Season 3: U.S. History

U.S. History Episode 13 The Roaring 20s or, “Does any of this sound a little familiar?”

Woo! It’s been a few months since my last episode, has anything big happened?

Just kidding. Turns out that making a podcast for fun wasn’t one of my top priorities during a global pandemic – I’m honestly as surprised as you are. But seriously, sorry it’s been such a long time. I needed a few months to figure out how to put my entire class online, get kids ready for the AP exams, work in the same house as my husband and keep a three-year-old entertained with minimal Paw Patrol episodes. It was a lot. But now I’m ready to start making stuff again! 

Also, the president of the United States just said that the Spanish Flu probably ended World War Two so I felt a duty to my nation to start up the podcast again.

So this episode we have a global pandemic, a conservative president who wants to take things back the way they used to be, a growing cultural divide between liberals drinking and dancing in the cities and conservatives who feel left behind, and an economy that’s built on a house of cards. And no, this isn’t a current events episode. 

Today we’re talking about the 1920s or, “Does any of this sound familiar?” This is Anti-Social Studies, I’m Emily Glankler; settle in and let’s go back in time.

Act 1: Return to Normalcy

So after the chaos of the Progressive Era and World War I, a lot of Americans are like, “OK. We let women vote. That was cute. But now let’s all calm down and go back to the way things were.” A series of Republican presidents were elected, starting with Warren Harding who campaigned on the idea of a “Return to Normalcy.” His campaign slogan was (checks notes) “America First.” Huh. 

But it makes sense: for almost all of American history, the country has been isolationist. Sure, we got involved in Latin America – but that was just us Monroe Doctrining. Typically we stayed above the fray in European affairs, selectively following George’s advice. Wilson had to get dragged into WWI and most of the country agreed that we should go back to just focusing on ourselves and the economy and move away from more global affairs. This idea was also supported by conservatives who were bristling under all the change of the Progressive Era. We’re going to see this trend throughout the 20th and 21st centuries – a period of liberal reforms followed by a rise of conservatism (I see you, Nixon’s “silent majority.”)

And really, it was easy for Republican presidents to say, “Let’s just focus on the economy” because the economy was straight-up crushing it. We entered WWI as a debtor nation but by the end of the conflict, the Allies owed us $10 billion. Sweet. By the 1920s we were the dominant economic power in the world and we used that newfound influence to try to bring the rest of the world to our viewpoint of “War is bad, business is good.”

Throughout the 20s we signed a series of international agreements meant to prevent military buildup and avoid future conflicts. Specifically, in the Kellogg-Briand Pact 15 nations signed a treaty agreeing to abandon war altogether and settle all disputes peacefully. Aw, look at how sweet and naive we were in 1928. What a difference a year makes.

So we were isolationist-ish. Our biggest focus was getting the western economies back up and running and we did that by funding most of Germany’s war debts. Remember from season 1 how the Treaty of Versailles forced Germany to pay so much in war reparations that they basically just invited Hitler to come take them over and didn’t pay off the debts until 2010? No? Just me. Cool, well the US stepped in to try to prevent that from happening. American banks lent money to Germany so that they could pay back Britain and France who, in turn, could start buying our stuff again. It was a perfect plan! That is, unless American banks somehow suddenly fail overnight. Anyway. 

Harding’s Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon built a new economic policy that would become the foundation for modern Republican policy. It boiled down to three goals: balance the budget, reduce government debt, and cut taxes. This last part is crucial – and controversial – and it’s now known as supply-side economics. Basically, the idea is that if taxes are lower, businesses will have more money to invest in expansion and new jobs and consumers will have more money to buy stuff. We’ll come back to this in a few episodes (Don’t worry Reagan, we’re getting to you.)

By 1928, income tax for most Americas was just 0.5% and it had dropped for the richest Americans from 73% to 25%. And what were people doing with those fat wallets? Buying stuff! 

A Booming Economy?

On the surface, the economy was booming. Per capita earnings grew 22% over the decade as work hours decreased. People had a growing disposable income that they built on new mass produced goods. Most famously, Ford lowered the cost of his Model T so that the car became a common purchase instead of a luxury item reserved for the rich. In fact, in 1925 about 80% of families who owned a car didn’t have bathtubs with running water. Like, people wanted a Model T more than they wanted a bath. 

American innovation was also booming. Just 20 years after the Wright brothers first took flight, the postal service was carrying mail via planes and Congress was investing federal money to build airports. In 1927 American Charles Lindbergh completed the first transatlantic solo flight and by 1928 there were 48 different airlines serving 355 American cities.

The radio industry grew and connected Americans culturally more than ever before. In 1920 one of the first public radio broadcasts ever announced the news of Harding’s presidential victory. By 1929, there were over 12 million radios in use in the US and companies like NBC and CBS had stations broadcasting all over the country.

Political Scandals

But even though the 1920s are dominated by economics, they weren’t without political scandal either. During Harding’s presidency many of his cabinet members became embroiled in many scandals, made worse by the fact that many of them were Harding’s personal friends and allies from his state politics days – the “Ohio Gang.” I’m sorry but that’s the least intimidating gang name of all time. For example, the first ever head of Veterans’ Affairs (or the VA) was caught selling medical supplies meant for vet hospitals and keeping the money for himself. He literally stole from veterans’ hospitals after a world war. Harding’s Attorney General accepted bribes from German agents trying to buy a company that had been seized during the war by the US. Like, we just fought the Germans in WWI, guys. Chill. 

But the most infamous political scandal in American history up to that point was the politely named Teapot Dome Scandal. In 1922 Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall leased federal land that was supposed to be for US Navy oil reserves to private companies in exchange for bribes. The Wall Street Journal broke the story and the Senate investigation lasted throughout the decade. In 1929, Secretary Fall became the first cabinet secretary ever to go to prison.

Y’all. It’s so hard to convince my students that this was a big deal now. I feel like 2020 Americas look at Teapot Dome wistfully – those quaint days when Americans were scandalized by politicians using their positions for personal gain. We were so adorable back then.

Harding died near the end of his first term and American outrage over the scandals was quelled by the dull, soothing nothingness that was Calvin Coolidge.

And now, an Ode to Calvin Coolidge:

Oh, Silent Cal

Your biographer said you represented the “genius of the average” 

Which makes no sense and is the most backhanded burn of all time

Your Wikipedia page literally says that as Vice President

You “gave a number of unremarkable speeches around the country”

With citations

What a weird president you were

You buzzed in your staff to the Oval Office

Then hid behind the curtains while they looked for you

You won the presidency outright in 1924

By saying that “the business of America is business”

Which, if true, is going to make America look *pretty* dumb in a few years

You are the epitome of a laissez-faire president

And you got out just in time to let

Herbert Hoover take the fall

Well played, sir.

Act 2: 1920s Culture

So, I know that the real thing everyone cares about when we talk about the 1920s is the parties. Sequins! Cocktails! Feathers! Headdresses! That Leonardo Di Caprio GIF! Fringe! And in a lot of ways, that’s right. The 1920s were about a feeling. Young people had moved to the cities; everyone had cars and, thus, more freedom. We just fought a brutal war that no one really cared about now the government was telling us we couldn’t drink alcohol? Yeah right.

The Flapper

The epitome of this new freedom was the flapper. These female party animals were the culmination of a lot of historical developments over the past few decades: Women getting out into the workplace during WWI and having their own spending money + a political voice through suffrage + more control over their body thanks to Margaret Sanger’s work on birth control (for way more on that check out my episode on Abortion from Season 2.) Flappers are mostly identified through their clothing: dresses that show off their calves, no corsets, a short bob haircut and bright lipstick. Designers like Coco Chanel were at the forefront of modern fashion, especially with sportswear like tennis dresses that gave women freedom and a relaxed silhouette. Basically, tennis dresses were to the 1920s what yoga pants are to the 2020s. You get it. 

In the arts, there was a flourishing of narratives about these new, young, liberated women. F. Scott Fitzgerald based his writings all on his real flapper wife, Zelda Fitzgerald. His most famous work, The Great Gatsy, has now become basically a stand-in for the entire decade. Another writer that was important to promoting this new, modern American culture was Lois Long. Writing under the pseudonym Lipstick, she was a flapper herself who wrote articles for The New Yorker chronicling her real-life adventures going out all night. Her column “When Nights Are Bold” and then, “Tables for Two” was often written immediately after an all-nighter. So, she was basically the real life Carrie Bradshaw of the 20s. The era of the flapper came to a crashing halt in 1929 when people needed less cocktails and more, you know, food, but we’ll get there in a second.

OK. So remember the Progressive Era? Women got the right to vote; Teddy was a feminist; we tried to get kids out of factories but the Supreme Court was like, “Nah?” So a few groups got left out of all of that progress: new immigrants and African Americans. And both those groups began to take matters into their own hands in the 1920s.

Organized Crime

Now, I don’t want to give the impression the all new immigrants became bootleggers because we already have enough of an unfounded complex in this country about immigration and crime. Buuuut, it is true that people who didn’t have opportunities in the legitimate economy found a new way to rise up the socioeconomic ladder with Prohibition.

During the Civil War, soldiers would sneak liquor into camp in their boots: a.k.a. “Bootleggers.” But during Prohibition, bootlegging became an entire industry. Sneaking in alcohol from Canada or overseas or illegally brewing alcohol, an entire economy grew around the illicit industry. And this new economy was run by gangs. 

Most famously, Al Capone became head of the Chicago mafia, using violence and intimidation to drive out his rivals. This era reached its climax in 1929 with the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, when seven members of a rival mob run by “Bugs” Moran were machine gunned by Capone’s men dressed as police. 

Now, there are entire podcasts out there dedicated to the 1920s mafia so I’ll leave the details to them, but I do want us to understand these gangs in the context of history. Basically, these were people who were not allowed to become part of the legitimate economy. Many places refused to hire immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, including Italy, and it was difficult for many men to find a way to make any money. Basically, discrimination and Prohibition drove a lot of these communities into the black market. And I’m not saying that means they shouldn’t be held responsible for crimes committed, but it’s important to understand that the U.S. has a history of turning people we dislike or expect to be criminals into the very thing we feared. That’s called a self-fulfilling prophecy, kids. 

The Harlem Renaissance

Anyway, African American culture had a Golden Age in the 1920s, at least in the northern cities. Throughout the last decade or so hundreds of thousands of black Americans had been moving from the South up to cities to fill jobs in growing factories, especially during World War I. By the end of the Great Migration over 300,000 African Americans had left the south and ended up in cities like Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago, and New York. 

The Harlem neighborhood of New York became a global mecca for black artists, writers, and activists in the 1920s, partly thanks to the work of our guy W.E.B. Du Bois. Using his influence in the newly-founded NAACP, he and his peers created outlets for black people to show what they could do in spaces like the NAACP magazine The Crisis. 

I could name hundreds of black creators who thrived during this time, but a few highlights include:

Female novelist Jessi Redmond Fauset’s 1924 novel There Is Confusion. She explored the issue of black Americans finding an identity in white Manhattan. She went on to work with Du Bois to found a magazine for black children to read stories and see photos of their own experience. 

At the debut party for Fauset’s book, other black organizers used the event to connect black creators with white publishing elites. Out of that party, many black writers began getting published in mainstream magazines like Harper’s, including Langston Hughes. 

Hughes is the poster child for the Harlem Renaissance. His poems have become the voice of the movement to find pride in blackness and to celebrate the contributions of black people to American culture. Let me read you arguably his most famous poem, “I, Too:”

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.

They send me to eat in the kitchen

When company comes,

But I laugh,

And eat well,

And grow strong.

Tomorrow,

I’ll be at the table

When company comes.

Nobody’ll dare

Say to me,

“Eat in the kitchen,”

Then.

Besides,

They’ll see how beautiful I am

And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.

Langston Hughes was also gay. Although he was not publicly out, considering it was against the law and especially dangerous for a black man, he wrote poems about “detectives from vice squads with weary sadistic eyes spotting fairies.” In another story, he wrote of an intelligent young man whose father was disappointed because he turned out to be a “queer.”

A quick note about sorting out someone’s sexuality as a historian: Now, some of this is historical speculation but it’s speculation based on a lot of documentation, including love letters written later on in life. I say this because I’m always hesitant to label someone from the past as something that they didn’t label themselves. This is especially important when I’m in some ways “outing” someone from history. But, this secrecy has led to LGBTQ people being suspiciously absent from our history and I think it’s more important for us to understand their contributions. Anyway, rant over.

In addition to writers, actors like Paul Robeson gained mainstream fame. Although he had a law degree, there were few opportunities for black lawyers and so he became an actor instead, famously starring as Othello in London’s West End. He became world famous for his rendition of “Ol’ Man River” in the movie Showboat. In 1921, Shuffle Along debuted on Broadway, bringing Harlem musical revues to a white audience. 

In fine art, Aaron Douglas adapted African art styles to paint the black American experience, earning him the title “the Father of Black American Art.” I’ll post some of my favorite paintings on my website – teachers they are an amazing teaching resource, full of history and layers of significance.

Jazz

But the most well-known contribution from black culture is jazz. Now, full disclosure: every year when I teach about this, I bring in one of our music teachers who literally has a degree in this. Like, really. So I can’t explain it as well as she can, but essentially jazz and blues are the culmination of the black experience in the United States. Many of the instruments, like the banjo and drums, are distinctly African, mixed with European-style big band sounds. Artists like Louis Armstrong, “Fats” Waller and Duke Ellington played and composed music for big bands full of black musicians. Singers like Bessie Smith brought the Blues into mainstream American music. Bessie Smith, also known as the “Empress of the Blues,” was famous around the world but died in the 1930s in a car accident. Actually, she didn’t die in the car accident. She died because the first ambulance to arrive at the scene was from the white hospital and they refused to take her. It’s an important reminder that although black artists are becoming recognized and respected for their talents around the country, racism is still alive and well. 

With this music, tap dancing became a common dance style for African Americans and that is also a unique mixture of African and Irish history. Enslaved Africans used music and dance to retain their heritage and to pass time on plantations. Often without drums or other percussive instruments, they used their feet to express the beats and rhythms of their music. With the migration of African Americans into cities, this style mixed with jigs from new immigrants from Ireland. Fun fact: the Irish jig is also, in itself, a rebellious form of dance. When the English took over Ireland, they forbade them from practicing their Irish culture. With English officers roaming the streets, people in pubs starting dancing from the waist down, their legs hidden from view behind the bar. The Irish jig, with its rigid upper half and chaotic legs and feet was essentially a “Screw You” to the English for trying to eliminate their culture. Anyway, these various dance forms melded in the cities to create modern tap dancing. And the most famous tap dancer was Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, who became world famous when he tap danced up and down the staircase with Shirley Temple. 

Now, there was division and controversy within the Harlem Renaissance. For one, there were generational divides between older activists like Du Bois and younger or more radical people within the movement. Zora Neale Hurston’s literary magazine FIRE!!! discussed issues that were taboo within most of society, including homosexuality. And then there were some African Americans who felt like black artists were “selling out” and turning their culture into a commodity to be consumed by white audiences. 

While there were plenty of nightclubs in Harlem for black people to enjoy their own music, the most successful clubs were those that catered to white New Yorkers. The most famous was the Cotton Club. Get it? Cotton? Like slaves? And also, cotton is white? Yeah. Clever. The audience at the Cotton Club was entirely white but the talent onstage was often the most respected black musicians of the day, most notably Duke Ellington. The real question was whether this was “selling out” or a sign that black culture, and thus black people, were slowly becoming more accepted by general society. 

The Urban-Rural Divide

There were divisions across the United States, not just within the black community. In fact, the 1920s was in many ways characterized by a massive cultural divide that had grown over the past few decades. 1920 was the first year in American history when more Americans lived in cities than in rural areas. By this point, the U.S. economy was industrialized but that technology and progress hadn’t reached many parts of the country. Those living in small towns and the country were still essentially in the 19th century and often felt isolated and confused by the new growth and chaos of the cities. 

Many men marveled, or were horrified, by new “liberated” women. A famous comic strip showed common conversations between older people talking about the “good old days” of tradition and propriety and it always ended with “Them Days Are Gone Forever!” It’s essentially the OK Boomer of the 1920s. With cars, birth control, short skirts, speakeasies, and all-night dance parties, the group that often felt the most left behind was evangelical Christians. 

And all of this came to a head in the famous Scopes Trial of 1925. As famous lawyers debated back and forth over the merits of teaching evolution in science classrooms, Americans tuned in – often on new radios – to hear what was essentially a conversation between traditional, Puritan America and modern Progressivism. Clarence Darrow argued for the progressives against William Jennings Bryan, who represented the evangelicals. The issue on trial was actually pretty simple: A high school biology teacher, John T. Scopes, taught evolution in his classroom even though a Tennessee law declared that illegal. But that wasn’t really the debate – I mean, he clearly broke the law. But that was the point. Progressives wanted to shine a light on evangelical influence in politics while evangelical Christians held on as they felt like so much of what they knew was being discarded in favor of modernity. In the end, the evangelicals won the battle but lost the war. Scopes was found guilty and fined but his punishment was eventually thrown out. But the spectacle of the trial was politically embarrassing for evangelical Christians, who would stay out of politics for about 50 years. Phyllis Schlafly/Ronald Reagan foreshadowing…

Act 3: Economic Collapse

OK. I’m going to keep this last section short because… it’s confusing. Those of you out there who are experts on economics, you might just want to stop listening right now. But the big question we need to answer is: How did we go from a roaring economy to the Great Depression, seemingly overnight? 

So, about that roaring economy… sure, the overall economy was growing. People were moving to cities, factories were making things cheaper, wages were going up and prices were going down. But, there was so much growth, and new technology that made production more efficient, that supply outpaced demand. Manufacturing output rose by 32% while wages only rose 8%.  And, people weren’t saving their money anymore. They were spending it on those cheaper goods or gambling with it in the stock market. The idea of stocks has been around for centuries – the first stock exchange was in Amsterdam in the 16th century. But by the 1920s, the stock exchange was booming because of a few developments.

For one, credit was now a thing. People could get money on credit, buy stocks, and then pay it back with their winnings, I mean, earnings. The trick was that credit became popular during a time when the stock market was growing exponentially every year. It seemed like a sure thing that if you bought a stock, within a few months it’s value would go up and you would make money. By 1929, Americans overall had effectively $0 in savings but had invested $1 billion in the stock market. So people bought more and more stock on credit, taking out loans from the banks. And, to make things worse, banks were also investing a lot of the money they had stored away in stocks and other risky investments. And all of this was expedited by the fact that there was effectively zero regulations on the financial industries. Like, if I wanted to start a bank, I would just get a building and set up a bank. People could give me their money for safekeeping and I would keep it safe. Or, I would use that money to loan out to other people with interest. Or maybe use some of it to buy stocks. All of this would be totally fine unless everyone asked for their money back from the banks at the same time, but that would be insane. (Foreshadowing music)

Anyway, while city-dwellers were living it up, farmers had been struggling throughout the 1920s. During World War I the government guaranteed prices for farmers providing crops for soldiers overseas and, with Europe at war, global demand skyrocketed. Farmers were making a ton of money and they invested a lot of that money into new technology or more land. Unfortunately, after the war, when Harding “returned” everything to “normalcy,” that meant taking away all of those wartime supports. Farmers now had more land than they could farm and bank payments for their new tractors or farm equipment. A series of droughts throughout the decade made their situation even more untenable. But I’m sure they’ll be fine…

Meanwhile, in Europe, Germany was struggling to pay back its war reparations. Remember the Treaty of Versailles? And how awful it was? Germany was drowning in debt as they tried to pay Britain and France back after the war. Not to mention the fact that the Allies themselves owed the US over $10 billion. Our economy relied on a thriving economy in Western Europe, so we stepped in to help. The US came up with the Dawes Plan. It was simple: American banks would loan money to Germany, who would use that money to pay back Britain and France, who could then use that money to rebuild their economies and do more business with the United States, putting money into American banks to loan more money to Europe. What could go wrong?

OK. Back to the stock market. I don’t know much about the stock market but I know that sometimes it goes up and sometimes it goes down. Meaning, it can’t keep going up forever. By the end of the 1920s, prices began to go down, as they had to at some point. But, since so many people had bought their stocks with credit or loans, they sold off their stocks quickly, hoping to minimize their loss. But as those people sold their stocks, that caused stock prices to go down even more, which freaked out other investors. They sold off their stocks and the whole system basically imploded in October 1929 with the Stock Market Crash. 

Now, I want to be clear: in 1929, only 10% of Americans owned stocks. So the stock market collapse itself was the not the cause of the Great Depression. But, the domino effect – and the ill-informed responses by the government – did lead to the Great Depression. If people had money in savings, they went to get it from the banks so they could pay off their lenders for their stocks that had gone bad. In addition, banks themselves had often invested in the market and lost money. In some places, there were “runs” on the banks where everyone panicked and went to take their money out at once. Remember that dinky little bank that I made? Well, I wouldn’t have everyone’s money just sitting there waiting for them. I was smart. I invested that money – I loaned it to businesses; or I lent money to individuals to buy stocks; or I invested it myself in the market. Long story short, the banks ran out of money and some people literally lost their entire life savings in an instant. 

Again, this on its own didn’t immediately cause the Great Depression. There are things now that we know the government could have done that might have softened the blow. For example, the government could have stepped in and bailed out the banks – giving them money to stay afloat – like Obama did in 2008. Or the government could have provided money directly to businesses to keep paying their workers – like the Trump administration has done during the pandemic. But in the 1920s, the idea of the government getting that involved in the economy was almost unimaginable. And the only agency that could have maybe done something – the Federal Reserve, or “Fed” – also panicked and raised interest rates, trying to protect their own assets and not lose the money in reserve they had for this exact moment. It’s not really their fault, if the Fed had given out all of its money to banks it wouldn’t have been enough – they were prepared to save a few banks, not all the banks. 

But, with banks going out of business or seriously weakened, they called in loans. Meaning, they asked people to pay the loans back immediately. This left small business owners ruined. In addition, they stopped loaning out more money, so the businesses that were still around couldn’t get money to keep themselves going. All of this led to unemployment, meaning that people now didn’t have money to spend in retail stores, which then went out of business. Essentially, the entire economy ground to a halt. 

Now, it’s easy to look back at this and get annoyed at everyone in the 1920s because, in some ways, they created the very problem they were trying to avoid. Basically, the economy keeps working if everyone just believes it’s working. If everyone trusts the banks and the government, then they keep their money with them and there would have been enough (maybe) to help out just those hit hard by the stock market crash. But that’s easier said than done. The spiral that leads to the Great Depression is entirely understandable when you realize that every individual and business was acting entirely rationally and in their own best interest, but that led to the collapse of the system for everyone.

If you own stocks and the price starts going down, it makes sense you would sell out of fear that you might lose more money. If you’re a bank and everyone asks for their money back, it makes sense that you would call in all your outstanding loans to pay everyone back. If you’re a business owner having to pay back a loan, it makes sense you would fire your workers to cut costs. If you’re newly unemployed, it makes sense that you would stop buying consumer goods. But, the unregulated economy and the “hands off” approach of the government in the 1920s meant that no one was looking at the bigger picture. 

By the way, remember how the entire European recovery process was built on American banks? Oops. The 1929 collapse spread around the world, especially western Europe. But it’s fine. I’m sure economic collapse in war-torn Germany won’t have any world-ending consequences we’ll need to worry about. 

Sources

https://www.history.com/topics/roaring-twenties/flappers

https://www.history.com/topics/roaring-twenties/harlem-renaissance

http://americainclass.org/sources/becomingmodern/modernity/text2/themdays.pdf

https://www.britannica.com/event/Scopes-Trial

https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/us-history/rise-to-world-power/1920s-america/a/prohibition

https://www.britannica.com/story/causes-of-the-great-depression

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47558/i-too

https://www.fbi.gov/history/famous-cases/al-capone

https://ums.org/2019/06/21/from-margins-to-mainstream-tap-dance-history/

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