BY: ROBERT TANNER
U.S. History 101.5
Allen, Frederick L. Only Yesterday: An informal history of the 1920s. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1931.
Drowne, Kathleen, and Huber, Patrick. The 1920’s. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2004.
Irving L. Bernstein. The Lean Years: A History of the American Worker 1920-1933. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1960.
Sage, Henry J. The Roaring Twenties. (October 11, 2006): Internet. http://www.sagehistory.net/twenties/Twenties.htm. November 25, 2009.
Williams, Betty. The 1920’s. London: Batsford, 1989
The 1920’s or the “Roaring Twenties” were a time in U.S. History of great change. This period could be described as the “Golden Twenties”, where many discoveries and inventions of great importance were made, prosperous industrial growth, increase in the standard of living, rise of consumerism, and significant changes in people’s lifestyles. But were the 1920’s “Golden” for everyone? In my essay I will first take a look at the “Golden” aspects of the twenties, highlighted by some of the inventions and discoveries that took place during the era, which helped define and shape the twenties, and follow that up with the farmers’ point of view on the twenties. First off, let’s take a look at some of the stuff that defined the 1920’s. The 1920s, or the “Roaring Twenties” were a decade in which nothing big happened, no major catastrophes of large events, at least until the stock market crash of 1929, yet it is one of the most significant decades in U.S. history because of the great changes that came about in American society. The Twenties were known by various images and names: the Jazz Age, the age of the Lost Generation, flaming youth, flappers, radio and movies, bathtub gin, the speakeasy, organized crime, confession magazines, Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Lindbergh, Babe Ruth, Bobby Jones, the Great Crash, Sacco and Vanzetti, AL Smith, cosmetics, Freud, the "New" woman, the Harlem Renaissance, consumerism, all these images and more are part of the “Golden” Twenties. In fact, the 1920s may have been the decade of the greatest social change in American history. Reacting perhaps to both the disillusionment from the First World War and against the strictures of Victorian culture, Americans abandoned old ideas with a vengeance and adopted new concepts wholesale. It was also a time of deep divisions: wets (for repeal of prohibition) against dries, town against country, natives versus foreigners, Catholics against Protestants; the decade also saw a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan and an American sense of alienation from the rest of the world. The decade began amidst the ashes of the Great War, blossomed into a riotous age of spending and profit making, cheap automobiles and new consumer products. Everybody seemed to be on a roll. Then in 1929 the Crash hit the stock market, and for many complicated reasons the Great Depression followed. It was a decade of huge figures, heroes of the kind we don’t see any more, or not often: Charles Lindbergh, Babe Ruth, Bobby Jones and others. Americans started going to the movies and listening to the radio in enormous numbers, and they found themselves becoming more affluent as the markets rose, seemingly without end. It was a time of new awakening for African-Americans, many of whom had fought in France, and the Harlem Renaissance opened Americans to Black literature, poetry, music and other arts of a quality never seen before. Literary figures like Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe brought white American literature to a new plane as well. The Progressive movement was not dead in the twenties, a Progressive Presidential candidate got almost 5 million votes in 1924, but it was not an activist decade. Everybody knew what Harding meant when he called for a return to "normalcy," even though there was no such word in the dictionary. The Twenties began on a somber note, rose to great heights of excitement. Then on Black Tuesday, October 29, 1929, it all came crashing down, and things were never the same again, but then again, they never are. “1” A "Golden Age", Americans in the 1920s had discovered many things. They had more leisure time, and they discovered radio and movies. The first "talkie," "The Jazz Singer" was produced in 1927; color pictures followed a few years later. Americans of that era loved film stars like Charlie Chaplin, and they honored heroes like Charles Lindbergh. They had more time to participate in and watch sporting events, and Babe Ruth became the first athlete to earn a salary of $100,000 for a season. When reminded that that was more than President Hoover made, the Babe replied, "I had a better year." It was also a golden age of literature as well. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, Marjorie Rawlings, the Black writers mentioned above and many others brought American literature to new heights. “2” As for Business in the 1920s: It was the Age of the Consumer. During the 1920s everybody seemed to be buying everything. Cars, radios, appliances, ready-made clothes, gadgets and other consumer products found their ways into more and more American homes and garages. Americans also started buying stocks in greater numbers, providing capital to already booming businesses. All the signs pointed upwards, and starry-eyed men and women began to believe that it was going to be a one-way trip, possibly forever. Henry Ford’s assembly line not only revolutionized production, it democratized the ownership of the automobile. Ford showed that handsome profits could be made on small margin and high volumes. By 1925 his famous Model-T sold for under $300, a modest price by the standards of the 1920s. Americans had never had it so good. Thanks to pioneers like Charles Lindbergh, the airplane began to come of age in the 1920s. Although used for various purposes in the World War, airplanes were still exotic gadgets until after Lindbergh’s flight, when planes began to carry mail as well as passengers for travel rather than just for thrills. Regularly scheduled flights began, and airports were constructed to handle passengers and small amounts of cargo. The end was in sight for railroad domination of the transportation industry. “2” Not everyone prospered in the 1920s. Farmers, becoming increasingly more skillful and efficient in producing food, found that laws of supply and demand still plague them. The more they produced, the lower prices tended to fall. In the early 1920s bread was at its lowest price in 500 years relatively to other necessities. It was still tough to make a living down on the farm. The 1920s afforded unprecedented economic opportunities for many Americans, but not for the nation's farmers. They had enjoyed unusual prosperity during World War I, owing to the increased demand for American agricultural products in war-torn Europe, but in the 1920s they were plagued by low prices for agricultural products, high costs for producing these goods, and heavy debt. Increases in the American farmers' productivity created surpluses that drove commodity prices down and lowered their income. While prices for agricultural products remained low, costs for land, machinery, equipment, labor, transportation, and taxes were rising, creating greater disparity between a farmer's costs and income. The pervasive "farm problem" of the 1920s was complex. The market compensated a farmer's increased productivity and efficiency with a lower standard of living. Collectively, Americans devoted too many resources: land, labor, and capital, to agriculture. Consequently, the supply of agricultural products far outstripped the demand for them. The problem, however, is much easier to diagnose in retrospect than it was during the 1920s. Arguing that the problem with American agriculture was overproduction seemed paradoxical to contemporaries who closely associated the independent farmer with the essence of American virtue and character, someone to be emulated, not discouraged, from increasing his crop yields. Instead of realizing the link between low prices and overproduction, farmers blamed their adversity on insufficient credit, high interest rates, inadequate tariffs, and declining world trade. Overwhelmed by the seriousness of their problems, farmers looked to the federal government for assistance. Farmers' demands for federal help ran against the popular political mood of the 1920s, which demanded a reduction in government involvement in business. Moreover, the growing urban character of the nation weakened farmers' political influence. Yet agriculture had powerful allies in Congress. In 1921 two Republican legislators from Iowa, Sen. William Kenyon and Congressman L. J. Dickinson, organized the "farm bloc," a bipartisan group of congressmen that exerted political pressure for legislation to alleviate the farmers' economic misery. During President Harding's administration this legislative caucus advocated generous credit, higher tariffs, and cooperative marketing, all proposals that treated symptoms rather than the core problems, production surpluses and price disparities. From 1920 to 1921, farm prices fell at a catastrophic rate. The price of wheat, the staple crop of the Great Plains, fell by almost half; the price of cotton, still the lifeblood of the South, fell by three-quarters. Farmers, many of whom had taken out loans to increase acreage and buy efficient new agricultural machines like tractors, suddenly could not make their payments; throughout the decade, farm foreclosures and rural bank failures increased at an alarming rate. Agricultural incomes remained flat, with rural Americans' wealth falling far behind their urban counterparts. Rural electrification increased at a snail's pace, with more than 90 percent of American farms still lacking power into the 1930s. The proportion of farms with access to a telephone actually fell during the Roaring Twenties. So, it’s no great exaggeration to say that for rural America, the Great Depression began not in 1929 but in 1920, and it continued for an entire generation. The roaring prosperity of America's cities during the 1920s made the privation of rural life all the more painful, by contrast. The divide between Haves and Have Nots in the 1920s was the divide between city and country. “3” In Conclusion, the 1920s, “Roaring” Twenties, or “Golden” Twenties, can be viewed as two distinct points of views. That of the urban society, which experienced an increase in the standard of living, rises of consumerism, and significant changes in their lifestyles. Times were good, and era of the 20s could truly be viewed and defined as the “Golden” Twenties. On the other hand, there was the farmers’ point of view, which could be described as the exact opposite. By becoming increasingly more skillful and efficient in producing food, the farmers had found that the laws of supply and demand were not working in their favor. The more they produced, the lower prices tended to fall. Hence, times were tough, and it was hard for them to make ends meet. Overall, one would almost have to reword the 20s, maybe by calling them the “Golden” twenties for some but not all.
( Henry J. Sage, The Roaring Twenties. (October 11, 2006): Internet. http://www.sagehistory.net/twenties/Twenties.htm. 1
2 Kathleen Drowne, and Patrick Huber. The 1920’s. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2004. 3-29
3 Irving L. Bernstein. The Lean Years: A History of the American Worker 1920-1933. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1960. 216-350