After World War I, the American Congress adopted the isolationist policy. This provoked an economic boom during the 1920’s as the American citizens concentrated in producing more goods for their internal market. There were several changes not just in the economic field but also in the political, social and religious aspects. The aim of this essay is to analyse how life changed in the USA in the 1920’s.
Between 1896 and 1915 the American farmers were doing great in business. “They increased their production but saw a general price increase which maintained their sense of well-being”. Furthermore, industries in the 19th century were mostly of coal, iron and steel whereas the economy in the 20’s relied on the new industries. These included chemicals, synthetic textiles and electricity. “Prosperity is around the corner”, this is a famous slogan that became public when the economy was beginning to flourish. It means that confidence is the basis of the economy.
During the 1920’s, the American economy boomed. The automobile industry, launched by Henry Ford, brought prices down and made room to a number of well paid jobs on the production line. Moreover, it led to the arrival of new businesses, such as gas stations, road construction, hotels and roadside diners. Other industries developing fast were the electrical power, the supermarkets and the advertising industry. Some of the new inventions rising up were the refrigerators, vacuum cleaners, cookers and toasters. Also, the government encouraged investment and promoted production, and passed a policy of strict tariff barriers, known as protectionism, which forbade imported products to protect American-produced goods. Other policies were the Laissez-faire, Low taxation and Trusts.
However, not everybody benefit from this boom. Women, African Americans, Indians and the elderly remained outside the prosperity. Despite the growth, the American economy was going through in the 1920’s it was not as blooming as it appeared. Farming was in serious trouble. Farming income had seriously dropped in 1928 and soon, the market was exceeded in goods. Prices fell at the same time unemployment was rising up. By 1929, the economy was already failing. Finally the Wall Street stock Market crashed. It can be said that it was mostly caused by speculation, yet there were other causes, such as weaknesses in the banking system, overproduction and maldistribution of the wealth. As a consequence, most banks in the country went bankrupt, people lost their homes. Jobs and poverty increased enormously.
Furthermore, as a consequence of the boom, social aspects also changed considerably. Before the 1920’s, women lived extremely bounded lives. They had to wear restricted clothes, behave politely, they couldn’t wear make-up, relationships with men were controlled and they couldn’t smoke in public or take part in sports. Moreover, they couldn’t vote. They had very little job opportunities, and very low paid. Plus, although alcohol was still legal, there were already movements to make it illegal. The Anti-Saloon League and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union campaigned to ban alcohol. By 1916, 21 states had banned saloons.
During the 1920’s, women’s lives changed completely. In urban areas, they got more jobs, even though; they were still being paid less than men. They were able to vote, although this didn’t give them any political power, and their domestic chores became a lot easier with the new inventions. But what was by far the most controversial change was the looseness of their responsibilities and limitations. Now, they could use more daring clothes, smoke and drink in public with men, go out with them without a chaperone and even kiss in public. What’s more, they were less likely to stay unhappily married. These new, modern women were known as the “Flappers”.
Women had gained freedom and individualism. In addition, “the mass consumption economy produced new popular music promoted by movies, radio and records”. JAZZ emerged from the coloured people community. By many, it was seen as morally unacceptable because of its sexually explicit songs and dances and since it increased the smoking habit among teenagers. As we can see, in the 20’s entertainment became a very notable industry. Almost everybody in the country was listening to the radio or playing sports such as baseball or boxing, two of the sports particularly new in this decade. The filming industry was also developing quite rapidly. By 1927 the first “talkie” movie was produced. And a new subject was being introduced, and enforced by this industry: “Sex”.
The cinema quickly discovered the selling power of sex and took advantage of it. This word, which was previously never mentioned, now blossomed. Nevertheless, the conservative society saw it as way to daring. Additionally, the Eighteenth Amendment together with the Volstead Act finally prohibited the manufacture or sale of alcoholic beverages. This was enforced from 1920 to 1933 and it aimed to reduce crime. Instead, it helped to intensify it. Consequently, an alternative industry of manufacturing and distribution of illegal drink was arising. Soon, thousands of speakeasies, scattered all along the USA, were operating. Bribery and intimidation were used against police and politicians or rivalry. America was trapped in the black market and mafia groups.
Woodrow Wilson, a democrat, was the American President, before entering the “Age of Excess”. Before 1920, USA was involved in the European trade and business. Before 1920, most Americans were immigrants or descended from recent immigrants. There were Jews from Eastern Europe and Russia, Italians, Mexicans and Asians. The United States had always been known as the “Melting pot” country. This means that all different cultures blended together to be just Americans, no matter where they came from. Over 30% of its population was African-American.
During the 1920’s, all Presidents of the USA belonged to the Republican Party. These were Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover. An isolationist policy was adopted. The USA turned its back on Europe for the next 2 decades. During these years, the old concept of the USA being a “melting pot” was completely forgotten. USA’s main immigrant groups were Irish Americans, French Canadians and German Americans others, such as Blacks and Mexicans were especially discriminated. During these years, the Americans specially feared the expansion of Communism, through immigrants coming from Russia or eastern Europe, This reaction was called “The Red Scare”. In 1921 The Emergency Quota Act was passed, these reduced the number of immigrants.
The group that suffered the most was the African-American. They faced racial discrimination and economic inequality. They practically didn’t receive education, worked for the lowest-paid jobs and were segregated from the white community. The “Ku Klux Klan”, a terrorist organisation prevented slaves from getting the same rights other Americans had. The Industrial expansion after the War, pushed the Negro community to leave the South and move to the North, where they would find better jobs with higher wages and a good education. Still, they were the last to be given jobs. For them, the 1920’s was definitely not a time of prosperity. Yet, things for them were improving; the popularity of jazz made black musicians famous, lynching fell and they were able to enter politics.
In the religious aspect, before the 20’s freedom of religion was guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Constitution. This banned all established or official churches and separated the Church from the State. Many immigrants fled to America because in their own countries they couldn’t profess the religion of their choice.
By the 20’s many American Protestants were religious fundamentalists, who stuck rigidly to the literal truth of the Bible and were against the modern scientific beliefs. In 1925 the state of Tennessee passed a law which basically forbade teaching the theory of evolution in its public institutions. They said that anything contradicting the words of the Book of Genesis couldn’t be taught. This was a consequence of “The Monkey Trial”, which condemned a schoolteacher for teaching the Theory of Evolution in a public school. Protestant fundamentalists predominated in rural areas, in the South and Midwest. This area was nicknamed “The Bible Belt”. They were loyal followers of “Prohibition” and the Democratic Party.
We have come to a point of the essay where we can certify that the 1920’s was an age of contradictions. On the one hand, we have an overproduction of goods, a flourishing economy, prosperity around the corner, yet there were people without jobs, going hungry, not sharing the benefits from this boom. Then, society was tolerant with women as they could have a say, and pursue a career, but at the same time it condemned them, blaming them for corruption of family values.
Not to mention that while women were able to smoke and drink in public with men, prohibition was introduced. Also, the difficult situations the people from the south had to go through, was nothing comparing to the life in the north. Finally, while there were religious revolutionists, believing in science, there were also the Protestant Fundamentalists sticking to the old believes of the Bible. Life changed in many ways during the 1920’s; nonetheless it was definitely a decade of contrariety.