Americans love to go shopping. We even have a holiday for shopping: Black Friday. Of course, we were not always like this. The first colonists had no stores after all.
So, when did we become a nation of shoppers? And since we did, has shopping become an essential part of what makes us who we are? Would we still be American if we didn’t shop? Has consumerism come to be a defining element of our national identity?
What do you think?
A RETURN TO LAISSEZ FAIRE
The election of 1920 saw the passing of a generation of Progressive leaders. Progressive zeal was declining with the deaths of former presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Wilson’s support of the League of Nations turned Irish and German immigrants against the Democrats. Americans were tired of reform and ready for a return to “normalcy.”
Above all, the 1920s signaled a return to a pro-business government, almost a return to the laissez-faire politics of the Gilded Age of the late 1800s. Calvin Coolidge’s statement that “the chief business of the American people is business,” often rendered as “the business of America is business” became the dominant attitude. During the 1920s, America’s leaders sought to reduce taxes, reduce government regulation and let business leaders do as they pleased.
In the election of 1920, professional Republicans were eager to nominate a man whom they could manage and control. Warren G. Harding, a senator from Ohio, represented just such a man. Before his nomination, Harding stated, “America’s present need is not heroics but healing; not nostrums but normalcy; not revolution but restoration.” Harding was known for enjoying golf, alcohol, and poker, although not necessarily in that order. Although his critics depicted him as weak, lazy, or incompetent, he was actually quite shrewd and politically astute. Together with his running mate, Calvin Coolidge, the governor of Massachusetts, they attracted the votes of many Americans who sought Harding’s promised return to “normalcy,” a word he invented. In the election, Harding defeated Governor James Cox of Ohio by the greatest majority in the history of two-party politics. Harding won 61% of the popular vote.
Harding’s cabinet reflected his pro-business agenda. Herbert Hoover, a millionaire mechanical engineer and miner, became his Secretary of Commerce. Hoover had served as head of the relief effort for Belgium during World War I and helped to feed those in Russia and Germany after the war ended. He was a very effective administrator, seeking to limit inefficiency in the government and promoting partnerships between government and businesses. Harding’s Secretary of the Treasury, Andrew Mellon, was also a pro-business multimillionaire with a fortune built in banking and aluminum. Even more so than Hoover, Mellon entered public service with a strong sense that government should run as efficiently as any business, famously writing that “the Government is just a business, and can and should be run on business principles.”
Consistent with his principles of running government with business-like efficiency, Harding proposed and signed into law tax rate cuts as well as the country’s first formal budgeting process, which created a presidential budget director and required that the president submit an annual budget to Congress. These policies helped to reduce the debt that the United States had incurred during World War I.
Despite these successes, the Harding administration has gone down in history as one that was especially ridden with scandal. While Harding was personally honest, he surrounded himself with politicians who were not. Harding made the mistake of often turning to unscrupulous advisors or even his drinking and poker buddies for advice and guidance. And, as he himself recognized, this group of old friends, dubbed the Ohio Gang, tended to cause him grief. “I have no trouble with my enemies,” he once commented. “I can take care of my enemies in a fight. But my friends, my goddamned friends, they’re the ones who keep me walking the floor at nights!”
Primary Source: Editorial Cartoon
An artist’s impression of the Ohio Gang running for cover as news of the Teapot Dome Scandal broke in the press.
The scandals mounted quickly. From 1920 to 1923, Secretary of the Interior Albert B. Fall was involved in a scam that became known as the Teapot Dome Scandal. Fall had leased the navy’s oil reserves in Teapot Dome, Wyoming, and two other sites in California to private oil companies without opening the bidding to other companies. In exchange, the companies gave him $300,000 in cash and bonds, as well as a herd of cattle for his ranch. Fall was convicted of accepting bribes from the oil companies; he was fined $100,000 and sentenced to a year in prison. It was the first time that a cabinet official had received such a sentence.
In 1923, Harding also learned that the head of the Veterans’ Bureau, Colonel Charles Forbes, had stolen most of the $250 million set aside for extravagant bureau functions. Forbes served to two years in prison.
Although the Harding presidency had a number of large successes and variety of dark scandals, it ended before the first term was up. In July 1923, while traveling in Seattle, the president suffered a heart attack. In his weakened condition, he suffered a stroke and died in San Francisco, leaving the presidency to his vice president, Calvin Coolidge.
Coolidge ended the scandals, but did little beyond that. His first term was devoted to eliminating the taint of scandal that Harding had brought to the White House. Domestically, Coolidge adhered to the creed: “The business of America is business.” Coolidge believed the rich were worthy of their property and that poverty was the wage of sin. Most importantly, Coolidge believed that since only the rich best understood their own interests, the government should let businessmen handle their own affairs with as little federal intervention as possible. Coolidge was quoted as saying, “The man who builds a factory builds a temple. The man who works there worships there.”
Thus, silence and inactivity became the dominant characteristics of the Coolidge presidency. Coolidge’s legendary reserve was famous in Washington society. Contemporaries told a possibly apocryphal story of how, at a dinner party at the White House, a woman bet her friends that she could get Coolidge to say more than three words. He looked at her and said, “you lose.”
After winning the 1924 election, Coolidge chose not to run again 1928. Republicans promoted the heir apparent, Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover. The Democrats nominated Governor Alfred E. Smith of New York. Smith represented everything that small-town, rural America hated. He was Irish, Catholic, and a big-city politician. He was flamboyant and outspoken, which also did not go over well with many Americans. Republican prosperity carried the day and Hoover won easily with twenty-one million votes over Al Smith’s fifteen million.
Overall, the theme of the three republican presidents of the 1920s was the same: laissez-faire. Let business leaders do what they do best and enjoy the benefits of a surging economy.
Perhaps no invention affected American everyday life in the 20th Century more than the automobile, and no single invention characterized the surging economy of the 1920s more the than automobile.
Although the technology for the automobile existed in the 19th century, it took Henry Ford to make the useful gadget accessible to the American public. Ford used the idea of the assembly line for automobile manufacturing. In Ford’s factories, instead of training each worker how to build an entire car, he trained each worker to efficiently and accurately complete just one step. Then, the cars moved through the factory, beginning with just parts at one end, and exiting as finished products on the other end. He paid his workers an unprecedented $5 a day when most laborers were bringing home two, hoping that it would increase their productivity. Furthermore, they might use their higher earnings to purchase a new car.
Primary Source: Photograph
A view of Henry Ford’s assembly line, where cars were built quickly, efficiently, and exited his factories as high quality, although not particularly varied, products Americans wanted to buy.
Ford reduced options, even stating that the public could choose whatever color car they wanted, so long as it was black. The Model T sold for $490 in 1914, about one quarter the cost of the previous decade. By 1920, there were over 8 million registrations. The 1920s saw tremendous growth in automobile ownership, with the number of registered drivers almost tripling to 23 million by the end of the decade.
The automobile changed the face of America, both economically and socially. Industries like glass, steel, and rubber processing expanded to keep up with auto production. The oil industry in California, Oklahoma, and Texas expanded, as Americans’ reliance on oil increased and the nation transitioned from a coal-based economy to one driven by petroleum. The need for public roadways required local and state governments to fund a dramatic expansion of infrastructure, which permitted motels and restaurants to spring up and offer new services to millions of newly mobile Americans with cash to spend. With this new infrastructure, new shopping and living patterns emerged, and streetcar suburbs gave way to automobile suburbs as private automobile traffic on public roads began to replace mass transit on trains and trolleys.
Even the federal government became involved with the Federal Highway Act of 1921. Gas stations began to dot the land, and mechanics began to earn a living fixing the inevitable problems. Oil and steel were two well-established industries that received a serious boost by the demand for automobiles. Travelers on the road needed shelter on long trips, so motels began to line the major long-distance routes.
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A service station in the 1920s. Now common throughout America, gas stations were a new feature of American roads in the 1920s.
Even cuisine was transformed by the automobile. The quintessential American foods — hamburgers, French fries, milk shakes, and apple pies — were hallmarks of the new roadside diner. Drivers wanted cheap, relatively fast food so they could be on their way in a hurry. Unfortunately, as new businesses flourished, old ones decayed. When America opted for the automobile, the nation’s rails began to be neglected. As European nations were strengthening mass transit systems, individualistic Americans invested in the automobile infrastructure.
The social effects of the automobile were as great. Freedom of choice encouraged many family vacations to places previously inaccessible. Urban dwellers had the opportunity to rediscover pristine landscapes, just as rural dwellers were able to shop in towns and cities. Teenagers gained more and more independence with driving freedom. Dating couples found a portable place to be alone as the automobile helped to facilitate relaxed sexual attitudes.
Americans experienced traffic jams for the first time, as well as traffic accidents and fatalities. Soon demands were made for licensure and safety regulation on the state level. Despite the drawbacks, Americans loved their cars. As more and more were purchased, drivers saw their worlds grow much larger.
Primary Source: Photograph
Charles Lindbergh in front of his airplane, the Spirit of St. Louis. Lindbergh became an overnight hero in America after landing safely in Paris.
The 1920s not only witnessed a transformation in ground transportation but also major changes in air travel. By the mid-1920s, men, as well as some pioneering women like the African American stunt pilot Bessie Coleman, had been flying for two decades. Americans who had learned to fly during World War I bought the planes the army was selling off after the war and toured the country. They would land in an open field and sell rides to the locals who, having never seen an airplane before, flocked from miles around to see and experience the amazing machines. These barnstormers, a name they were given because of the daring trick of flying through a barn with doors open at both ends, made the airplane familiar across America.
Despite increasing familiarity, there remained doubts about the suitability of airplanes for long-distance travel. Orville Wright, one of the pioneers of airplane technology in the United States, once famously declared, “No flying machine will ever fly from New York to Paris [because] no known motor can run at the requisite speed for four days without stopping.” However, in 1927, this skepticism was put to rest when Charles Lindbergh became the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, flying from New York to Paris in thirty-three hours. Lindbergh’s flight made him an international hero: the best-known American in the world. On his return, Americans greeted him with a parade through Manhattan. His flight, which he completed in the monoplane Spirit of St. Louis, seemed like a triumph of individualism in modern mass society and exemplified Americans’ ability to conquer the air with new technology. Following his success, the small airline industry began to blossom, fully coming into its own in the 1930s, as companies like Boeing and Ford developed airplanes designed specifically for passenger air transport. As technologies in engine and passenger compartment design improved, air travel became more popular. In 1934, the number of domestic air passengers was just over 450,000 annually. By 1940, that number had increased to nearly two million.
CONSUMERISM AND CREDIT
The 1920s was a decade of increasing conveniences for the middle class. New products made household chores easier and led to more leisure time. Products previously too expensive became affordable. New forms of financing allowed every family to spend beyond their current means. Advertising capitalized on people’s hopes and fears to sell more and more goods.
By the end of the 1920s, household work was revolutionized. A typical work week for a housewife before the 1920s involved many tedious chores. All the furniture was moved off the carpets, which were rolled up and dragged outside to beat out the week’s dirt and dust. The ice in the icebox was replaced. The clothes were scrubbed in a washing tub outside on a washboard. An iron was heated on the stove to smooth out the wrinkles. Women typically spent the summer months canning food for the long winter. Clothes were made from patterns, and bread was made from scratch. Very few of these practices were necessary by the end of the decade. Vacuum cleaners displaced the carpet beater. Electric refrigerators, washing machines, and irons saved hours of extra work. New methods of canning and freezing made store-bought food cheap and effective enough to eliminate this chore. Off-the-rack clothing became more and more widespread. Even large bakeries were supplying bread to the new supermarkets. The hours saved in household work were countless.
THE STOCK MARKET
“Buy now, pay later” became the credo of many middle class Americans of the 1920s. For the single-income family, all these new conveniences were impossible to afford at once. However, retailers wanted the consumer to have it all. Department stores opened up generous lines of credit for those who could not pay up front but could demonstrate the ability to pay in the future. Similar installment plans were offered to buyers who could not afford the lump sum, but could afford “twelve easy payments.” Over half of the nation’s automobiles were sold on credit by the end of the decade. America’s consumers could indeed have it all, if they had an iron stomach for debt. Consumer debt more than doubled between 1920 and 1930. In modern times we are entirely comfortable with the idea of debt. Credit cards are a form of debt in which we make purchases with the promise of paying off our bill at a later date, but in the 1920s, this sort of shopping was entirely new.
At the same time that Americas were getting used to the idea of buying things they wanted with borrowed money, they were also beginning to take an interest in the stock market. To be sure, the stock market had existed for generations, but for the first time in the 1920s, everyday Americas started to purchase stocks. As the government enacted legislation and reduced regulation to the advantage of corporations, their stocks grew. Americans found that purchasing stock was a way to cash in on booming corporate wealth. As the decade wore on and stocks continued to rise, so did the demand for stock.
Buying and selling stock was not in and of itself a problem. Americans today risk their savings in the stock market with the understanding that prices may fall. The 1920s were different, however, in that Americans borrowed money to buy stock. This strategy, called buying on margin, meant that people borrowed cash to purchase a stock, which they would later sell when the price rose, and use the profits to pay back the original loan with some profit left over. If stock prices only rose, the system worked beautifully, and as stocks rose and rose during the decade, more and more people bought on margin. Of course, if a stock’s value fell, the investor would have to sell the stock, and then turn around and repay the loan, which was then worth more than the stock, leaving the investor in debt. Buying on margin was a risky investment strategy that would eventually land the United States in a world of trouble.
THE LOST GENERATION
As old ways of life fell aside and were replaced by new, electric conveniences that were fueled by a wild spending spree, some felt a sense of discontent with the new spirit of the times. Although anything seemed possible, it also felt like Americans were trying to forget the horrors of World War I by shopping, drinking, dancing, playing and driving their way to happiness. It seemed as if Americans were trying to lose themselves in anything shiny and new.
To express this sense of loss a new group of authors emerged. Called the Lost Generation, many of these writers were expatriates who ended up living together in Paris. The term Lost Generation first appeared in Ernest Hemingway’s novel, The Sun Also Rises, which centers on a group of expatriate Americans in Europe during the 1920s and epitomizes the lifestyle and mindset of the postwar expatriate generation. Hemingway credits the phrase to Gertrude Stein, who was then his mentor and patron.
Primary Source: Photograph
F. Scott Fitzgerald in the 1920s around the time he wrote The Great Gatsby.
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about the excesses of the decade. He and his wife Zelda operated among the social elite in New York, Paris, and on the French Riviera. The Great Gatsby, his most famous novel, highlights the opulence of American materialism while harshly criticizing its morality. T.S. Eliot commented on the emptiness of American life in his epic poem The Waste Land. The sharpest critic of American middle-class lifestyle was Sinclair Lewis. In Main Street, he takes aim on small-town American life. After a string of successful novels, Lewis brought honor to American writers by becoming the first to win a Pulitzer Prize for literature.
Some of the names linked to the Lost Generation movement were not necessarily among Hemingway’s companions in Paris during the postwar period, but are included because their formative years occurred shortly before or during World War I. In addition to Hemingway and Fitzgerald, the movement of writers and artists also loosely includes John Dos Passos, Waldo Peirce, Alan Seeger, John Steinbeck, Sherwood Anderson, Aldous Huxley, Malcolm Crowley, Isadora Duncan, James Joyce, and Henry Miller.
The Lost Generation was greatly influenced by World War I. American modernist writers offered an insight into the psychological wounds and spiritual scars of the war experience, a theme repeated in Hemingway’s work and in Fitzgerald’s portrayal of the lives and morality of post-World War I youth in his book, This Side of Paradise.
In that same vein, but employing a perspective outside of the American viewpoint, the 1929 novel, All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, recounts the horrors of World War I and the deep detachment from German civilian life felt by many men returning from the front. The 1930 film version of the book was nominated for four Academy Awards and won two, including best director for Lewis Milestone.
During the 1920s, technologies were changing and the world was exciting. It seemed like there was nothing that could not be done. Lindbergh had hopped the Atlantic, and business was booming. Politicians cleared the way for entrepreneurs to produce new products for Americans to buy with newfound wealth. Refrigerators, automobiles and toasters appeared in many homes. And, when there wasn’t enough money to buy something a neighbor had, we bought on credit.
Some writers and philosophers questioned the new obsession with shopping and money, just as commentators do each November now as shoppers line up after Thanksgiving dinner to score the latest bargains. We may love Black Friday deals now, and be obsessed with having the latest thing in the 21st Century, but our love affair with consumerism began in the 1920s.
Has our shopping habit come to define us? Does shopping make us unique in the world? Is consumerism and essential part of what makes us American?
What do you think?
BIG IDEA: The 1920s was a time when the economy was good for most people and having the latest thing was important.
During the 1920s, three Republican presidents pursued laissez-faire policies by reducing taxes and regulation. The result was an increase in business activity. Higher wages led to higher spending and people remember the decade as a time of wealth and plenty.
The administration of President Harding however was plagued by scandal, including the Teapot Dome Scandal.
The 1920s were the first decade in which many Americans were able to own automobiles, especially due to innovations in production implemented by Henry Ford. Cars had the effect of changing America. Gas stations, paved roads, motels, and kissing in cars were all things that were new because of the availability of the automobile.
Airplanes were new in the 1920s. Most famously, Charles Lindbergh became the first person to fly non-stop from New York to Paris, becoming a great hero in the United States.
America became a consumer culture. Having the latest thing became an important part of life, especially new electronic inventions such as refrigerators and vacuum cleaners.
When they were unable to buy such things, Americans borrowed money. Being in debt became common.
This was a time when average Americans began buying stocks in the stock market. Some made the risky choice of borrowing money to buy stocks. However, since business was good during most of the decade, even investors who borrowed usually made money in the end.
Not all Americans believed this new emphasis on having things and making money was a good idea. A group of writers known as the Lost Generation felt that Americans had lost their sense of what was good and true and wrote novels focused on these themes.
PEOPLE AND GROUPS
Warren G. Harding: Republican president in the 1920s. He died in office.
Ohio Gang: A group of President Harding’s advisors. Their corruption causes the president a great deal of political trouble.
Calvin Coolidge: Republican president in the 1920s. He became president after the death of Harding and advocated pro-business policies.
Henry Ford: Entrepreneur who founded an automobile company and pioneered the use of the assembly line and famously paid his workers $5 per day.
Barnstormer: A pilot that travels from place to place performing tricks.
Charles Lindbergh: American pilot who was the first person to fly across the Atlantic Ocean non-stop. He became a national hero.
The Lost Generation: Group of American authors who wrote about disenchantment with consumerism and waste during the 1920s. They included Hemingway, Stein, and Fitzgerald.
Ernest Hemingway: Author of the Lost Generation. His books included The Sun Also Rises, The Old Man and the Sea, and For Whom the Bell Tolls.
Gertrude Stein: Author of the Lost Generation who hosted and mentored younger authors in Paris.
F. Scott Fitzgerald: Author of the Lost Generation who wrote The Great Gatsby.
T.S. Eliot: Author of the Lost Generation who wrote the poem The Waste Land.
Sinclair Lewis: Author of the Lost Generation who wrote Main Street, a criticism of small-town life.
Laissez-Faire: A government policy of low regulation and low taxation in order to spur business.
Return to Normalcy: President Harding’s campaign slogan. It tapped into Americans’ desire to move beyond the heartache of World War I.
The Business of America is Business: President Coolidge’s famous saying showing that he believed the government’s job was to support business.
Line of Credit: A set amount of money a store or bank was willing to loan a customer in order make purchases.
Installment Plan: A plan for paying back a loan for a purchase a small amount at a time over the course of a set time.
Buying on Margin: Purchasing stock with borrowed money in the hope that the stock will gain in value and the borrower will make money after paying back the loan.
Assembly Line: A system of production in which each worker performs one step and the product moves past the workers, beginning at one end of the factory as parts, and exiting the other end as a finished product.
Model T: Famous automobile built by Henry Ford. It was relatively inexpensive and always black.
Spirit of St. Louis: Charles Lindbergh’s airplane.
The Great Gatsby: Most famous novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Themes of the novel included the excess of the 1920s.
The Waste Land: Poem by Lost Generation author T.S. Eliot about the emptiness of life in the 1920s.
Main Street: Novel by Lost Generation writer Sinclair Lewis that criticizes small-town life.
Teapot Dome Scandal: Political scandal that hurt President Harding. It stemmed from the illegal sale of naval oil reserves.
Federal Highway Act of 1921: Law that allocated money to develop a system of national highways in the 1920 when automobiles were first becoming common.