The 1920s marked a period of new freedom for women in America's modernizing urban culture.
The ratification of the 18th and 19th Amendments to the Constitution in 1918 and 1919 brought about the successful culmination of the two greatest women's movements of the 19th century: temperance and suffrage.
Women had long borne a disproportionate share of the consequences of uncontrolled men drinking alcohol, like domestic violence and financial ruin.
Temperance, therefore, became mostly a women's crusade, a utopianist social project that hoped to improve society—and the conditions for women living in it—by restricting consumption of alcohol.
The temperance movement's victory in enacting Prohibition, however, proved to be a little too starry-eyed. Millions of Americans flaunted the law by continuing to swill illegal booze, creating a lucrative black market that funded the racketeering violence of notorious gangsters like Al Capone.
So, Prohibition was repealed in 1932.
Suffrage was permanent, however, finally raising women to equal citizenship with men by granting them the right to vote in federal elections.
During World War I, President Wilson found his aggressive democracy promotion agenda abroad to be compromised by the anti-democratic suppression of women's political participation at home. So, he enthusiastically supported suffrage as a "vitally necessary war measure."
Wilson's advocacy helped the suffragists to push the 19th Amendment through Congress, finally extending the franchise to women. 143 years after Thomas Jefferson declared it a self-evident truth that "all men are created equal," America's women became equal participants in the democratic political process.
If Prohibition and suffrage brought belated closure to the gender politics of the 19th century, the 1920s witnessed new challenges to the gendered status quo, mostly in the cultural sphere.
Young urban women, enjoying the fruits of the new mass-production consumer economy, adopted new styles and lifestyles that pushed the limits of tradition. In 1921, women en masse suddenly began wearing knee-length skirts—a fashion previously considered obscene—and adopting the radically short "bob" haircut. These trends later evolved into the "flapper" look, an almost androgynously boyish style sported by independent young women who flaunted traditional gender norms by smoking, drinking, and dancing at jazz clubs.
The flapper image—immortalized in F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story "Bernice Bobs Her Hair," serialized in the Saturday Evening Post in 1920—became the icon of new social and sexual freedom for women in the 1920s.
Women like Margaret Sanger, founder of the American Birth Control League (now known as Planned Parenthood), promoted education to teach women about sex and sexuality in order to allow them to seize greater control over their own lives and bodies. By spreading the gospel of contraception, Sanger liberated women to greater sexual freedom but also deeply offended adherents of traditional moral standards.
She remains a controversial figure today, nearly half a century after her death.
The culture of the 1920s grew out of the material abundance of the new mass-production and mass-consumption economy, which generated both increased wages for the urban middle class and fabulous profits for wealthier investors.
Even as wondrous new machines transformed the conditions of everyday life, culture itself became a mass commodity.
The 1920s were the heyday of broadcast radio and Hollywood cinema. For the first time, consumers across the country tuned in to the same radio programs and bought tickets to the same films. Advertising became a crucial industry in its own right, cultivating mass demand for the products of mass consumption.
Much of the great American literature of the 1920s represented an intellectual backlash against the perceived materialism, conformity, and inauthenticity of the new mass culture.
Sinclair Lewis profiled the conformity and mindless boosterism of the salesman in Babbitt, while H.L. Mencken skewered the middle-class mediocrities of what he called the "booboisie."
From exile in Europe, members of the self-described "Lost Generation" such as Ernest Hemingway probed the meaninglessness of World War I sacrifice in works like The Sun Also Rises. And most famously, F. Scott Fitzgerald explored the supposed moral vacancy of the Roaring '20s nouveau riche in The Great Gatsby.
The 1920s earned their moniker—the "Roaring '20s"—through the decade's real and sustained prosperity, dizzying technological advancements, and lively culture.
The decade marked the flourishing of the modern mass-production, mass-consumption economy, which delivered fantastic profits to investors while also raising the living standard of the urban middle and working-class.
But for the large minority of Americans who made their livelihoods in agriculture, the decade roared only with the agony of prolonged depression.
The Roaring '20s actually began with an economic whimper—the transition back to peacetime after World War I was a difficult adjustment.
Labor unions, which had grown strong during the war, fought to maintain their power through a series of strikes in 1919. The largest strikes—a general strike of all workers in Seattle, and a strike of the entire American steel industry—affected hundreds of thousands of workers and consumers, and the radical rhetoric used by some workers' leaders seemed to raise the prospect of full-fledged class warfare.
Coming just two years after a successful communist revolution in Russia, the militancy of the 1919 strike wave proved deeply alarming to most Americans. Employers held firm against workers' demands, and most of the big strikes, including the strikes of Seattle and big steel, collapsed when workers returned to work under heavy threat of violence.
The labor turmoil and difficulties of the transition back to peacetime production caused a short but sharp recession from 1920 to '21, with unemployment briefly exceeding 11%.blank">Great Crash of 1929.
One important aftermath of the failed strike wave of 1919, however, was a powerful reaction by government and business against radicals in labor and politics.
Ascribing the unions' postwar militancy to communist intrigue, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer encouraged J. Edgar Hoover, an aggressive young agent of the Bureau of Investigation (today's FBI), to arrest thousands of radicals around the country.
These police actions, combined with private vigilante attacks such as the deadly 1919 raid of American Legionnaires against the Industrial Workers of the World hall in Centralia, Washington, decimated America's radical groups and made the decade safe for free-market capitalism.
The 1920s' reputation as the epitome of wretched excess may have been unduly biased by the devastatingly memorable portrait of life among the plutocrats provided by F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic novel, The Great Gatsby.
But the Roaring '20s were, in fact, a great time to be rich. Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, himself an extremely successful investment banker, lowered the top marginal income tax rate for the wealthiest Americans from 73% to just 25% while investors enjoyed one of the greatest bull markets in American history.
Meanwhile, the explosion in new mass-production industries fueled by the spread of technologies like electricity and the assembly line provided ample opportunities for profitable investment, and the stock market began its famed ascent—the Dow Jones Industrial Average peaked in 1929 at a value more than six times as high as in 1921.
Since less than 1% of the American people owned any stock, those fabulous returns in the stock market directly benefited only the wealthy. As a result, the share of America's wealth controlled by the richest of the rich increased rapidly to perhaps the highest level in American history. We say "perhaps" because good statistical measurements of wealth inequality don't exist for the period before World War I. It's possible that income inequality at the peak of the Gilded Age at the turn of the 20th century was greater than that of the Roaring '20s, and the income inequality of the 1920s may also soon be matched by that of today.
In any case, the Roaring '20s offered a classic case of the rich getting richer. Much richer.
However, the fantastic wealth accrued by the rich during the decade shouldn't obscure the real and sustained gains made by the urban working and middle-classes.
Notwithstanding the near collapse of the labor movement in 1919 to '21, real wages for urban workers increased by about 20% during the 1920s. Their wage gains were stretched even further due to the falling cost of wonderful new mass-production goods.
Technologically advanced new products like automobiles, washing machines, and radios became much more affordable as manufacturers mastered the assembly-line techniques developed by Henry Ford's Detroit auto plants.
Ford's Model T, by far the most popular car sold in America in the first three decades of the 20th century, cost almost $1,000 when it was first introduced in 1908. Thereafter, the Model T's cost fell every single year, so that by 1927—the year it was replaced by the more modern Model A—it cost less than $300. Ford ultimately sold more than 15 million Model T's. During the 1920s, the rate of automobile ownership increased from one car per 15 Americans to one per five.
While the auto industry remains the iconic example, other industries in mass-production goods followed a similar trajectory during the Roaring '20s. By the time of the Great Crash of 1929, ordinary folks in America's cities and towns could reasonably expect to be able to own a car, a washing machine, a refrigerator, a radio, and a host of other modern conveniences that drastically reduced housework and improved the quality of life.
Goods that a generation earlier, would've been affordable only to the very wealthy—or that didn't even yet exist—disseminated widely through society. So, the 1920s were a great time to be middle-class, too.
Demand for the multitude of new products that emerged in the 1920s was pumped up by a new industry, advertising, which developed new methods of enticing buyers to desire new products through new media like the radio.
The minstrel-show radio sitcom, Amos 'n' Andy, became a smash nationwide hit. And it was sponsored by Pepsodent toothpaste.
Through such sponsorships, the advertising industry grew in perfect harmony with the emerging industries of mass culture—especially network radio and Hollywood cinema. The emergence of broadcast networks and proliferation of studio-linked movie theaters made possible the development of a robust nationwide mass culture.
For the first time, a Detroit factory worker, a San Francisco longshoreman, and a Birmingham domestic could be expected to enjoy the same radio programs and watch the same films...and to smoke the same cigarettes and use the same toothpaste promoted on screen and on the radio.
However, the prosperity of the 1920s wasn't universal. In 1920, nearly half the nation's population still resided in rural areas, dependent upon agriculture for survival.
And the Roaring '20s were unkind to America's farmers.
The decade began with the end of a period of great prosperity. World War I, by disrupting the agricultural production of much of Europe, had created enormous demand and high prices for farm products throughout the world. Farmers in America, like other areas that hadn't been turned into trench-lined battle zones, increased production accordingly and reaped great profits.
However, the war's end allowed the resumption of normal European production, and suddenly, the world faced a huge glut of agricultural products, with no market of buyers.
From 1920 to 1921, farm prices fell at a catastrophic rate. The price of wheat, the staple crop of the Great Plains, fell by almost half. The price of cotton, still the lifeblood of the South, fell by three-quarters. Farmers, many of whom had taken out loans to increase acreage and buy efficient new agricultural machines like tractors, suddenly couldn't make their payments.
Throughout the decade, farm foreclosures and rural bank failures increased at an alarming rate. Agricultural incomes remained flat, with rural Americans' wealth falling far behind their urban counterparts. Rural electrification increased at a snail's pace, with more than 90% of American farms still lacking power into the 1930s.
In fact, the proportion of farms with access to a telephone actually fell during the Roaring '20s.
It's no great exaggeration to say that for rural America, the Great Depression began not in 1929 but in 1920, and it continued for an entire generation. The roaring prosperity of America's cities during the 1920s made the privation of rural life all the more painful, by contrast.
The divide between "the haves and the have-nots" in the 1920s was the divide between city and country, and the economic resentments created by that divide helped to fuel a powerful traditionalist backlash against modernity, most menacingly through the re-emergence of the Ku Klux Klan on a nationwide scale.
Urban America only began to share the pain long felt in the countryside late in 1929, when the stock market crash suddenly caused billions of dollars in assets to evaporate.
While the Great Crash itself directly affected only the tiny minority of affluent Americans who owned stock at the time, ensuing cutbacks in industrial production caused a nationwide economic downturn unprecedented in its depth and length. The descent from the Roaring '20s into the Great Depression was steep.
The rapid pace of technological, economic, and cultural change during the Roaring '20s provoked a considerable backlash among those Americans left behind by modernity:
The traditionalist backlash took many forms, but perhaps its most dramatic manifestation came in the revival of the Ku Klux Klan.
The original Ku Klux Klan, organized in the South after the Civil War, had served as the paramilitary wing of the Democratic Party, terrorizing Blacks and Republicans to dissuade them from exercising their civil rights. Following the collapse of Reconstruction in 1876, which allowed Southern states to reimpose white power through the creation of virtual one-party Democratic regimes, the KKK was no longer necessary, and it withered away.
But the Ku Klux Klan revival began in 1915 with the theatrical release of D.W. Griffith's film, The Birth of a Nation. The cinematic epic, which was considered by many to be the greatest film of its age, portrayed Klansmen sympathetically as heroic defenders of white civilization against the depredations of freed slaves run amok. The film's most controversial scene depicted white-hooded Klansmen riding gallantly to the rescue of a white maiden about to be raped by a savage Black man.
The film's racism seems absolutely disgusting today, but in 1915, The Birth of a Nation set a record for box-office profits that would stand for 22 years. President Woodrow Wilson endorsed the film's racist historical revisionism, describing the film as "history writ with lighting...all so terribly true."
The film generated a new enthusiasm for the Klan, its symbols and regalia. Later in 1915, a failed doctor named William J. Simmons organized a new Klan in Atlanta, announcing it to the world by burning a great fiery cross atop Stone Mountain.
Grand Wizard Simmons' new KKK spread throughout the United States in the 1920s, becoming the most important mouthpiece for a traditionalist politics that wasn't only anti-Black, but also anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic, anti-communist, anti-immigrant, anti-alcohol, anti-sex, and anti-science.
The Klan's greatest strength lay not—as many would assume—in the South, but rather in the Midwest and the West. The Klan won virtual control of the state governments of Colorado and Indiana (where Klansman Ed Johnson became governor), and wielded heavy influence in Oregon, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and several other states. An estimated four million Americans were paid members; some historians even claim that President Warren G. Harding was initiated into the Klan in a special secret ceremony inside the White House.
As a legal proceeding, the trial was a bit of a dud. The defense didn't dispute that Scopes had broken the law. The judge refused to allow the defense to call expert witnesses to question the law's constitutionality. There really wasn't much in the case left to dispute. In the end, a frustrated Clarence Darrow actually asked the jury to return a guilty verdict, hoping to be able to raise his constitutional objections to the law on appeal.
As a circus, however, the trial did live up to its billing, especially when lead prosecutor William Jennings Bryan bizarrely volunteered to take the stand—as a hostile witness for the defense—as an expert on the Bible. Darrow's aggressive examination of Bryan had little to do with the case of John Scopes, but it turned into a dramatic debate pitting Christianity versus science, church versus state.
After Darrow quizzed Bryan on the literal truth of seemingly impossible Biblical stories like that of Jonah and the whale, the judge sought to halt the legally dubious line of questioning. But Bryan and Darrow both wanted to carry on:
Bryan: These gentlemen [i.e., the ACLU lawyers] have not had much chance. They did not come here to try a case. They came here to try revealed religion. I am here to defend it, and they can ask any questions they please.
Judge: All right.
Darrow: Great applause from the bleachers.
Bryan: From those whom you call 'yokels.'
Darrow: I have never called them yokels.
Bryan: That is the ignorance of Tennessee, the bigotry.
Darrow: You mean who are applauding you?
Bryan: Those are the people whom you insult.
Darrow: You insult every man of science and learning in the world because he does not believe in your fool religion.
Judge: I will not stand for that.
In the end, neither Darrow nor Bryan got much satisfaction from the case. The trial might be considered a draw: Scopes was convicted, but on narrow factual grounds, and the jury was barred from considering the deeper constitutional issues at stake.
Scopes later won on appeal, but—again—on a narrow technicality, allowing the law to stand.
Meanwhile, nationwide press coverage overwhelmingly portrayed Bryan, the people of Dayton, and opponents of evolution in general as unsophisticated "yokels" and "morons." These were harsh and unfair stereotypes, but they took hold in the imaginations of much of the public. For 50 years following the trial, the teaching of evolution came to be accepted in most American schools as uncontroversial scientific knowledge.
Only in recent years has the conflict between evolution and creationism—now recast as "intelligent design"—once again become a major controversy in American education.
The Republican politics of the 1920s sprung from the repudiation of Woodrow Wilson, the only Democrat elected to the presidency between 1892 and 1932.
Wilson had never governed with the support of a majority of voters, winning office in 1912 only because two Republicans—popular ex-President Teddy Roosevelt and incumbent William Howard Taft—split the vote by running against each other, then barely retaining the presidency with less than half the popular vote in 1916.
Despite his dubious mandate, Wilson pursued aggressive reforms at home and abroad, culminating in the virtual nationalization of the economy during World War I and the ambitious internationalism of the League of Nations after the armistice.
By the war's end, however, the American people supported neither Wilson's international commitments nor his domestic interventions into the economy and society.
In 1920, they elected to the presidency, by a landslide, Republican Senator Warren G. Harding of Ohio. Harding, who might best be described as an affable simpleton, campaigned on the simple promise of a "return to normalcy."
Normalcy, under the Harding administration, meant a government that was pro-business, anti-tax, and anti-regulation.
Harding's Treasury Secretary, financier Andrew Mellon, cut income tax rates for the wealthiest Americans from 73% to 25%. The capital thus liberated fueled the skyrocketing stock market and helped the Jay Gatsbys of the world to achieve an unprecedented level of material affluence, but it also exacerbated the maldistribution of wealth between rich and poor.
By 1929, the richest one-tenth of one percent of Americans owned as much wealth as the bottom 42%blank">convicted in 1918 of subversive activities under the draconian wartime Espionage Act, which virtually criminalized criticism of the government.
In 1924, liberals opposed to Coolidge and disgusted with the Democrats' nomination of Wall Street lawyer John W. Davis tried to organize a new farmer-labor party behind septuagenarian Senator Robert "Fighting Bob" La Follette, standard-bearer of the Progressive movement since the turn of the century. La Follette's campaign for Progressive revival won a very respectable 4.8 million votes nationwide, but the senator carried only his home state of Wisconsin to become an also-ran in the Electoral College.
In the end, Republican dominance of national politics would be broken only with the collapse of the American economy after 1929.
The 1920s unfolded at the tail end of the greatest wave of immigration in American history. Between 1880 and 1920, more than 25 million foreigners arrived on American shores, transforming the country. The immigrant surge of the late-19th and early-20th centuries was distinctive in its size, its demographics, and its impact upon American culture and society.
More than 80% of the arrivals after 1890 were so-called "New Immigrants," natives of Southern and Eastern Europe, culturally and ethnically perceived to be quite different from the Germans and Britons who'd embodied the bulk of the immigration into the United States in earlier periods. Italians, Poles, Jews, and Slavs—ethnic groups rarely encountered en masse earlier in American history—arrived in large numbers.
They also departed in large numbers. The New Immigrants were distinctive from earlier migrants in that most didn't want to stay. These immigrants, mostly male and mostly young, hoped to earn enough money during a temporary stay in America to be able to afford an increased standard of living upon returning to their homeland.
Something between 50% and 80% of the New Immigrants are believed to have eventually returned to their countries of origin. The exceptions were Jews (who mostly came from Russia, and only 4% of whom repatriated) and Irish (9%), two groups that tended to stay in America permanently because they faced religious persecution, political oppression, and economic privation back home.
Despite high rates of repatriation among the New Immigrants as a whole, enough migrants put down roots in America to boost the foreign-born population of the country to record levels—just under 15% in the Censuses of 1920 and 1930.
While the vast majority of the population of the United States—always more than 85%—remained native-born citizens, an especially heavy concentration of immigrants in major cities created the feeling of a foreign takeover. By 1920, 42% of New Yorkers, 42% of San Franciscans, and 41% of Chicagoans were foreign-born.
Immigrants in these bustling cities tended to congregate together with their countrymen: the 1920s were the heyday of the urban ethnic enclave. Immigrants, many speaking little or no English, settled together with their compatriots and forged close-knit communities, often boasting ethnic shops, ethnic markets, ethnic banks, ethnic clubs, ethnic cinemas, and even ethnic radio stations, broadcasting in the mother tongue.
These invaluable, if insular, community institutions only lost their grip on ethnic populations when overwhelmed by the spread of American mass culture during the 1920s. The chain store, the bank branch, the national radio broadcast, and the Hollywood motion picture created, in some cases for the first time, a real common ground that crossed ethnic boundaries in America's cities.
The patterns of migration and settlement common to the New Immigrants were in some ways mirrored by those of American Blacks. Employment opportunities created by World War I spurred the "Great Migration," the mass movement of African Americans out of the rural South and into the urban North.
In the cities of the North, Blacks built their own ethnic communities, not unlike those of their immigrant counterparts. New York's Harlem became the center of African-American cultural life in the United States, with a literary, artistic, musical, and political scene so vibrant it became known as the Harlem Renaissance.
African Americans rallied around Marcus Garvey—himself an immigrant from Jamaica—to create the Universal N**** Improvement Association, the most assertive Black political movement seen to date in the United States. Musical geniuses like Louis Armstrong developed a new form of popular music—jazz—that many consider, to this day, to be America's greatest contribution to human culture.
The development of large, thriving communities of immigrants and minorities generated a considerable backlash among native-born Americans who feared they were losing their cities to "undesirable" newcomers.
Prior to the coming of the New Immigrants, a large majority of the American population—more than 60%—could trace their ancestry back to either the British Isles or to Germany. These old-line Americans, mostly fair-skinned and Protestant, tended to view the darker-complected, mostly Catholic or Jewish New Immigrants as not just different but "inferior"—members of lesser races, likely lacking the Anglo-Saxon temperament many believed necessary to maintain a free society.
The New Immigrants, in the prejudiced imagination of many native-born Americans, lacked self-discipline and work ethic, lived immoral lifestyles, and couldn't be trusted not to throw their votes—should they attain citizenship—to corrupt machine politicians or radical troublemakers. The New Immigrants generated a renewed nativism in hostile reaction to their arrival on American shores.
The most benign strain of that nativist sentiment came in the form of aggressive "Americanization" campaigns, efforts to remake the immigrants into good Americans through work, education, and social reform.
Henry Ford was a leading exponent of the movement, declaring that "these men of many nations must be taught American ways, the English language, and the right way to live."
Ford forced immigrant workers at his automotive factories to attend lengthy Americanization courses, in which they were schooled in the English language and Ford's conservative ideology. At the end of each course, Ford even organized an ornate pageant in which workers clad in outlandish versions of their countries' native costume descended into a giant melting pot, only to climb out the other side wearing suits and waving American flags.
Ford's Americanization program was backed by coercion, as the company's Sociological Department investigated the home lives of its workers. Any Ford employee who failed to maintain a middle-class American lifestyle that met Ford's standards could lose his job.
Other nativists lacked Ford's hope that the New Immigrants could be remade into good Americans, and focused their efforts on blocking immigration altogether.
Prior to 1921, with one exception—the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882—immigration into the United States had never been systematically restricted by federal law. That changed with the 1921 Emergency Quota Act and the 1924 Immigration Act, which imposed for the first time, a limit on the number of immigrants allowed to enter the United States.
The two laws were targeted squarely at the New Immigrants: they established a new National Origins system that created different quotas for immigrants from each country, pegged to those countries' representation in the population of the United States in either 1910 (the 1921 law) or 1890 (the 1924 law). Because countries like Italy and Poland had contributed a tiny proportion of America's population before 1890, they received miniscule quotas.
The effect was startling. Prior to the quota, immigrants were arriving at a rate of more than 850,000 per year, with just under 700,000 of those coming from Southern and Eastern Europe and only 175,000 coming from Northern and Western Europe. The strict 1924 act imposed a very mild restriction on immigration from Northern and Western Europe, still allowing 140,000 arrivals per year from those countries. But immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe was limited to just 22,000 per year, a 97% reduction from pre-restriction levels.
While the immigration restriction acts of 1921 and 1924 well reflect the nativist, anti-immigrant attitudes of many Americans during the Roaring '20s, it's important to note that the laws' practical effects weren't as great as one might expect. Because of difficulties in determining the precise proportions of the 1890 population that belonged to each country, the law didn't take effect until 1929, at which point the economic collapse brought about by the onset of the Great Depression naturally reduced the immigrant flow to a trickle.