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Millennium series: 1920s and 1930s

  • Candice Atherton Women's Channel Editor
  • 1999 28 Dec
Millennium series: 1920s and 1930s
In our second article in the millennium series, Candice Atherton contends that the extreme events of the 1920s and 1930s rendered them the most significant decades of the century.

Those who lived in America during the 1920s and 1930s witnessed many of the most significant events of the 20th century, most of which seemed to be polar opposites of other events during that same period. Such extremes spanned the realms of American culture, foreign policy, and economics while technological innovation continued to propel the country in one direction: forward.

During these decades, Americans expended great efforts trying to overcome the horrific memories of the first World War. The War led to a disappointment with the concept of modern technology bringing about a utopian society. Instead, the world was trying to recover from massive damage to property and human lives at the hand of trench warfare, aerial combat and gas attacks. Reactions to the nationwide discontent were manifested in a number of ways, but in most cases, change was the main focus.

Conceptual rivalries peppered these two decades, including the growing popularity of speakeasies vs. prohibition, Victorian traditionalism vs. the right of women to vote and the rise of birth control, the prosperity of the roaring 20s vs. the depression of the 30s.

The 1920s Jazz Age: A new morality
The Great Gatsby came on the scene as both a novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald and as an American symbol of the economic prosperity enjoyed by the nations upper-class. Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin became the theme song of the decade as Jazz filled the airwaves and movie reels with the strains of Al Jolson and the Jazz Singer. The Charleston became the nations dance as flappers represented all that was good in a world recovering from war. All of these new trends took place during a ban on alcohol, which was enacted by Congress in 1919 after a lengthy fight from those who felt that alcohols relationship to crime and the degradation of the family warranted its ban. Once enacted, Prohibitions alcohol ban seemed to only fuel the nations appetite for the stuff and led to the new social trend of frequenting speakeasies. Widespread breaking of the new laws represented a backlash against the traditional morality and Prohibitions laws were repealed after several years of ineffectiveness.

The 1920s were also characterized by a rise in organized crime, as cities such as Chicago became ruled by mobsters like Al Capone who had mayors, governors, congressman, and over half the Chicago police force on his payroll. Capone also participated in the nationwide breaking of Prohibition laws and became the manager of alcohol for the city.

While Prohibition tried to legislate a conservative morality, giving women the right to vote became a symbol of a forward-thinking society. The 18th Amendment was passed in 1920 and resolved a fight for women that began in the mid 19th century and continued throughout the 20th Century. Bucking traditional mores became still more common with the establishment of the American Birth Control League, forerunner of Planned Parenthood.

The 1920s economy: Raging Bull
Economic prosperity was staggering during this decade as the nations total realized income rose from $74.3 billion in 1923 to $89 billion in 1929. During that same time, wealth was concentrated in the wallets of the upper-class as the top 0.1% of Americans boasted a combined income equal to the bottom 42% of the nations wage earners, according to a study by the Brookings Institute.

The United States became the worlds banker as Europe worked to rebuild its war-torn land. In 1927, post-war foreign lending had grown to $1.25 billion per year with over 90% of those funds being spend by European allies to purchase American goods.

Various industries enjoyed successful beginnings during this time, including the automotive and radio sectors. With Fords assembly-line manufacturing having taken root only the decade before, by 1928 there was roughly one car on the road for every six Americans. The first radio broadcasting station opened in Pittsburgh in 1922. It was an instant success as the nation learned a whole new method of communicating. Hearing the live voices of politicians and the nations celebrities made the United States seem more intimate.

Financially, the nations staggering bull market was both a symbol of the good times and a partial cause. Investors began trading on margin and speculation abounded as company earnings were ignored in favor of a market that wouldnt quit. Stock prices kept rising in a seemingly unstoppable tide causing the Dow Jones Industrial Average to go from 191 in early 1928 to 381 in September of 1929. But Black Tuesday took place on October 29, 1929 after more than a week of teetering market behavior. The effect was a crash led by investor fears that finally countered the speculative boom of investor confidence. The crash illustrated the potential instability of the raging American economy. Consumer confidence fell dramatically as the rich stopped buying luxury items and the middle class halted their purchases on installment credit. Suddenly, warehouses were filling with inventory and the United States economy found itself in a dramatic slowdown.
Depression days
The duration of the depression of the 1930s was dwarfed in significance only by one thing -- the lasting impact it would have on all who lived through it. Even children of that day are now living conservatively as grandparents, seeking products of value and relishing the opportunity to save. The causes of the depression are debated to this day, with economists and political analysts striving to extract lessons learned and use them to avoid another similar cycle. Some blame the unequal distribution of wealth as the nation emerged from a 20s decade characterized by the Gatsby-esque upper class. Others blame stock market speculation, pinning the 1929 crash as the nations economic turning point. Still others point to the normal economic cycle whereby a nation of consumers finally became satisfied after the 20s and consumer good sales came to a halt. But regardless of the cause, the effect was staggering as breadlines characterized the times and unemployment was rampant. For the first time, many Americans were forced to consider taking public assistance, an opportunity created by the policies of President Franklin D. Roosevelts. His New Deal demonstrated that a tough execution of executive powers could enact measures that would stop the tide of the economys downward spiral, and served as the countrys first example of the benefits of using an expanded government to pull the nation out of desperate times.

The 1930s were also characterized by the Dust Bowl, a phenomenon that rendered 135 million acres of the Midwest useless for agriculture. Years of misuse and a sustained drought caused great clouds of dust to chase out thousands of families who scurried west in hopes of relief. The Dust Bowls legacies include the cultural work of John Steinbecks The Grapes of Wrath, and the important lessons learned by agriculturists in the area of cultivation and dryland ecosystems, allowing the region to sustain subsequent droughts with less impact.

Today, some analysts look back upon the New Deals solution to the hardships of the 1930s with conflicting sentiments. On one hand, there is a widespread admiration for Roosevelts courage and quick reaction to turn around a nationwide disaster. But the same act of rescue has since been repeated in times that perhaps were not warranting such desperate measures. As written by Joseph Jacobs in The Compassionate Conservative, "Those ringing words from FDR, We have nothing to fear but fear itself, the New Deal and all the other stumbling efforts to try to do for the people what they could not do for themselves, are well-remembered. Today that fear is promoted endlessly in the press and in all the social legislation that is prompted by an increase in this fear - the fear of failure... At the same time, the efforts of the FDR administration were viewed as pure compassion in action -- for the first time implemented by the government, rather than by business or the charitable works of the very rich... Little did we realize that we had unleashed an unbridled, omnivorous mechanism for the implementation of the virtuous dreams of the theoretician... When central government was discovered as the source of funding, it was possible for those without personal resources to indulge their dreams to be compassionate." (Huntington House Publishers, p 81.)

1930s Culture
While the nation tried to recover from an economic slowdown, the entertainment industry began producing more fantasy fare and methods of escape. Disney came out with the first animated feature movie, "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs", while Superman and "King Kong" made their respected debuts in comic strips and movie theaters. "Gone with the Wind" hit the scene and reminded the country of hard times previously overcome. For the most part, it seemed that much of the decades efforts were expended trying to triumph over one of the most difficult economic cycles in the nations history.

Lasting effects
The extreme events of the 20s and 30s set a tone that has come to represent the cultural, economic, and political paradox of the United States. These years cultivated much of what defines America today, including social change, the persistent questioning of ideals, the celebration of American prosperity, and the perseverance to overcome tough times.

To read yesterdays article on the significance of the years 1900-1919, click here. Also, be sure to give us your vote on the most significant decade of the century by using our Century survey. Or enter your own opinions on the matter in our : Forums discussion.