The Roaring Twenties

Although the USA did not enter the First World War until April 1917, the conflict cast a shadow over American society that would take a while to pass. There was a brief economic recession at the start of the 1920s, but, as the decade moved on, the economy boomed and America began the age of consumerism - many Americans bought cars, radios, fridges etc. Major cities such as New York and Chicago grew rapidly and the building of skyscrapers like the Empire State Building, which was completed in 1931, seemed to show the self-confidence of American society.

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The Roaring Twenties-Music/Film/Sporrt

At the same time, many Americans wanted to enjoy themselves as much as they could by perhaps listening to the new jazz music, or doing the new dances such as the charleston and the black bottom. Crowds flocked to watch film stars like Charlie Chaplin and baseball stars like Babe Ruth. The emphasis on having fun and spending money has led to the 1920s being called the Roaring Twenties.

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The Roaring Twenties-Poverty/African Americans

For many Americans, the 1920s was a decade of poverty. Generally, groups such as African-Americans, women and farmers did not enjoy the prosperity of the Roaring Twenties. More than 60 per cent of Americans lived just below the poverty line. Life was particularly hard for African-Americans in the Deep South states where the majority of black people endured a combination of poverty and racism. Although some women were able to enjoy more independence and wear the latest fashions, the reality was that most women were poorly paid and were employed in roles such as cleaners or waitresses.

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The Roaring Twentie-Women

The changing role of women was a result of the work they did during the war. The number of working women increased by 25 per cent. In 1920, all women were given the right to vote. 'Flappers' smoked in public, danced the new dances, and were sexually liberated. Women wore clothing more convenient for activity and stopped wearing long skirts and corsets. Divorce was made easier and the number of divorces doubled - women were not content just to stay at home and put up with bad husbands. But most women were still housewives and were not as free as their men.

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Economic Boom-Summary

America was in a fortunate position as the First World War ended. The war had notdirectly damaged American society and it had led to increased demand for American goods. This resulted in the rapid growth of industry and farming. The economy grew even faster when the war ended.

The keys to America's economic boom were technological progress and increased consumer demand. Businesses began to make huge profits.

Industrial production virtually doubled in the 1920s.

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Economic Boom-Statistics

Between 1919 and 1920:

  • America's gross national product (GNP) grew from $78 billion to $103 billion.
  • The number of households with a radio rose from 60,000 to 10 million.
  • The number of people filing income tax returns for earnings of more than $1 million a year rose from 65 to 513.
  • The number of airline passengers grew from less than 6000 in 1926, to approximately 173,000 in 1929.
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Economic Boom-Society

The economic boom affected society. Jobs were easy to find and were better paid than before. There was a clear link between prosperity and social change. For example, as middle-class women became better off they enjoyed greater social freedom - they wore make-up, shorter skirts and smoked in public.

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Economic Boom-Motor Industry

The motor industry grew rapidly. As the cars poured off the production lines there was a need for more rubber to make tyres, glass for windscreens and leather for seats. The man behind the rise of the motor industry was Henry Ford.

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Causes of the Boom

  • Isolationism - the republican government under President Harding (1921-3) and President Coolidge (1923-9) kept out of foreign affairs, and limited foreign competition by imposing high import tariffs.
  • Technology - especially in the electrical, chemicals and film industries.
  • Mass production - especially in the automobile industry.
  • Hire purchase - allowed people to purchase new gadgets such as vacuum cleaners, washing machines and refrigerators. Borrowing increased the amount of money available to spend, and, therefore, the demand for goods.
  • Shares - firms learned to raise money for expansion by selling shares on the Stock Exchange - this was to cause problems later.
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Problems in the 1920's-Industry

It was not all boom for American industries. Traditional industries such as coal and textiles did not prosper. In 1929, when the average monthly income of New York bricklayers might be $320, coalminers were earning only $103 a month. Also, during the 1920s, in response to American import tariffs on their products, many other countries put customs duties on American goods, which reduced American exports.

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For many American farmers, life in the 1920s was a constant struggle against poverty. During the First World War, farmers had been encouraged to grow as much food as they could. They continued to do this in the 1920s until they had produced more cotton and wheat than they could sell.

As prices dropped, many farmers lived in unhygienic conditions in tin shacks, without electricity or running water. In 1929, when the average monthly income of a skilled manufacturing worker might be $140, farm labourers were earning only $49 a month.

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-Social Problems

People who were wealthy in America were extremely rich, but few people shared in this prosperity. Only 5 per cent of the American population owned a third of the wealth, while 42 per cent of the population were living below the poverty line.

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-Racism and the Ku Klux Klan

Before the First World War, many Americans saw their country as a melting pot in which people of different nationalities, races and religions could live in harmony. The Statue of Liberty symbolised the welcome offered to the huddled masses as they entered America. Yet, there were signs that this mood of tolerance was under attack.

The revival of the Ku Klux Klan was a frightening development. The Klan believed in the superiority of the white race. Its members wore white gowns and pointed hats, and burned large crosses as a symbol of their presence. The revival of the Klan started in the Deep South, but spread to other parts of America.

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The Red Scare/KKK/Emergency Quota Act (1921)

In the Red Scare of 1919-20, hostility against communists and suspected communists reached fever pitch.

The Ku Klux Klan, a racist organisation set up in the 19th century was revived by William J Simmons in 1915. The new Klan with its secret passwords and violent attacks caused terror amongst the African American population.

The Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and the National Origins Act of 1924 made it much more difficult for immigrants to enter the USA.

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Prohibition summary

The noble experiment of Prohibition was introduced by the 18th Amendment, which became effective in January 1920.

National mood - when America entered the war in 1917 the national mood also turned against drinking alcohol. The Anti-Saloon League argued that drinking alcohol was damaging American society. Practical - a ban on alcohol would boost supplies of important grains such as barley. Religious - the consumption of alcohol went against God's will. Moral - many agreed that it was wrong for some Americans to enjoy alcohol while the country's young men were at war.

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Why Prohibition Failed

There weren't enough Prohibition agents to enforce the law - only 1,500 in 1920. The size of America's boundaries made it hard for these agents to control smuggling by bootleggers. The low salary paid to the agents made it easy to bribe them. Many Americans never gave their support to Prohibition and were willing to drink in speakeasies - bars that claimed to sell soft drinks, but served alcohol behind the scenes. Gangsters such as Al Capone made money from organised crime. Protection rackets, organised crime and gangland murders were more common during Prohibition than when alcohol could be bought legally.

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How did prohibition lead to Crime?

Prohibition created an enormous public demand for illegal alcohol.

Gang leaders such as Al Capone and Bugs Moran battled for control of Chicago's illegal drinking dens known as speakeasies.

Capone claimed that he was only a businessman, but between 1927 and 1930 more than 500 gangland murders took place.

The most infamous incident was the St Valentine's Day massacre in 1929 when Capone's men killed seven members of his rival Moran's gang while Capone lay innocently on a beach in Florida.

Capone was imprisoned for income-tax evasion and died from syphilis in 1947. It has been estimated that during Prohibition, $2,000 million worth of business was transferred from the brewing industry and bars to bootleggers and gangsters.

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