Lectures 16-18 Consolidated (Part 2 --Lecture of Tuesday 14 November)
I. Last time we looked at the immediate post-WWI years and the early 1920’s (to 1924). We saw that it was a period of intolerance. The intolerance began as a natural anti-German sentiment during the war years and blossomed to include a very strong anti-Russian/anti-communist sentiment toward the end of the war and on into 1919 and later. During this Red Scare, Americans began seeing communists everywhere and were frightened by the prospect of communist revolution at home and around the world. Added to this was a resurgence of Nativism, or general antipathy for immigrants (especially those of Catholic or Jewish heritage who did not speak English), and a more specific antipathy toward blacks returning home from the war, especially in the American South. The KKK, Ku Klux Klan, enjoyed a considerable resurgence and enhanced social and political power during these years.
II. This age of intolerance grew through the early 1920’s but quickly faded after 1924, when the US economy emerged from a post-war recession that had begun in 1921. In 1924, US industrial output rose by 60% from the previous year, and the economic boom that ensued between 1924 and 1928 was one of the greatest in US history. These years are what the 1920’s are remembered for and they are known as “The Roaring 20’s.”
III. Ironically, one of the key sources of the particular shape the Roaring 20’s took was the conservative reform of Prohibition, a constitutional amendment forbidding the manufacture, transportation, and sale of all alcohol that had been approved in the election of 1920.
A. The criminalization of alcohol did not have the intended effect. Recall that Prohibition was a Progressive reform that was approved to improve the efficiency of the American workforce and to reduce the number of people inclined toward criminal behavior or other socially destructive lifestyles. Among the many problems with the law was that it was approved at a time of great social disillusionment—disillusionment with the Progressives—who had failed to solve the social problems they had tackled (such as poverty and a more equitable distribution of wealth)—and disillusionment with the international situation— especially Wilson’s failure to create a just and democratic international system.
B. Indeed, most historians agree that rather than stop or even curb drinking in the US, Prohibition resulted in an increase in alcohol consumption by Americans. Drinking became a symbol of resistance, a popular and relatively harmless way to rebel against the constrictive moral standards of the day. In the wake of Prohibition, the institution of the “Speakeasy” developed en masse. Speakeasies were illegal pubs where people would gather to drink. These “underground” illegal establishments led to the development of a counter-culture quite similar to that which developed in the 1950’s. In the 1920’s, the illegal drug of choice was alcohol instead of marijuana, and the music of choice was jazz instead of rock and roll. There came to be an estimated 50,000 Speakeasies in New York City alone, and Speakeasies were the breeding ground for the sub-culture of materialist consumers and escapist youth that were to become the mainstream of American culture after 1924. The best symbol of the Speakeasy, perhaps, was the “Flapper.” Flappers were women who refused to accept the traditional role of women in American society. The dressed provocatively, drank socially, danced wildly and simply did not care what others thought about them. They, perhaps more than any other group, drew attention to the new American counter-culture and especially to its musical component, jazz.
C. Aside from fostering the development of this American counter-culture, Prohibition led directly to a significantly more sinister development—that of organized criminal gangs. Since the manufacture, transportation and sale of alcohol became illegal, criminal types naturally became involved in supplying the millions of Americans who continued to drink. The 1920’s was the heyday of the Mafia, which in fact came to be a large and well organized criminal enterprise specifically because of its alcohol-related activities. The criminalization of alcohol meant that reputable businesses could no longer participate in its production, transportation or sale, so organized criminal groups stepped in to fill the void. The Mafia grew powerful and wealthy because of Prohibition and gangsters were yet another symbol of the American culture in the 1920’s. It is estimated that during the 1920’s, some 5,000 people were killed in various gangster turf wars, most of them in public places during daylight hours.
IV. It was this social situation that lurked in the background during the dark years of the early 1920s. Then, when the US economy broke out of its recession in 1924, the counterculture that had developed would quickly come to represent the dominant aspect of mainstream culture in the country. The emergent American culture constituted what has been called a “Revolution in Manners and Morals” and the two pillars of its nature were “consumerism” and “escapism.”
A. Both consumerism and escapism were based on the unprecedented prosperity Americans enjoyed in the mid-1920s. With the Dawes Plan in effect, the international economy had regained some semblance of normality and Europe was once again able to buy American products. As indicated previously, US industrial output rose by 60% in just one year. Wages rose rapidly and Americans had more disposable income than they had ever had before. For the first time in history, the population as a whole were in a position to buy things just for the sake of buying them—rather than be limited to the purchase of necessities. It was during this period that the US became the consumer society that it is today.
B. Consumerism in the US reached unprecedented proportions. Americans bought everything—from washing machines and telephones to new houses and real estate. However, the greatest symbol of consumerism was the automobile. Having a car came to be a necessity in the mid-1920’s and nearly everyone bought one. Indeed, a relative rarity in 1920, there were 30,000,000 cars in the US by 1930—one car per family.
C. One technology that fueled and shaped consumerism, as well as nurturing the escapism that accompanied it, was the radio. Radio had been around for quite some time, but it was in the 1920’s that radio became widespread and commercial. For the first time, companies began to advertise their products on radio stations that played music and broadcast sports events for entertainment and transmitted news. Suddenly, Americans living in small, remote towns in farm country could know instantly about the latest fashion trends in New York City and elsewhere. Radio contributed to the homogenization of American culture and consumer tastes. Accompanying radio was the spread of retail catalogues—major US retail stores located in large cities saturated the country with catalogues so that anyone living anywhere in the country could purchase the latest products through the mail. Consumerism became a national obsession.
D. Escapism was the second hallmark of the mid-1920s. Escapism meant that Americans simply stopped caring about the serious issues facing the country and world. They chose instead to focus on enjoying life. “Don’t worry—be happy” is an excellent slogan for this period. Americans came to this attitude for a couple of reasons. First was the failure of Progressivism to cure the perceived ills of American society. Despite nearly 20 years of Progressive control of the government, large corporations still dominated the US economy. The rich were still getting richer and the poor were still getting poorer. Poverty remained a fact of life for many Americans and justice seemed just as illusive as ever. In the international arena, Europe had rejected Wilson’s “peace without victory” plan for the post-WWI settlement while Republicans in the US Senate had rejected the one positive outcome of the Treaty of Versailles—the League of Nations. It was as if the entire Progressive period had been a waste of time, energy, and concern.
E. Escapism took many forms. The consumerism that swept the country was itself a form of escapism. In addition to that, the 1920’s was an era of hero worship and “faddism.” Because of radio, for the first time there came to be national sports heroes like Babe Ruth. Charles Lindberg, the first person to fly solo and non-stop across the Atlantic Ocean, was an instant national hero. Fads of all kinds swept the country as well—from following the latest fashion trends, to swallowing live gold fish to “flagpole sitting.” Two of the more dangerous fads were investing in real estate—which was rife with fraud and corruption—and investing in the stock market—which proved to be a huge mistake for millions of Americans.
F. There were two main groups that rejected the carefree culture that emerged in the mid-1920’s in the US. The first was a small but influential group of artists, writers, and other intellectuals; the second was a much larger group of religious fundamentalists who wanted a return to traditional American values.
1. The so-called “Lost Generation” was a group of American artists, writers, and intellectuals who rejected the consumerism and escapism of the emergent US culture. People like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Sinclair Lewis left the US to live in Paris, France, disgusted with the crassness of US society. While Americans pursued wealth and luxury, much of Europe continued to struggle with the aftermath of World War I. Paris became the center of American art during these years.
2. Religious fundamentalists also rejected the new culture of the period, rejecting materialism and especially the reduced religiosity of the young people of the decade. With a myriad of new inventions and increasing popularity of foreign writers like Sigmund Freud, Charles Darwin, and even Albert Einstein, religious fundamentalists saw their society slipping away from God and toward science. They began a battle against scientific secularism that continues to this day. We have already discussed the famous Scopes Monkey Trial in connection with this movement.
V. The “Roaring 20’s” roared for only a few years. The foundation of American prosperity proved to be weaker than anyone imagined, and the economy began to slow in 1928. Then, in the fall of 1929, the stock market crashed hard, inaugurating more than a decade of the worst economic period in American history.