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POLITICS, INNOVATION & THE ECONOMY
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.
BIG IDEA: Radio, phonographs and movies made it possible for everyone in America to share the same ideas for the first time.
During the 1920s, as more and more Americans had electricity in their homes and could afford radio sets, radio became an important form of entertainment. For the first time, Americans could all listen to the same radio shows, or listen to live sports broadcasts.
Baseball, football, swimming, tennis, and boxing were popular sports.
Fads such as flagpole sitting, dance marathons, and beauty pageants became popular across the nation.
Hollywood and the movie industry were born in the 1920s. The first movies had no sound, but eventually “talkies” were invented. Just like today, movie stars were fashion idols. The first cartoons also were born in the 1920s, including Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse.
Jazz was a new American form of music that became popular in the 1920s. Based on old African-American musical traditions, Jazz became popular in the North and among White audiences.
Some middle-class and upper-class young women rejected traditional gender roles and the fashion sense of their mothers and embraced a new style. These flappers went out without chaperones, smoked, drank, danced, and dressed in shocking new ways (at least shocking for the 1920s).
The idea of the teenager was born in the 1920s. High schools added sports, extracurricular activities, and many young Americans waited longer to get married or start working.
New forms of art became popular in the 1920s. Art deco used bold colors, repeated patterns, and geometric shapes. Both artists and architects used this new style. Alternatively, some artists embraced surrealism, which included the painting of fantastic, dream-like images.
THE HARLEM RENAISSANCE
BIG IDEA: The 1920s marked a time when African-Americans were moving and changing their ideas about themselves and their place in American society.
After the end of Reconstruction, White leaders in the South established the Jim Crow system of segregation, which recreated the social order of the pre-Civil War Era with African Americans stuck firmly at the bottom.
The most prominent African American leader in the late 1800s was Booker T. Washington. He ran the Tuskegee Institute and argued that African Americans should find ways to become educated so that they could be productive members of society. He did not emphasize fighting for equality or equal rights.
In 1905, a group of African Americans formed the Niagara Movement. They wanted equal rights and founded the NAACP to fight for equality in the courts. Their leader was W. E. B. Du Bois, who offered a contrast to Booker T. Washington.
During WWI, thousands of African Americans moved out of the South to find jobs in factories in the North. This movement of people is called the Great Migration. They mostly settled in urban centers such as New York City, Chicago or Detroit. Although they did find higher paying jobs, they also found that segregation still existed in the North in the form of limits on where they could live and what jobs they could have.
A large number of the most creative and important leaders of the African American community settled in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City during the 1920s. They made music, wrote poetry and novels, danced, created artwork, and advocated for new political rights. This period of intense racial pride and activism was the Harlem Renaissance.
BIG IDEA: The 1920s was a time when there were major conflicts between Americans about what was right and wrong.
Fueled partly by the popularity of a movie celebrating the Ku Klux Klan in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, the KKK became popular and quite common in the 1920s. They targeted their hatred on African Americans, immigrants, Catholics and Jews. Although the Klan’s leaders promised to be non-violent, in reality the members of the Klan carried out numerous lynching and other forms of terrorism.
The 1920s saw the rise of Christian Fundamentalists who reacted to new inventions and excitement about science by teaching that truth can be found in the Bible. Most importantly, they focused on preventing Darwin’s Theory of Evolution from being taught in public schools because it conflicted with the Biblical story of creation.
Although some Americans wanted their children to learn the Bible’s version of creation in public school, others did not like it that Christian teachings were being enacted into law. In 1925, a great court case showed off the conflict between these modernists and traditionalists. In Tennessee, the Butler Act had made it illegal to teach any version of creation other than the story found in the Bible. When John Scopes taught Darwin’s theory he was arrested.
Great lawyers came to try the case, and although Scopes lost (it was obvious he had broken the law), the nation watched with great interest as the Bible itself seemed to be on trial.
Other leaders tapped into a growing interest in traditional religion. Billy Sunday and Aimee Semple McPhereson both built large followings as they toured the nation speaking to large audiences.
The 1920s are also remembered as the era of Prohibition. Beginning in 1919, alcohol was illegal in the United States. Preventing people from making, selling, buying and drinking alcohol was incredibly difficult. Although Prohibition was supposed to reduce crime, crime actually became more common as gangs fought each other over control of the making and distribution of illegal alcohol. Most famous of these was Al Capone’s gang in Chicago. Police forces, who were supposed to enforce the laws, often were paid by bar owners to look the other way, or simply ignored the law since they wanted to drink also. Finally, after 14 years, the 21st Amendment made alcohol legal again.