect, further weakening prohibition’s authority. Finally, most Americans enjoyed drinking alcohol and would continue to do so, with or without a law. A greater willingness on the part of elected officials and law enforcement to put prohibition into effect might have improved its chances for success. Had there not been a recent war and its accompanying emphasis on sacrifice, prohibition might have gained greater acceptance. But the bleakness of the war and the prosperity that came provided ample reasons to drink: to forget or to celebrate.   

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Answer to Question 22.29

Marcus Garvey’s views on race relations deviated fundamentally from those of African American leaders such as Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois in his fundamental cynicism. Unlike his contemporaries, Garvey did not foresee a time when white and blacks could co-exist in the United State peacefully. That being the case, African Americans should look after their own needs and await the opportunity to relocate to Africa where an independent nation awaited them.

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Answer to Question 22.33

The growing number of cars allowed more Americans to separate their home lives from their lives at work. It promoted the expansion of suburbs and travel across long distances. But it also represented a disruption of more traditional, conservative values that held sway across rural areas. People in cars could more readily leave urban centers for trips to the countryside, allowing for more frequent clashes between different cultures. Radio also represented a source of anxiety in its ability to bring controversial music or opinions to those who may find such things to be threatening. 

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Answers to Pre-Class Discussion Questions

Answer to Class Discussion 22.01

The influence of progressivism could still be felt in the 1920s perhaps most forcefully through the nation-wide prohibition on the production, distribution and sale of alcohol. The ultimately failed policy embodied the progressive idea of the federal government’s moral imperative. Women gaining the right to vote in 1920 represented the culmination of their efforts as progressive advocates in such social causes as child labor, public education and clean water.

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Answer to Class Discussion 22.02

The primary policy used regularly by the federal government to promote and protect American business, specifically industry, during the 1920s was the imposition of tariffs. The federal government also scaled back regulation of business and reduced taxes on corporations and the wealthiest Americans, the idea being they would invest in expanding production and create more jobs.

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Answer to Class Discussion 22.03

The Scopes Trial of 1925 highlighted the widening divide between those who subscribed to scientific theories to understand the natural world and the more traditionally-minded who did not wish to see their Christian faith undermined by science. Women’s growing social and political assertiveness also raised tensions between conservatives and progressives of the 1920s. This was particularly true when it came to young women, who were dressing and behaving in ways deemed improper in purist circles. Issues such as birth control and greater employment opportunities rankled those who subscribed to a belief that a women’s place was in the home looking after her children.

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Answer to Class Discussion 22.04

The 1920s witnessed women and African Americans redefining their identity and place in American society. World War I afforded both groups a degree of economic and, particularly for African Americans, geographic mobility. For their wartime service, Congress passed the 19th Amendment, setting women on the road to suffrage. This victory compelled many women to withdraw from political activism, but many others continued to press for greater educational and professional equality. Thousands of African Americans who participated in the “Great Migration” relocated from the South to Northern cities. The relocation afforded them better jobs and more opportunities to take part in politics.      

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Answer to Class Discussion 22.05

Radio’s astounding popularity during the 1920s helped to promote a stronger sense of a national culture. News and entertainment programing broadcast coast-to-coast allowed Americans from all regions and backgrounds to develop a greater sense of collectivism. News events reached millions in hours, minutes or even as it was happening. Americans could follow important events as they unfolded. The increasing popularity of motion pictures had a similar effect while also producing celebrities of national prominence. Advertising techniques of the 1920s encouraged consumerism and defining oneself according to material possessions. No consumer product did more to change America’s cultural landscape. It became the hallmark of success and allowed for greater individual mobility.

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Image Credits

[1] Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library in the Public Domain.

[2] Image courtesy of the Library of Congress in the Public Domain.

[3] Image courtesy of the Library of Congress in the Public Domain.

[4] Image courtesy of the Library of Congress in the Public Domain.

[5] Image courtesy of the Library of Congress in the Public Domain.

[6] Image courtesy of the Library of Congress in the Public Domain.

[7] Image courtesy of the Library of Congress in the Public Domain.

[8] Image from Photoplay (Volume 22) (Jul-Dec 1922) courtesy of the Internet Archive in the Public Domain.