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A Great Time to be Rich

The explosion in new mass-production industries fueled by the spread of technologies


like electricity and the assembly line provided ample opportunities for profitable
investment, and the stock market began its famed ascent. Since less than one percent of
the American people owned any stock, those fabulous returns in the stock market directly
benefited only the wealthy. The Roaring Twenties offered a classic case of the rich
getting richer. Much richer.

A Good Time to be Middle-Class


However, the fantastic wealth accrued by the rich during the decade should not obscure
the real and sustained gains made by the urban working- and middle-classes. Not
including the near collapse of the labor movement in 1919-21, real wages for urban
workers increased by about 20% during the 1920s.
By the time of the Great Crash of 1929, ordinary folks in America's cities and towns
could reasonably expect to be able to own a car, a washing machine, a refrigerator, a
radio, and many other modern conveniences that drastically reduced housework and
improved the quality of life.

Rural America: Left Behind by Modernity


However, the prosperity of the 1920s was not universal. In 1920, nearly half the nation's
population still resided in rural areas, dependent upon agriculture for survival. And the
Roaring Twenties were unkind to America's farmers. The decade began with the end of a
period of great prosperity. World War I, by disrupting the agricultural production of
much of Europe, had created enormous demand and high prices for farm products
throughout the world. Farmers in America, like other areas that hadn't been turned into
trench-lined battle zones, increased production accordingly and reaped great profits.
However, the war's end allowed the resumption of normal European production, and
suddenly the world faced a huge glut of agricultural products, with no market of buyers.

End of the Boom: The Great Crash and the Great Depression
Urban America only began to share the pain long felt in the countryside late in 1929,
when the stock market crash, on 29th October 1929, suddenly caused billions of dollars in
assets to evaporate. While the Great Crash itself directly affected only the tiny minority
of affluent Americans who owned stock at the time, resulting cutbacks in industrial
production caused a nationwide economic downturn unprecedented in its depth and
length. The descent from the Roaring Twenties into the Great Depression was steep.

glut: a huge surplus of a product


25 Million "New Immigrants"
The 1920s unfolded at the tail end of the greatest wave of immigration in American
history. Between 1880 and 1920, more than 25 million foreigners arrived on American
shores, transforming the country. More than 80% of the arrivals after 1890 were so-called
"New Immigrants," natives of Southern and Eastern Europe, culturally and ethnically
perceived to be quite different from the Germans and Britons who had embodied the bulk
of the immigration into the United States in earlier periods. By 1920, 42% of New
Yorkers were foreign-born; 41% of Chicagoans; 42% of San Franciscans.

Immigrants in these bustling cities tended to gather together with their countrymen; the
1920s were the heyday of the urban ethnic enclave. Immigrants, many speaking little or
no English, settled together with their compatriots and forged close-knit communities,
often boasting ethnic shops, ethnic markets, ethnic banks, ethnic clubs, ethnic cinemas,
even ethnic radio stations, broadcasting in the mother tongue. These invaluable, if insular,
community institutions only lost their grip on ethnic populations when overwhelmed by
the spread of American mass culture during the 1920s—the chain store, the bank branch,
the national radio broadcast, and the Hollywood motion picture created, in some cases for
the first time, a real common ground that crossed ethnic boundaries in America's cities.

Nativist Backlash
The development of large, thriving communities of immigrants and minorities generated
a considerable backlash among native-born Americans who feared they were losing their
cities to "undesirable" newcomers. Prior to the coming of the New Immigrants, a large
majority of the American population—more than 60%—could trace their ancestry back
to either the British Isles or to Germany. These old-line Americans, mostly fair-skinned
and Protestant, tended to view the darker-complected, mostly Catholic or Jewish New
Immigrants as not just different but "inferior"—members of lesser races, likely lacking
the Anglo-Saxon temperament many believed necessary to maintain a free society.

Americanization Campaigns Stir the Melting Pot


Nativist sentiment came in the form of aggressive "Americanization" campaigns, efforts
to remake the immigrants into good Americans through work, education, and social
reform. Henry Ford was a leading exponent of the movement, declaring that "these men
of many nations must be taught American ways, the English language, and the right way
to live."

insular: lacking contact with other people


backlash: a strong adverse reaction by a large number of people
nativists: Those wishing to protect the interests of American-born people against the
influx of immigrants.
Belated Success of Nineteenth-Century Women's Movements
Prohibition: Utopian Failure
Women had long borne a disproportionate share of the consequences of the intemperate
male drinking of alcohol, such as domestic violence and financial ruin. Temperance,
therefore, became mostly a women's crusade, a utopianist social project that hoped to
improve society—and the conditions for women living in it—by restricting consumption
of alcohol. The temperance movement's victory was in enacting the 18th Amendment,
known as Prohibition, which banned the production, transport and sale of alcohol.
However, it proved to be quixotic; millions of Americans flaunted the law by continuing
to swill illegal booze, creating a lucrative black market that funded the violence of
notorious gangsters like Al Capone. By 1925, in New York City alone, there were
anywhere from 30,000 to 100,000 speakeasy clubs. Prohibition was repealed in 1932.

Suffrage: All Citizens Created Equal


Suffrage finally raised women to equal citizenship with men by granting them the right to
vote in federal elections. During World War I, President Wilson found that he could not
successfully promote democracy abroad while it was not practiced at home; he
enthusiastically supported women’s suffrage as a "vitally necessary war measure."
Wilson's advocacy helped the suffragists to push the 19th Amendment through Congress
in 1920, finally extending the franchise to women; 143 years after Thomas Jefferson
declared it a self-evident truth that "all men are created equal," America's women became
equal participants in the democratic political process.

Short Hair and Shorter Skirts: New Cultural Freedoms


Young urban women, enjoying the fruits of the new mass-production consumer economy,
adopted new styles and lifestyles that pushed the limits of tradition. In 1921, women
suddenly began wearing knee-length skirts—a fashion previously considered obscene—
and adopting the radically short "bob" haircut. These trends later evolved into the
"flapper" look, an almost boyish style sported by independent young women who
flaunted traditional gender norms by smoking, drinking, and dancing at jazz clubs. The
flapper image became the icon of new social and sexual freedom for women in the 1920s.

Women like Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, promoted education to


teach women about sex and sexuality in order to allow them to seize greater control over
their own lives and bodies. By spreading the gospel of contraception, Sanger liberated
women to greater sexual freedom but also deeply offended adherents of traditional moral
standards. She remains a controversial figure today, nearly half a century after her death.

utopian: idealistic, aiming for a perfect world


temperance: moderation or self-restraint, especially of alcohol
quixotic: idealistic
speakeasy: a nightclub that illegally served alcohol
suffrage: the right to vote in elections
franchise: the right to vote in elections
Mass Consumption and Mass Culture
Even as wondrous new machines transformed the conditions of everyday life, culture
itself became a mass commodity. The 1920s were the heyday of broadcast radio and
Hollywood cinema; for the first time, consumers across the country tuned in to the same
radio programs and bought tickets to the same films. Advertising became a crucial
industry in its own right, cultivating mass demand for the products of mass consumption.
For the first time, a Detroit factory worker, a San Francisco longshoreman, and a
Birmingham domestic could be expected to enjoy the same radio programs and watch the
same films... and to smoke the same cigarettes and use the same toothpaste promoted on
screen and on the radio.

The Great Migration and the Harlem Renaissance


Employment opportunities created by World War I spurred the "Great Migration," the
mass movement of African-Americans out of the rural South and into the urban North. In
the cities of the North, blacks built their own ethnic communities, not unlike those of
their immigrant counterparts. New York's Harlem became the center of African
American cultural life in the United States, with a literary, artistic, musical, and political
scene so vibrant it became known as the Harlem Renaissance. Musical geniuses like
Louis Armstrong developed a new form of popular music—jazz—that many consider, to
this day, to be America's greatest contribution to human culture.

Hollywood and the Resurrection of the Ku Klux Klan


The traditionalist backlash took many forms, but perhaps its most dramatic manifestation
came in the revival of the Ku Klux Klan.* Following the collapse of Reconstruction in
1876, which allowed Southern states to reimpose white power through the creation of
virtual one-party Democratic regimes, the KKK was no longer necessary, and it withered
away.
The Ku Klux Klan revival began in 1915 with the theatrical release of D.W. Griffith's
film, "The Birth of a Nation." It was one of the highest-grossing film of the silent film
era, and is noted for its innovative camera techniques and narrative achievements. The
cinematic epic, which was considered by many to be the greatest film of its age,
portrayed Klansmen sympathetically as heroic defenders of white civilization against the
depredation of freed slaves run amok. President Woodrow Wilson endorsed the film's
racist historical revisionism, describing the film as "history writ with lighting... all so
terribly true." The film generated a new enthusiasm for the Klan, its symbols and regalia.

commodity: a thing that can be bought and sold


backlash: a strong adverse reaction by a large number of people
depredation: the act of attacking or plundering
Reconstruction: the period after the Civil War in which the Confederate States were
federally controlled and African-Americans were given the rights of their citizenship
* The original Ku Klux Klan, organized in the South after the Civil War, had served as
the paramilitary wing of the Democratic Party, terrorizing blacks and Republicans to
dissuade them from exercising their civil rights.
Tradition vs. Modernity: The Backlash
In 1915, a failed doctor named William J. Simmons organized a new Klan in Atlanta,
Georgia, announcing it to the world by burning a great fiery cross atop Stone Mountain.
Grand Wizard Simmons's new KKK spread throughout the United States in the 1920s,
becoming the most important mouthpiece for a traditionalist politics that was not only
anti-black but also anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic, anti-Communist, anti-immigrant, anti-
alcohol, anti-sex, and anti-science. The Klan's greatest strength lay not—as many would
assume—in the South, but rather in the Midwest and West. The Klan won virtual control
of the state governments of Colorado and Indiana (where Klansman Ed Johnson became
Governor), and wielded heavy influence in Oregon, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and several
other states. An estimated four million Americans were paid members.

The widespread popularity of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s revealed the depth of
traditionalist resistance to the social and cultural changes created by the Roaring
Twenties.

The Scopes "Monkey" Trial


Perhaps the single most famous Roaring Twenties confrontation between the opposing
forces of modernity and traditionalism was the 1925 Scopes "Monkey" Trial.
The story of the Monkey Trial began when fundamentalist Christians in the Tennessee
legislature sought to defend the sanctity of the Bible as the literal word of God by passing
a new law that made it illegal for any public schoolteacher "to teach any theory that
denies the story of Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that
man has descended from a lower order of animals." It therefore became illegal to teach
Darwin's Theory of Evolution. However, the schools’ biology textbooks included the
subject of Evolution. John Scopes was charged with teaching Evolution and violating the
state law. The trial became a media circus viewed as a battle between fundamentalists
and modernity.

For fifty years following the trial, the teaching of evolution came to be accepted in most
American schools as uncontroversial scientific knowledge. Only in recent years has the
conflict between evolution and creationism (now renamed "intelligent design") once
again become a major controversy in American education.

backlash – a strong adverse reaction by a large number of people


Grand Wizard: the highest position in the KKK
fundamentalist: a person who strictly maintains the ancient doctrines of a religion