An Exhilarating Decade



An Exhilarating Decade
An Exhilarating Decade
American Life in the 1920s
onths before the landslide victory of
Republican Warren G. Harding in 1920,
it was clear that the electorate’s mood
had changed and that the progressive
political coalition had collapsed. Politically, the nation
veered to the right in the 1920s, electing a sequence
of Republican presidents. Progressivism did not vanish, and many of the political changes wrought in the
preceding decades remained in place; the federal government, particularly the executive branch, continued
to grow in size and prestige. Progressives remained a
powerful force in Congress, and the last of the decade’s
Republican presidents, Herbert Hoover, was the leader
of the reforming side of his party. Nonetheless, the prevailing political sense of the twenties was that the government should act as cheerleader, and perhaps coach,
to the nation’s successful business team, but should
not attempt to be a referee. The Republican presidents
claimed credit for sowing the decade’s prosperity, but
after 1929 Hoover had to reap the economic whirlwind.
A long boom began in 1922, producing a new surge
of consumerism and euphoric optimism. Exhausted
by years of crusades for reform culminating in the bitter treaty debate, most Americans opted for getting on
with the business of living; satisfied consumers formed
the majority that turned the reins of government back
to conservative Republicans.
If large numbers of Americans were contented with
their economic state during the twenties, the level of
social anxiety was nonetheless high, sparking ferocious
debates. Indeed, as wartime patriotism faded, the nation seemed more divided than ever. The strikes, the
Chapter 26 at a Glance
A Decade of Relative Prosperity
Welfare Capitalism and the Decline of Unionism
The Consumer Boom Gathers Steam
Americans on the Road and in the Air
A Leisure Society
Winds of Change
The New Science
The Literature of Revolt
The New Morality and the New Woman
The “New Negro”
Conservative Backlash
Religious Diversity and Confrontation
Nativist Fears and Immigration Restrictions
The Case Against Foreigners
The Ku Klux Klan Defines “Pure Americanism”
The Failure of Prohibition
The Spread of Organized Crime
High Republican Politics
The Election of 1920
Harding and the Return to “Normalcy”
Calvin Coolidge Rides the Boom
The Coolidge Boom
The Election of 1928
The Great Engineer at the Wheel
Boom and Bust in the Stock Market
Conclusion: A Decade of Prosperity and Self-Analysis
728 Chapter 26
race riots, and the crackdown on leftists in 1919 laid bare
deep-seated popular apprehensions about the nation’s
ethnic and cultural diversity. In addition, the surge of
consumerism, long regarded by religious leaders as the
most menacing modern challenge to morality, continued to alter traditional behavior and, many believed, the
American character. Other social and intellectual trends,
none of them really new, added to the decade’s controversies. Urbanization continued. Most Americans were
aware that in 1920 the Census Bureau reported that for
the first time a majority of Americans lived in cities and
small towns. With the end of World War I, moreover, immigration began to increase again, rekindling anxieties
in the white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant majority.
The divisive scientific idea most debated in the twenties, the Darwinian theory of evolution, had been pondered by intellectuals for decades, but in the 1920s open
controversy about it erupted in the nation’s churches
and schools. Among other new scientific ideas, FreudAmerican Leaders, 1921 From left to right, Henry Ford, Thomas
A. Edison, Warren G. Harding, and tire manufacturer Harvey Firestone enjoy a break from their responsibilities as American icons.
An Exhilarating Decade
ian psychology and Einstein’s theory of relativity posed
serious challenges to traditional beliefs.
Chroniclers of the twenties have been fascinated by
the decade’s social clashes, seeing them as harbingers
of America’s escalating twentieth-century encounter
with modernity. The decade has been labeled “The Age
of the Flapper,” “The Jazz Age,” and “The Roaring Twenties.” Its most engaging characters were the cynical, disillusioned young intellectuals who ridiculed their more
conventional contemporaries, flailing away at Prohibition and preachers, “rubes” and Rotarians, democracy
and do-gooders. They scorned America’s Puritan past
as repressive and explored personal freedom with a
youthful zest and flamboyance, permanently influencing American fashion, music, literature, and public morality. But interesting and influential as they were, the
talented literary rebels of the twenties numbered in the
hundreds and did not speak for or to most Americans.
The majority of Americans were social and political
conservatives, and many of them launched ferocious
counterattacks. Indeed, the intensity and extremity
of conservative causes in the twenties was a measure
American Life in the 1920s
of the anxiety felt by many old-stock Americans. Their
crusades in the twenties had the appearance of lastditch battles. Prohibition came to symbolize the conservative desire to establish legally a purer and more
Christian society. Protestant Fundamentalists tried to
ban the teaching of evolution in public schools, and the
revived Ku Klux Klan, an extraordinary success in the
early twenties, appealed to a variety of people who resented the pace of social change. Alarmed and angered,
millions of Americans joined to defend the customs of
an earlier and more orderly time. Throughout the United States, the sound of battles between defenders of
the old order and champions of a new order resounded
through the schools, the churches, and the governing
boards of nearly every county and village.
A Decade of Relative Prosperity
By 1922 the economic boom that gave coherence to the
twenties was well under way. The industrial accomplishments of the decade provided a real basis for giddy optimism. The wealthy profited most from the boom, but
prosperity altered the lives of most Americans and provided an environment for the decade’s social conflicts.
Technological improvements continued to increase
factory productivity; during the twenties industrial
output in the country doubled. While some older industries, such as coal and textiles, declined slightly, dramatic increases occurred in automobile manufacturing,
chemicals, and electrical equipment. The chemical industry, under the leadership of such giant corporations
as DuPont and Union Carbide, capitalized on the growing market for synthetic fibers and plastics. The expansion of the electrical equipment industry was tied to
new consumer products such as household appliances
and radios, as well as to increases in the use of industrial electrical equipment.
The economic boom of the twenties had profound
social consequences. Improvements in transportation
and communication continued to break down provincial barriers and speeded the spread of news and new
ideas. In addition, the wide array of technological advances provided increased leisure time for the public.
Welfare Capitalism and
the Decline of Unionism
The businessman resurfaced as an American hero in the
twenties. Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, and Thomas A.
Chapter 26
Edison were names as familiar as those of presidents.
Popular magazines were filled with the success sagas
of the captains of industry. Furthermore, the names of
the wealthy were attached to countless civic and humanitarian projects. In the 1920s and 1930s the huge
Rockefeller and Carnegie Foundations provided more
than 85 percent of the external funding for scientific
research in American universities.
Ironically, this idealization of the rugged individualist businessman came at a time when American corporations were becoming more managerial in style. In
most corporations the sale of vast amounts of stock to
the public had separated ownership from management;
company executives were experts trained in efficiency
and marketing. When Alfred P. Sloan became the head
of General Motors in 1924, he challenged the leadership
of the still privately held Ford Motor Company by creating a modern corporation featuring team management
and an emphasis on research and marketing.
The managerial revolution that accompanied the
emergence of large, publicly owned corporations did
not dramatically change the tactics of American business leaders. A new wave of business concentration
raised the share of total corporate income going to the
largest 5 percent of the nation’s companies from 79.6
percent in 1918 to 84.3 percent in 1929. Even more portentous was the imbalance in the distribution of national income. The share of national income going to
capital rose during the decade from 19.6 percent to 25.5
percent, while the share going to labor slipped from
77.9 percent to 72.9 percent.
To some extent, other sectors of the economy, particularly skilled laborers, shared in the prosperity of
the 1920s. Wages rose steadily throughout the decade,
though never at the rate of increases in business profits, and only a few industrial areas suffered significant
unemployment. Per capita income rose from $672 in
1922 to $857 in 1929, and for a majority of the labor force
real wages — income measured against the prevailing
price level — also rose.
For semiskilled and unskilled workers (who filled
many factory jobs), the picture was bleaker. Over the
decade, the families of most such workers barely clung
to their existing standard of living and the income of
every potential wage earner had to count, causing
some hardship every time there was a short-term layoff — a frequent occurrence even in these good years,
as companies tried to keep costs under tight control.
Between 1921 and 1929 total union membership
dropped by 30 percent, to about 3.5 million. This de-
730 Chapter 26
An Exhilarating Decade
cline had complex causes.
in a few cases profit-sharThe relative prosperity of
ing schemes. But these
some American workers
improvements touched
partly explained it, as did
only a small percentage
public hostility to unions,
of the American labor
born of the bitter and disforce. And even for these
ruptive postwar strikes.
workers, “welfare capiBut much of the detalism” looked better on
cline in proportion of
paper than it functioned
workers belonging to
in practice. Its basic
unions was caused by
purposes were to outthe narrow focus of
bid union organizers, to
the unions themselves,
discourage job-hopping,
which remained basand to persuade workers
tions of ethnic prejudice
to give their loyalty to the
— Irish workers dominatcompany rather than to
ing transportation; Italethnic, religious, or comians, construction; and
Jews, the needle trades.
let alone independent
Blacks were accepted
unions. Employers rarely
in only a handful of AFL
showed a corresponding
locals and accounted
loyalty to their workers
for less than 2 percent of
when it came to layoffs in
the membership in 1930.
slack times. Nor did most
Narrowly focused on betworkers put much faith
tering the lot of skilled
in their companies’ penworkers, the AFL craft
sion plans; in the absence
unions generally rejected
of Social Security and unpolitical activity, favored
employment insurance
Advertising the New Electrical Age Ads like this frequently
immigration restriction,
(which did not exist beappeared in American magazines and newspapers in the 1920s,
aimed at both middle- and working-class consumers. Notice the
and opposed a minimum
fore the 1930s), workers
very “wordy” style of advertising copywriting, in contrast to the
wage for unskilled laborhad
to depend on their
use of a few arresting slogans and images today.
ers. Indeed, they had no
savings, their families,
interest in organizing the laborers in the nation’s great
and their church and community organizations to take
heavy industries such as steelmaking. Unable to orgacare of them in old age or sickness.
nize and bargain collectively, these workers were not
Not all corporate opposition to unions was so beonly low-paid relative to their productivity, but often
nign. Companies employed thousands of spies and
lost ground in their living standards over the course of
private agents to discourage union organization, and
the decade.
generally the government could be counted on to
Employers, of course, had no reason to favor workerback management in labor disputes. In most company
led unions, and every reason to resist them. Many large
towns the authority of the government and of the emcorporations short-circuited labor organizers by launchployer became virtually indistinguishable. Companies
ing “company unions,” which by the end of the decade
circulated “blacklists” that excluded labor activists
enrolled around 1.5 million workers. This paternalistic
from jobs, and used many other repressive techniques
movement, labeled “welfare capitalism” or “industrial
to curtail union growth.
democracy,” sometimes gave workers real improvements: a five-and-a-half-day workweek and paid vaca- The Consumer Boom Gathers Steam
tions, employee recreation halls and cafeterias, more
Prosperity was sufficiently widespread among the midequitable grievance procedures and a curbing of the ardle class and skilled workers in the twenties to support a
bitrary power of foremen, stock-ownership plans, and
American Life in the 1920s
Fueling Up On a rainy day in 1927 a man and two women fill
their car’s gas tank at a station in New Jersey. Gas stations proliferated across the nation’s landscape during the 1920s, responding to a huge consumer need and inspiring cultural critic H.L.
Mencken to rail about Americans’ “libido for the ugly.”
consumer boom, out of which grew a mass culture that
tended to homogenize American society in countless
ways. Automobiles led the way, but scores of other consumer products dramatically changed millions of lives.
Radios and telephones revolutionized communications;
ready-made clothing standardized dress; refrigerators,
washing machines, and vacuum cleaners reduced the
drudgery of housework. Especially for the middle class,
installment buying made possible such large purchases as a home or a car, which hitherto most Americans
could buy only for cash. By the end of the decade, chain
stores catering to mass tastes — the A & P, Safeway,
Woolworth, J. C. Penney, and Walgreen — were displacing small merchants in middle-class neighborhoods.
The new stores offered nationally advertised brands
and were clean and “up-to-date,” but they neither allowed haggling over prices nor extended credit — timehonored practices that kept many ethnic and workingclass families loyal to “mom-and-pop” groceries in the
urban neighborhoods that the chains generally ignored.
Likewise workers, made cautious by the ever-present
Chapter 26
chance of layoffs, were still inclined
to save up and pay cash rather than
make major purchases on installment. Thus there was a class and
an ethnic dimension to the divisive
cultural stresses posed by the twenties’ consumer boom and its homogenizing influence.
The engine that drove the consumer boom was advertising, a
profession that gained growing respect in the twenties. As the mass
consumer culture expanded, the
distribution of goods became as
important as the production of
goods. While selling Americans on
the virtues of material comfort and
consumption, advertisers softened
the impact of change by stressing
the traditional values of individualism and community, appealed to
buyers to dare to smoke cigarettes
or drive an automobile — and to
use Listerine mouthwash to avoid
social embarrassment. Bruce Barton, an advertising
wizard of the twenties, boasted that his profession was
responsible for the higher standard of living and more.
“Advertising,” he wrote, “sustains a system that has made
us leaders of the free world: The American Way of Life.”
In 1925, Barton published a best-selling book, The Man
Nobody Knows, an interpretation of the New Testament
that portrayed Jesus as a master salesman. Barton’s Jesus was not an ascetic prophet but “the most popular
dinner guest in Jerusalem,” who “picked up twelve men
from the bottom ranks of business and forged them into
an organization that conquered the world.” Needless
to say, all Americans did not see advertising as such a
blessing. Veteran muckraker Upton Sinclair warned that
advertising undermined the will of the press to critique
big business advertisers, and many saw advertising as a
not-too-subtle attack on all independent thinking.
Americans on the Road and in the Air
The gaudiest business success story of the 1920s was
the automobile. The rapid development of the industry was one of the greatest achievements of modern
technology, for until Henry Ford designed the Model
T in 1908, automobiles had been expensive toys of the
rich, built by hand in small quantities. Ford and other
732 Chapter 26
An Exhilarating Decade
American inventors simplified automobile construction, and by World War I the United States was producing far more cars than any other nation. Not until
the twenties, however, did the industry really burgeon.
New car sales, still fewer than 500,000 per year in 1913,
reached nearly 2 million in 1920 and 4.5 million in 1929.
By that time the nation had more than 26.5 million registered vehicles. The value of the automobile industry,
compared to that of other sectors of the economy, rose
from 150th place in 1900 to first place in 1925. The industry’s expansion spawned similar growth in related
products; for instance, the manufacture of tires and inner tubes doubled, and gasoline refining quadrupled.
Cars changed the American landscape, as service stations and garages became landmarks in both town
and country. Different oil companies built identifiable
structures adorned with symbols such as the Texaco
star and Mobile’s flying horse.
The acknowledged hero in putting the nation on
wheels was Henry Ford. In 1907, Ford made a famous
and dramatic announcement: “I will build a motor car
for the great multitude. . . . It will be so low in price that
no man making a good salary will be unable to own
one — and enjoy with his family the blessing of hours
of pleasure in God’s great open spaces.” After designing the Model T, Ford began exploring more efficient
methods of production. In 1911, he opened an assemblyline plant in Highland Park, Michigan, and began turning out cars at an unprecedented rate. He continued
to perfect the assembly-line technique; by 1920 half of
the motorcars in the world were Model Ts. By the time
the Model T was discontinued in 1927, Ford had sold
about 15 million austere but dependable “Tin Lizzies.”
“Don’t Be a Dust Eater,” 1925
By the mid-twenties so many Americans drove
cars that highways and cities were becoming crowded with them. One editor had the
following words of encouragement to share
with drivers succumbing to an early version
of “road rage.”
Have you heard the call of the open
Does the thought of green fields and
invigorating breezes stir something in you
As Ford’s manufacturing methods became more efficient and the volume of his output rose, the price of his
Model T steadily dropped — from $950 in 1909 to about
$260 in 1925.
Ford’s frontal assault on the conventional business
wisdom that a product should be priced as high as the
market would bear revealed his grasp of the potential
of mass consumption. Even more stunning was Ford’s
action in 1914 doubling his workers’ wages and reducing their workday from nine to eight hours. This bold
decision contradicted the long-held assumption that
wages must be rigidly tied to productivity. The most
dramatic single event in the history of welfare capitalism, Ford’s hike of wages was possible only because his
company issued no publicly traded stock and remained
his personal property. The canny Ford understood that
his workers were also potential customers, but “Fordism” was heatedly debated before being accepted as
good business practice.
Nor did Ford impress all of his workers as a benevolent boss. Work on his assembly lines was boringly repetitious, high-pressured, and exhausting. One Chicago
employee summed up the feelings of many workers:
“Ford, that son of a bitch, he’s hard to work for. Soon as
work slack, lay off, doesn’t give a damn for men.” And
as events a decade later would vividly show (see Chapter 27), Ford was an implacable enemy of the union
Ford’s stranglehold on the automobile industry was
successfully challenged in the 1920s. Among scores of
short-lived companies, two formidable new competitors arose by the middle of the decade: General Motors,
the producer of the Chevrolet, and the Chrysler Corpo-
which starts you planning the next weekend away from the city?
Then in the midst of your plans does the
nightmare of dust-driven highways clotted
with slow-moving, complaining traffic take
all the joy out of the picture and cause you to
leave your car in the garage?…
Crowded roads are unpleasant, but, after
all, the driver is to blame for not choosing
his route more carefully. What American car
owners should do is get off the main highways and onto the secondary roads.
The beauty of the back road awaits the
driver who will dispense with his inclination
to follow the leader over gas-laden, oilsmeared thoroughfares, which carry nearly
ninety per cent of our traffic. No wonder the
main roads are insufferable.
Get away from the wheel-to-wheel
procession. Find the byways and lanes of the
countryside, where you need not be afraid of
overcrowding even on the sunniest of summer Sundays.
Don’t be a dust eater.
American Life in the 1920s
ration, which built Dodges and Plymouths. Massive GM
posed a particularly dangerous threat to Ford. Catering
to new demands for comfort and style (it was the first
to offer cars in colors other than black), GM’s market
share rose from 12.7 percent in 1921 to 43.9 percent in
1931. Faced with this challenge, in 1927 Ford stopped
producing the Model T, closed the assembly line for a
year, and returned to the market only in 1929 with the
more luxurious Model A. Such was the Ford legend that
500,000 people made down payments on the new model before seeing the car or knowing the price. Nonetheless, Ford’s market share fell from 55.7 percent in 1921 to
24.9 percent in 1931.
Automobiles became virtual necessities for the
upper and middle classes in the 1920s, though most
families only had one car. (Two-car families would not
become common until the 1950s.) Probably a majority
of the nation’s skilled workers and better-off farmers
also bought cars. By the end of the decade, even 24
percent of the lower-income families in the typical industrial city of Joliet, Illinois, were reported to own an
The popularity of automobiles created a pressing demand for better roads. At the beginning of World War I,
the American highway system was still a patchwork of
disconnected and muddy roads. The Progressive Era
had spawned a “Good Roads Movement,” and by 1917
every state had a Highway Department. In 1921, the
Federal Highway Act expanded the availability of federal matching funds for highway construction, and as
early as 1923 a system of national highways was planned.
(One of the first federal officials to study the problem
was a young army officer assigned by the War Department to assess transportation needs from the perspective of national defense: Dwight D. Eisenhower.) Still, in
1930 less than 25 percent of the nation’s roads were “surfaced,” and only about 5 percent were paved by modern
standards. Not until the 1950s, during the Eisenhower
presidency, would there be a massive federal program
to construct a network of high-speed roads.
Automobiles changed American society in a variety
of ways. Skilled workers could live farther from their
jobs, and the middle class continued its migration to
the suburbs that had been begun in the late nineteenth
century with the building of streetcar lines. Early symptoms of urban flight included a sharp decline of interest
in public transportation and declining incomes in central cities. No class was affected more by the transportation revolution than farmers. Rural isolation eroded
as Model Ts chugged in from the farm to the city, and
Chapter 26
Henry Ford’s Great Innovation In 1923 Ford introduced the first
moving assembly line, on a conveyor belt, at his automobile plant
in Dearborn, Michigan. It greatly speeded up production, even as
it also reduced work to a mind-numbing series of repetitive motions from which the worker could not take even a moment’s break.
rural mail carriers regularly brought the outside world
to farm families.
Although they had less immediate impact on the
average American’s daily life, airplanes symbolized the
promise of technology. The successful flights of Orville
and Wilbur Wright near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina,
on December 17, 1903, put the United States in the vanguard of aviation. In 1909, the Wright brothers received
a contract from the United States Army to manufacture airplanes. World War I greatly stimulated interest
in the military potential of airplanes, and for a while
Europeans became the leaders in aircraft development.
(All the planes flown by Allied fighters, including famed
American “aces” such as Eddie Rickenbacker, were British or French machines.) In the early twenties, however,
the United States passed several aviation milestones.
The first airmail flight was made in 1918 from New York
to Washington, and only two years later transcontinental airmail service commenced, using short city-to-city
hops. By 1926, when the Air Commerce Act began federal supervision of air traffic, such improvements as
radio beacons at airports had begun to appear.
An enchanted moment in the history of global aviation came on May 21, 1927, when Charles A. Lindbergh,
Jr., completed the first solo trans-Atlantic flight from
New York to Paris in the Spirit of St. Louis. ”Lucky Lindy’s” carefully planned flight of more than 2,000 miles
734 Chapter 26
took him thirty-three and a half hours. After receiving
a hero’s welcome and a prize of $25,000 in Paris, Lindbergh returned home to an outpouring of affection. He
became the foremost celebrity of a hero-worshiping
decade, embodying much that Americans valued in
the twenties — mechanical precision and skill, a disciplined personality, and commercial success.
A Leisure Society
While air travel was for the few, huge numbers of Americans were affected by developments in the field of radio. Although radio had been invented around the turn
of the century, KDKA in Pittsburgh, the first commercial station, was not launched (by Westinghouse) until
1920. In November 1920, WWJ, another Westinghouse
station in Detroit, broadcast national election returns,
introducing Americans to live news coverage with its
announcement of Warren G. Harding’s elevation to the
White House. Hundreds of stations were built in the
next few years; by the end of the decade approximately
10 million American homes had radios.
Radio in the early 1920s was often a hobby, popular
in working-class families. Cheap kits were sold widely,
allowing any reasonably dexterous person to build a
simple crystal set. Often not-for-profit, stations were
mostly low-powered and local, oriented toward au-
Valentino, “the Sheik” In 1926 Rudolph Valentino appeared in
his last and most popular silent film, The Sheik, costarring the
swooning Vilma Banky.
An Exhilarating Decade
diences defined by social class, ethnicity, or religion.
Fraternal lodges and union locals often maintained
stations, and in large cities many national associations
filled the airwaves with foreign-language broadcasts.
Fundamentalist ministries such as Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute became an important presence on the air,
and so did Catholic organizations reaching out to Italian, Polish, Hispanic, and other non-WASP audiences.
This essentially local, amateurish approach to radio
broadcasting began to succumb to homogenizing national and commercial interests by the mid-twenties. A
new strategy of selling advertising time to pay for entertainment became well entrenched, greatly expanding
the scope of commercialization, turning performers
into employees of business sponsors, and encouraging
a trend toward the development of independent religious radio ministries. In 1926, the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) became the first major network,
followed the next year by the Columbia Broadcasting
System (CBS). Both figuratively and literally, the big
national networks overpowered local broadcasting, although some special-interest stations remained on the
air until the Great Depression (and a few even later).
With its relentless advertising of national brands and
its attractive programming, network broadcasting became one of the most powerful instruments of cultural
homogenization by the end of the twenties, and its influence would grow even mightier during the Depression (see Chapter 28).
The direction taken by the American radio industry owed much to Herbert Hoover, who, as Secretary
of Commerce in the early twenties, claimed regulatory
powers over the medium. In the mid-1920s Hoover coordinated a series of conferences that defined broadcasting as a business enterprise rather than a government
service, as many European nations defined the medium. In 1927, the Federal Radio Commission was established to regulate the expanding industry. Its influence
greatly strengthened national, as opposed to local and
special-interest, broadcasting.
Paralleling the rise of commercial radio, the motion picture industry flourished in the twenties, and
American filmmakers became the world’s leaders. The
growing demand for movies required larger and larger
capital investment, and by 1920 a film industry, centered in Hollywood, California, was well established.
The giant production companies that would dominate
the industry in future years, including Paramount,
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), Warner Brothers, and
Columbia were in existence by 1929. By the end of the
American Life in the 1920s
decade, 28,000 movie theaters were scattered throughout the nation; average weekly attendance at the movies had risen from 40 million in 1922 to 90 million in
1930. The Hollywood studios fostered a star system
that catered to an insatiable public appetite for news
of the romances, marriages, divorces, and extravagant
lifestyles of such legends of the silent screen as Charlie
Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Clara Bow, Douglas Fairbanks,
Rudolph Valentino, and Greta Garbo. In theaters across
the nation, these superstars competed for audiences
with Tom Mix and other cowboy heroes of the Western
movies. In 1927 Warner Brothers’ The Jazz Singer, the
first movie featuring synchronized speech and music,
assured the success of the “talkies.”
Both radio and the movies reflected the nation’s
love of music and did much to form public tastes. It
was fitting that the first widely viewed talkie featured
jazz; musically, the twenties belonged to jazz, and the
decade was appropriately labeled “The Jazz Age.” In
many ways the most significant contribution of African
Americans to culture in the twentieth century, jazz was
neither African nor American; it was distinctly African
American, a product of the melting pot. The precedents
for jazz can be found in the blues, sad songs that fea-
Chapter 26
The Jazz Age In this photograph, from about 1922, the great
young jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong poses with “King Oliver’s
Creole Jazz Band.” Groups such as this regularly performed in
Harlem’s Cotton Club, but (apart from those who waited on
tables and washed dishes) they were the only black people who
could enter such clubs with their all-white audiences.
tured “blue” notes that were deviations from the tempered scale; and in ragtime, the heavily syncopated
music of the early twentieth century that imposed African motifs on the American brass band tradition.
A musical form characterized by improvisation and
a syncopated rhythm, the word “jazz” most likely began as a euphemism for sexual intercourse. It captured
liberated youth’s free spirit and lust for life, as did the
decade’s most popular dances such as the Charleston.
Born before the turn of the century in New Orleans
(where talented black musicians found work performing in brothels patronized by well-to-do white men),
the closing of that city’s famed red-light district known
as Storyville as a wartime “purity” measure in 1917 hastened the spread of jazz up the Mississippi River to
Memphis and St. Louis, and from there to the cities of
the North — above all, to Chicago and to New York’s
Harlem. Enthusiasm for jazz throughout the American
population was also spread by another of the great con-
736 Chapter 26
sumer-oriented machines of the era, the phonograph.
Jazz recordings, which the white businessmen who ran
the industry disparagingly called “race records” until
they realized how much money they brought in, sold
equally well among whites and blacks, giving a strong
boost to African American racial pride. A generation of
creative black musicians — including W. C. Handy, Joe
“King” Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, and Louis Armstrong
— became musical legends in the twenties. Oliver’s allblack Creole Jazz Band made its recording debut in 1923.
The band’s featured cornetist, Armstrong, was the quintessential jazz soloist, and during his long life became
known as the jazz ambassador to the world. Harlem’s
Cotton Club became a magnet for affluent whites excited by jazz’s exuberant, “primitive” vigor — although
it was a bitter commentary on the era’s racism that the
only African Americans allowed in the Cotton Club were
the great performers themselves and the menial service
personnel. (It was, incidentally, run by the Mafia.)
Many of the most popular songs of the decade were
introduced in Broadway musicals. Russian-born Irving
Berlin collaborated with the Marx Brothers to produce
his first great musical hit, The Coconuts (1925), but the
most prolific and talented musical writer of the decade was George Gershwin. Gershwin’s greatest hit was
probably the song “Suwannee,” sung by Al Jolson in
The Jazz Singer. But he teamed with his brother, Ira, to
write a steady stream of hit musicals, including Lady Be
Good (1924), American in Paris (1925), Funny Face (1927),
and Strike Up the Band (1927). Gershwin displayed his
virtuosity by writing a highly acclaimed semiclassical
symphony in jazz style, Rhapsody in Blue (1924). A number of white performers, including Benny Goodman
and Bix Beiderbecke, became accomplished jazzmen
by playing alongside black performers.
The popular dancing boom of the early twentieth
century expanded into a full-blown craze in the twenties. Enterprising entrepreneurs built dance halls all
over the country, ranging from the elegant Roseland and
Savoy in New York City to rural juke joints in the South.
Civic groups and social clubs sponsored dances; some
public dance halls attracted stag men by selling tickets
for dances with female partners. Variety magazine estimated that more than 60,000 dance bands performed
throughout the nation during the twenties. Almost
without exception, black performers introduced the
decade’s new dances — the Black Bottom, the Shinny,
and the Varsity Drag, in addition to the Charleston.
Increased leisure time induced a voracious appetite
for news. The New York Daily News, established in 1919,
An Exhilarating Decade
quickly became the nation’s leading tabloid, reporting
sensational crime and sex stories. True Story magazine,
begun by Bernarr McFadden in 1919, had 300,000 readers in 1923 and more than two million by 1926, titillating readers with articles such as “The Confessions of a
Chorus Girl” and “What I Told My Daughter the Night
Before Her Marriage.” Americans embraced one fad after another — mah-jongg, crossword puzzles, contract
bridge, the Charleston, beauty contests, roller skating,
dance marathons, and flagpole sitting, in which intrepid publicity-seekers vied to see who could remain
perched atop a flagpole the longest.
Most of all, the twenties was the golden age of American sports, peopled by a generation of legendary heroes.
Robert Tyre (“Bobby”) Jones, winner of golf ’s “grand
slam” in 1926, and “Big Bill” Tilden, the first great American tennis champion, piqued popular interest in those
formerly aristocratic sports. At the other end of the
social spectrum, in 1921 draft-dodging American Jack
Dempsey drew boxing’s first million-dollar gate (and
loud boos) in defending his heavyweight championship
by knocking out the French war hero Georges Carpentier. Dempsey’s second loss to Gene Tunney in 1927 was
witnessed by over 100,000 spectators and grossed well
over $2 million. Heroes abounded — not only Tunney
but also Harold “Red” Grange, the “Galloping Ghost” of
the University of Illinois and the Chicago Bears; Johnny
Weissmuller, who set scores of world swimming records
before retiring to portray Tarzan in the movies; and
even Man-o’-War, the magnificent chestnut horse that
was unbeatable in 1920. There were also sports heroines,
reflecting the changing image of women in the twenties.
Helen Wills sparked an interest in women’s tennis, and
in 1926 Gertrude Ederle shocked the world by breaking
the male record for swimming the English Channel.
The undisputed king of sports in the twenties was
baseball. Automobiles, radios, and leisure time helped
secure its place as “the national pastime.” The decade
had begun horribly for baseball following the Black Sox
scandal in 1919, but better times were just ahead. That
same year the New York Yankees paid a record $100,000
to purchase the contract of young pitcher-outfielder
George Herman Ruth, Jr., from the financially troubled
Boston Red Sox (bringing down, so Sox fans believed, a
curse on the team. It did not win another World Series
until 2004).
The “Babe” became the supreme sports idol of the
twenties, a man whose larger-than-life talent and personality made him instantly recognizable throughout
the nation. He hit over forty home runs in eleven sea-
Chapter 26
American Life in the 1920s
sons between 1920 and 1932 and a record sixty home
runs in 1927. His offensive skills — which were aided by
the introduction of the “live ball” — changed the basic strategy of baseball, from a game of pitchers’ duels
and strategic singles to a contest of muscular sluggers,
swinging for homers. A child of recent immigrants
who had learned the game while being brought up in
a Baltimore home for wayward boys, Ruth was a funloving, affable, bighearted man with awesome appetites for food, alcohol, and sex. When the Babe collapsed in 1925 from a reported attack of influenza and
indigestion (apparently the real cause was syphilis), the
nation waited expectantly for reports on the state of
his health. Throughout the decade, between nine and
ten million baseball fans each year flocked to see Ruth
and a long list of heroes only slightly less formidable.
Winds of Change
Political reform languished in the twenties, but there
was no moratorium on debate about American society. A majority of the decade’s social activists, like most
Babe Ruth Playing against the now-defunct Washington Senators, “the Babe” crosses home plate after slugging another home
run. Ruth was the most beloved baseball player of the 1920s.
of its politicians, worried about the changes that had
been wrought during the Progressive Era and sought
a return to an earlier, more orderly time. The dangers
that frightened these embattled conservatives were not
illusions. Protestant American culture had fallen under siege, beset by a science that undermined its most
cherished beliefs, taunted by a young intelligentsia who
flaunted a new morality (and successfully peddled it to
the younger generation), and overwhelmed in the burgeoning cities by immigrants with cultural values far
different from those of the nation’s earlier settlers. In
short, the cultural clash of the 1920s was not contrived
— it was real. Some of the decade’s debates would appear trivial in the years of depression and war that followed, but most of the cultural quarrels of the twenties
would resurface throughout the twentieth century.
The New Science
Perhaps the most curious folk hero of the twenties was
Albert Einstein. From the moment of his first visit to the
United States in 1921, the mild-mannered and eccentric
physicist captivated the American public. The disheveled, odd-looking Einstein became
synonymous with the word genius.
Few scientists, much less the general public, understood Einstein’s
theories of relativity, made public
in 1905 and 1916 and formulated
in the deceptively simple equation
E = mc2. When the scientist visited
President Harding in 1921, the New
York Times reported in a comically
understated headline: “Einstein
Idea Puzzles Harding.”
Einstein’s theory of relativity illustrated that time, space, and motion are not absolute, but rather are
relative to the observer and the observer’s motion. Relativity posited
a radically different universe from
the orderly machine described
by Isaac Newton more than two
hundred years earlier. The Einsteinian universe made possible predictions, however, that Newtonian
theory failed to anticipate. In May
1919, British astronomers at the
Palomar Observatory in California
confirmed that the mass of the sun
738 Chapter 26
caused light rays to curve as they passed, thus slowing
time and bending space as predicted by the general theory of relativity. Newton’s clocklike and orderly universe
was being replaced by a universe that seemed shockingly relativistic to nonscientists.
Even more unsettling, though at first little known,
was the new theory of the quantum, first formulated in
1900 by Max Planck, a German physicist. Planck demonstrated that energy is emitted discontinuously in
certain discrete amounts, or quanta. Based on Planck’s
finding, a mathematical theory called quantum mechanics was worked out beginning in the 1920s that permitted a widening inquiry into the nature of the atom
and of subatomic matter. Quantum mechanics uncovered a world of particles whose movement is unpredictable and not bound by the rules that were assumed to
govern all matter. Einstein was troubled by the randomness of the theory; convinced that God “does not play
dice” with the universe, he would spend the last thirty
years of his life (he died in 1955) unsuccessfully seeking
a “unified field theory” to explain both the behavior of
subatomic particles and the geometry of gravity.
If physicists were undermining older understandings in profound ways, other intellectual challenges
came with stunning rapidity as the twentieth century
began. Nowhere were they more disturbing than in the
field of psychology. The guru of the intellectuals of the
twenties was the Austrian psychologist Sigmund Freud,
who explored the influence of hidden drives and sexual
repression on behavior. Freud and his colleague Carl
Jung (who later broke with Freud) both lectured in the
United States in 1909, but psychoanalysis gained its
first broad hearing — and acceptance among influential segments of the public — in the twenties. The idea
that areas of human behavior lie outside of conscious
control suggested that humans were not primarily
rational beings — a sentiment shared by many in the
wake of the horrors of World War I.
The rise of behavioral psychology was more important in the universities than psychoanalysis was,
but it was no less unsettling to older understandings
of human conduct. As explained by the American experimenter John B. Watson, the human personality
responded predictably to clear stimuli, and Watson
boasted that, given a free hand, he could bend any
child’s personality in whatever direction he chose. The
irrational, conditioned response of the human personality, as asserted by behaviorists like Watson, opened
new vistas for advertisers and propagandists, but it
deeply troubled those who believed in a world of rea-
An Exhilarating Decade
son and absolute truth. As the new findings in science
and psychology became popularized, all time-honored
values were increasingly subject to reexamination.
Novelist Willa Cather wrote, “The world broke in two
in 1922 or thereabouts.”
The Literature of Revolt
American literature in the twenties launched a withering attack on formalism, the idea that eternal verities and natural laws governed society. The decade’s
artistic modernism was sweeping, embracing new
forms of writing such as free verse poetry and streamof-consciousness novels. The intellectuals of the twenties viewed themselves as a generation liberated from
the constraints of culture, and they were relentless
critics of the foibles of the times — the dehumanizing
effects of modern life, the evils of big business and factory working conditions, the reign of materialism and
greed, the American fascination with success. Coining
a memorable expression, writer Gertrude Stein termed
the disenchanted artists of the postwar years a “lost
generation,” groping for meaning in a collapsing world.
Several avant-garde American cultural centers
flourished during the decade, including the South Side
in Chicago and Greenwich Village in New York City. But
a number of important American writers felt more at
home (and found that they could live more cheaply) in
Europe than in America. Gertrude Stein, who moved
to Paris in 1903, and Ezra Pound, who lived successively in London, Paris, and Italy, were the Lost Generation’s mentors, championing experimentation in
poetry and prose. The foremost expatriate poet was St.
Louis-born T. S. Eliot, who eventually became a British
citizen. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land (1922) lamented
the shattering of Western civilization by the ravages of
World War I.
Increasingly recognized as the most talented of the
expatriates was Ernest Hemingway, who was encouraged by Gertrude Stein while he was working in Paris
as a reporter for the Kansas City Star. Hemingway
wrote of American expatriates in Paris in his first novel,
The Sun Also Rises (1926). His second novel, A Farewell
to Arms (1929), portrayed the irrationality of wartime
life. Hemingway’s characters struggled to find meaning
in a world filled with capriciousness and tragedy.
While many authors in the twenties wrestled with
the intellectual unraveling of the world, others challenged the American character. Baltimore journalist
H. L. Mencken raised the art of criticism to new heights
American Life in the 1920s
of elegant, witty vitriol. From 1914 to 1923 Mencken
edited The Smart Set, an avant-garde magazine with
a small circulation, but in 1925 he and drama critic
George Jean Nathan founded and began editing The
American Mercury, a large-circulation magazine designed, in his words, for the “civilized minority.” Walter
Lippmann judged Mencken to be “the most powerful
influence on this whole generation of educated people.”
Mencken’s iconoclasm and criticism of middle-class
America and its “booboisie” betrayed an undiscriminating elitism that reflected both his social-Darwinist
view of life and his libertarian opposition to any restrictions on free thought and expression. An outspoken agnostic, he jeered at religious faith as “an illogical
belief in the occurrence of the improbable,” and he
denounced democracy because it put power into the
hands of “dunderheads, cowards, trimmers, frauds, and
cads.” Puritanism, long a revered part of the American
past, became in Mencken’s words “the haunting fear
that someone, somewhere might be happy.” Mencken
and his fellow debunkers viewed “Puritanism” as a
repugnant part of the nation’s heritage, so distorting
the word that decades passed before it regained any
resemblance to historical reality. Asked why he continued to live in an America that he ridiculed so relentlessly, Mencken retorted: “Why do men visit zoos?” In
the pages of The American Mercury and his Baltimore
Sun newspaper columns, Mencken lustily championed
iconoclastic writers such as Sinclair Lewis, Theodore
Dreiser, and Eugene O’Neill, and hammered with caustic wit at Prohibition, the South, fundamentalism, and
practically everything else except German music and
Chesapeake Bay cuisine.
Sinclair Lewis’s 1920 best-seller, Main Street, depicted the monotony and meanness in a small Minnesota town. This he followed with a series of novels
laying bare other American duplicities. Babbitt (1922)
mercilessly attacked boosterism and the hollowness of
success, and Arrowsmith (1924) caricatured the medical profession. Elmer Gantry (1927), Lewis’s most unforgiving exposé, skewered revivalistic religion. It was
the story of a brazen ex-football player who became
a successful evangelist by flaunting his physical attractiveness, preaching half-plagiarized sermons, and
shamelessly promoting himself. Denounced by church
leaders, the novel captured the religious hypocrisy and
materialistic greed that the intellectuals of the twenties labeled philistinism. Lewis insisted that his books
were not muckraking and that they underscored the
strengths of American character, as well as the weak-
Chapter 26
nesses. In 1930, he became the first American to receive
a Nobel Prize for literature.
Probably the best-known American writer in the
twenties was F. Scott Fitzgerald; his third novel, generally considered his best, The Great Gatsby, won critical acclaim in 1925. The story of Jay Gatsby’s quest
for wealth and social standing, the book described
the hero’s defilement by the hypocrisy and greed that
characterized the decade’s seemingly carefree high
society. Fitzgerald’s books earned him sufficient fame
and money to make him a part of the hedonistic but
hauntingly empty society he chronicled. He and his
glamorous wife, Zelda, came to be symbols of the Jazz
Age — extravagant, rebellious, and haunted by his alcoholism and financial failures and by her mental illness.
Playwright Eugene O’Neill explored psychological
and sociological uncertainties. O’Neill won a Pulitzer
Prize in 1920 for his play Beyond the Horizon; he wrote
seventeen other plays during the decade. O’Neill’s work
was deeply influenced by Freud, and his critics agreed
that he was at his best when his characters were tragic
or at least unhappy. He introduced expressionism to
the American stage in The Emperor Jones (1921), a tour
de force of imaginative theater.
Other talented writers were ending and beginning
careers during the twenties. Theodore Dreiser, already
acknowledged as a master of literary realism, produced
his most ambitious novel in 1925, An American Tragedy.
Other authors wrote penetrating novels with regional
settings: Edith Wharton studied New York society
in The Age of Innocence (1920); Ellen Glasgow wrote
of Virginia in Barren Ground (1925); and Willa Cather,
whose earlier books had described the frontier experience, wrote movingly about the Catholic culture of the
Southwest in Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927).
The New Morality and the New Woman
Some of the titles given to the 1920s — ”The Age of
the Flapper,” “The Era of Flaming Youth,” “The Roaring Twenties” — reflected a perception that the basic
values of American society were changing and that the
rebellion was being led by the young and by women.
Among the popular songs of the decade were “Hot Lips,”
“I Need Lovin’,” and “Burning Kisses,” and Flaming Youth
was a popular film. While the actual “flaming youth”
were never more than a small minority in American society, they were visible and, to some extent, emulated.
The 1920s’ image of the assertive young woman, or
flapper (Mencken coined the word), seriously challenged
740 Chapter 26
traditional moral values. She smoked cigarettes, danced
the Charleston, listened to jazz, took joyrides in automobiles, and flaunted her sexuality. By the end of the
twenties, flapper styles were featured in the Sears catalog as well as on the cover of The Smart Set. Conservatives saw symptoms of moral decay everywhere around
them. One preacher warned that if skirts climbed at the
same rate for two more decades, the hem line would be
“fifteen feet above the head.” Older Americans deplored
the sensuous jazz music, the wild dancing, and the petting parties favored by the younger generation.
The moral revolution of the twenties was tied to
the broad social transformation of the decade. As a
majority of Americans became city dwellers, they discovered that the urban environment weakened the ties
of the extended family. In addition, the ever-expanding public school system came to assume many of the
child-training duties that had formerly been family responsibilities. High school enrollment doubled in the
1920s, as more working-class teenagers remained in
school rather than entering the workforce early to help
support their families, and increasingly young people
were introduced to ideas and values at odds with their
parents’. Of course, most public school teachers in the
1920s were themselves quite conservative, but many
parents for the first time came to sense that school was
displacing family authority in some realms, and religious conservatives made their first concerted effort
to control the intellectual content of the classroom by
passing laws banning the teaching of evolution.
Women led the dramatic change in lifestyle in the
twenties. The availability of consumer goods helped
emancipate women from the drudgery of housework.
The automobile was an ideal laboratory for sexual experimentation, and in it one could escape the community-enforced moral code of the small town. Perhaps
most important, the dissemination of information
about birth control, promoted vigorously by Margaret
Sanger, somewhat undermined the pillar of the double
standard of morality, woman’s fear of pregnancy. Birth
control gave women new sexual freedom and also
contributed to a declining national birth rate and the
lengthening of women’s life expectancy.
The intellectual oracle of the new morality was
Sigmund Freud. To be sure, few Americans really understood Freud, but psychoanalysis encouraged uninhibited discussions of sex that would have been
unthinkable a decade earlier. At the popular level, the
lesson read into Freud was the urgency of escaping
from sexual repressions.
An Exhilarating Decade
To some extent, the changing role of women was
tied to the perception that women had become financially less dependent on their husbands. Actually,
women made few economic gains during the decade.
They entered the workforce in unprecedented numbers during World War I, but most of them left again
after the war. The image of the economically self-reliant working girl of the twenties is largely a myth. The
total number of women in the labor force of the country rose from 8.3 million in 1920 to 10.6 in 1930, but that
represented a gain of less than one percentage point
— to 23.6 percent of the total labor force. The number
of married women working did increase significantly
during the decade, from 23 percent of women workers
to 28.9 percent. But most women continued to live in
traditional families and to work in low-paying female
occupations — nurses, teachers, secretaries, sales
clerks, waitresses, and domestic servants. Women did
make up a majority of those employed in the emerging
field of social work, and many held leadership positions in the profession.
The triumph of woman suffrage defused the women’s rights movement. Actually, the women’s movement had suffered a bitter split before ratification of
the Nineteenth Amendment. The moderate National
American Woman Suffrage Association, headed by
Carrie Chapman Catt, claimed most of the credit for
pushing through the suffrage amendment by the narrowest of margins. After ratification the association
transformed itself into the League of Women Voters,
losing much of its feminist identification. Catt declared
that the suffrage amendment had “nearly completed
the emancipation of women in America.”
A second, more radical feminist movement was led
by Alice Paul, who insisted that the women’s movement had “just begun.” Paul’s confrontational tactics
antagonized moderate women’s rights reformers. Her
group, known after 1915 as the National Woman’s Party,
set a new agenda for feminism in 1923 with the demand
that Congress pass an Equal Rights Amendment that
would eliminate all legal distinctions between the sexes. Her efforts were largely ineffectual, at least partly
because many feared that such an amendment would
annul hard-won progressive legislation protecting the
rights of working women.
The “New Negro”
During the twenties the total African American population grew by more than 1.5 million, but the number of
American Life in the 1920s
rural blacks fell by 300,000. This difference was reflected in the massive migration of blacks out of the South
into the cities of the North, which had begun during
World War I and accelerated in the twenties. Newly arrived blacks continued to find discrimination in northern cities almost as pervasive as in the South, but they
had greater economic opportunity in the North and a
new freedom to express rising expectations. The political implications of the black migration were illustrated
in 1928 by the election of Republican Oscar DePriest, a
black alderman from Chicago, to the House of Representatives. He was the first black elected to Congress
since the collapse of Reconstruction and the first ever
from outside the South.
New leaders and a revised self-image called the “New
Negro” emerged in the black community after World
War I. Booker T. Washington died in 1915, and political leadership among blacks passed to the National
Association for the Advancement of Colored People
and W. E. B. Du Bois, editor of The Crisis and the organization’s unchallenged intellectual leader. The NAACP
continued to battle in the courts for the enforcement
of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, but had
few successes.
Harlem emerged in the twenties as a center of black
thought and culture. For the first time, a group of black
writers gained national recognition. In Harlem Shadows, poems published in 1922 by Jamaica-born Claude
McKay, the themes of black pride and defiance set the
tone for a movement labeled the Harlem Renaissance.
An anthology published in 1925, entitled The New Negro,
introduced a variety of talented writers, including poet
Langston Hughes and author Jean Toomer. Toomer’s
collection of stories, Cane (1923), told of black life in rural Georgia in the 1880s and was considered by many
to be the finest literary achievement of the Harlem Renaissance.
Marcus Garvey became a symbol of black aspirations in the twenties. A Jamaican, Garvey formed the
United Negro Improvement Association two years before coming to the United States in 1916. By 1920, the
association had over thirty chapters in the United
States, and by 1923, Garvey claimed it had 6 million
members. The membership was probably never so
large, but Garvey’s newspaper, Negro World, was widely
read by blacks, particularly among the urban working
classes. Garvey preached black pride and condemned
American society as too racist for redemption. Urging
blacks to leave America to establish “an African nation for Negroes” in Liberia, he organized the Black
Chapter 26
The Harlem Renaissance African American painter Malvin Gray
Johnson, one of the notable talents of the Harlem Renaissance,
painted this self-portrait in 1934. Largely dependent on wealthy
white patrons, the Harlem Renaissance suffered a severe setback
during the hard times of the 1930s, but it left a lasting imprint on
American culture and life.
Star Steamship Line and sold stock to thousands of
Garvey was pictured as a charlatan and a buffoon
by his detractors, including many black leaders who
believed that integration and constitutional equality were the proper black agenda. Garvey’s penchant
for uniforms and parading made him an easy target
for ridicule. More crippling to his reputation was the
collapse of the Black Star Steamship Line. Convicted
of mail fraud and confined in a federal penitentiary in
1925, Garvey was deported to Jamaica in 1927. While
Garvey remains an enigmatic figure, he clearly tapped
an emerging spirit of black pride. In many respects,
Garvey and his organization were black counterparts
to the fraternal and “booster” organizations in con-
742 Chapter 26
An Exhilarating Decade
temporary white society. Groups
such as the Shriners, the Odd Fellows, and the UNIA all provided
identity, importance, and mission
amidst the impersonal bustle of
the modern city.
As in other periods of rapid social change, defenders of older
values fought back. Many of the
restrictive measures of the twenties — Prohibition, immigration
quotas, antievolution legislation
— were tied to the nation’s Protestant heritage, but they were also
products of popular democracy.
Most intellectuals in the twenties condemned these efforts to
regulate society as unwarranted
assaults on personal liberty, but
to many ordinary Americans they
were simply democracy in action.
William Jennings Bryan, the old
hero of populist democracy, cast
his defense of the Tennessee law
prohibiting the teaching of evolution in the public schools in just such terms: “The taxpayers must decide what shall be taught. . . . So a man
can believe anything he pleases but he has no right to
teach it against the protest of his employers.” In one
sense, Prohibition was a quintessential example of the
majority trying to rule. During his visit to the United
States in 1921, Albert Einstein was asked if he found
Prohibition an intolerable violation of personal liberty. As naïve an idealist in politics as he was a genius
in physics, he replied incredulously, “How could that
be in America? You have a republic. . . . Nothing that
is done by a democratic Government could be done
against freedom.” In the minds of many Americans,
moral legislation was the people’s answer to the condescension of intellectuals and the immorality of foreign radicals.
The major conservative counterattacks were over
by 1925. In some cases, including the efforts to restrict
immigration, unions, and booze, conservatives attained their objectives, thus allaying anxieties. On the
Modernism Through Fundamentalist Eyes This caricature,
published in a widely read fundamentalist magazine, expressed
the alarm and disdain many conservative American Christians of
the 1920s felt about the mainstream churches’ embrace of theological and social modernity.
other hand, in 1925 the antievolution campaign permanently stalled.
Religious Diversity and Confrontation
In 1920 the nation held vast reservoirs of people clinging to traditional beliefs and values. A national religious census in 1926 reported that the country had
232,154 congregations claiming nearly 55 million members. But the depth of religious faith in the nation was
hardly captured by those statistics. In 1927, President
Calvin Coolidge wrote to an Episcopal Sunday School
teacher in Washington, D.C., “The foundations of our
society and Government rest so much on the teachings
of the Bible that it would be difficult to support them if
Chapter 26
American Life in the 1920s
faith in these teachings should cease to be practically
universal in our country.”
The Growing Catholic Church
Though a majority of Americans did not realize it, those
values were nowhere more deeply rooted than in the
immigrant-swollen American Catholic church. The
church passed 20 million members in 1929, making
it nearly three times as large as any single Protestant
denomination. Still struggling to digest the millions of
immigrants of varying nationalities who had arrived in
the past twenty-five years, the Catholic Church developed a strong hierarchy. Having survived earlier fears
that the church might splinter as a result of “Americanizing” influences, during the twenties American
Catholicism was tightly controlled by the clergy. The
laity seemed content, in the words of Pope Pius X (19031914), “like a docile flock, to follow the Pastors.”
In some Slavic, Italian, and German areas the
church remained a bastion of Old World culture, but
increasingly the Irish-American hierarchy fostered an
English-speaking communion through parochial education. In 1926 the American Catholic church operated nearly 5,500 parochial school systems enrolling 1.8
million students; generally English was the language
of instruction. While the expansion of parochial education speeded acculturation, it also provided a buffer against the dominant Protestant culture and, more
important as the decade wore on, against secular values. On many controversial social questions, Catholics
were more conservative than their Protestant neighbors. For instance, Catholic leaders strongly opposed
woman suffrage, fearing that it would alter the traditional role of women.
Despite their number, American Catholics remained,
to some extent, an alienated minority. Partly, Catholics
were separated from their Protestant neighbors by re-
“The Secret of Success,” 1925
The United American, a popular magazine,
had the following advice for immigrants joining the American workforce.
The secret of success is not a secret. Nor is it
something hard to secure.
To become more successful, become
ligious culture — by homes that were decorated with
statues and pictures of saints, by frequent oral confession, by meatless Fridays, and by celebrations of holy
days that had been “sanitized” from Protestantism by
the Puritans. Partly they were separated by the vast
network of institutions that the church had founded — not only schools but also hundreds of hospitals
and orphanages. And partly Catholics were isolated
by prejudice. Catholics and Protestants continued to
rouse mutual suspicions, and the decade’s legislation
restricting immigration and prohibiting drinking was
aimed at Catholic immigrants and their culture. From
their side, many Catholics felt conscience-bound to
keep their children out of the “Protestant-dominated”
or “secular” public schools. The Catholic Church opposed both immigration restriction and Prohibition,
although the slowing of immigration was probably a
blessing to the church, allowing it time to digest a century’s growth.
However conservative its overall role in American
society might be, during the 1920s the Catholic Church
was going through its own internal battles over the
pace of modernization. “The people of the United
States must be Americans or something else. They
cannot serve two masters,” declared Chicago’s Archbishop Mundelein — himself a fifth-generation GermanAmerican — in throwing the church’s influence against
the ethnic isolation to which many “hyphenatedAmerican” Catholics clung during the twenties. In Chicago and other “melting-pot” cities, church authorities
tried to discourage ethnic fragmentation by redrawing
parish lines and demanding that English be the language of preaching, teaching, and ordinary parish business. (Latin, of course, was still the liturgical language.)
The largely Irish- and German-background episcopate
was openly suspicious of the “superstition,” even “paganism,” that they detected in the street processions
more efficient. Do the little things better. So
work that you will require less supervision.
The least supervision is needed by the person
who makes the fewest mistakes.
Do what you can do and what you
should do for the institution for which you
are working, and do it in the right way, and
the size of your income will take care of itself.
Let your aim ever be to better the work
you are doing without bettering yourself.
The thoughts that you think, the words
that you speak, and the deeds you perform
are making you either better or worse. Realize with [Victorian poet William] Henley that
you are the master of your fate and the captain of your soul. You can be what you will be.
744 Chapter 26
and saints’-day festivals that many Italian Catholics
had brought to America from their native Naples or
Sicily, making the Little Italies of American cities noisy
and colorful. Church authorities’ attempts to discourage these celebrations caused great bitterness and even
the threat of schism in the Italian and Polish communities, and were not entirely successful.
Despite these tensions within the church, increasing numbers of American Catholics entered the post–
World War I years with a new confidence about their
place in American society. When the church’s International Eucharistic Congress was held in Chicago in 1926,
for the first time coming to America, it attracted nine
cardinals and was attended by an estimated 500,000
Catholics. For five days the display of pageantry received national attention. The church entered a new
“brick-and-mortar” period in 1920. Scores of impressive new cathedrals were constructed, and between
1916 and 1926 the value of the average Catholic church
building more than doubled.
Successes and Challenges
for American Judaism
The Jewish community grew from slightly more than 1
million in 1900 to nearly 3.5 million by 1920, with nearly
half living in New York City. Between 1916 and 1926 the
number of synagogues doubled, to more than 3,100. Jewish congregations were independent, and in the 1920s
only about 20 percent of them were formally united
with one of the unions representing the three branches
of American Judaism — Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox. Nonetheless, the three theological wings of Judaism were defined by networks of synagogues and by
social and benevolent organizations that served Jews of
diverse ethnic and economic backgrounds. Like Catholics, many American Jews continued to live in insulated
enclaves in the twenties. Jewish congregations in the
United States operated more than 500 school systems
enrolling 70,000 daily students and another 70,000 who
received religious training one day a week.
Many Jews, regardless of whether they were orthodox, conservative, or reform — and even regardless of
how religiously observant they were — felt strong concerns about the homogenizing, assimilationist pressures of modern American society. Their response to
these trends echoed the worries of countless Catholics
and Protestants, that their young people were being
sucked into a secularist, materialistic culture devoid
of the anchor of traditional values. “What will become
of our children?” asked a Chicago rabbi in 1925, sound-
An Exhilarating Decade
ing much like his conservative Christian peers. “Do we
want them to grow up men and women who have an
understanding of the problems of life, who know the
history of their ancestors, who are proud Jews, and who
will be a credit to us? Our children are running away
from us. . . . Let us build houses of worship, social centers and Hebrew schools, and let us provide the means
for the coming generation to learn and to know.”
Zionism — the international movement to create a
Jewish homeland in Palestine — continued to flourish
in the United States. By 1926 the Zionist Organization
of America claimed 71,000 members; between 1918 and
1926 American Jews contributed more than $15 million
to support various projects in the Holy Land. In the
years after World War I American Jews also contributed more than $67 million to aid European Jews dislocated by the war and by postwar persecution in Russia,
Poland, and Romania. Jewish self-consciousness was
heightened by the virulent resurgence of anti-Semitism,
most visible in Henry Ford’s newspaper, the Dearborn
Independent, and in the rise of a frightening new version
of the Ku Klux Klan. Anti-Semitism was deep-rooted in
Western history, but it was bolstered in 1920s America
by nativist prejudice and fears that linked Jews with political radicalism, as well as by the sheer number and
visibility of Jews in American society.
Protestant Modernism
and Fundamentalism
Liberal Protestantism was the segment of American religion most willing to embrace modernism but at the
same time most buffeted by the rapid intellectual and
social changes of the twenties. The optimistic hopes of
the social gospel, like those of progressivism in general,
seemed out of place in the postwar world. As theological liberals strove to square their beliefs with scientific
thought — the magnificent Riverside Church built in
New York City during the twenties included on its west
portal the carved figures of Charles Darwin and Albert
Einstein — they increasingly found themselves under
attack from both the left and the right. By the mid-1920s
a growing group of academic agnostics, calling themselves humanists, labeled modernism a “half way reform”
that only “flirts with science.” In The Twilight of the Gods,
social scientist Harry Elmer Barnes advised that “nothing better could happen to American religion than for
progressive young divines in Methodism to forget about
Jesus.” In turn, liberal churchmen warned that humanists would find it impossible to preserve hope and a belief in values in a world purged of a personal God.
Chapter 26
American Life in the 1920s
At the other end of the spectrum, Protestant fundamentalists waged war on liberals for abandoning the
doctrine of inerrancy, the belief that the Bible was absolutely precise and free from all factual error. Conservative Princeton scholar J. Gresham Machen argued in
his book Christianity and Liberalism (1923) that the liberals’ abandonment of “one Christian doctrine after another” had created a new religion “so entirely different
from Christianity as to belong in a distinct category.”
Liberal churchmen vigorously defended themselves against fundamentalism. In a famous sermon
preached in 1922 that ultimately cost him his pastorate at the First Presbyterian Church of New York, “Shall
the Fundamentalists Win?” Harry Emerson Fosdick, a
professor at Union Theological Seminary, warned that
fundamentalism was “immeasurable folly.” Arguing
that religious faith had nothing to fear from “scientific
thought” and specifically embracing evolution, Fosdick
called for a progressive Christianity that “saves us from
the necessity of apologizing for immature states in the
development of the biblical revelation.”
The modernist-fundamentalist conflict divided two
of the largest northern Protestant denominations, the
Northern Baptist Convention and the Presbyterian
Church in the United States of America. Until 1925,
conservatives controlled the denominational boards
and agencies in both churches, but there was a growing concern that liberals had undue influence on the
missions supported by the churches. In the early twenties conservatives conducted minor purges of liberals.
An Obituary for William Jennings
Bryan, 1925
H. L. Mencken attended the Scopes trial in
Dayton, Tennessee, and wrote scathing reports
for the Baltimore Sun. None of those articles,
however, better captured the venom of Mencken’s pen, or the condescension he felt for rural
America, than an article he wrote reflecting on
the death of William Jennings Bryan.
There was something peculiarly fitting in the
fact that [Bryan’s] last days were spent in a
one-horse Tennessee village, beating off the
flies and gnats, and that death found him
In 1925, moderates disenchanted by the increasingly
caustic tactics of the fundamentalists deserted the conservative alliance. Both denominations suffered defections, but by the end of the decade they had joined the
Methodists and Episcopalians in tolerating, if not promoting, more modernistic views of Christian theology.
The Scopes Trial
Generally taken as symbolic of the routing of fundamentalism in mainstream Protestantism in the twenties
was the trial of John T. Scopes in Dayton, Tennessee, in
July 1925. The trial contested a newly passed Tennessee
law prohibiting the teaching of evolution in the public schools. Five southern states passed antievolution
laws in the twenties, and similar bills were introduced
in states from Maine to California. Evolution became a
public focus for the modernist-fundamentalist controversy after half a century of theological debate because
conservative Protestants, many of them uneducated,
saw quite correctly that Darwin’s ideas had broad moral consequences. These Bible-believing masses insisted
that they were proprietors of the public schools and
demanded control of the curriculum.
When Scopes, a coach and science teacher at Central High School in Dayton, was charged with violating
the Tennessee antievolution law, the American Civil
Liberties Union retained several famous trial attorneys
to defend him, including Clarence Darrow. Himself a
fundamentalist Christian, and alarmed by the elitist
and social-Darwinist implications of evolutionary the-
there. The man felt at home in such simple
and Christian scenes. He liked people who
sweated freely, and were not debauched
by the refinements of the toilet. Making his
progress up and down the Main street of
little Dayton, surrounded by gaping primates
from the upland valleys of the Cumberland
Range, his coat laid aside, his bare arms and
hairy chest shining damply, his bald head
sprinkled with dust — so accoutred and on
display, he was obviously happy. He liked
getting up early in the morning, to the tune
of cocks crowing on the dunghill. He liked
the heavy, greasy victuals of the farmhouse
kitchen. He liked country lawyers, country
pastors, all country people. He liked country
sounds and country smells…
…His career brought him into contact
with the first men of his time; he preferred
the company of rustic ignoramuses. It was
hard to believe, watching him at Dayton,
that he had traveled, that he had been
received in civilized societies, that he had
been a high officer of state. He seemed only
a poor clod like those around him, deluded
by a childish theology, full of an almost
pathological hatred of all learning, all
human dignity, all beauty, all fine and noble
things. He was a peasant come home to the
746 Chapter 26
ory as it was often presented in the 1920s, the aging William Jennings Bryan offered his services to Tennessee as
prosecuting attorney. The stage was set for high drama.
The nine-day trial was a national spectacle, perfectly calculated to caricature fundamentalism. For the
first time, live radio broadcasts reported on the progress of a trial, and scores of reporters, including the
acerbic Mencken, roamed the village’s unpaved main
street, mingling with rural evangelists like T. T. Martin
from Blue Mountain, Mississippi, who had journeyed
to Dayton to “drive hell out of the high school.” The
scene, Mencken wrote to a friend, was “far worse than
anything you can imagine, even under the bowl. Every last scoundrel in sight is a Christian, including the
town Jew.”
Despite the sideshow surrounding the trial, the outcome was never in doubt. Convicted of violating the
law, Scopes received a token sentence. On appeal, the
Tennessee Supreme Court reversed the decision on a
technicality, refusing to rule on the larger question of
the constitutionality of the law. But the fundamentalist
cause had been subjected to a withering barrage of ridicule from journalists — above all Mencken, whose syndicated daily reports called the residents of Dayton “gaping
primates” and “yokels” and described their religious beliefs as “simian gabble.” After Bryan collapsed and died in
Dayton on the Sunday following the trial, Mencken wrote
an unusually nasty (even for him) obituary: “It was hard
to believe, watching him at Dayton, that he had traveled,
that he had been received in civilized societies, that he
had been a high officer of state. He seemed only a poor
clod like those around him, deluded by a childish theology, full of an almost pathological hatred of all learning,
all human dignity, all beauty, all fine and noble things. He
was a peasant come home to the dung-pile.” The antievolution movement had lost its celebrity leader, and many
felt that both Bryan and the fundamentalist movement
had been crushed in Dayton, never to rise again.
Enduring Revivalism
Despite its setbacks in the northern churches and the
embarrassment of the Scopes trial, fundamentalism
was far from dead. Conservative Protestantism remained the folk religion of the nation and continued to
show its strength in the revivals of Billy Sunday and other evangelists. Sunday dismissed evolution as “jackass
nonsense”: “If a minister believes and teaches evolution,
he is a stinking skunk, a hypocrite, and a liar.” Fearful of
the fate of the cities, fundamentalists believed that they
still controlled the countryside. Wrote preacher John
An Exhilarating Decade
Roach Straton in 1925: “The religious faith and the robust conservatism of the chivalric South and the sturdy
West will have to save America from the sins and shams
and shames that are now menacing her splendid life.”
The most striking new evangelist to appear on the
scene in the 1920s was Aimee Semple McPherson. A
flamboyant and attractive Pentecostal who held large
healing campaigns in the United States and Canada
in the early twenties, in 1923 “Sister Aimee” settled in
Los Angeles and built a large church, Angelus Temple,
which by 1930 had 12,000 members. In 1926 McPherson was allegedly kidnapped, only to reappear mysteriously a month later The press, and others, charged
that she spent the time with her lover and business
manager, and after an investigation she was charged
with conspiracy to obstruct justice and subornation
of perjury. The sensational case received more press
attention than any other event during the decade, but
in 1927 the charges against McPherson were dropped
and she emerged more popular than ever. Shortly
afterward, she founded a new denomination, the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, and remained a model for later generations of faith-healing
Nativist Fears and Immigration Restrictions
World War I slowed to a trickle the flow of European
(though not Mexican) immigrants, but the numbers of
transatlantic migrants rose again after the war, reaching 805,228 in 1921 and 706,896 in 1924. As before the
war, a majority of the Old World immigrants were laborers from the poverty-stricken southern and eastern
European countries. Nearly a third were Italians, and
Poles constituted the second-largest nationality.
Congressional restrictions on immigration prior to
the twenties had excluded certain “undesirable” groups
such as criminals and had reflected prevailing racist
prejudices by targeting Asians. In 1921, a quota system
was imposed for the first time, limiting the number of
immigrants from any nation to 3 percent of the citizens
of that nationality in the population in the census of
1910. The Immigration Act of 1924, culminating half a
century of nativist pressure, reduced quotas to 2 percent of a nationality’s numbers in the census of 1890,
before millions of southern and eastern Europeans had
begun flocking to America. Subsequent modifications
changed the quotas slightly and based them on the census of 1920, but, taken together, the acts sharply reduced
the tide of immigrants from Europe. The laws excluded
American Life in the 1920s
Aimee Semple McPherson The charismatic evangelist, who
combined faith healing and sex appeal, raises her hands and eyes
heavenward for this dramatic portrait shot, taken at an evangelistic meeting in London. A media star, long before television she
was in effect the first televangelist.
Japanese immigration but, apparently by oversight on
the part of nativist radicals, did not establish quotas
for the Western Hemisphere. Because of that omission
over 1.5 million immigrants from Canada and Mexico
made those countries the largest sources of new immigrants in the 1920s. These migrants did something to
replace the cheap labor supply cut off by exclusion.
The 1924 law highlighted the pervasiveness of racism, anti-Catholic prejudice, anti-Semitism, and fear of
political radicalism and signaled that most Americans
had lost faith in the ideal of a “melting pot.” Lothrop
Stoddard’s The Rising Tide of Color (1920) built on the
pseudo-scientific racism of Madison Grant’s earlier
works (see Chapter 22) in warning against “mongrelization.” Although some scholars challenged popular
Chapter 26
theories advocating racial purity and white supremacy,
most notably anthropologist Franz Boas of Columbia
University, not until Nazi Germany took this racist
thought to its horrifying conclusion of genocide in the
1930s and 1940s did such theories fall into general disrepute in America. In the 1920s, even many people who
considered themselves progressives were also racists
and scorned non-WASPs.
The Case against Foreigners
On April 15, 1920, two people were killed during a robbery at a shoe factory in South Braintree, Massachusetts.
Three weeks later, two Italian immigrants, Nicola Sacco
and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, were arrested and charged
with the murders. Before being executed on August 23,
1927, the two came to symbolize for conservative Americans the evils of foreign radicalism, and their case became a cause célèbre for liberals in America and indeed
all around the world. A body of protest literature grew
748 Chapter 26
out of the trial, including novels by Upton Sinclair and
John Dos Passos.
The facts of the case are still disputed. Both Sacco
and Vanzetti had probably been involved in the anarchist bombings of 1919, and most modern experts
think that Sacco was involved in the South Braintree
incident, but the evidence against them in the murder
trial was mostly circumstantial. Less problematic is
the question of whether the defendants received a fair
trial. The prosecution case was flimsy, but much more
dubious was the conduct of Judge Webster Thayer. In
private, the judge referred to the defendants as “those
anarchist bastards,” and his charge to the jury sounded
like an order to convict. Thayer denied eight appeals
before the two died in the electric chair.
The compelling question surrounding the Sacco and
Vanzetti case is why the trial of two Italian immigrants
for murder roused such an international furor. Clearly,
at issue was more than the guilt or innocence of Sacco
and Vanzetti. The defendants were Italian immigrants,
atheists, avowed anarchists, and pacifists. The case
stirred the deepest fears and fanned the most ardent
prejudices of the twenties. The injustice of their execution (which drew a public apology from Massachusetts
Governor Michael Dukakis in 1977 on the fiftieth anniversary of the pair’s death) was that the defendants
were tried on the basis of who they were rather than on
the facts of the case.
The Ku Klux Klan Defines “Pure Americanism”
The most flagrant example of the rising tide of “100
percent Americanism” in the twenties was the Ku Klux
Klan. Inspired by the Reconstruction organization, but
with a wider range of targets, the new KKK was founded
on Thanksgiving Night 1915 at Stone Mountain, Georgia. William Joseph Simmons, a salesman, part-time
preacher, and promoter of fraternal organizations, was
the first Imperial Wizard of the Invisible Empire. The
Klan grew slowly at first and in 1920 still had only about
5,000 members. In 1920, Simmons employed as publicity
experts Edward Clarke and Elizabeth Tyler, who introduced a pyramid recruiting system based on financial
incentives. The KKK membership mushroomed in the
early twenties, reaching a peak of around 4.5 million
members in 1924. The Klan was strongest in the South,
West Coast, and Midwest.
Like the Sacco and Vanzetti case, the rise of the
KKK defies simple explanation. To some extent, the
KKK built on the American love for fraternal organi-
An Exhilarating Decade
zations. During its peak years the Klan had around
500,000 women members, for many of them providing
“a way to get together and enjoy.” The Klan’s hierarchy of
“wizards,” “kleagles,” and “goblins,” and its robes, hoods,
and torchlight parades paralleled the pageantry that
attracted Americans to completely harmless and often
benevolent secret associations, like the Odd Fellows
and Elks. Furthermore, the KKK had been romanticized in the popular movie, The Birth of a Nation, and its
overt aims — ”to protect and maintain the distinctive
institutions, rights . . . and ideals of a pure Americanism”
— unquestionably lured many responsible citizens into
membership. In many localities the Klan’s membership
was dominated by respectable middle-class citizens (a
majority nonfundamentalists) who sincerely wanted to
improve their communities.
Lurking beneath the surface, however, were more
sordid appeals to prejudices that were widely embraced by middle-class white Americans — anti-Catholicism, nativism, anti-Semitism, and racial bigotry.
For the most part, the Klan used pressure tactics to
gain its objectives, intimidating school boards and
politicians and promoting lectures by alleged “escaped
nuns” and other rabble-rousers. Such tactics had little
real impact on the politics of the nation; almost no
laws can be directly traced to the influence of the Klan.
More troubling was the Klan’s propensity for violence.
In 1921, the New York World published an exposé of Klan
violence that included charges of flogging, kidnapping,
and murder. Ironically, the series probably helped Klan
recruiting by giving the organization its first national
publicity. The Klan began to decline in 1925, however,
after revelations of a savage rape and murder committed by David Stephenson, a KKK leader in Indiana.
Responsible citizens abandoned the organization, and
in the last half of the twenties its membership virtually
The Failure of Prohibition
Prohibition seemed to many — liberals, sophisticates,
urban dwellers, newly arrived immigrants, and others outside the orbit of evangelical Protestantism
— the quintessential expression of twenties repression.
Mencken called the Prohibition period ( from 1920 until 1933) “the thirteen awful years.” Yet the “Noble Experiment” (Herbert Hoover’s expression) was a social
reform that harked back to the optimistic spirit of the
nineteenth century. Taken in its most favorable light,
Prohibition represented an early effort to confront a
American Life in the 1920s
A Flapper and Her Flask Long Russian boots became fashionable during Prohibition, for reasons this young woman demonstrates. (The swastika that forms part of the floor tile design is
without significance; this image was sometimes used as a decorative motif long before the 1930s, when the German Nazis made it
a hated and feared symbol of their movement.)
Chapter 26
major public health problem. Few of Prohibition’s opponents (the “wets”) denied the lamentable personal
and social cost of drunkenness, particularly on the poor.
Furthermore, Prohibition was a democratic reform. By
the time the Volstead Act implemented Prohibition
(1919), forty-six out of forty-eight states had ratified the
Eighteenth Amendment. To the wets’ charge that Prohibition restricted personal liberty, its supporters (the
“drys”) countered that for good reason many other laws
regulated individual rights — from traffic ordinances
to the prohibition of dueling and the use of narcotics.
In spite of such rational defenses, by the end of the decade there was a clear national consensus that the experiment had failed.
By the 1920s, prohibitionist rhetoric sometimes appealed to the same prejudices that supported immigration restriction and the KKK. Prohibition, charged
some critics, was the vengeance of Protestant farmers
on the hordes of Catholic, Jewish, and atheist immigrants in the unruly and ungodly cities. It was, in effect,
an exclusion act directed at the cultures of immigrants
already in America.
It was not true, as wets taunted, that the consumption of alcohol went up during the twenties. Drinking
probably fell sharply. But there were massive violations
of the law. The Prohibition Bureau, charged with enforcement of the law, never employed more than 3,000
agents, while the nation had more than 18,000 miles
of border to patrol. All through the twenties the ships
of bootleggers were anchored just outside the twelvemile international limit, and the proximity of many
of the nation’s big cities to Canada and Mexico made
smuggling impossible to control effectively. In most
major cities, hundreds of “speakeasies” (illegal bars
and nightclubs) operated almost openly throughout
the decade. Furthermore, the production of alcoholic
beverages was relatively simple; for $500 anyone could
purchase a still capable of producing a hundred gallons a day, and thousands of amateurs learned to make
home brew and bathtub gin (sometimes poisoning
themselves with the product).
In the final analysis, Prohibition failed because
the law was openly violated by too many large groups
within the American populace. Millions of urban immigrants and their descendants, brought up in cultures
where alcohol was a staple of the diet and a symbol
of conviviality, were perplexed by Prohibition. They,
joined by millions of other Americans who never repudiated their taste for John Barleycorn (as liquor came
to be personified), voided the law by disobeying it. Pro-
750 Chapter 26
hibition proved, for a very brief period, that the political center of gravity in the nation was not in New York
City and San Francisco, but in Brown’s Hollow, Smith’s
Crossing, and countless other small towns. In the long
run, the experiment proved, as have other restrictive
laws, that a society rarely can enforce a law that is
flaunted by a substantial minority.
An Exhilarating Decade
ing the twenties, including the size of modern cities,
technological developments such as the automobile
and submachine guns, and the Mafia tradition among
Italian immigrants, but Prohibition provided the economic base to support its flowering.
High Republican Politics
The Spread of Organized Crime
The Eighteenth Amendment did not create organized
crime in the United States, but it greatly expanded its
reach and its profitability. Furnishing major cities with
daily supplies of alcohol was a large business enterprise, and because of its bulk, beer running required
a huge organization. Crime bosses became major employers, operating caravans of trucks escorted by gangs
armed with Thompson submachine guns (nicknamed
“Chicago pianos”) to protect them from other mobsters
trying to encroach on their territories.
The most famous criminal of the twenties was
“Scarface” Al Capone. He controlled more than 160
speakeasies in the Chicago area and by the early
twenties employed over 700 men. Capone rode in an
armored car and quartered his men in a hotel in the
suburb of Cicero; at the age of thirty-two he was reputedly worth more than $20 million. Throughout the
twenties the Capone gang waged a war with the rival
Dion O’Banion gang that featured scores of sensational
shootouts. In 1929, the entire nation was shocked when
seven O’Banion garage workers were machine-gunned
to death by Capone gangsters disguised as policemen. The brutality of this St. Valentine’s Day Massacre
shocked a nation that had become accustomed to the
violent escapades of gangsters.
Unfortunately, organized crime bred worse evils
than the operation of speakeasies. The wealth of the
mob bosses encouraged payoffs to law enforcement
officers. Having hundreds of gunmen on their payrolls,
mobsters used intimidation and violence to bully legitimate businessmen. Chicago’s Republican mayor,
the demagogic “Big Bill” Thompson (most famous for
delighting Irish-American voters with his pledge to
punch England’s King George V in the nose if he ever
set foot in the city), was Capone’s stooge. In the cities,
protection rackets forced businesses to pay commissions to organized crime under the threat of violence,
and in a single year Chicago experienced over 150
bombings of business establishments. Many factors
contributed to the growth of organized crime dur-
The Republican presidential tickets in the 1920s won
overwhelming victories, returning the party to the
dominance it had enjoyed before its split over progressivism had allowed Wilson to take the White House.
The reasons for this ascendancy were curiously captured in Warren G. Harding’s malapropism when in the
1920 campaign he called for a return to “normalcy.” (He
had meant to say “normality.”) The rhetoric of the Republican presidents often sounded like pre-McKinley
Republicanism. But in fact Harding, Calvin Coolidge,
and most of all Herbert Hoover built on the foundation
laid in the Progressive Era.
Political dissent did exist in the twenties. Progressives continued to champion old causes, and in some
states they remained politically potent. But at the
national level progressive successes were few. The
Democratic Party seemed permanently divided into a
northern wing that was urban, Catholic, and wet and
a southern wing that was rural, Protestant, and dry.
The conservatism of the electoral majority often led
Democratic candidates to sound and act much like
Republicans. It was a contented majority that elected
the presidents, bought the automobiles, and gave the
decade its generally conservative character.
The Election of 1920
The presidential election of 1920 was the first since the
enactment of woman suffrage, so it was hardly surprising that the popular vote was more than double that recorded four years earlier. But neither the issues nor the
candidates inspired strong feelings in the electorate.
The Democratic convention met in San Francisco
in June 1920 and nominated progressive Governor
James M. Cox of Ohio on the forty-fourth ballot. The
vice-presidential nomination went to Wilson’s young
assistant secretary of the navy, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Tall, handsome, a distant cousin of TR, and something of a social lion in Washington, the Democratic
Roosevelt had the respect of leaders throughout his
party, but was not regarded as a political heavyweight.
Chapter 26
American Life in the 1920s
At the Republicans’ Chicago convention, several of
the leading presidential contenders (including Herbert
Hoover) were eliminated because they seemed to have
excessively progressive pasts. With no strong front-runner, Ohio party boss Harry M. Daugherty predicted that
the choice would be decided in a hotel by “some fifteen men, bleary-eyed with lack of sleep.” Indeed, after
a deadlock on the first day of the convention, Senator
Henry Cabot Lodge summoned the party’s most influential leaders to a meeting in the Blackstone Hotel room
of editor George Harvey. The gathering in the “smokefilled room,” heavily weighted toward conservative
senators, conferred with state leaders all through the
evening before deciding to support Senator Warren G.
Harding of Ohio. Harding was nominated the next day
on the tenth ballot. The Ohio senator’s chief strengths
were his membership in the Senate (a group still smarting from Wilson’s snubbing), his handsome countenance, and his transparent desire to work the will of his
betters in the party. The vice-presidential nomination
went to Calvin Coolidge, the governor of Massachusetts who had become something of a national hero by
squelching the Boston police strike in 1919.
The clearest issue in the election of 1920 was the
Democratic endorsement of the Treaty of Versailles,
but even on that point, both parties spoke ambiguously.
Change was the issue in the election; Republicans ran
against Wilson rather than Cox. Harding set the tone
of the campaign in an oft-quoted dictum: “America’s
present need is not heroics but healing; not nostrums
but normalcy; not revolution but restoration . . . not
surgery but serenity.”
The only surprise was the size of the Republican
victory. Harding received 16,152,200 popular votes to
“A Few Don’ts,” 1918
Ezra Pound was one of the Lost Generation’s
literary mentors. Many poets of the day
would have followed the iconoclastic advice
he offers here, originally published in the
premiere issue of Poetry magazine.
An ‘Image’ is that which presents in intellectual and emotional complex in an instant
of time…
Cox’s 9,147,353. In the Electoral College the vote was
404 to 127. Republicans won large majorities in both
houses of Congress as well. Eugene V. Debs, running
for the fifth and final time on the Socialist Party ticket,
polled more than 900,000 votes while still incarcerated in the Federal Penitentiary in Atlanta for violating
the wartime Espionage Act, a clear signal that dissent
had not vanished from the land. But overall the election was a resounding proclamation that a new conservative era had begun.
Harding and the Return to “Normalcy”
Harry Daugherty first encountered Warren G. Harding
when the future president was the editor of the Marion
(Ohio) Star. Catching a glimpse of the handsome Harding waiting for a shoeshine at the local hotel, Daugherty
allegedly mumbled: “Gee, what a President he’d make.”
Under the tutelage of Daugherty, Harding was elected
to the Senate in 1914 and distinguished himself as a loyal party man. He was fond of making flowery speeches,
described by former Secretary of the Treasury William
McAdoo as “an army of pompous phrases moving over
the landscape in search of an idea.” An ordinary man,
Harding was a member of the Elks, the Odd Fellows,
the Hoo Hoos, the Moose, the Masons Lodge, the Red
Men, and the Baptist Church. He entered the presidency enjoying widespread public favor.
Harding wanted to serve his country well. Several
of his cabinet appointees proved to be capable public
servants: Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes, Secretary of Agriculture Henry C. Wallace, and Secretary
of Commerce Herbert Hoover all served with distinction, and so did Harding’s Secretary of the Treasury, the
It is better to present one Image in a
lifetime than to produce voluminous works.
All this, however, some may consider
open to debate. The immediate necessity
is to tabulate A LIST OF DON’TS for those
beginning to write verses. I can not put all
of them into Mosaic negative.
To begin with, consider the three
propositions (demanding direct treatment,
economy of words, and the sequence of
the musical phrase), not as dogma—never
consider anything as dogma—but as the
result of long contemplation, which, even if
it is some one else’s contemplation, may be
worth consideration.
Pay no attention to the criticism of
men who have never themselves written a
notable work. Consider the discrepancies
between the actual writing of the Greek
poets and dramatists, and the theories of the
Graeco-Roman grammarians, concocted to
explain their metres.
752 Chapter 26
An Exhilarating Decade
wealthy banker and industrialist Andrew Mellon, who
was as adept and competent as he was conservative.
Unfortunately, some other appointees betrayed
Harding’s compulsion to reward unqualified and unsavory friends. Harding’s Surgeon General was Dr.
Charles (“Old Doc”) Sawyer, a homeopathic physician
from Marion, and as Superintendent of Prisons he appointed his brother-in-law, Heber H. Votaw, a former
missionary. More disastrous were his choices of Harry
Daugherty as Attorney General and Senator Albert B.
Fall as Secretary of the Interior. Dubbed the Poker
Cabinet and the Ohio Gang, these cronies quickly became the president’s closest advisors. Washington was
soon adrift with rumors of all-night poker sessions at
the White House and carousing presidential visits to
Daugherty’s apartment at 1625 K Street.
The landslide Republican victory in 1920 marked
the return of business leadership to government. The
complexities of balancing the rights and interests of
business and labor that had held sway since Theodore
Roosevelt’s administration gave way to the notion that
the health of the nation should be gauged by the prosperity of business. The architect of the decade’s conservative economic agenda was Treasury Secretary Mellon.
Mellon’s strategy, most of it enacted after 1925 because
of persistent progressive opposition in Congress, called
for balancing the budget, reducing the national debt,
cutting income taxes, and raising tariffs to protect agriculture and industry. The income tax cuts overwhelmingly benefited the wealthy, but this was because at the
time no one but the affluent paid income taxes at all,
and rates had been raised considerably to finance World
War I. Mellon also urged government efficiency, and in
June 1921 Congress passed the Budget and Accounting
Act, establishing the Budget Bureau in the Treasury De-
Coolidge on the Role of Government, 1920
Coolidge delivered this famous “Law and
Order” speech while campaigning for vice
president; it sums up the view of government
he brought to the presidency three years later.
. . . . There are strident voices, urging resistance to law in the name of freedom. They
are not seeking freedom for themselves, they
partment to prepare an annual budget and the General
Accounting Office to audit government accounts. These
agencies greatly simplified the task of Congress in allocating money and for the first time allowed the federal
government to estimate its total expenditures.
Under the leadership of Herbert Hoover the Department of Commerce fostered scientific planning in
industry as a means of eliminating waste. Hoover believed that the government’s role in economic planning
should be strictly advisory, but he encouraged voluntary
cooperation, called associationalism, in the private sector. Hoover’s innovative policies, Mellon’s introduction
of efficient budgeting practices, and the resourceful foreign policy of Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes
gave a positive cast to the early Harding years.
Harding died on August 2, 1923, seized by a sudden
convulsion in a San Francisco hotel room while returning from a trip to Alaska. The official cause of death was
listed as a cerebral hemorrhage. As Harding’s body was
transported across the nation by train, mourners lined
the tracks to pay him final honor. He died a beloved
man, the public outpouring of sympathy rivaling the
mourning that followed the assassination of Lincoln.
The New York World (a Democratic paper) praised Harding’s “winning character growing toward greatness
under the stern tutelage of experience in office.”
Unfortunately, the major legacy of Harding’s presidency was not legislation or lasting public esteem, but
a series of scandals uncovered after his death by congressional investigations that began in 1924. Harding
had premonitions of what was coming. “My God,” he
had confided to journalist William Allen White shortly
before his death, “this is a hell of a job! I have no trouble
with my enemies. . . . But my damned friends, . . . they’re
the ones that keep me walking the floor at night.” Ulti-
have it. They are seeking to enslave others.
Their works are evil. They know it. They must
be resisted. The evil they represent must be
overcome by the good others represent. Their
ideas, which are wrong, for the most part
imported, must be supplanted by ideas which
are right. This can be done. The meaning of
America is a power which cannot be overcome.
Massachusetts must lead in teaching it. . . .
Laws are not manufactured. They are
not imposed. They are rules of action existing from everlasting to everlasting. He who
resists them, resists himself. He commits
suicide. The nature of man requires sovereignty. Government must govern. To obey is
life. To disobey is death. Organized government is the expression of the life of the
commonwealth. Into your hands is entrusted
the grave responsibility of its protection and
American Life in the 1920s
President Coolidge In August 1927, Calvin Coolidge donned this
Sioux headdress during a celebration in Deadwood, South Dakota.
mately, charges were made against officials in the Departments of Justice, Navy, and the Interior, as well as
the Veterans’ Bureau and other smaller agencies. Before he died, Harding probably knew that he and the
nation had been betrayed by Harry Daugherty. Daugherty was finally pressured into resigning as attorney
Chapter 26
general in March 1924 by Harding’s
successor, Calvin Coolidge. In 1927,
he was formally charged with taking bribes and defrauding the government. Daugherty invoked his
Fifth Amendment right to refuse
to testify, and his conspiracy trial
ended in a hung jury.
By far the most publicized of
the Harding scandals resulted in
the conviction of interior secretary Albert Fall in 1927 on charges
of conspiracy and bribery. He was
sentenced to a year in prison — the
first cabinet member to be imprisoned. Fall was found to have
accepted bribes from oil moguls
Edward L. Doheny and Harry F.
Sinclair in return for granting favorable leases to them on government oil reserves at Teapot Dome,
Wyoming, and Elk Hills, California. A congressional investigation
dragged on for months, uncovering
evidence that Fall had received repeated loans and gifts from the two
businessmen — about $100,000
from Doheny and more than
$300,000 from Sinclair. Doheny and
Sinclair were also tried on charges
of bribery but were acquitted, although Sinclair was sentenced
to nine months in prison for contempt of court.
In 1927, as both Harry Daugherty
and Albert B. Fall faced trials for
conspiracy, Harding’s reputation
reached its nadir with the publication of a sensational book, The
President’s Daughter. Written by a
young woman named Nan Britton,
it told of the birth of Harding’s illegitimate daughter,
conceived in the Senate cloakroom. The seamy private
life of this ordinary man, lurking about Washington’s
seedy hotels and carousing with the Ohio Gang, seemed
a sorry disgrace to the presidential office. Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Theodore Roosevelt’s salty daughter,
offered what became the most-quoted appraisal of the
departed president: “Harding was not a bad man. He
was just a slob.”
754 Chapter 26
Calvin Coolidge Rides the Boom
On the day that Warren G. Harding unexpectedly died,
Vice President Calvin Coolidge was visiting his parents
in Plymouth, Vermont. When the news came, his father,
a justice of the peace, administered the oath of office
with memorable symbolism by the light of an oil lamp.
Taciturn and parsimonious, “Silent Cal” Coolidge
was a stereotypical Yankee. He had graduated cum
laude from Amherst College and practiced law in
Northampton, Massachusetts, but his ascent from
mayor to governor to president owed more to his uncanny luck than to any superior political instincts. Like
everything else in his career, his elevation to the presidency was perfectly timed.
Coolidge’s transparent honesty made him a refreshing alternative to the excesses of the Harding era, and
he guided the Republican Party through the years
of scandalous revelations with dignity, though with
little enthusiasm for the investigations. Most historians have judged Coolidge harshly for his inactivity
(he worked four hours a day and took long naps), his
personal stinginess (he kept close check on the White
House servants to see that they did not overstock the
pantry), and the banality of some of his comments
(“When more and more people are thrown out of work,
unemployment results,” he once solemnly intoned).
Herbert Hoover summarized Coolidge’s character: “He
was a fundamentalist in religion, in the economic and
social order, and in fishing.” But it would be a mistake
to dismiss Coolidge as a buffoon. Though conservative
and conventional, he was no fool.
Calvin Coolidge’s flaws as president had less to do
with his New England character than with the economic and political assumptions that he shared with
many Americans. To him, political radicals were those
who believed “that in some way the government was
to be blamed because everybody was not prosperous,
because it was necessary to work for a living, and because our written constitutions, the legislatures, and
the courts protected the rights of private owners.” The
business of the government was to support business
and to protect society against radicals. He believed
that “civilization and profits go hand in hand.”
Coolidge was a popular president. To be sure, his
popularity rested partly on an economic boom that
was careening toward worldwide disaster. Nonetheless,
to many Americans “Silent Cal” seemed the epitome of
Yankee shrewdness, and he sometimes revealed a wry
New England sense of humor. When Mrs. Coolidge
An Exhilarating Decade
was having her portrait painted by Howard Chandler
Christy, the president said that he didn’t like the bright
red dress she was wearing. Christy insisted that it was
needed to add color. With a deadpan expression, the
president asked the artist: “Why not paint her in a
white dress and paint the dog red?”
Riding a tide of public contentment, Coolidge won
the Republican nomination in 1924. The Democrats, on
the other hand, were hopelessly divided into northern and southern wings, and the requirement that a
candidate needed two-thirds of the delegate votes for
the nomination gave southerners, as intended, a veto.
Catastrophically in this new era of live radio broadcasting, the convention went through two weeks of
rambunctious wrangling before nominating John W.
Davis, a moderate corporation lawyer from West Virginia whose most important government position had
been the ambassadorship to Great Britain. Davis was
a bland compromise after the South’s candidate William G. McAdoo (who refused to condemn the KKK)
and New York’s “wet” governor Al Smith cancelled each
other out in a mind-deadening 103 ballots.
Disgruntled progressives formed a third party and
nominated the old warhorse Robert La Follette. The
pro-labor, pro-farmer Progressive platform called for
government ownership of railroads and utilities. In
what would be his last political campaign, “Fighting
Bob” received the endorsement of both the Socialist
Party and the AFL — not normally political bedfellows.
The electorate was content to “keep cool with
Coolidge.” Electoral participation continued to fall.
Fewer than 50 percent of the eligible electorate had
voted in 1920, and the rate declined further in 1924. But
the Republican victory was overwhelming. Coolidge
received 382 electoral votes, and Davis carried only the
twelve states of the Democrats’ “Solid South,” for 136
electoral votes. La Follette won nothing but his native
Wisconsin, with 13 electoral votes. Coolidge collected
over two million more popular votes than his two competitors combined, and the Republicans retained control of both houses of Congress.
On succeeding to the presidency, Coolidge had asked
Harding’s cabinet to remain, but several members
resigned in 1924, including the soon-to-be-disgraced
Daugherty. Remarkably little important legislation was
passed during Coolidge’s presidency His most notable
accomplishment was to cut the budget drastically,
partly by reducing military spending. The administration’s financial policies first balanced the budget and
Chapter 26
American Life in the 1920s
then began retiring the national debt at the rate of
about $500 million per year.
The relatively slight legislative achievements of the
Harding and Coolidge years were in part a reflection
of the continued strength of progressivism in Congress
and in state governments. Old-time progressives continued to press for the regulation of big business, usually unsuccessfully, but they did hinder the dismantling
of the regulatory structure that had been created during the Progressive Era.
On August 2, 1927, while visiting a South Dakota
Indian reservation, Coolidge, in typically terse prose,
informed the press that “I do not choose to run for
Lindbergh and His Spirit of St. Louis Before he took off on his
epoch-making transatlantic flight, Charles A. Lindbergh posed
for this photograph beside his frail single-engine airplane, striking a note of calm confidence.
President in 1928.” Whether Coolidge expected to be
drafted by his party or simply wanted to return to private life, most Republicans were delighted to accept
the president’s decision. Columnist Heywood Broun
exulted: “At last eloquence has gushed from the Vermont granite.”
The Coolidge Boom
America’s prosperity in the twenties was deceptively
fragile. A chronic farm depression, regarded by many
as a nagging exception to the good times, was only one
symptom of a troubled economy. The international
creditor status of the United States and the profits of
American business in the early 1920s provided vast
sums of capital that were used to expand the nation’s
productive capacity, as well as to speculate in stocks.
756 Chapter 26
But because workers and farmers did not share equally
in the decade’s prosperity, the nation’s capacity to consume lagged far behind its ability to produce.
The skewing of economic regulation in favor of business and the wealthy was obvious in Mellon’s strategy, but the pro-business bias of the era was much
more broadly based. Secretary of Commerce Herbert
Hoover’s trade associationalism encouraged businesses to pool their expertise for the sake of efficiency, while
at the same time purportedly remaining competitive
in the marketplace. The federal government contributed to economic development by aiding businesses
through conferences and the collection of information.
The Supreme Court supported associationalism in the
1920s, holding that it was constitutional for businesses
to cooperate so long as some measure of competition
survived. Presided over by former president William
Howard Taft, who became chief justice in 1921, the
court rendered a steady stream of pro-business decisions during the decade. In 1922, the court struck down
a federal law curtailing child labor (Bailey v. Drexel Furniture Company), and in 1923, the justices invalidated a
law fixing a minimum wage for women in the District
of Columbia (Adkins v. Children’s Hospital).
At the international level, the huge World War I
debts owed to the United States by European nations,
the accumulation of gold reserves in America, and the
raising of American tariff barriers set the stage for a
world economic crisis. The Fordney-McCumber Tariff
in 1922 brought rates back to levels as high as those
existing before the passage of the Underwood Tariff in
1913 (see Chapter 23). The return of protectionism was
predictable in view of the influence of business interests in the conservative Republican administrations,
but high tariffs also came to be a leading demand of
the powerful congressional Farm Bloc.
The most troubling economic issue of the 1920s
was declining farm profits, even though many farmers
shared in the boom mentality of the twenties. In the
first two decades of the century American farmers had
prospered, and during World War I, when European agriculture suffered serious disruption, prices had soared
— only to crash when these markets were suddenly
closed by European tariff barriers beginning in 1919 (see
Chapter 24). However, the technological advances of the
early twentieth century encouraged ever-larger farms
(the number of tractors increased ten times during the
twenties), and farmers increasingly identified themselves as businessmen rather than laborers. Cooperative arrangements for buying and marketing expanded
An Exhilarating Decade
during the decade, but European demand for American
farm products declined, and prices plummeted.
Farm discontent led to the formation of a powerful Farm Bloc in Congress composed of southern and
western congressmen. This congressional group lobbied throughout the decade for legislation to aid farmers, and every Republican president recognized the
farm depression as the nation’s foremost economic
problem. In 1921, an Emergency Tariff raised duties on
most agricultural products, and the following year the
Fordney-McCumber Tariff granted to the president the
power to raise existing tariffs by as much as 50 percent
if he deemed foreign competition unfair. Although
such tariff legislation generally brought reprisals from
abroad, American farmers, facing increased competition from such new agricultural exporters as Canada
and Argentina, continued to support tariff hikes. In
1922, the Farm Bloc secured the passage of a Cooperative Marketing Act that exempted agricultural cooperatives from prosecution under antitrust laws.
The most sweeping proposal for agricultural reform in the twenties was the McNary-Haugen Farm
Relief Bill, first introduced in 1926. The bill proposed
the establishment of a Farm Board empowered to buy
excess crop production, either storing it for future sale
or unloading it in foreign markets at prevailing prices.
Essentially, the scheme envisioned dumping excess agricultural products abroad. The prices farmers would
receive for these commodities would be determined
by a complicated formula that compared farm income
with other areas of the economy between 1910 and 1914.
Any differential between the price support and the
world market price would be covered by an “equalization fee” to be paid by farmers. The bill was defeated in
1926. The Farm Bloc passed it the following year, only
to encounter a presidential veto. Coolidge insisted that
the McNary-Haugen Act legalized price-fixing and unfairly benefited special groups. Farm conditions continued to deteriorate, and the bill was passed again in
1928, once again being vetoed by Coolidge.
The Election of 1928
By 1928 the clear leader of the Republican Party was
Herbert Hoover. From impoverished beginnings,
Hoover had worked his way through Stanford University and pursued a brilliant career as an international
mining engineer, making enough money to retire at
40 in 1914 and become a public servant. His work during World War I as the chairman of the American Re-
American Life in the 1920s
lief Committee in Belgium and as the United States
Food Administrator had won widespread acclaim and
talk of his presidential candidacy in 1920. During his
eight years as Secretary of Commerce in the Harding
and Coolidge cabinets he turned the department into
a highly visible agency for the promotion of business
efficiency and trade associations. Hoover began campaigning immediately after Coolidge’s announcement
and was nominated on the first ballot at the Republican convention in Chicago.
Although the Democratic Party was still divided into
northern and southern wings in 1928, the delegates,
meeting in Houston, nominated Governor Alfred E.
Smith of New York on the first ballot. A Tammany Hall
Democrat who supported the repeal of Prohibition,
Smith was the first Roman Catholic ever nominated
for the presidency. After the Democrats balanced the
ticked by naming Senator Joseph T. Robinson of Lonoke, Arkansas, the emblematic Democratic donkey
was said to have a “WET head and a DRY tail.” Nonetheless, Smith’s nomination clearly marked the growing ascendancy of the eastern, urban wing of the party.
In the South, Republicans made the most of running
against “Alcohol Al.”
Once again, the party platforms in 1928 offered
few real differences. Hoover insisted that Smith’s support of farm legislation and a government-operated
power plant in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, was dangerous radicalism, but Smith was, in fact, a conventional
conservative, and the only real campaign issue was
Republican prosperity. Noted the liberal New Republic ironically, “Prosperity is a prerogative which God
has bestowed, subject to certain limitations, upon the
American people if they remain Republican.” Probably
more important than the issues, the personalities of
the two candidates provided stark contrasts. Smith’s
candidacy spawned a vicious anti-Catholic whispering campaign — one rumor reported that plans had
already been drafted to construct a tunnel from the
White House to the Vatican. Smith insisted that his
Catholic faith would not interfere with his execution of
the office of the president, and Hoover agreed that the
issue was irrelevant. Nonetheless, the nomination of
Smith brought Catholic-Protestant tensions into clear
focus. Smith’s candidacy affected the American Catholic community in contradictory ways: anti-Catholic attacks exacerbated the alienation felt by many Catholics,
but at the same time church leaders celebrated Smith’s
nomination as a milestone in the journey of American
Catholics into the national mainstream.
Chapter 26
Besides religion, other personal differences also
weighed in Hoover’s favor. Smith’s New York brogue
was a decided liability. For the first time in American
history, radio (“rad-dio,” as Smith pronounced it in his
nasal New York accent) was an important factor in the
campaign. Smith, a witty and garrulous professional
politician, sounded like a foreigner to Midwesterners
and was virtually unintelligible to Southerners.
Once again, the only surprise in 1928 was the size
of the Republican victory. The electoral vote was 444
to 87, with Hoover receiving 21 million votes to Smith’s
15 million. Hoover carried Smith’s home state of New
York (although Democratic gubernatorial candidate
Franklin Delano Roosevelt won). Even more surprising,
the Republicans breached the Solid South, carrying
Florida, Texas, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia, and almost winning Alabama. But, though not
of much comfort to the Democrats in 1928, there were
other symptoms of change in the election that boded
well for the future of the party. Smith polled 60 percent
more votes than any previous Democratic candidate,
won nearly every major city, carried such traditionally
Republican states as Massachusetts and Rhode Island,
and drew support from the progressives who had supported La Follette in 1924.
The Great Engineer at the Wheel
Herbert Hoover, the ablest of the Republican presidents
of the twenties, had a well-developed and coherent philosophy for a cooperative society. In 1922, while serving
as Secretary of Commerce, Hoover wrote American Individualism, a book that the New York Times praised as
“among the few great formulations of American political theory.” The book is today forgotten, but the ideas it
expressed have recurred perennially in the nation’s history. Hoover believed that individualism had reached
its most positive form in America. “The ideal of service,”
he wrote, was a “great spiritual force poured out by our
people as never before in the history of the world.”
Hoover’s book called for a rationalized economy
that offered equal opportunity to all. He urged voluntary cooperation between government and business
as a modern alternative to laissez-faire capitalism and
socialism. The government was to be the partner of the
trade associations, stimulating the economy by educating and organizing businessmen to respond to expert
advice. As secretary of commerce, Hoover sponsored
government agencies to bring order to new industries,
including the Bureau of Aviation and the Federal Radio
758 Chapter 26
Advertising a Tractor In 1921 a dealer in Washington, D.C., advertised his tractors with this catchy promotional idea. Tractors
driven by internal-combustion engines were still relatively novel
in 1921, but many farmers went into debt to acquire them.
Commission. Beginning his presidency in a climate of
unbridled optimism, “the Great Engineer of the New
Order” set out to collect information and funnel ideas
to business leaders. Some progressives viewed Hoover’s
election as a ray of hope in the conservative decade. Yet
in the end, Hoover’s ideas depended on business prosperity as much as those of his predecessors.
During the campaign, Hoover promised to call a
special session of Congress to deal with the farm depression. Out of that session came the Agricultural Marketing Act, a compromise measure that established a
Federal Farm Board to promote the marketing of farm
products through agricultural cooperatives and stabilization corporations. This plan, like others during the
period, failed to stabilize farm prices because farmers
did not reduce their acreage in production. In 1930, in a
An Exhilarating Decade
further effort to aid farmers, as well as protect American industry, Republicans pushed through the Hawley-Smoot Tariff. The law raised tariffs on agricultural
products nearly 50 percent, and also raised tariffs on
other commodities. But whether or not the protection
of American agricultural products from foreign imports ever held any promise for helping farm prices, by
the time the law passed it had a very unfortunate effect
on the deepening depression.
Boom and Bust in the Stock Market
American stocks, fueled particularly by the profitability of such new consumer industries as automobiles
and communications, rose steadily in the twenties. By
the middle of the decade, much corporate capital was
being used to purchase stocks, and the American market also attracted large foreign investments. In 1927,
just as the American economy was slowing perceptibly, a bull market began. As prices shot up, the mar-
American Life in the 1920s
ket became increasingly speculative. Estimates of the
number of Americans who bought stock range as high
as 15 million, although only one-tenth of that number
were active traders. More important, the boom mesmerized the nation, and its optimistic assumptions
were widely accepted. In an article published in the
Ladies Home Journal just two months before the crash,
John J. Raskob, chairman of the Democratic party and
a former General Motors executive, inscribed one of
the prime artifacts of the boom: “Everybody ought
to be rich.” President Hoover worried that the boom
might be getting out of hand, but he felt he could not
intervene openly without destroying business confidence and involving the government too closely in the
free market.
Encouraging buyers’ get-rich-quick hopes, various
political and institutional factors fueled the Great Bull
Market. In 1927 the Federal Reserve System stimulated
speculation by lowering interest rates, while political
leaders and leading economists made euphoric predictions about the future. There was much talk that a
“new economy” had arrived, supplanting the old “boomand-bust” business cycle and ensuring that economic
expansion was on a “high plateau” of unending growth.
Margin buying contributed powerfully to the frenzy
— the easy credit that allowed buyers to purchase stock
with as little as 10 percent down. (The catch was that
if the value of shares fell below a certain level, brokers
could demand immediate payment in full — and if the
buyer could not come up with the cash, the stock was
automatically sold. Excessive marginal speculation
therefore served as a built-in time bomb in the event
of a crash.) Finally, the information on which speculators relied in buying stock was often incomplete, if not
deceptive or downright false, and unscrupulous insiders often manipulated the trading in shares. Because of
the almost total absence of government regulation in
securities markets, ordinary investors had no idea how
closely stock speculation now resembled gambling in a
crooked casino.
The stock euphoria of the late twenties was also
foolhardy in the light of economic conditions. In 1926
a highly speculative Florida land boom had burst, ruining many investors, but the disaster did little to restore
sanity. Many areas of American industry, particularly
housing and automobile production, had slowed
markedly by 1927; in almost every industrial area more
goods were being produced than could be consumed.
As inventories built up, factories closed and workers
were laid off, further shrinking the consumer market.
Chapter 26
Ironically, the market continued to climb, pushed partly by investments by businesses with no other outlet for
their profits.
Against this ominous background, and with the
underlying economy moving toward recession, a final
market surge began in March 1928. Stocks often rose
ten to fifteen points a day, and so many shares were
traded that the Wall Street ticker ran minutes behind
the bidding. The Standard and Poor’s average of 414 industrial stocks rose from less than 100 in 1927 to above
250 in September 1929.
In September 1929 stock prices began to fluctuate
wildly; then in October they moved steadily downward. Canny investors began to sell, but others saw the
retreat as an opportunity to snap up bargains before
the next market ascent. Then, on October 23, the market dropped 50 points, and on the next day — ”Black
Thursday” — Wall Street plunged into chaos. Brokers
unloaded huge blocks of margin stocks with orders to
sell at any price. Bankers formed a pool of $240 million in an effort to restore confidence (a pool of $25
million had stopped a panic in 1907), but Tuesday, October 29, was the worst day in the history of the stock
exchange up to that time. By the middle of November
1929, about $30 billion had been erased from the market value of stocks listed on the New York exchange;
before the decline stopped in 1932, the loss reached
about $75 billion.
Conclusion: A Decade of
Prosperity and Self-Analysis
Was the twenties a particularly factious and belligerent
decade? All of the decade’s disputes had been brewing
for years; even the intellectual revolt was well under
way in Greenwich Village before World War I. Furthermore, some of the shrillest arguments of the twenties
never stirred broad popular response. A majority of
Americans were neither members of the KKK nor rebellious flappers nor carousing speakeasy customers
nor irresponsible stock market speculators. Most ordinary citizens behaved much like their grandparents.
All in all, relatively few people danced the Charleston
or read The Great Gatsby; far more sang hymns and
read the Bible. On the other hand, few mature adults
in 1920 would have denied that the nation had changed
dramatically in her or his lifetime. By the end of the
decade, writes historian William E. Leuchtenburg, the
years before World War I seemed a “lost Acadia.”
760 Chapter 26
This acute sense of change goes far in explaining
why the decade was such fertile soil for extremist ideas.
The changes wrought by urbanization, immigration,
consumerism, and intellectual relativism were so well
defined by 1920 that older Americans joined in lastditch efforts to stem the tide of modernity. Millions
drew lines in the sand around the religious, social, and
patriotic fundamentals that they would not yield.
The “Lost Generation” was not the first group of
American young people to challenge traditional values. Nativism predated the KKK by decades; the clash
between fundamentalist religion and modern science
was half a century old. To understand why these issues
reached new levels in the twenties one must consider
the sum total of intellectual, economic, and social
forces at play during the decade. World War I fostered
an illusory view of America’s cultural unity, but then
the Red Scare and the treaty debate shattered earlier
optimism. Rural-urban tensions reached new heights,
highlighted by the report of urban population surpassing rural in the census of 1920. Scientists, ranging from
Einstein to Freud, posed new ideas as disconcerting
as those of Darwin. Perhaps more than anything else,
the stage for the decade’s dramatic debates was set by
prosperity. In good times, when most people possess
basic economic necessities, social groups become bellicose about power. Freed from threats from abroad,
and to a large degree free from extreme economic
deprivation, Americans looked inward. On both the
left and the right, those with an acute sense of social
responsibility set about to remake the nation in their
own image. The harsh realities of the thirties would
bring the nation’s attention back to the much more
basic questions of survival.
Neither was the politics of the twenties a sharp
disruption from the past. In some ways, the political
conservatism of the period marked a reversal of progressivism and the economic planning of the war years,
particularly the Republican emphasis on a strictly limited role for government. This bias against regulation
encouraged the decade’s uneven economic development. On the other hand, most politicians in the twenties saw a need for greater economic cooperation and
standardization. Herbert Hoover’s notion of a planned
market economy, albeit a voluntary one, marked the
1920s as a transitional period between progressivism
and the New Deal and a stepping-stone on the path to
modern liberal capitalism.
An Exhilarating Decade
Suggested Reading
Charles C. Alexander, Here the Country Lies: Nationalism and the Arts
in Twentieth Century America (1980). A sweeping survey of American
art during the early twentieth century that emphasizes the continued
search for a national culture.
Frederick Lewis Allen, Only Yesterday (1931). This venerable book, iconoclastic but good-spirited, remains an entertaining excursion through
the twenties.
Paul Carter, The Twenties in America (1968) and Another Part of the
Twenties (1977). Carter is a judicious and careful scholar who is unwaveringly fair to the decade’s extremists on the right and the left. His sympathetic vignettes of fundamentalists and prohibitionists help balance
the caricatures such groups often receive.
Morton Keller, Regulating a New Economy: Public Policy and Economic
Change in America, 1900-1933 (1990) and Regulating a New Society: Public
Policy and Social Change in America, 1900-1933 (1994) provide broad
overviews of public policy developments during the 1920s.
William E. Leuchtenburg, The Perils of Prosperity, 1914-1932 (1970). A
comprehensive, elegantly written, and sophisticated interpretation of
the 1920s.
George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture (1980). An
excellent survey of the fundamentalist-modernist religious clash in the
Michael Parrish, Anxious Decades: America in Prosperity and Depression,
1920-1941 (1992). A good recent overview of the decade.
George Soule, Prosperity Decade: From War to Depression (1947). An
excellent survey of economic developments from World War I to the
Stock Market Crash.

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