A New Society: Economic & Social Change

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.

Booming economy and consumerism. 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.

The new woman and minorities. 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.

Popular culture. 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.