The decade following the end of World War I was exceptionally prosperous for most Americans. The gross national product (GNP) grew from $74.1 billion in 1921 to $103.1 billion in 1929. Much of this growth was the result of technological and manufacturing innovations in American industry and the rise of the
The automobile industry implemented innovations in production that reduced both the time required to manufacture automobiles and their initial price. In fact, America's automobile industry became so successful that it dominated American industry as the railroads once had, and automobile ownership became an integral part of the nation's cultural identity.
Henry Ford's assembly line cut the average production time for the Model T from one every twelve and half hours to one Model T every sixty seconds. Ford passed the resulting cost savings to his customers in the form of lowered prices. In 1909, a Model T touring sedan sold for $850. In 1914, the same car sold for $440. By 1926, Henry Ford's Model T touring sedan sold for $290. As prices dropped and quality rose, Americans bought cars with a messianic zeal. In 1929, more than half of the nation owned a car. New York City alone had more cars than all of Europe.
The growth of the automobile industry not only put Americans behind the wheel, it put them to work, too. At the end of the decade, one in eight Americans was employed in an automobile industry related job. Car manufacturing consumed a significant portion of all other industrial output. Fifteen percent of the steel and eighty percent of the rubber produced in the US went to automobile production.
Automobile ownership drove government spending and urban settlement patterns. Local and state governments spent one billion dollars a year constructing roads, bridges, and tunnels to accommodate American cars. Freed from their reliance on public transportation, Americans moved to the suburbs, creating booms
These suburbanites' homes were equipped with electricity. Prior to WWI, sixteen percent of American homes had electricity. By 1927, sixty-three percent of American houses had electricity. New industries developed to take advantage of the "juiced" nation. Electric refrigeration enabled Americans to purchase and store food long before they planned to eat it. Electric radios brought the world's news and music into homes almost instantly. And by 1929, twenty million Americans were chatting by telephone.
Marketing agents used each of these new consumer products to sell another product, sometimes creating demand for goods by convincing Americans that their lives would be less enjoyable without them. The Listerine corporation, for example, created the legitimate-sounding, yet bogus term "halitosis" to make consumers believe that their bad breath was a serious health condition requiring Listerine mouthwash. For those who lacked the money to buy the new goods, merchants and creditors offered "buy now, pay later" plans. Sixty percent of cars and eighty percent of radios were purchased "on credit."
The American lifestyle became increasingly standardized in the years following WWI. Movie theaters opened nationwide, all offering a homogenized version of American life. AM radio stations were yet to be regulated closely by federal authorities, and they beamed high wattage signals across the continent. Stations such as Nashville's WSM-650 AM and New Orleans' WWL-870 AM could be heard anywhere within a 750 mile radius of their broadcast tower (they still can be heard at night). These stations' free broadcasts were supported by advertising, much of which encouraged listeners to buy more refrigerators, cars, radios, and other new-fangled gadgets and gizmos. Their programming brought hillbilly music to New York City and classical music to the hollers.
Women began to challenge long-standing gender roles and proscribed behaviors, aided partly by the changes in other spheres. "Flappers" bobbed their hair, revealed their legs above the ankles, wore cosmetics, and smoked cigarettes in public. Relations between the sexes changed as well. Automobiles afforded couples private space outside the home and away from their parents' eyes. Alcohol, cars, and the opposite sex was an early, and very popular, combination for the nation's youth, and the availability of new contraceptive devices tempered the consequences of such behavior. Developments in the workplace created other opportunities for women, though the pull of traditional gender roles still segregated many occupations by sex. Women found employment in low-skill, low paying jobs as secretaries, telephone operators, nurses, teachers, and seamstresses, while skilled, higher-paying jobs remained the near exclusive purview of men. Perhaps the greatest achievement for women during the period was passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, which extended the vote to women nationwide.
The post-war era brought advances for African Americans as well. Technological developments, such as the radio, spread the message of black leaders like Marcus Garvey. Radio stations broadcasted blues and jazz music to the nation, leading to a cultural awakening among African Americans and enabling white Americans to listen to once taboo music from the privacy of their own homes, where the "color line" proved difficult to police. The availability of industrial work in the North lead many southern blacks to leave the South. Between 1916 and 1918, for example, 110,000 blacks migrated from the South, mostly Mississippi, to Chicago. In fact, so great was the migration that Mississippi's black population dropped from fifty-six percent in 1910 to nearly thirty-seven percent in 1970. Every other southern state experienced similar demographic changes. African Americans still faced discrimination in the North, but not the kind of rigid, dehumanizing treatment common in the South, where they were systematically denied the right to vote and could be lynched upon the slightest provocation. The immigrants communicated with their friends and family who remained "down South," spreading word of a different way of life and planting
To many Americans, especially rural, white ones, these changes in the economy, culture, morals, and race relations were unwelcome. Religious fundamentalists, white supremacists, and supporters of the "traditional American way of life" (whatever that is), felt as though they were under attack from all sides and they lashed out at what they believed were dangerous trends.
Fundamentalists were quite sure that alcohol was behind the decline in American morals, and they determined to rid the nation of its brewers, distilleries, and dram houses. Evangelist Billy Sunday claimed that after the prohibition of alcohol manufacturing, "hell would be for rent." Social progressives believed that alcohol was destroying the American family, creating drunkard fathers and abusive husbands. American industrialists who believed that drunkenness led to absenteeism and workplace injuries supported prohibition as well.
Prohibition became national law with the ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1920, but it did little to curb America's thirst for booze. In rural America, "moonshiners" had been distilling illegal liquor long before prohibition, and its passage only increased the market for their product. Urban areas had their own bootleg distilleries, shot houses, and organized crime syndicates to supply local imbibers. In fact, though many American professed support for prohibition publicly, they drank privately. In 1926, Time magazine went so far as to print a recipe for making gin. By 1929, there were 32,000 "speak-easies," illegal saloons, in New York City alone. One Treasury agent conducted an experiment to discover how long he would have to search for alcohol simply by asking people on the streets of four American cities. In Atlanta, his search took seven minutes; in Chicago, twenty-one minutes; in New Orleans, thirty-five seconds; and in the nation's capital, one hour. Moreover, the enforcement legislation for the Eighteenth
Religious fundamentalists felt that their faith was under assault, and throughout the 1920s they began to develop a siege mentality. Rural churches were diluted by the urban migration of their parishioners, women challenged their traditional roles, and advances in science appeared to be designed to discredit the biblical account of human origins. Faithful modernists and moderates sought to reconcile evolution with religion. Fundamentalists, however, rejected anything that challenged their interpretation of the scriptures, including science. Evolution became their cause célèbre and William Jennings Bryan their standard-bearer.
On March 13, 1925, the state of Tennessee passed a law against teaching evolution in public schools and universities. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sought to challenge the law and offered to defend any teacher charged with violating the new law. Some Dayton, Tennessee civil leaders thought that such a trial would "put Dayton on the map" and summoned John T. Scopes, the local biology teacher and head football coach, to assist in their plan. Scopes accepted their offer and was arrested for violating the anti-evolution statute. The ACLU dispatched Clarence Darrow, the 1920s version of Johnnie Cochran or F. Lee Bailey, to defend Scopes. Darrow claimed that he had come to Tennessee to keep "bigots and ignoramuses from controlling the education of the US." William Jennings Bryan volunteered to assist with Scopes' prosecution. The trial was a national sensation and was carried live via radio. During the trial, Bryan foolishly agreed to testify as an expert witness on the Bible. Darrow took the opportunity to humiliate Bryan, and fundamentalism in general, by asking probing questions about the inerrancy and literality of the Bible. Despite Darrow's efforts, Scopes was convicted (there was no doubt of his guilt and the trial court was no place to determine the constitutionality of Tennessee's law).* Fundamentalists felt vindicated by the decision, but the negative press the case garnered continues to haunt Tennessee and the South.
The "Second" Ku Klux Klan took advantage of white, recently arrived middle-class's fear of change, as well as their precarious social and economic position, to establish a powerful reactionary organization that promised to defend "the real America" from whiskey peddlers, chain stores, Catholics (who drank and engaged in other curious practices), southern and eastern Europeans, and their arch nemeses, African Americans. The 1920s Klan was created by William J. Simmons, a professional ne'er-do-well originally from Shelby County, Alabama who had failed as a farmer, preacher, and teacher prior to peddling insurance in Atlanta. Simmons capitalized on the popularity of Thomas Dixon's The Clansman (1905) and its screen adaptation, D.W. Griffith's "The Birth of the Nation" (1915), both of which glorified the first Klan, and painted racial equality as a fool's errand, to build a new Klan. In October 1915, Simmons received a charter for the Klan from the state of Georgia. On Thanksgiving night of that year, Simmons and his followers met atop Stone Mountain, where they lit crosses and proclaimed the Klan's resurrection. Five years later, Klan membership barely topped 2,000 members. Ironically, Simmons hired a public relations firm to promote the organization. The firm developed a campaign promoting "100% Pure Americanism" and portrayed the Klan as the gallant foe of "America's enemies," who they identified as organized blacks, Catholics, Jews, Bolsheviks, and recent immigrants. In less than a year, Klan membership topped 100,000, including the governor of Indiana and future Supreme Court justice Hugo Black. Unlike the Klan of the Reconstruction era, the 1920s Klan was a national, urban organization. The Klan attracted scoundrels by the bucketful, including Simmons, and eventually folded amid financial and criminal scandals. Despite the demise of the national organization, many klaverns survived well into the mid-to-late twentieth century.The decade's prosperity and the reactionaries' efforts to constrain "progress" were built upon a faulty foundation. Toward the end of the decade, the consumer-based economy began to reach its saturation point: those who could afford an electric refrigerator or car, for example, already had one. Consumers who acquired those items on credit spent much of their disposable cash making payments for their goods, leaving them unable to purchase new products. The anti-modernism challenges to social and cultural developments failed to stem the tide of change, and as the economy soured the men who joined organizations like the Klan seeking to protect their new-found, yet marginal status, slipped backwards and discovered that no percentage of Americanism alone could keep the bank agent from their doors, their wives out of the beauty parlor, and their children from associating with the "wrong" people.
*Scopes' conviction was overturned two years later by the Tennessee Supreme Court because of a procedural mistake during the original trial.
Upon the completion of this module, you should be able to:
- Explain the reasons for the industrial boom during the 1920s.
- Discuss the changes in the American way of life and American values in the 1920s in the areas of consumerism, communications, religion, and the role of women.
- Describe the portrayal of, and reaction to, changes in the American way of life and values during the 1920s as reflected in American literature, art, and music.
- Explain the effects of prohibition on American politics and society.
- Analyze the reasons for xenophobia and racial unrest during the 1920s, the religious controversies that dominated the era, and ways in which these reactionary movements illustrated anti-modernism tendencies in American culture.
- Discuss the debacle of the Harding administration, and the pro-business tendencies of all Republican administrations in the 1920s.
Please progress through this module as follows:
Before reading the materials below, review the Module Six Terms. As you progress through the material, take note of information which helps answer, identify, and explain those items. This Word version of the terms may be useful for taking notes. You will have a quiz on these terms.
- Read Alan Brinkley, "The New Era," in American History: A Narrative (Chapter Twenty-Two).
- Read Sinclair Lewis, "Chapters I-IV," in Babbitt (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Co., 1922). In the public domain. Retrieved from Project Gutenberg.
- Read Nancy Maclean, Behind the Mask of Chivalry: The Making of the Second Ku Klux Klan (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995): 3-51. (Item is accessible by direct link if you have a UA VPN connection. Otherwise, they are accessible through the UA libraries' web site.)
Take the Module Six Terms Quiz by choosing Assessments from the Course Tools menu and selecting Module Six Terms Quiz.
Use this pre-formatted Word document to complete your Module Six assignments. Complete all assignments using a single Microsoft Word, or a compatible word processor, file with Times New Roman, 12-point font. Save the file to your computer as "yourname_m6." Once you have completed your assignments, submit them for grading by accessing the Assignments tab in the Course Tools menu, selecting Module Six Assignment, attaching your Word document, and clicking the Submit button.
- Response Questions - After reading Babbitt, Chapters I - IV and Behind the Mask of Chivalry (pp. 3 - 51), respond to the following questions. Brief, concise answers are acceptable, so long as they address all parts of the question. This rubric will be used to score your response question assignments. (20 pts.)
- Describe the social and economic background of those who joined the 1920s Klan.
- Why were upper-class whites generally not interested in joining the Klan?
- What aspects of George Babbitt's character, as well as that of the town of Zenith, would have concerned members of the Klan? Why? Be specific, citing at least three potential points of conflict and explaining why those points noted would have troubled the Klansmen.
- Do you believe that Sinclair Lewis's opinion/view of 1920s America is similar or dissimilar to those of the Klansmen? Justify your answer.
- On some level, were Babbitt and the 1920s Klan concerned about the same problem? Justify your answer.
- EXTRA CREDIT: Fill-in Chart - Listen to at least four of the songs linked in this song list.
In the chart provided, list the artist and title of the song, the
song's subject, and the way(s) it reflects popular trends in 1920s
America. You may use only one anti-evolution or "race" song, and you
cannot use more than one song per artist. This rubric will be used to score your chart assignments. (10 pts.) NOTE: Several of these songs, as well as their titles, are offensive. They have been provided to you because they are illustrative of American conceptions of race, gender, and religion during the 1920s. Recording citations for these songs are available here.
How it Reflects Popular Trends in 1920s America
- EXTRA CREDIT - Complete the assignment below for an additional twenty points on your Module Six Assignments grade.
- View "Roses of Crimson,"
[58:49] then answer the following questions. Brief, concise answers
are acceptable, so long as they address all parts of the question.
This rubric will be used to score your response question assignments. (20 pts.)
- In the South, and especially in Alabama, Football was more than just a game. What "was" football to Alabama and the South? Why had football assumed that roll in southern and Alabama life?
- Can the popularity of the sport at Alabama and across the South be seen as part of the wider anti-modern movement from the 1920s? If so, how? If not, why? Explain your answer.
- Writing of the 1926 Rose Bowl, Birmingham sportswriter John T. Graves remarked:
For all the last stands, all the lost causes and sacrifices in vain, the South had a heart and a tradition. But the South had a new tradition for something else. It was for survival and victory. It had come from the football field. It had come from those mighty afternoons in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena when Alabama's Crimson Tide had rolled to glory. The South had come by way of football to think in terms of causes won, not lost.
What "causes" could have possibly been "won" by the victory of a school's football team? Had an entire region's troubles and anxieties been transferred onto the shoulders of an athletic team? Was that reasonable? How? Why?
- View "Roses of Crimson," [58:49] then answer the following questions. Brief, concise answers are acceptable, so long as they address all parts of the question. This rubric will be used to score your response question assignments. (20 pts.)
Once you have completed the assignments for Module Six (including the Extra Credit at your discretion), submit them as one, single Word file by accessing the Assignments tab in the Course Tools menu and selecting Module Six Assignment, attaching your Word document, and clicking the Submit button.
- Monkey Trial:
- Clash of Cultures in the 1910s and 1920s
- Thomas W. Dixon, The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan (New York: Doubleday, Page and Company, 1905).
- The Volstead Act
- Fatal Flood - the 1927 Mississippi River Flood
- Clarence Darrow's Questioning of William Jennings Bryan.
When you have completed the work in Module Six, proceed to Module Seven.