"Flapper girl" by Kristie Bateman is licensed under CC BY 2.0
“It was the best of the times, it was the worst of the times,” wrote Charles Dickens in his classic The Tale of Two Cities. The same could be said about “the Roaring Twenties,” the post-World War I decade when Americans experienced some of their best years, as well as some of their worst. It was a period when they reveled in the high jinks of what the period’s historian Nathan Miller called an “era of wonderful nonsense,” but when they also suffered the crushing consequences of what economists called “unfettered capitalism.”
The decade’s popular moniker was, in many ways, appropriate. Relieved of the tensions and shortages during World War I, proud of the way American “doughboys” helped achieve the Allies’ victory, and pleased with the honors European statesmen heaped on President Woodrow Wilson for founding the League of Nations, Americans celebrated their country’s new prestige, strength, and prosperity.Q1
A Period of Rebellion
Women were delighted by the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which gave them, at long last, the right to vote. Feeling emancipated and in rising demand on the labor market, young, urban and fashionable flappers joined men in boycotting the Prohibition. The most unpopular and disregarded law of the era, it was so disliked that an estimated 80% of U.S. Senators, Congressmen and high government officials – including the three U.S. presidents of the era – imbibed the banned alcohol.
Some tried to avoid violating the law. One of these lawful drinkers was Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, who had his daily two martinis after work in the Belgian embassy. Since it formally was not in a U.S. territory, Hoover was committing no wrong. But most ordinary Americans moved their happy hours to the hundreds of underground and out-of-sight speakeasies that Al Capone and other bootleggers supplied with abundant liquor.
Above-ground, jazz was the king and American foxtrot, Viennese waltz, and Argentine tango dominated the dance floors; Greta Garbo, Clark Gable and other Hollywood celebrities drew millions in the new movie houses that showed “talkies” (movies with sound); sports stars’ pictures filled the newspapers; and fans packed the huge baseball stadiums sprouting on the outskirts of big cities.Q2
A Time of Success and Progress
The cross-Atlantic flight of Charles “Lucky Lindy” Lindbergh in 1927 made him an instant global hero, but even lesser daredevils earned brief fame. A Texan won a $500 bet by pushing, in 22 days, a peanut with his nose up the 14,400 feet-high Pikes Peak. A Louisville housewife won a $200 prize for listening to a radio station for 106 hours without falling asleep (She had to be hospitalized for a combination of delirium and exhaustion).
In no mood to worry whether the good times would last, Americans were happily spending money they had had to save because of wartime shortages, and there was a plethora of new marvelous products to buy. Automobiles, an expensive prestige symbol before the start of WWI, became mass-produced, cheaper and a necessity for taking the new roads to America’s thriving cities. By 1927, Ford discontinued the Model T after selling 15 million of them.
Industries switched from coal power to electricity, the production of which almost quadrupled; telephone lines began spanning the continent; and modern waterworks, sewer systems, bridges and other new infrastructure were improving the quality of life even in out-of-the-way communities and regions.Q3
Harding and Coolidge: ‘Slumbering’ Presidents
Americans were thrilled to see innovations and progress – but the boom contained its own seeds of a bust. One lurking danger was the great debts of thousands of communities from coast to coast who over-invested in public projects which they expected to pay off in the future. They did not. The other hidden cause of decay was the do-nothing, almost laissez-faire attitude of the federal government.
It was the misfortune of the post-WWI generation that during one of its greatest periods of progress, America was led by two of the least dynamic and innovative presidents in the U.S. history. The first one was Warren Gamaliel Harding. A former vice president and senator, he was elected in 1921 in a landslide – on a program tellingly titled “return to normalcy” – after a campaign during which he sat on the porch of his home in Marion, Ohio, and received delegations of voters.
Harding was judged by one of his biographers as: “A prime example of incompetence, sloth, and feeble good nature in the White House.” H.L. Mencken, a celebrated (and scathing) columnist during the “Roaring Twenties” wrote that: “No other such a complete and dreadful nitwit [as Harding] is to be found in the pages of American history.” Harding proposed reducing the national debt, protecting farm interests, and cutting back on immigration. He died in 1923 following revelations of serious corruption in his administration and personal moral failures.
Vermont-born Calvin Coolidge, who succeeded Harding, was a classical New Englander. “He was honest, thrifty, punctual, taciturn, conscientious, frugal, cautious, conservative and moral," according to Miller. "Americans wanted nothing done [while he] was president,” Miller added, “and he ‘done it.’” Like Harding, Coolidge proposed to roll back taxes of the wealthy one percent of Americans who controlled 40 percent of the country’s wealth, and “assiduously followed the maxim that the government that governs the least, governs best.”
With the private enterprise running at top speed while the country’s two top leaders slumbered, a devastating accident was only a matter of time – and ironically, that time came on the watch of their successor, the era’s most progressive chief executive.Q4
Hoover: Bringing Change to America
Herbert Hoover was elected the country’s 31st president in 1929. He was a successful mining engineer from Iowa before lending his services to the government. As President Coolidge’s secretary of commerce, Hoover recognized already in 1925 that the economy was overheating as Americans began “buying on margin” and speculating on the soaring stock market. He urged Coolidge to tighten the credit and take other steps to cool the market, but the president and his treasury secretary blocked any attempt at government intrusion into private business. Despite this setback, Hoover went on to handily win the presidential race the following year.Q5
Eager to show that the easy-going, aimless ways of his predecessors were over, Hoover broke their unwritten rule of taking or making no phone calls in the Oval Room. He had a telephone installed on his desk, and appointed five secretaries, four more than the previous presidents. He then unleashed what Miller, in his book New World Coming, described as “the long-dormant engine of progressive reform.”
“[Hoover called] Congress,” Miller wrote, “into special session to deal with [neglected issues]; ordered the publication of the names of all those who received large tax refunds, ...publicly divulged the names of political backers of judicial appointees, allowed the press to quote him directly, ...permitted picketing of the White House... , entertained a black congressman’s wife in the White House, [and] increased funding for all-black Howard University... In June (1929), just three months in the White House, he announced a budget cut of $110 million and proposed a tax cut of one fifth on higher incomes, one third on middle incomes, and two third on lower incomes.”
According to Miller, Hoover also ordered the White House stables to be closed and the presidential yacht to be retired; announced a new “good neighbor” policy for Latin America, and ordered the withdrawal of the U.S. Marines from the Caribbean and Central America.Q6
As a result of the new president’s whirlwind of activity, New York Herald Tribune stated that “There has been an almost unprecedented display of conviction on the part of the investing public that with Hoover at the throttle, the signal is full speed ahead.”
It was a development that Hoover had tried to prevent as soon as he moved into the White House by urging bankers to restrict credit. But the bull market had started rising already in March, 1928, before Hoover’s election, and without sufficient regulations, his requests fell on deaf ears. John Kenneth Galbraith, America’s most prominent economist, called the “speculative orgy” a “mass escape into make-believe,” but the president placed the blame elsewhere. “The only trouble with capitalism is capitalists,” he complained. “They’re too damn greedy.”
The Start of the Great Depression and the End of the Roaring Twenties
The long-gathering storm broke only eight months into Hoover’s presidency. On October 14, 1929 – the so-called “Black Thursday” – the stock market prices opened sharply lower. It subsequently recovered and Hoover’s Vice President Charles Curtis announced that “Prosperity is just around the corner.” It wasn’t. What came instead was a major blow to the economy: the backlash of a tariff act enacted by Congress to keep out foreign goods. It did that, but it also triggered European retaliation against American exports.
In September 1931, 305 banks closed doors; within two years, the number reached more than 2,000. Unemployment statistics soared, stock market prices plummeted and on the outskirts of cities, there began appearing “Hoovervilles” – shanties for people without jobs, hope, or food, except for soups ladled out by of the American Salvation Army.Q7
Hoover tried to stymie the fall by increasing public works spending to $434 million – an enormous sum for the period – but it was far from enough to turn the economy around. A staunch believer in the market’s ability to correct itself, Hoover, in the judgment of one government’s economic adviser, “could not grasp or would not face the grim realities that called for deviations from principles and practices that he deemed essential to American greatness and freedom.”
The era was buried by the polls. In the 1930 congressional elections, Democrats made substantial gains, and two years later, Hoover lost his bid for reelection by more than seven million votes.
On March 4, 1933, he silently attended the inauguration of President-elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt. “The 1920s were over,” wrote Miller. “America stood on the brink of a new world.”Q8
© 2016. The Roaring Twenties by CommonLit is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.
- Unfettered(adjective): unrestrained or completely free
- Moniker(noun): a name or nickname
- Ratification(noun): the act of officially approving something
- Imbibe(verb): to drink (particularly an alcoholic beverage)
- Taciturn(adjective): reserved or uncommunicative in speech
- Frugal(adjective): careful about spending money
- Assiduous(adjective): showing great care, attention, and effort
invest in stocks, property, or other ventures in the hope of gain but with the risk of loss
- Unprecedented(adjective): never done or known before
- Stymie(verb): to prevent or hinder the progress of
- Staunch(adjective): loyal and committed in attitude
Have you ever wondered why the 1920s are called the “Roaring Twenties?” When we hear that phrase, we often picture flapper girls with feathers and pearls, jazz musicians playing in dimly lit speakeasies, and Model-T’s rolling down brightly lit city streets. The 1920s probably felt like a non-stop party for many Americans, but did you know that it was a time of both prosperity and trouble?
For the AP US History exam, it’s important to know about the economic conditions, politics, culture, and struggles of the 1920s. This will give you a clear picture as to why this time is known as the Roaring Twenties. It will also give you all the information you need to answer any Roaring Twenties question on the APUSH exam with confidence. Let’s get started!
The first thing you need to know for the AP US History exam is that the 1920s was a time of great economic prosperity as consumerism took hold of the nation. World War I had just ended, and as the nation shifted from a time of war to a time of peace, production of goods also changed from that of military goods to that of consumer goods. Washing machines, irons, refrigerators, radios, and vacuums became staples in urban and suburban homes. New technologies, such as electricity and the assembly line, made products faster to produce and cheaper than ever before. Henry Ford’s Model-T automobile became popular in many American homes as the income of families increased and the price of assembly-line products decreased.
But not everything was so prosperous. While the urban middle and working-class in the cities enjoyed a good standard of living, there were signs of trouble in rural areas. Farmers in the Midwest and South were struggling as the price of agricultural products drastically fell. World War I had created a huge demand for agricultural products, but when the nation returned to peace, supply heavily outweighed demand.
Art and entertainment explosion
A very important topic for the APUSH exam is the “Lost Generation of the 1920s.” 40% of the multiple choice questions on the exam cover social and cultural change, it is important to pay close attention to this section of the crash course.
The “Lost Generation” was a group of writers who were disillusioned with 1920s American society. The significant writers you need to know about are Sinclair Lewis and F. Scott Fitzgerald. In his novels Babbitt and Main Street, Lewis criticized the materialism, consumerism, and conformity of Roaring Twenties society. These writers believed that a nation of consumers made it impossible to find personal fulfillment. Many moved to Europe to escape a society they viewed as hypocritical and fraudulent.
In the Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald described the 1920s as the “Jazz Age.” This is a very accurate description of the time. Music experienced a revolution as black musicians such as Louis Armstrong, W.C. Handy, and “Jelly Roll” Morton helped create and popularize jazz. This new type of music created a shift in society as young people, both black and white, desired to break from tradition. The older generation viewed jazz as too sensual, which only made young people more rebellious.
The final things you need to know about the entertainment explosion of the Roaring Twenties is that Hollywood movies, such as the first movie with sound The Jazz Singer, became popular, baseball became big business, and national radio network audiences grew to the millions.
Nativism and Science vs. Religion
Immigration and migration reached a historical high in the 1920s. Southern and Eastern Europeans arrived in droves from 1880 to 1920. The Great Migration was a mass-movement of Black Americans from the south to cities in the North and West. All of these “New Immigrants” create anti-immigrant backlash.
For the APUSH exam, it’s important to know about a few examples of nativist sentiment. The first is the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), which believed in White supremacy and immigration restriction. During the 1920s, the KKK grew in great numbers and became aggressive, not just towards African Americans, but towards Catholics, European immigrants, and Jews, too. Make sure you are aware of the film The Birth of a Nation, by D.W. Griffith, which praises the KKK.
You also need to know about the National Origins Act of 1924, which was a discriminatory law that limited Eastern and Southern European immigration. This act caused a huge decrease in immigrants from those areas, but did nothing to effect the increasing numbers of Mexican and Puerto Rican immigrants.
Finally, it’s important to know about religious Fundamentalism during the time. For the AP exam, know about the Scopes Trial, which tackled the issue of teaching evolution in high school. This is especially important because it is a good example of the push and pull between the flowering modernism and science of the time, and the traditional religious views of many Americans.
African Americans and women
The most important thing you need to know about African American culture during the Roaring Twenties is the Harlem Renaissance. This explosion of art, music, and literature challenged the social, racial and political inequalities that many Black Americans faced. Key Harlem Renaissance figures you need to know are Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and James Weldon Johnson.
The Feminist movement grew in great strides during the Roaring Twenties, too. Flappers, independent young women who smoked cigarettes, cut their hair into short bobs, and wore makeup, challenged the social norm and traditional gender roles. Margaret Sanger, a birth control activist, attempted to legalize birth control, and even opened the first birth control clinic in America. Another step towards equality for women was the passing of the 19th amendment in 1919, which guaranteed women the right to vote. However, during the 1920s, women did not receive equal wages and were often discriminated against in the workplace.
Politics and foreign policy
You don’t really need to know a lot about the politics of the Roaring Twenties, but just know that the Republican Party prospered. It’s also helpful to remember that the 1920s presidents were Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover.
For foreign policy, understand that the 1920s was an isolationist period, with minor exceptions for war reparation payments and international war agreements. The Kellogg-Briand Pact (1928) ratified by 62 nations, was an agreement that outlawed war as an instrument of foreign policy. The Dawes Plan was a reparation payment plan between Germany and the US.
Why is the Roaring Twenties important for APUSH?
Many AP US History exam questions focus on social, intellectual and cultural change. 1920s America is a perfect example of this. The Roaring Twenties came to an abrupt end with the beginning of the Great Depression, but it was a time that greatly changed the nation. It was a time of consumerism, technological evolution, artistic expression, and social and creative expression for women and African Americans. It was also a time of struggle for farmers, and a time of discrimination for immigrants, women, and African Americans.
If you can understand the contradictions of the Roaring Twenties and how the social, technological, and economic advancements that took place during the time changed the nation for good, you are on your way to a great score on the APUSH exam!
Photo by John Oxley [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By the way, you should check out Albert.io for your AP US History review. We have hundreds of APUSH practice questions written just for you!