The 1920s - a Time of Great Economic Growth and American Progress

After World War I, President Harding began to advocate for “normalcy” in order to get the nation to move past the struggles of wartime. On an everyday basis, women were husband-less, feeding their children wisely with foods such as corn and bread that would keep them full in minimal amounts. Not to state the obvious economic conclusions that the war called for higher taxes among civilians and also left a huge debt on Germany and other European countries, resulting in an unsettling relationship with the Eastern world. Propaganda was also used to invite both the White and Black race in enlisting in the army. However, cartoonists expressed the uneasiness among Americans with communism as a result of WWI. Nativism and xenophobia were strongly present. Nativism is continually ongoing, nativists believe they are the actual “Native” Americans, despite their being descended from immigrants themselves. The mid-nineteenth century had brought in an influx of immigrants, to combat these perceived issues the nativists created political parties and tried to limit the rights of immigrants. Due to the social, economic, and cultural issues during WWI, the years leading up to the 1920s resulted in a state of unease which would come to inspire the resulting decade of economic, social, and cultural change in both positive and negative ways.

The United States, during the 1920s, had administered economic changes to regulate the country, specifically to help improve upon the huge debt the country accumulated from World War I. Consumerism of the United States was increasing in many aspects at the time. As consumer spending on leisure increased, consumer debt also increased. This led to a positive growth in the economy, which allowed for new technologies like the automobile, household appliances, and other mass-produced products to be desired in the vibrant consumer culture. Due to the nonsensical amount of spending in the economy, the stock prices of companies rose. This introduced a new way of obtaining wealth fast. People quickly realized that stock prices were increasing linearly and decided to invest in companies. The average person started hearing people were becoming prosperous overnight. One thing led to another and, eventually, it seemed like everyone started investing in companies. Stocks were crucial for the average American because it was their “ticket” out of the middle class and gave them a chance into creating something that was much greater than what it was before.

Stocks weren’t the only factor of people obtaining wealth, the prohibition of alcohol was as well. The concept of bootlegging was quite simple. Bootlegging was the selling and purchasing of alcohol illegally which lead to an exceeding amount of profit. It insinuates that alcohol was being sold more when it was illegal than when the supply was legal. Bootleggers took advantage of this misdemeanor and subsidized on this new way to “get rich fast.” P.W. Cromwell in the Bentley Hospital Library at the University of Michigan, Cromwell illustrates a large leg and boot labeled “The Bootlegger” which portrays the illegal selling of alcohol. Behind the large boot, there are various rankings of authorities trying to stop the boot, but they are struggling to keep up. The illustration exhibits how “powerful” the bootleggers were due to the fact that it was impossible for a whole society to stop drinking, which was a part of the reason why bootleggers were so successful. It was also because of notorious men like Al Capone that bootleggers were able to accumulate up to $100 million each year from alcohol sales. This exploitation and loophole in the economy led to people getting away with unaccounted earnings. At the same time, the government was losing money in an attempt to neutralize alcohol consumption. This war on alcohol led to a redistribution of wealth from the government to the criminals involved in bootlegging.

Socially, the United States has always had an issue with the rights of people. This dates all the way back to the 1700s. Specifically, the rights of women and their roles in society had divided the country for centuries. The roaring twenties had brought change to this matter. Women were finally acting independently. Women like Frannie Hurst addressed the social issues of women in regards to their key role in the household. Women should be placed where they can give the most service for the family, so whether it is in the kitchen or in the workforce, women should be allowed to do whatever they feel is necessary for their families. Likewise to Hurst, women like Margret Sanger made a difference in how women are seen socially. Margret Sanger was an American birth control activist, who opened the first birth control clinic in the United States and established organizations that evolved into the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Before Sanger, women were looked down upon for wanting an abortion. However, the birth control movement aimed to increase the availability of birth control in the U.S. through legalization and education. By educating the community, people became more customary to the idea that women should have the choice on whether or not to have offspring. Legalizing contraception provides people a sense of morality in their decision and allows them to feel less guilty. Because of these women, the perspective on women’s choices and how women were perceived socially were changed for the better.

The rising issue of immigration was ongoing since the 1600s. Many Americans were xenophobic during the 1920s. This was especially true for immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe and Asia. The American people were particularly appalled by Russia due to the fear of communism. As depicted in the chart from Thomas A. Bailey’s The American Pageant, published by Houghton-Mifflin, the number of immigrants from South-Eastern Europe and Asia was restricted from 685,531 to 21,847. That is a restriction of nearly over 600,000 immigrants over a period of 10 years. They believed that immigrants from communist nations would destroy what Americans loved: democracy. Americans expressed their pride in being able to manifest their capitalistic ideals. They also felt strongly about their freedoms as American citizens. This fear eventually developed into the Red Scare, the fear that communists were coming from Russia to eradicate America. America was altering its foreign policies to help combat the perceived threats of the time.

America was seen as the land of freedom and diversity. People from all over the world immigrated to America and shared their traditions and cultures with all. Cultural change was present in the 1920s, primarily among those who identified as African Americans. African Americans, for the longest time, were targeted by racist groups who had the intention of hurting and/or abolishing them from existence. One of the groups that targeted African Americans was the Ku Klux Klan. Before laws were put in place to regulate the KKK, they would perform rituals that involved killing Black people. After the Enforcement Act of 1871, the KKK was suppressed to the point where they were not allowed to commit these acts of terrorism. While they continued to discriminate against Black people, they were no longer legally allowed to take violent actions against them. With this change, they shifted towards trying to expel the Black community back to their homeland, The original KKK and the rise of a second KKK had similar views and it goes to show that nothing was being done about the unfair treatment and racial segregation But, it was a more peaceful way of getting rid of the African Americans as opposed to trying to kill them off.

The United States wasn’t always willing to celebrate the accomplishments of African Americans. During the 1920s, though, a movement was established to appreciate the culture of the Black community. The Harlem Renaissance was an opportunity for African Americans to accomplish and create tremendous works of art and music, as well as prove themselves on the political stage. It was their time to move on from oppression and grow beyond how white people perceived them. The Jazz Age allowed just that, it gave people of all cultures and backgrounds the opportunity to express and learn to appreciate themselves. Blacks were oppressed for the longest time and if it wasn’t for the Harlem Renaissance there wouldn’t be a period in time that created an opening for African Americans to express themselves without being ashamed of their heritage.

The 1920s was a time of great economic expansion that was driven by consumerism. New inventions and advancements were giving America the opportunity to progress. Although these openings improved daily life, some people were not content with the idea. Despite the 1920s being an era of advancements where technology, social movements, cultural acceptance, and the economy developed greatly, traditionalists feared that the nation was moving too rapidly away from basic ideals that the country was founded on; leaving the country in a lot of tension. However, that doesn’t mean the 1920s was a substandard change, the roaring ’20s was the decade in America that finally took a step in the right direction: the goals that were never even thought of being attained were achieved during this decade. It also was a time of prosperity that allowed women to be more independent and it allowed African Americans to express their arts for the commonwealth. Even economically, the country had never experienced such great wealth. Thus the 1920s will always be remembered as a decade of economic, social, and cultural change. 

01 August 2022
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