Warren G. Harding (1865–1923) was the 29th President of the United States. A personable, conservative senator from Ohio, Harding won the presidential election of 1920 in a landslide by promising a "return to normalcy" after World War I.
Harding's administration ended up plagued by corruption scandals, as many of the president's cronies used their high positions in government for illegal personal gain.
Harding died of a heart attack less than three years into his term, before the worst revelations of corruption in his administration were revealed to the public. In retrospect, many historians rank Harding among the very worst presidents of all time.
Herbert Hoover (1874–1964) was a self-made millionaire in the mining industry, a very successful Secretary of Commerce from 1921 to 1928, and a very unsuccessful president of the U.S. from 1929 to 1933. His term saw the onset of the Great Depression, which began with the stock market crash just a few months after he took office.
Today, Hoover's name is most associated with the shanty towns—"Hoovervilles"—erected during the Depression by the nation's unemployed and homeless.
Hoover was elected to the presidency in 1928, promising that "we shall soon, with the help of God, be in sight of the day when poverty will be banished from this nation." Unfortunately, Hoover's presidency saw not the banishment of poverty, but instead the onset of the Great Depression, which began with the stock market crash of 1929.
Andrew Mellon (1855–1937) was a millionaire financier who served as Secretary of the Treasury for 11 years under Republican presidents Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover.
As Treasury Secretary, Mellon pushed through a series of large tax cuts for the wealthy, freeing huge sums of capital for reinvestment in the booming stock market. During the Roaring '20s, Mellon was regarded as a genius of rapid economic growth. After the Great Crash, however, he was blamed by many for unwisely promoting wealth inequality and an unsustainable financial bubble.
Eugene Debs (1855–1926), a longtime labor organizer and left-wing political activist, was the leader of the American Socialist Party and an unsuccessful candidate for president on the Socialist ticket in 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920.
During World War I, Debs was convicted of violating the draconian new Espionage Act by giving a speech criticizing the war. He was sentenced to ten years in federal prison. Despite his incarceration, Debs ran for president again in 1920 and won nearly a million votes from his jail cell.
Al Smith (1873–1944) was a four-term Governor of New York and the Democratic candidate for president in 1928.
Smith, a fierce opponent of Prohibition and the first Roman Catholic to win a major-party nomination for the presidency, was trounced in the 1928 election by Republican Herbert Hoover. Smith's nomination revealed the weakening split in the Democratic Party during the 1920s.
His appeal to the Northern, urban, ethnic, anti-Prohibition wing of the party was offset by his rejection by Southern, rural, white, Protestant, Prohibitionist Democrats. Smith became the first Democrat since the Civil War to lose multiple states of the old Confederacy.
Henry Ford (1863–1947) was one of America's greatest businessmen, the founder of Ford Motor Company and the man largely responsible for initiating the era of mass-consumption and mass-production in the American economy. Ford's innovative business practices, including standardization, the assembly line, and high wages for workers, revolutionized American industry.
Ford also became one of America's most prominent citizens in the early-20th century, and began to take strong positions on social affairs.
One of the causes Ford championed was the "Americanization" and assimilation of new immigrants. Ford sponsored an Americanization School for foreign workers at his auto plants, encouraging them to conform to middle-class American lifestyle standards if they wanted to keep their jobs.
D.W. Griffith (1875–1948) was an important movie director of the early-20th century and one of the founders of the Hollywood film industry.
Griffith's 1915 film The Birth of a Nation—which depicted Ku Klux Klansmen as triumphant heroes—was one of the most important films in American history. A runaway box office success, it proved the viability of the Hollywood feature film as a commercial product.
It also revealed the deep racism still prevalent in American society, and led to a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan.
F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896–1940) was a prominent American writer of the "Lost Generation," the author of novels including This Side of Paradise, Tender is the Night, and—most famously—The Great Gatsby.
Fitzgerald achieved huge fame and success by his mid-20s, and later struggled to live up to the expectations he'd created for his own work. He died of alcoholism at the age of 44.
For many, the decadent world portrayed in The Great Gatsby remains the defining image of life in America during the Roaring '20s.
Margaret Sanger (1879–1966) was the nation's most important birth control advocate in the early-20th century. At a time when basic information about sex, sexuality, and even anatomy was often outlawed as obscene, Sanger worked to educate women about the reproductive process to allow them to choose when and whether to bear children.
She was convinced that society couldn't evolve unless people practiced family planning, especially among the poor.
In 1921, Sanger founded the American Birth Control League—now known as Planned Parenthood—to advocate for birth control rights. Though she faced much criticism for her work, Sanger also spurred young women all over the country to look beyond traditional social mores. Throughout the 1920s, Sanger answered millions of letters sent by women asking questions about birth control, and also lectured on the topic throughout the country.
Charles Lindbergh (1902–1974) was an American pilot and the first man to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean.
Lindbergh's solo transatlantic flight in 1927 made him one of America's early celebrity heroes. He received a New York ticker-tape parade, and newspapers breathlessly covered his every move.
Babe Ruth (1895–1948) was one of the greatest baseball players of all time, a fearsome power hitter whose home run records stood for decades.
Ruth's feats on the diamond—and his garrulous charisma off of it—helped to transform baseball from a game to a major force in the modern entertainment industry.
Public interest in the Babe drove radio to begin broadcasting baseball games, and so many people wanted to see Ruth play that his team built itself a palatial new ballpark, Yankee Stadium, which remained home to the Bronx Bombers until 2008.
Marcus Garvey (1887–1940) was the most popular Black nationalist leader of the early-20th century, and the founder of the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). A Jamaican immigrant, Garvey rose to prominence as a soapbox orator in Harlem, New York.
By the 1920s, the charismatic Garvey's UNIA claimed more than four million members, and crowds of more than 25,000 people packed into Madison Square Garden to hear Garvey speak of racial redemption and repatriation to Africa.
Garvey's militancy and popularity spooked the U.S. government, which eventually imprisoned and deported Garvey on dubious charges of mail fraud.
Langston Hughes (1902–1967) was an African-American poet, novelist, and playwright. He remains beloved especially for his poetry, and is considered one of America's greatest poets.
During the 1920s, Hughes was one of the leading figures of the Harlem Renaissance, an explosion of Black cultural vitality that sprang up in the African-American enclave of Harlem, New York. One of Hughes' most famous poems, "Harlem (Dream Deferred)" is a powerful statement of burgeoning Black intellectualism in an age of racial oppression.
Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960) was an African-American writer, best known for the novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God.
During the 1920s, Hurston was one of the leading figures of the Harlem Renaissance, an explosion of Black cultural vitality that sprang up in the African-American enclave of Harlem, New York.
Sinclair Lewis (1885–1951) was an American novelist and playwright, and the first American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.
During the 1920s, Lewis' works Main Street and Babbitt, skewered what he saw as the mindless consumption and conformity of middle-class American society in an age of affluence.