The Roaring '20s


A tide of economic and social change swept across the country in the 1920s. Nicknames for the decade, such as “the Jazz Age” or “the Roaring Twenties,” convey something of the excitement and the changes in social conventions that were taking place at the time. As the economy boomed, wages rose for most Americans and prices fell, resulting in a higher standard of living and a dramatic increase in consumer consumption. Although most women's lives were not radically transformed by “labor‐saving” home appliances or gaining the right to vote, young American women were changing the way they dressed, thought, and acted in a manner that shocked their more traditional parents. These changes were encouraged by the new mass media that included radio and motion pictures.


Part 1: A New Society


Although American involvement in World War One was without doubt a major factor in the defeat of Germany and the end of hostilities, Wilson’s motives had been criticized. Detractors accused Washington and Wall Street of warmongering for financial gain, but Wilson spoke only of promoting democracy, an ideal to which the United States was committed. The fact remained, however, that wartime trade and industry helped the United States prosper, promoting the economy to unprecedented levels.

Wilson’s war machine was slick: wide-reaching federal regulations and a centrally engineered patriotism were fanned by a federal propaganda campaign and enforced by laws such as the Espionage and Sedition Acts, which made it a crime to convey or falsify information that might harm US Army operations, the war effort, of the government. Federal agencies supervised industry, transport, and agriculture in the name of efficiency, regulating anything that affected the war effort, from railroads to the manufacture of shoes. Suppliers’ high profits were guaranteed, particularly those supplying munitions.

Rising wages, increased income and corporate taxes, and investment in popular Liberty Bonds funded the war and kept the economy buoyant, while a booming manufacturing industry served the growing demands of the American military. The net effect was economic prosperity and contentment that was unique among the warring nations. The United States emerged from the war in a stronger international position that ever before.


The American economy's phenomenal growth rate during the '20s was led by the automobile industry. The number of cars on the road almost tripled between 1920 and 1929, stimulating the production of steel, rubber, plate glass, and other materials that went into making an automobile. Henry Ford pioneered the two key developments that made this industry growth possible — standardization and mass production. Standardization meant making every car basically the same, which led to jokes that a customer could get a car in any color as long as it was black. 

Mass production used standardized parts and division of labor on an assembly line (introduced by Ford before the war) to produce cars more quickly and efficiently. Both innovations had a dramatic impact on price: the Model T that sold for $850 in 1908 sold for $290 in 1924. Ford also created new management techniques that became known as welfare capitalism. To build worker loyalty and blunt the development of unions, Ford paid the highest wages in the industry and established the 5‐day, 40‐hour workweek. Other companies followed suit, improving working conditions, setting up company unions, offering health insurance and profit‐sharing plans, and developing recreational programs. These tactics, along with yellow dog contracts, through which employees agreed not to join a union, worked; union membership dropped by almost two million between 1920 and 1929.

American industry produced thousands of consumer goods in the 1920s, everything from automobiles to washing machines to electric razors. Mass consumption was encouraged through a combination of advertising, which created a demand for a particular product, and installment buying, which enabled people to actually purchase the product. The power of advertising to shape public attitudes had been demonstrated through the Committee on Public Information's use of media to marshal public support during World War I. When peace came, ad agencies used newspapers, mass circulation magazines, and radio to effect consumption patterns. They were able to blur the distinction between “want” and “need” by creating a fantasy world in which love, youth, or elegance was available to anyone who bought a brand of toothpaste, a model car, or a new perfume.

The power of advertising even influenced religion. Bruce Barton's 1925 bestseller, The Man Nobody Knows, portrayed Jesus Christ as a master salesman and the spread of Christianity as a successful advertising campaign. Providing the opportunity to buy on credit was also a powerful marketing tool. Businesses exhorted consumers to put a small amount down and pay off the balance in monthly installments, instead of saving money for an item and purchasing it with cash. As a result, Americans' savings rate dropped sharply in the '20s, and their personal debt rose.


One of the most enduring images of the 1920s is that of the flapper, a young woman with short hair, wearing a knee‐length dress, rolled‐up stockings, and unbuttoned rain boots that flapped (hence the name) when she walked. With a new look came new viewpoints and values, including a more open attitude toward premarital sex. Margaret Sanger, who had first promoted birth control before World War I as a means of sparing poor women from unwanted pregnancies, argued that the diaphragm gave women more sexual freedom. The new woman's mystique was exemplified by the heroines of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novels This Side of Paradise (1920) and The Great Gatsby (1925) and film stars such as Gloria Swanson.

But the flapper represented only a small percentage of American women; for the overwhelming majority, life did not change that much. The sharp increase in the number of women in the labor force during World War I ended abruptly with the armistice. Female employment grew slowly in the 1920s, mostly in occupations traditionally identified with women — office and social work, teaching, nursing, and apparel manufacturing — and women who worked were usually single, divorced, or widowed. Even with more women in the workplace, no progress was made on issues such as job discrimination or equal pay. At home, despite claims of creating increased leisure time, the myriad of electrical appliances on the market actually did little to alleviate the amount of housework women had to do. After the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, women's political progress also slowed. When given the vote, for example, women cast their ballot much the same way that men did, basing their decisions on class, regional, and ethnic loyalties rather than gender. Furthermore, although the Equal Rights Amendment was first introduced in Congress in 1923, and Nellie Ross became the first woman elected the governor of a state (Wyoming) in the following year, there were still parts of the country were women could not hold public office.

During the '20s, the Great Migration of African‐Americans from the rural South to the urban North continued. The black population of Chicago grew from less than 50,000 in 1910 to almost a 250,000 by 1930. The 1920s were also the time for new political and cultural developments within the African‐American community. Marcus Garvey, who advocated black pride and supported a “back to Africa” movement among American blacks, founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), which espoused black economic cooperation and established black‐owned grocery stores, restaurants, and even a steamship company known as the Black Star Line. Although Garvey was arrested and convicted of fraud, the UNIA had more than 80,000 members at its height and was the country's first mass African‐American organization. At the same time, New York's preeminent black neighborhood, Harlem, became a magnet for African‐American artists, writers, scholars, and musicians. The creative exploration of the black experience by men and women such as Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, and Nella Larsen became known as the Harlem Renaissance.

Blacks were not the only minority on the move in the 1920s. Neither the Quota Act nor the National Origins Act limited immigration from countries in the Western Hemisphere, and nearly 500,000 Mexicans entered the United States between 1921 and 1930. Although most of the Spanish‐speaking population lived in the Southwest and California and worked as farm laborers, a small percentage found factory jobs in the Midwest and were sometimes recruited by American companies.


Commercial radio began in 1920 when Pittsburgh station KDKA broadcast the results of the presidential election. As the number of homes with radios rapidly increased (from 60,000 in 1922 to more than 10 million in 1929), the airwaves became the medium over which Americans got their news and entertainment. The business of radio was simple and supported the growing consumer culture: local radio stations affiliated themselves with national networks, such as NBC (1926) or CBS (1927), which provided programming underwritten by companies who bought air time for their commercials.

Motion pictures also became a major entertainment industry during the '20s, and the leading stars of the time — Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, and Rudolph Valentino — became popular icons. Studios built theaters that resembled palaces, featuring mirrors, lush carpeting, and grand names such as the Rialto and the Ritz. “Going to the movies” became a social occasion and one of the main activities for young people and turned into an even greater phenomenon with the release of The Jazz Singer in 1927, the first “talking” motion picture. As the plots and themes of movies grew more suggestive and after Hollywood experienced a series of scandals, government censorship seemed likely if the industry did not “clean up its act.” In 1922, the studios established the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association, better known as the Hays Office (after its first president Will H. Hays), to control the content of films.

The print media also expanded during the '20s. The exploits of celebrities were splashed across the pages of the new tabloid newspapers such as New York City's Daily News and Daily Mirror or were covered more sedately in Henry Luce's weekly newsmagazine Time (1923). Reader's Digest, founded in 1921, made it easy to keep up with current events because its contents were condensed versions of articles from a variety of magazines. The Book‐of‐the‐Month Club and the Literary Guild, both started in 1926, revolutionized publishing by offering significant discounts on the “best” books that they declared everyone should read. The bestseller lists of the 1920s featured novels that were destined to become classics, such as Sinclair Lewis's Main Street (1920), a critique of small town life and society, and Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises (1926), the story of expatriate Americans in France and Spain after World War I. On the stage, playwrights turned their attention to topics that had not been addressed before. All God's Chillun Got Wings (1924) by Eugene O'Neill dealt with the relations between an African‐American man and a white woman; the black actor and tenor Paul Robeson played the male lead.

In This Side of Paradise, Fitzgerald wrote that his generation, labeled by writer Gertrude Stein as the “lost generation,” had “grown up to find all gods dead.” Although many of Fitzgerald's disillusioned contemporaries claimed that there were no heroes in post‐war America, the '20s actually produced heroes of a new type. Sports figures like baseball's Babe Ruth, boxing heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey, and football's Red Grange were household names whose exploits were followed by millions in newspapers and on the radio. Daring feats could also turn people into instant celebrities, as in the case of Gertrude Ederle in 1926 when she became the first woman to swim the English Channel. Richard Byrd's 1926 flight over the North Pole earned him the Congressional Medal of Honor, and he received international renown for his explorations of Antarctica. Similarly, following his solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean in March 1927, Charles Lindbergh became without question the most famous person in America and perhaps the world.


Throughout the '20s, the government's pro‐business policies were reflected in tax cuts, a reduction in federal spending, and high tariffs. Under Secretary of the Treasury Mellon, who served all three Republican presidents, the maximum rate on personal income was significantly lowered, as were estate taxes and taxes on excess profits. Mellon's tax program directly benefited the rich based on the assumption that they would invest their money and stimulate the economy. The economy was also aided by the decrease in government expenditures; Mellon managed to balance the budget, and his programs helped to lower the national debt by nearly $10 billion between 1919 and 1929. The government also tried to shield domestic interests from foreign competition through the Fordney‐McCumber Tariff (1922) which increased rates, removed items from the free list, and raised duties on farm products. However, high tariffs had several unintended consequences. They made it more difficult for Europeans to pay their war debts to the United States, and farmers, while protected from foreign imports, found themselves paying more for their machinery.

Regulatory enforcement was lax during the 1920s, but the government did promote new industries. Civil aviation, for example, was helped by the government's putting U.S. airmail contracts up for private bids (1925). The Air Commerce Act of 1926, which included federal funding for airport construction, also aided the expansion of this new form of transportation.

Agriculture did not share in the prosperity of the rest of the economy. The boom years for farmers came to an end in 1920, when grain and commodity prices fell sharply. The cause of the crisis was the same as it had been in the late nineteenth century — overproduction. The McNary‐Haugen Bill, first introduced in 1924, attempted to deal with the problem by proposing that the government purchase farm surpluses of such staples as corn, cotton, and wheat, and either keep them off the market until prices rose or sell them on the world market. Congress finally passed the legislation in 1927, but President Coolidge vetoed it twice. Neither the McNary‐Haugen Bill or the more modest Agricultural Marketing Act of 1929 provided farmers with incentives to limit production, which later experience would show to be the only way out of the price spiral.