Editor’s Introduction Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

By the end of World War I, the American people were ready for a return to normal life in peacetime conditions. Shortly after the armistice, Congress began dismantling the various war agencies and programs established a few years before. Among the most pressing needs was the return of the soldiers and sailors who had fought in the war to civilian life. This was accomplished with speed and efficiency, even while the long-term health effects from exposure to combat may not always have been attended to as scrupulously as they were in subsequent wars. Men with permanent wounds, physical or mental, were expected to get on with their lives.

By the end of World War I, the American people were ready for a return to normal life in peacetime conditions. Shortly after the armistice, Congress began dismantling the various war agencies and programs established a few years before. Among the most pressing needs was the return of the soldiers and sailors who had fought in the war to civilian life. This was accomplished with speed and efficiency, even while the long-term health effects from exposure to combat may not always have been attended to as scrupulously as they were in subsequent wars. Men with permanent wounds, physical or mental, were expected to get on with their lives.

Another key transition was the transference of the railroads back to civilian control. In February 1920 Congress passed the Esch-Cummins Transportation Act, providing for the return of the railroads to private ownership and the strengthening of the Interstate Commerce Commission, which was given the power to establish rates. A Railway Labor Board was created to monitor labor transactions, but it was dispensed with in 1926 in favor of a new law centered on bargaining, arbitration, and mediation in labor disputes. The transition was not flawless, but it served its purpose.

In general, there was a shift in the public mood away from the progressive reform programs and global idealism of the Woodrow Wilson years toward a more conservative, nationalistic, and materialistic outlook in the 1920s. The interest now was in economic progress, in building up the nation as the world leader it had shown itself to be in the war years.

Prosperity under the Harding and Coolidge Administrations

In the election of 1920, the first in which women could vote, the battle for the presidency was fought by two Ohioans: Governor James M. Cox, for the Democrats; and Senator Warren G. Harding, for the Republicans. Cox was a mild-mannered liberal who dutifully proposed to continue the policies of Wilson. Harding was a commonsense businessman (a former newspaper publisher) and politician who ran on a platform of bringing the nation back to a sense of “normalcy.” The result of the voting was decisive, Harding winning 4 to 1 in the Electoral College. (The Socialist candidate Eugene Debs garnered no electoral votes.)

The new president and his Republican-controlled Congress quickly got to work, establishing the main course of conservative policies for the remainder of the decade. One of their first targets was tariffs–not removing them, as might be done under today’s conservative leaders, but rather installing them. Industries such as steel, textiles, sugar, chemicals, and agriculture enjoyed the benefit of protection against foreign imports as they scaled up their operations. The president was even granted the power to raise and lower the tariff rates at his discretion, effectively making him chief executive officer of American business. A second main target was taxes, handily reduced, especially at the higher income brackets, by Harding’s Treasury secretary, Andrew W. Mellon, working with Republican leaders in Congress. In the Commerce Department, Herbert Hoover encouraged industry groups to pool information, standardize practices, and establish codes of fair conduct in the market. The previous two decades of “trust busting” came to a virtual halt, replaced by a new emphasis on growth promotion.

Indeed, from 1923 to 1929 an industrial boom like few others before it took place, signaling that the goal of prosperity was at hand. The fruits of that prosperity were not exactly evenly distributed, as a growing division between social classes and, to a lesser extent, geographic regions was evident. Florida, for example, experienced a great developmental boom, as those looking for land to invest in or a southern palace to erect did so there, aided by the new mode of transportation of choice, the automobile. In the upper Midwest, Detroit became one of the biggest boom cities of all, as Ford Motor Company, General Motors, and other auto manufacturers grew their businesses with unprecedented speed to keep up with demand for cars. The production method used was the moving assembly-line (pioneered by Henry Ford). As in the nineteenth century, when any industry associated with the railroads grew exponentially, so now any manufacturer in the business of contributing to the auto industry thrived. This meant steel, copper, rubber, plate glass, and leather, as well as petroleum (for both the gas tank and lubrication). The great increase of cars and trucks in use also meant major road construction projects and, to accommodate the increasingly mobile and ever growing population, a building boom. Providing electric power to these new homes and businesses were the utility companies, often combined into large, pyramid-like holding companies, sometimes with questionable results for shareholders and the public. Meanwhile, older industries like iron and mining continued to grow and to combine, concentrating control in fewer and fewer hands.

In cities and towns everywhere, chain stores began to appear to provide for the emerging consumer society. Along with them, chain banks gained a foothold in main streets across America. Inside homes, one of the most popular items was the radio, fueling significant growth and innovation in the broadcasting industry. Likewise, home appliances such as electric toasters, beaters, vacuum cleaners, refrigerators, and washers and dryers were in high demand. And, to introduce these items to consumers was a vast assemblage of salesmen, going door-to-door as needed. Likewise, the advertising industry took off, building on the success not only of radio but also of newspapers and magazines, which enjoyed prosperity along with nearly every other industry sector.

There were weak areas, of course. With high tariffs in place both at home and abroad, foreign trade remained sluggish. Industries such as coal mining, shipbuilding, textiles, farm exports (especially wheat, cotton, and meat), and shoes and boots did not experience a boom. Railroads started to lose business to the trucking industry. Farming regions grew more slowly than the rest of the country. Wage earners were able to find jobs, but the expansion of labor unions was fiercely resisted by business owners. Semiskilled workers in the new industries, in particular, faced challenges. Picketers were cracked down on by businesses and the courts, with a number of violent clashes erupting. On the positive side, some large corporate owners joined the cause of welfare capitalism, meaning that they offered their employees pension plans, stock purchases, and recreational facilities–in part, to keep out the unions.

Politics and Scandal

Warren Harding died in office in early August 1923, after less than two and half years as president. He was succeeded by his vice president, Calvin Coolidge, a reserved, northeastern Yankee who was generally more conservative than Harding. By the time Coolidge assumed the presidency, a grave political scandal involving the Harding administration had already started to unfold. Known as the Teapot Dome scandal, it entailed bribes being taken by Harding’s secretary of the Interior, Albert B. Fall, in exchange for assigning drilling rights to two oil executives. Harding’s attorney general, Harry M. Daugherty, and secretary of the Navy, Edwin Denby, also faced questioning, along with a number of lesser officials. The whole affair made Harding look incompetent, even though he had no direct involvement in it. Moreover, the Congressional investigations that ensued arose after Harding’s death, leaving Coolidge to answer for it to the nation. The new president did so rather well, inspiring, through his buttoned-up manner and concision of speech, a renewed confidence in government.

In the 1924 presidential election, Coolidge faced a Democratic lawyer and administrator, John W. Davis, and the well-known Progressive Party leader, Robert M. La Follette. He handily defeated both. In his second term (his first term as the elected chief executive), Coolidge signed the Immigration Act of 1924, which dramatically reduced the numbers and types of immigrants permitted into the United States. He concluded a naval disarmament treaty begun under his predecessor, and he saw the Kellogg-Briand Pact, which stressed diplomacy over combat in the settlement of international disputes, drawn up. He vetoed a farm bill that would have set prices and aided farmers with subsidies, as he did a bill that would have granted bonus payments to World War I veterans. (The measure passed over his veto). Coolidge also oversaw the continuation of the policy of Prohibition, which outlawed alcohol. He was riding high in public opinion when the 1928 elections rolled around. He chose, however, not to run, yielding the nomination to his experienced secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover.

Society in the Roaring Twenties

The 1920s, as with a number of other eras in US history, is known as a period of sharp contrast between the old and the new. The automobile, for instance, created a revolution in travel and mobility, changing a largely home-bound lifestyle to one of action and exploration. Young women known as flappers dressed and behaved in new, modern ways, going out on the town with young men to smoke, drink, and dance. Weekends might see a caravan of cars cruising to a football stadium or the beach for fun, or couples taking pleasure drives in the country. Popular jazz bands toured by bus from city to city to provide entertainment for the madding crowds. Nightlife became a culture unto its own.

Prohibition, meanwhile, forced much of American social life to be either sober or underground–mostly the latter. Bootleggers created hazardous materials that were meant to be imbibed for their alcoholic effects, while organized crime families trucked illicit imports to and fro to fill Americans’ insatiable appetite for drink. So-called drinking clubs and speakeasies flourished. Initially, many of the gangsters were looked upon as heroes, of sorts, or at least as sharp businessmen who delivered the goods to needy customers. Some of them, like Al Capone of Chicago, dressed snappily and cultivated a public image. Drawn to the action, too, were members of police forces across the nation, who could be counted on to facilitate the movement of spirits in exchange for payoffs. The whole exercise was rife with graft and corruption, eventually leading to Prohibiton’s demise (in 1933).

Elsewhere on the law enforcement front, the nation was said to be filled with “reds”–communist and other political radicals–near the start of the 1920s. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer’s raids against reds (the so-called Palmer raids) were concentrated in the period 1919-1920, but they, and the violation of civil rights that accompanied them, reflected a form of nationalism and intolerance that was gaining prominence in twenties America. Aliens, pacifists, radicals, and dissenters were dispatched through deportation or criminal trials. One sensational trial, the Sacco-Vanzetti case, drew the attention of the nation–indeed, the world–for the dramatic confrontation it presented between the immigrant experience and the force of the law. In the case of this trial, it seemed that the law could be bent to fit the interests of those in power, as the two Italian anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were convicted and executed for a 1920 murder they almost certainly did not commit. In the southern states, meanwhile, the Ku Klux Klan was on the rise again, persecuting blacks (along with Catholics and Jews) with renewed vigor. The push was a reaction, in part, against newly mobile African Americans, who in the 1920s undertook what came to be called the Great Migration, a mass movement of blacks from the South to urban centers in the northeast and Midwest.

Crash and Burn

Herbert Hoover’s name will forever be associated with the Panic of 1929, as the stock market crash of that year is formally known, and with the onset of the Great Depression. During the first seven months of his presidency, the market continued to ride high–indeed, higher than it ever had before. Wealth was concentrated in the hands of a small percentage of the nation’s populace, and as income continued to accrue at the top it spawned a rash of speculation in securities (stocks, bonds, etc.), not only by individuals but by banks and other institutions. Many of these assets were bought “on margin,” meaning that securities themselves were used as collateral. Low taxes and easy credit contributed to the frenzy. Eventually, the market, inflated far beyond the earning capacity of American production, came crashing down. On Thursday, October 24 (Black Thursday), stocks plummeted as brokers sought to unload their holdings. Another big drop in prices, and a selloff, occurred on Tuesday, October 29. A brief recovery yielded to further collapses in November. In the end, some $30 billion in assets were lost, leaving brokers and their customers wiped out. Banks lost deeply, as well, causing many to fail. From there, it was a short step to the ruination of other businesses, the cancellation of production orders, the closing of factories and warehouses, and so on. The Great Depression had arrived.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Allen, Frederick Lewis. Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s, reprint ed. New York: Harper Perennial, 2010.
  • Dean, John W. Warren G. Harding (American Presidents Series). New York: Times Books, 2004.
  • Goldberg, Ronald Allen. America in the 20s.Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 2003.
  • Kyvig, David E. Daily Life in the United States, 1920-1940. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2004.
  • Miller, Nathan. New World Coming: The 1920s and the Making of Modern America. Boston: Da Capo Press, 2004.
  • Palmer, Niall. The Twenties in America: Politics and History. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2006.
  • Shlaes, Amity. Coolidge. New York: Harper Perennial, 2014.
Categories: History Content