The New Era. 1919-1929. The Roaring Twenties. Mass production
The New Era
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The 1920s witnessed the mass production of a new generation of affordable consumer products. Labor-saving devices such as refrigerators, washing machines, electric irons, and vacuum cleaners made household chores easier thus creating time to enjoy leisure activities.
The mass production of automobiles had the greatest impact upon American society. When automobiles first appeared in the late 1890s they seemed to be a luxury toy for the rich. However, a gifted self-taught engineer named Henry Ford audaciously vowed “to democratize the automobile. When I’m through,” Ford predicted, “everybody will be able to afford one.”
Ford fulfilled his prediction by applying the principles of assembly line production to the manufacture of automobiles. In the first automobile factories cars remained in one place while a number of skilled mechanics built the vehicle from the ground up. In contrast, on Ford’s new assembly line the car moved from one worker to the next. Each worker performed the same operation on each passing car. The assembly line enabled Ford to reduce the time it took to build a car from 12.5 hours of work to just 1.5 hours of work. By 1925 the Ford Motor Company produced a new car every ten seconds. The price for a Model T fell from $850 in 1908 to $290 in 1924.
The mass production of automobiles had far-reaching consequences for American economic and cultural life. Surging car sales stimulated the growth of companies that produced steel, rubber tires, glass, and gasoline. Spurred by the Federal Highway Act of 1916 a network of new roads crisscrossed the nation. Within just a few years the automobile transformed America from a land of isolated farms and small towns into a mobile nation on wheels.
A growing advertising industry fueled interest in the new consumer products. Advertisements glorified consumption and celebrated an enticing lifestyle based upon the possession of material objects. By 1929, advertising accounted for 3 percent of the nation’s gross national product.
Companies used advertisements to promote a new array of purchasing techniques. Instead of waiting until they could afford a product, consumers could now use installment plans to “buy now and pay later.” As a result, the old values of thrift and saving gave way to a new culture that emphasized spending and consumption.
The automobile provided a convenient form of personal transportation. At the same time, radio and motion pictures publicized the new lifestyle of urban America and promoted the rise of homogenized mass culture.
On November 2, 1920 radio station KDKA in Pittsburgh announced the news that the Republican candidate Warren Harding won a landslide victory over his Democratic rival James Cox. The broadcast signaled the birth of a new industry. Just seven years later, millions of Americans anxiously listened to breathless accounts of Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic. As the radio mania swept across the country, families could now gather around their sets and listen to the same programs, laugh at the same jokes, sing the same songs, and of course hear the same advertisements.
Silent films first appeared in the early 1900s. However, the modern American motion picture industry began with the release of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation in 1915. Soon feature-length films turned Greta Garbo, Charlie Chaplin, and Rudolph Valentino into celebrities. In 1927 enthralled fans watched and listened to the first “talkie,” The Jazz Singer. Silent films quickly vanished and by 1930 motion pictures became the nation’s most popular form of entertainment.
The immense human suffering and economic destruction caused by World War I dealt a shattering blow to the comforting belief that progress was inevitable. John F. Carter expressed the pervasive (widespread) postwar mood of disillusionment when he wrote in the Atlantic Monthly: “I would like to observe that the older generation had certainly pretty well ruined this world before passing it on to us. They gave us this Thing, knocked to pieces, leaky, red-hot, threatening to blow up; and then they are surprised that we don’t accept it with the same enthusiasm with which they received it.”
New inventions and greater leisure time made a new kind of individual freedom possible. A rebellious generation of young adults challenged traditional values while a critical group of writers questioned the conformity and materialism they saw in American society.
The new independent spirit expressed itself in the changes postwar women were making in their lives. Although most women still followed traditional paths of marriage and family, a growing number of young, well-educated women began choosing a different lifestyle. Influenced by feminists, women wanted greater freedom in their lives. They argued that wives should be equal partners with their husbands and supported Margaret Sanger’s campaign for birth control. A vanguard (advance group) of college-educated women sought new careers in medicine, law, and science.
Young women called flappers provided the most visible and shocking model of the new American woman. Flappers challenged conventional norms of feminine appearance by wearing short skirts, heavy make-up, and close-cut bobbed hair. They further jolted the traditional guardians of morality by enjoying carefree dances such as the Charleston, listening to the lively, loose beat of jazz, and attending parties that featured drinking and smoking.
A group of novelists also found much to criticize in America’s new mass culture. These writers have often been called the Lost Generation because they were disillusioned with American society.
F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis were the best-known Lost Generation authors. Lewis lampooned (satirized, ridiculed) middle-class conformity and materialism in Main Street, Babbitt, and other novels. George F. Babbitt was a gung-ho real-estate broker who lived in the fictional Midwestern city of Zenith. Babbitt represents most of what appalled Lewis about America. He was a superficial person with no ideas of his own and very little awareness of the world outside Zenith. Babbitt parroted Republican positions on issues and prized material objects as symbols of his success.
In November 1917 Bolsheviks led by Vladimir Lenin seized power in Russia and promptly created a communist dictatorship. The revolutionary upheaval in Russia alarmed many Americans who believed that communist sympathizers and other radicals were secretly planning to undermine the United States government.
The fear of subversives escalated in late April 1918 when the post office intercepted 38 packages containing bombs addressed to prominent citizens. A wave of labor strikes and race riots further intensified public anxiety adding to calls for action. Anyone who appeared different or foreign was branded “un-American” and therefore a “Red.”
The Red Scare, or nationwide fear of aliens, forced Attorney General Mitchell Palmer to act. Although no more than one-tenth of one percent of adult Americans actually belonged to the domestic communist movement, Palmer launched a massive roundup of foreign- born radicals.
On January 2, 1920, agents of the Department of Justice arrested over 4,000 people in a dozen cities across America. The Palmer Raids violated civil liberties by breaking into homes and union offices without arrest warrants. Although most of those arrested were released, the Department of Justice deported about 500 aliens without hearings or trials.
The Palmer Raids marked the end of the Red Scare. However, they did not mark the end of the postwar drive for “one hundred percent Americanism.” The defenders of traditional values both resented and resisted the changes sweeping across America. The conflict between the “old” insular (provincial) rural America and the “new” more cosmopolitan urban America expressed itself in two famous legal cases and a resurgence of nativism.
The most celebrated criminal trial of the 1920s involved two Italian-born anarchists, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomo Vanzetti. The two men were arrested for a payroll robbery and murder.
The evidence against Sacco and Vanzetti was inconclusive. Many were convinced that the two men were victims of prejudice against radicals and recent immigrants. After seven years of litigation, Sacco and Vanzetti died in the electric chair. Their execution sparked protests around the world.
In January 1925 the state of Tennessee passed the Butler Act forbidding the teaching of evolution in public schools. The act expressed the alarm felt by many fundamentalist Christians who opposed Darwin’s theory of evolution because it challenged a literal interpretation of the Bible.
John T. Scopes, a Tennessee high school science teacher, accepted the American Civil Liberties Union offer to test the constitutionality of the Butler Act. Clarence Darrow, a well-known champion of civil liberties agreed to defend Scopes. William Jennings Bryan, a three-time Democratic presidential candidate and well-known religious fundamentalist, represented the state.
The Scopes Trial ostensibly (on the surface) tested the legality of teaching the theory of evolution in Tennessee’s public schools. However, for a national and international audience the case illustrated a cultural conflict between fundamentalism represented by Bryan and modernism represented by Darrow.
In the end the court found Scopes guilty and fined him $100.00. The Tennessee Supreme Court overruled the fine on a technicality while upholding the Butler Act. Bryan died five days after the trial from a heart condition probably aggravated by Darrow’s grueling and sarcastic cross-examination.
The Sacco and Vanzetti case highlighted the public’s fear of recent immigrants. A new postwar wave of arrivals from Southern and Eastern Europe sparked a nationwide movement to limit immigration from these regions.
Congress responded to the nativist push for restrictive measures by passing the National Origins Act of 1924. The law limited annual immigration to 2 percent of a country’s population in the United States at the time of the 1890 census. Since the new immigration began in 1890 the quotas favored immigration for Northern and Western Europe while sharply curtailing the flow of newcomers from Southern and Eastern Europe.
The original Ku Klux Klan terrorized newly freed blacks in the post-Civil War South before dying out in the 1870s. The post-World War I mood of distrust and intolerance fueled a revival of the KKK. The new Klan was hostile toward immigrants, Catholics, Jews, and African Americans. It favored immigration restriction and white supremacy.
By the mid-1920s membership in the Klan swelled to as many as 4 million people. However, passage of the National Origins Act removed the Klan’s most popular issue. Divided by recurring leadership quarrels, the Klan once again became a marginal group on the periphery of American society.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, Southern states successfully enacted laws which effectively disfranchised most black voters. Progressive reform legislation was least concerned with fighting racial discrimination. President Taft reflected the depth of white prejudice when he applauded Southern laws as necessary to “prevent entirely the possibility of domination by…an ignorant electorate.”
Faced with overwhelming white resistance, Booker T. Washington urged blacks to work for economic self-improvement and to avoid political agitation.
W.E.B. Du Bois emerged as Washington’s most prominent black critic. In his book The Souls of Black Folk (1903), Du Bois repudiated Washington’s accommodationist philosophy and instead called for full political, economic, and social equality for African Americans. Du Bois urged a “talented tenth” of educated blacks to spearhead the fight for equal rights.
In 1905 Du Bois and a small group of black activists formed the Niagara Movement to oppose Jim Crow laws.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, 1909
The Niagara Movement failed to generate either financial or public support. Du Bois now recognized that biracial cooperation was essential to achieving racial progress.
In 1908 over fifty blacks were killed or injured in a bloody race riot in Springfield, Illinois. The riot in Lincoln’s hometown shocked white Progressives. The following year Du Bois and a number of prominent white and black reformers founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The founding of the NAACP marked the first major attempt since Reconstruction to make black rights the focus of a national reform effort.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, 1909
The NAACP was committed to a strategy of using lawsuits in the federal courts as its chief weapon against segregation. The organization achieved a noteworthy success in 1915 when the Supreme Court struck down a grandfather clause in an Oklahoma law. The statue had denied the vote to any citizen whose ancestors had not been enfranchised in 1860.
While NAACP lawyers filed lawsuits against Jim Crow segregation, Du Bois wrote articles for an NAACP journal called The Crisis. Du Bois criticized racist films such as The Birth of a Nation while calling for equal rights and black pride.
The Great Migration of African Americans from the rural South to industrial cities in the North and Midwest began during World War I. Attracted by the promise of jobs and the possibility of escaping Jim Crow segregation over 400,000 African Americans left the South between 1910 and 1920.
The Great Migration continued during the 1920s. By 1930, another 600,000 blacks moved to cities in the north.
Harlem soon emerged as a vibrant center of African American culture. During the 1920s a new generation of black writers and artists created an outpouring of literary and artistic works known as the Harlem Renaissance.
Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, James Weldon Johnson, and Zora Neale Hurston formed the core group of Harlem Renaissance writers. Taken together their poems, novels, and essays comprised a distinctive African American literature.
The Harlem Renaissance writers had little immediate impact upon the majority of African Americans. In contrast, Marcus Garvey emerged as one of the earliest and most influential black-nationalist leaders in the twentieth century.
Garvey organized the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) to increase racial pride and promote black nationalism. Unlike W.E.B. Du Bois, Garvey championed black separatism.
Garvey’s meteoric rise captured the imagination of black people in America, the Caribbean, and Africa. Within a short time Garvey was one of the most famous black spokesmen in the world.
Garvey’s fame and influence did not last long. In 1919 he founded a steamship company, the Black Star Line, to promote trade between New York, Africa, and the West Indies. Garvey proved to be a poor businessman. The steamship line collapsed in 1921 costing investors over $750,000. Irregularities in fund-raising led to Garvey’s arrest and conviction for mail fraud. President Coolidge commuted Garvey’s sentence and he was deported to his native Jamaica.
In 1920 voters overwhelmingly elected Warren Harding President of the United States. Harding was a small-town Ohio politician who rose through the Republican ranks to become a U.S. Senator. Voters forgave Harding for never giving an important speech or for never proposing an important law. Instead, he was a handsome man who looked “presidential” and promised the country a “return to normalcy.” The American public welcomed an end to Wilson’s idealistic crusades and a return to simpler times.
Harding’s economic policies reconfirmed the partnership between business and government. His Secretary of Treasury Andrew Mellon reduced the tax rates for the wealthy, raised tariffs, and ignored antitrust regulations.
Although Harding was personally honest, his relaxed leadership enabled venal (dishonest) appointees to profit from corrupt activities. For example, Albert Fall, the Secretary of the Interior, illegally leased the Teapot Dome oil reserves in Wyoming to the Mammoth Oil Company of Harry F. Sinclair. In return, Sinclair “lent” Fall nearly $300,000 in cash. Visibly troubled by this and other scandals rocking his administration, Harding suffered a sudden heart attack and died on August 2, 1923.
Vice-President Calvin Coolidge succeeded Harding. The new President was a former governor of Massachusetts who became a national figure by suppressing a Boston police strike in 1919. As Vice-President, Coolidge was untouched by the scandals that tarnished the Harding administration. A man of few words, Coolidge deserved his popular nickname “Silent Cal.”
Coolidge moved quickly to remove everyone involved in the Teapot Dome scandal. After winning the 1924 election Coolidge asserted that, “The business of America is business.” He retained Mellon as Secretary of Treasury and supported his conservative economic policies.
The popular Coolidge could have easily won the Republican nomination for a second full term. However, the taciturn (sparring of words) President unexpectedly announced, “I do not choose to run.”
The Republicans turned to Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover to be their party’s standard bearer in the 1928 presidential election. Hoover was widely respected as a generous humanitarian and a skilled administrator.
Hoover decisively defeated the Democratic candidate Al Smith of New York. Hoover’s landslide victory seemed to confirm the public’s endorsement of the Republican New Era of peace and prosperity. Hoover confidently predicted, “We in American are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of any land.”