1920s America

Covers the 'Boom', who didn't benefit, thr role of women, the winners, Prohibition, the Wall Street Crash, Hoover's reaction, Roosevelt's win, the New Deal and opposition, and the industrial unrest.


Why were the 1920’s ‘Roaring’?

  • For the first time, more Americans lived in urban than rural areas.
  • Entertainment grew due to lower working hours (47.4 to 44) and higher wages (11% increase).
  • Radio -  went from 1 station in 1921 to 531 in 1922 as more people had access to a radio.
  • Jazz Music –  Famous musicians like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith come to the fore. new dance crazes, are introduced, such as the 'flapper'.
  • Sport – baseball becomes the most popular working class sport, Babe Ruth earns $80,000 a year.
  • Film10 million tickets sold each week, thousand of films made. Stars like  Clara Bow and Rudolph Valentino become popular. In 1928 the first ‘talkie’is made.
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Why did the US economy boom in the 1920’s?

National Wealth – Rich in resources (coal, oil, fertile land), huge steel coal and textile industries, growing pop. (123 million by 1923).

WW1 – joined late, no physical damage, sold weapons and food to the allies, loaned money repayed with interest.

New industry – huge demand for consumer goods, mass production, assembly line, could pay higher wages.

Consumer Society credit, pay off in small instalments, advertising becomes more sophisticated, mail order catalogues.

Republican policies – had the presidency and congress, ‘Laissez faire’ let it be, low taxes, high tariffs on foreign goods (decreases competition), workers could be hired under the pretence that they would not join Trade Unions, the Child Labour Act was deemed illiegal by the Supreme Court.

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Which Americans did not benefit from the boom?

40% lived below the poverty line, the poor remained poor.

Unemployment – New industry did not mean new jobs as mechanical methods were used.  5% unemployed in 1920 and 1929. ‘Laissez faire’ policies mean the government do not intervene.

Old Industry – Low pay and long hours in textiles and coal, cannot keep up. Coal mines in California: $18 men and $9 women for 70 hour week.

Black Americans – many were agricultural workers from the south, 1 million lost their jobs. Give worst jobs and lived in overcrowded homes.

Native Americans – forced onto reservations where it was impossible to make a living.

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Why didn't agriculture benefit?

There was mass unemployment in the agricultural industry.

Overproduction – farming had become more efficient due to new technology, so more crops were produced than needed. Prohibition = less grain and hops.

Mechanisation- fewer people  were needed to work the land thanks to efficient machines.

Falling demand – Population is dropping, and no need to import after WW1.

 Falling exports – The tariffs put in place by the Republicans made other countries introduce them on American goods.

Demand for fruit and veg did increase in big cities.

The Republicans did very little to help farmers.

Often they earned only 1/3 of what urban workers were earning. Only 10% of farms had electric light or a mains water supply.

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How did the role of women change?

Pre WW1restricted no smoking, voting, makeup, relationships. Mostly housewives, low paid jobs, secretarys, cleaners etc.

1920s – Worked in industry during the war (increased 25%), financially independent.

More freedom, car, contraception, double in divorce rate.

1920 brings the vote vote for all women.

FLAPPERS – short. Bobbed hair, shorter dresses, make-up, went out with men, owned cars/motorbikes, Clara Bow. BUT only for middle class, young, urban dwellers.

MOST are too busy working. Rural women (especially in the South) have to stick to ‘traditional values’. For most the greatest benefits came in the form of labour saving home appliances.

Though they can vote, few are selected as political candidates. 

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Who were the winners from the boom?

Mass production and motors

Cars become cheaper due to assembly line and mass production.

The Model T fell from $850 to $295 between 1908-1920.

15 million were made in 1927.


Mass production was copied by electrical goods manufacturers, in 1929 10 million radios, 20 million telephones and 20 million refrigerators built.

Cars bring freedom to travel, fuelled hotels, restaurants etc. Road building was the largest employer by the 1920s.

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Why did Black Americans suffer intolerance?

SEGREGATION – South had ‘Jim Crow laws’ kept apart, no jobs, no education, no vote. Worked in agriculture.

VIOLENCE –Police turned a blind eye, in the early 1920s there were 50 lynchings per year.

KKK – White supremacists, believed Americans had to be WASPS, targeted Jews, Catholics, foreigners and homosexuals. ‘Birth of a Nation’ glorifies their crimes. 5 million members in 1925 went into decline after horrible murders and scandals.

MIGRATION - Many moved north ‘Great migration’ Black population of NY goes from 150,000 to 300,000.  Give worst jobs, overcrowded housing. Race riots.

SOME IMPROVEMENT – Northern cities, Black Renaissance, Harlem, Duke Ellington, NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People).

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Why did immigrants suffer?

CONCERNS – 1901-1910, immigration at all time high, Jews from Eastern Europe and Russia to escape persecution, Italians to escape poverty, feeling that the country was ‘full up’.

COMMUNISM –brought radical political ideas after 1917 communist revolution. Many strikes due to low pay.

PALMER RAIDS – Anarchists distributed leaflets, April 1919 church bombed, letter bombs sent to politicians. US general Palmer arrests many minorities, 10,000 threatened with deportation because they were ‘Reds’.

SACCO AND VANZETTI –two Italians executed in 1927 because of prejudice, Judge Thayer calls them ‘those anarchist bastards’. Charged with armed robbery and murder despite little evidence and many appeals.

RESULT: immigration quotas ensure most are North-Western European, Asian stopped altogether. Immigration goes from 1 million a year to 150,000.

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Why was Prohibition introduced?

  • TEMPERANCE-'Dries' launched propoganda campaigns to ban alcohol.
  • RELIGION- Church groups, such as the Women's Christian Temperance Union said that it 'destroyed families'.
  • SOCIAL PROBLEMS- blamed for violence, poverty and sexual promiscuity. Politicians and business men support the claims, e.g Henry Ford and Nelson Rockerfeller. '300 babies a year smothered by drunken parents'.
  • WW1- breweries are run by German companies, considered a waste of grain, said to be a plot to sabotage the war effort.

1919- 18th amnedment to the constitution, banned manufacture, sale and transportation of alcohol in 1920.

VOLSTEAD ACT, 1920: defines alcohol as any drink with 1/2% volume.

Consumption fell by 30%. Isadore Einstein and Moe Smith make over 4,392 arrests.

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Why was Prohibition repealed?

  • People made their own: people left grape juice to brew and made wine, rural people set up stills to make moonshine, this led to a 600% increase in alcohol poisoning 1920-1927.
  • Bootleggers: alcohol came in from Canada and the 29,000 miles coastline, often rum from Jamaica.
  • Gangsters: illegal 'speakeasies' were set up, over 30,000 in New York alone, twice the number of previously legal saloons.  This caused massive outbreaks of violence.
  • Al Capone was probabaly the most famous gangster of the era, he was popular with the people for his charity work, but they were shocked when he ordered the St Valentines Day Massacre.
  • Too few law enforcement agents: There were only 3000 prohibtion officers for the whole of he USA.  They were paid little and were open to bribes. The FBI was too small.
  • It didn't work: The number of arrests for drunkeness did not go down markedly. Too many middle-class people were breakking the law.
  • They neede the tax revenue: After the Wall Street Crash, too many peopel were left unemployed and not paying tax to support Hoover's government. When Roosevelt became president one of his first acts was to repeal the 18th Amendment.
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What caused the Wall Street Crash?

  • Wall Street is the home of the US stock market, where shares are bought and sold.
  • During the 1920s it was a good way to make money as the economy was doing well.
  • In 1920, 4 million Americans owned shares, in 1929 it was 20 million.
  • 50% of the 'petticoat line' was owned by women.


  • Around 600,00 people were speculators, who would borrow 90% of the cost of buying shares, then sell them and keep the profit.
  • This relied on confidence, if people believed stocks would rise they would buy them and prices rise as a result.
  • The higher the prices, the more dramatic the fall.
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Other weaknesses in the American economy.

  • The boom had been fuelled by consumer goods, but by 1929 there were signs of overproduction and sales decreased.
  • These surplus goods could have been sold to Europe, but after years of Republican tarrifs on foreign goods, Europe had done the same, so they were too expensive.
  • Wealth was still shared unequally, with 1/3 of all income earned by 5% of workers.

By the summer of  1929, weaknesses were beginning to show. Speculators became nervous abut the value of their share and began to sell.

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1929:The Wall Street Crash

  • 5th September: Roger Babson says "Sooner or later a crash is coming, and it may be terrific." Prices fall, then recover.
  • 21st October: Mass selling of stock, but the 'ticker' is running late so many are left unaware.
  • 24th October (Black Thursday): Prices go into freefall, but banks step in to stabilise prices.
  • 28th October: prices fall again, banks do not step in.
  • 29th October: 16 million stock sold for whatever they could get. Prices continue to fall until 1932.


  • banks closed after speculators could not repay their loans. 
  • People stopped spending money, resulting in job cuts, reduced production and lower wages. There were 14 million unemployed in 1933.
  • International trade fell from $10 billion to $3 billion from 1929-32.
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Social consequences of the Wall Street Crash


  • Unemployment: By 1922, 25% of Americans were unemployed.
  • Poverty: There was no unemployment benefit, people were reduced to waiting in breadlines run by the Salvation Army. Hobos walked from place to place for work.
  • Homelessness: Countless families lost their homes and were split up, every town had a 'Hooverville' shanty town.


  • Farmers: Having struggled already, they could not afford their mortgages, moved to fruit farms in California. Named the 'Okies' and 'Arkies'.
  • Dust bowl: Millions of acres of land lost when it dried out.


  • Aircraft, film and elecricals did well and paid high wages.
  • The Empire State building was completed in 1932.
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How did President Hoover react to the Depression?

  • He had been Secretary of Commerce, and was responsible for many of the policies that led to it.
  • He was a 'Laissez faire' politician, and believed businesses should be left alone and charities should support the poor, not the government. He blocked a bill that would have spent $2.1 billion on job creation.
  • In summer 1932, thousand of WW1 veterans marched to Washington to demand payment of their $300 war bonus. They campaigned peacefully.
  • Under Hoover's orders, General MacArthur dispersed them with tanks and tear gas. Hoover refused to acknowledge fault and sympathy for him was lost.
  • In 1930, he cut taxes and set up a commitee to create jobs.
  • He cancelled debts from France, GB and belgium to encourage trade.
  • He also gave $2 billion to banks and businesses to prevent bankruptcies.
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Why did Roosevelt win the 1932 election?

FACTOR 1-The Depression: Unemployment was at 14 million, 500 banks collapsed, businesses closed and cut production, people forced into 'Hoovervilles'.

FACTOR 2-Hoover's policies: Hoover had promised "a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage."  He believed 'rugged individualism' would get Americans out of poverty. The economy did not recover by itself as he had hoped, and his actions were seen as 'too little too late'.

FACTOR 3-Roosevelt's campaign: He laid to rest concerns a bout his health by travelling widely by train, made powerful speeches attacking Hoover and promised a 'New Deal'. He gave the people hope, and convinced them he was on thier side. He said he would take bold action and spend money to create jobs. 'Hang Hoover' placards became popular.

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What was Roosevelt's New Deal?

  • His first action was to close banks so that governemnt official could check them over. Those that were hopeless were closed, restoring confidence in the others.
  • He put forward regulations to stop stock market regulation.
  • FERA (Federal Emergency Relief Administration)-spent $500 million on soup kitchens, blankets and unskilled jobs.
  • CCC (Civilian Conservation Corp)-provided work for young men on environmental projects.
  • TVA (Tenesse Valley Association)- built dams to irrigate the land and provide power.
  • PWA (Public Works Association)- built schools, roads and airports. When it was closed it had created 8 million jobs.
  • NRA (National Recovery Administration)- helped workers gain fair wages, improve working conditions and end child labour.
  • AAA (Agricultural Adjustment Association)-Supported farms and encouraged modernisation.
  • Repealed Prohibition.

60 million Americans tuned in to his 'Fireside Chats' where he would explain what action he was taking and why.

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Why did the New Deal encounter opposition?

Criticism from the Rich- The upper class, big business and the Republican party said that:

  • Roosevelt was wasting huge amounts of money on unneccessary projects.
  • He was interrferring too much in business and industry (particularly through the NRA).
  • He was destroying individual initiative.
  • He was increasing the federal and his own power at the expense of individual states.

The American Liberty League was set up to demand business be left to itself. It was claimed that Roosevelt's policies led to communism and dictatorship.

The Supreme Court-  a group of nine judges who decided whether or not laws were constitutional. 4 were hardline Republicans, and two had been appointed by Hoover.

  • They ruled the NRA was unconstitutional, and it had no right to interfere in individual states business. The NRA along with 750 indiviudal codes were scrapped.
  • They also said the AAA was unconstitutional.

Roosevelt attempted to get round this by forcing judges over 70 to retire, and increasing the number of judges to 15. This was widely unpopular and did not pass.

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Why did the New Deal encounter opposition? Cont.

UPTON SINCLAIR:  a radical author who set up the  "End poverty in California" movement. It was originally popular, and wanted worker control of industries.

FATHER COUGHLIN: the "radio priest" who set up the National Union for Social Justice and campaigned for more to be done. His ideas were vague however and Roosevelt ignored him. He gradually lost support down to this and his anti-semitism.

DR FRANCIS TOWNSEND: founed the Union Part along with Father Coughlin, which put forward a candidate for the 1936 election. Created the Townsend plan, which wanted to give people over 60 $200 a month to revitalise the economy.

HUEY LONG: An incredibly successful Governer of Louisiana who got money through taxing oil companies. He became a Democrat senator in 1932 but criticised Roosevelt. He put forward the "Share our wealth" scheme, which wanted to give every family $5000 dollars to buy their own car, home and radio, the money for which would be confiscated from the rich.

He was corrupt, taking a cut of the money intended for public works and bribing police. He was due to run for president in 1936, but was assasinated in 1935. 

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Who did not benefit from the New Deal?

SHARECROPPERS- Were not helped by the AAA and did not recieve compensation. The prolonged drought did not aid them and they moved to California for work.

URBAN POOR- No agency specifically targeted them. Only FERA worked with them.

BLACKS- 50% of sharecroppers were black, 30% of families were dependant on emergency relief. Roosevelt did not support a law to outlaw lynching. The CCC and TVA projects were segregated, and the AAA was not open to them. Eleanor Roosevelt did support black rights.

NATIVE AMERICANS- The Indian Reservation Act allowed them to form their own courts of law and recognised thier cultural traditions. The Indian Reorganisation Act gave money for them to buy their own land. They were still left in poverty on unwanted land.

WOMEN- most did not lose thier jobs, either because they did not have them in the first place, or because the were cheaper to keep on. The NRA allowed businesses to pay them less and in some cases veen required it.  Employment of women actually increased to 25%. Those in domestic service were not covered by the Social Security Act. The CCC trained only 8000 women compared to 2.75 million young men.

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What was the Second New Deal?

By 1935, the USA was on the road to recovery and Roosevelt was under criticism. Some said the New Deal was not helping enough, others said it had interferred too much.

  • The NRA had been shut down, but the Wagner act was brought in to allow workers to be part of trade unions.
  • The Social security act gave pensions to the elderly and widows, as well as helping the disbaled and children in need. It also started an  unemployment insurance scheme, paid into by workers and employers.
  • The FRA (Federal Arts Project) paid artists to create posters, murals and paintings for public buildings.
  • The AAA had been closed by the Supreme Court so the Resettlement Association helped famers move to better land and the Soil Conservation Act (1935) allowed them to give grants through soil conservation schemes.
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The New Deal did not solve unemployment. Did it fa

  • Despite all the money pured into the deal, there were still three times as many nemployed as before the Depression began.
  • In Autumn 1937, Roosevelt tried to balance the budget by making large cuts to public spending.
  • This  meant employment shot up again, and in Summer 1938 he put $4 billion into the WPA (Works Progress Administration).

Critics said this proved that the New Deal was too expensive an it did not create long term jobs.

  • It was not until 1941 that the demand for goods in Europe put unemployment at under a million. It was only WW2 that created real and lasting jobs.
  • Real recovery could only come from a world trade revival, which was beyond the power of the US government.
  • Roosevelt did not create any more alphabet agencies after 1937, perhaps having realised their limitations.
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Why was there industrial unrest?

  • In 1937 there were a series of violent strikes across the USA, after the Wagner Act had allowed workers to set up trade unions.
  • The CIO (Congress of Industrial Organisation) recruited unsilled workers in the steel and car industries. In 1937 it had 3 million members.
  • Many bosses hated the unions and would hire thugs to beat up their leaders. In Chicago, police opened fire n peaceful steelworker, killing 10.
  • Often they staged sit-ins so that bosses could not bring in scab labour.
  • In 80% of strikes workers achieved their goals.
  •  Roosevelt did not nothing for either side of the conflict.
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