American society in the 1920s

De Baripedia

It must be seen that at the end of the 19th century the United States gave up annexations for settlement and moved on to occupations for the political and economic control of the regions in which they were going to settle. In 1898 the war against Spain took place, which was really the first great expression of American imperialism in the Americas, with the subsequent construction of the Panama Canal; from that time on the United States considered the Caribbean and Central America as its own zone.

The First World War resulted in the destruction and ruin of Europe, but consecrated the beginning of the hegemony of the United States replacing England and bearing the burden of the white man.

We must be attentive to the parallels between what is happening in the United States in the 1920s and what is happening in Mexico, because there are many similarities in certain areas, particularly in the cultural and artistic blossoming that is beginning to free itself from European influences; it is seeking to create a national culture.

The Second Industrial Revolution[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

The first industrial revolution was the one that affected textiles, metals and canned goods in the 19th century and made the United States one of the richest and most developed nations in the world.

The First World War, from which the country emerged strengthened, allowed it to engage alone in the Second Industrial Revolution as Europe was in ruins, propelling the United States to the economic forefront of all nations.

Mass production of consumer goods[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

Ford T assembly line in 1913. A swing allows to present a sub-assembly coming from an upper floor to the workstation where it will be mounted on the vehicle.

The second industrial revolution is based on technology and the production chain; it is the mass production of consumer goods such as cars, household appliances, cigarettes and clothing. The pioneer was Henry Ford, who created the assembly line for his cars.

The aim of this second industrial revolution was to produce more, faster and cheaper.

To achieve this goal Ford set up huge factories where components and accessories are standardized which in the end will make a car pass in front of fixed workers who are attached to the machine and apply only one task repeatedly. From craftsmen the workers move on to semi-robots which are only one link in the long production chain.

Soon the assembly line becomes the standard for all industries and its corollary is marketing and advertising which tries to present new products as indispensable to every American and to make them believe that the model they have already bought is obsolete and must be replaced.

Boom de l’économie étasunienne[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

Cette révolution permet un boom spectaculaire de l’économie étasunienne dans les années 1920 avec le doublement de sa production industrielle et l’augmentation du PNB de 40 %, une augmentation du revenu annuel par tête d’habitant de 30 % et un revenu de 680 dollars par tête en 1929 en même temps que la population du pays passe de 100 millions d’habitants en 1923 à 120 millions dix ans plus tard.

Les travailleurs industriels américains sont dorénavant les mieux payés du monde et surtout peuvent s’acheter certains de ces biens de consommation qu’ils fabriquent.

Chart 1: USA GDP annual pattern and long-term trend, 1920-40, in billions of constant dollars[8]

Price of this revolution[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

This industrial revolution has left the rural world far behind with an annual income of only $273 per year compared to $680 for industrial workers. In this era 6 million small farmers left the ruined countryside in search of work in the cities.

The revolution produced a large number of unemployed, 5 million in the labour force in 1921, or there was a first crisis that should have been a wake-up call for everyone that occurred. It is possible to see that the Great Depression was basically only brought to an end with the Second World War.

On the other hand, small businesses no longer survived the competition, and we quickly saw the rise of shareholder-owned oligopolies. These oligopolies benefit from government aid because, on the one hand, it suppresses the labour movement and, on the other hand, there are also very high customs barriers against imports from Europe and elsewhere.

The oligopolies manage to neutralize the independent labour movement which had grown very strong in 1918 and 1919. Some of these large corporations establish "welfare capitalism" programs, that is, contracts that promise various things, even promising pension programs for the remaining workers in the company.

Craft work tends to disappear, we see the same process of elimination of the small ones in commerce where small stores give way to large distribution chains and department stores.

The new urban culture[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

Overall, the symptoms of this mass production are uniformity and standardization. The so-called 'roaring twenties' of the 1920s will soon run out of steam since the number of consumers will not increase as quickly as production and sales will decrease.

Mass consumption[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

Advertising is an agent of economic development. Advertising for Palmolive soap in 1922.

The big beneficiaries of these years are the elite and middle class who can buy cars, can settle in the villas. After a while, they have bought all the durable or semi-durable goods they need.

Then only a small part of the industrial workers and even less of the farmers can buy these goods which are produced through the credit or hire-purchase system to encourage purchase.

Due to the increasingly unequal distribution of wealth, the market for consumer goods is rapidly becoming saturated, which will also contribute to the great krak of 1929.

A new urban culture is born in the 1920s, the major milestones of American culture are set: cars, individual villas, department stores, skyscrapers; this landscape will change with the growing importance of the car: highway, hotel, drive through, etc..

The skyscrapers on the Manhattan peninsula in New York in 1932.

At the same time, urban culture is changing with the arrival of mass production and advertising as well as mass culture and leisure.

Radio is developing through channels like NBC, which is largely financed by advertising.[9][10] Through this new media, information circulates much faster while sports such as golf, boxing and football develop like baseball, but remain segregated complements.

Sports were also broadcast by radio allowing it to become national, it was also during this period that Hollywood became the great centre of film production, many of which went against the American prude culture causing a certain reaction and the development of the number of cinemas.

Vote[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

That is when women won the right to vote. This gain of suffrage by women is not going to change much in the country's politics in general since black people in the south continue to be excluded from voting by the black codes, especially black women; on the other hand, women's access to suffrage does not change the role of men - women since men continue to be the main wage-earning economic breadwinners in the family.

Once women's suffrage is achieved, the feminist movement is divided with one side moving towards social goals obtaining advances from the federal government while other feminists struggle against the Victorian straitjacket and for personal fulfilment, including sexual fulfilment.

This shift towards women's emancipation was facilitated by the decline in births and the advent of the household appliance that reduced the amount of time middle-class women spent in the home.

Children no longer enter the labour market as teenagers, but attend high school and university, which lengthens their lives with their parents.

The artistic creation[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

The 1920s were, for the first time in U.S. history, a time of great literary and artistic flourishing.

The literary flowering[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

With the growth of cities comes a new intellectual elite, writers who are often critical of the industrial revolution and the alienation it produces.

Many of them were shocked by the new materialism of American culture, some like Hemingway went into exile in Europe, others remained in the United States like Fitzgerald, who criticized the emptiness and lack of humanity of the American elite.

Harlem Renaissance[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

W. E. B. Du Bois.

Artistic blooming is not only the work of white men, but is happening everywhere, especially in the African-American community where men and women are contributing to the Harlem Renaissance.[11][12]

With the culture of Harlem Renaissance, it is a very strong claim of African-Americans to have their place in American society; Harlem as well as Chicago will become black cultural centers with the development of jazz, the Blues, but also of literature which launches out in search of the roots and the African diaspora.


It was at this time that W.E.B. Du Bois became the intellectual voice of African-Americans and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) moved to Harlem.

With the continued arrival of hundreds of thousands of blacks fleeing the segregated South, other cities such as Detroit and Philadelphia saw their black population double and become centers of mobilization against the segregated South.

All that did not mean that the North was not racist or segregationist; United States foreign policy was extremely racist, particularly with regard to Central America and the Caribbean; it was also in the cities of the North that segregation was certainly not manifested in law, but in fact.

Marcus Garvey in 1924.

The massive arrival of black migrants from the South is causing major riots. In response, many blacks join black nationalist movements, especially since this is the era of nationalism in Europe, but also in the United States.

The red, black and green flag created by the UNIA in 1920.

Pour ces noirs et notamment le mouvement de la Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) founded by a Jamaican immigrant named Marcus Garvey, This movement reproduces the main symbols of nationalists who argue that to get out of this, the blacks of the Americas must unite in order to create their own nation, have their own institutions and businesses; it is black capitalism that allows them to defend their race.

At that time, in the 1920s, UNIA said it had several million adherents not only in the United States, but also among British West Indians working in the Caribbean and Central America. UNIA had its own press, its own navy, its own uniforms, but also its own Red Cross; all this movement manifested itself in large parades in Harlem and other cities.

This era was also marked by the idea of the "New Negro" that breaks away from all the stereotypes associated with it and forced to manifest its value[13][14][15].

The Protestant and Anglo-Saxon reaction[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

Non-WASP Americans[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

The 1920s are years of economic dreams, they are years that are politically dominated by the Republican Party, we have three Republican presidents in succession: Harding, Coolidge and Hoover. These three presidents practise a policy of protectionism against all imports of goods produced industrially abroad, on the other hand they ignore the problems of post-World War I Europe, which is experiencing many problems, including the rise of perilous movements.

Within the United States, these presidents practice policies of "absolute liberalism," but this is not quite the case, as they cut taxes heavily for corporations and the wealthiest.

With this apparent liberalism, they are not concerned about the huge pockets of poverty that are forming in the country and especially in the countryside; they are not concerned about the fact that in the countryside 6 million small farmers are forced to leave the countryside to seek work in the cities.

All of this is generated by overproduction, which leads to a general fall in the prices of agricultural products and makes it impossible for small producers to survive.

Face à ces problèmes qui s’accumulent, la réaction de l’Amérique anglo-saxonne profonde ne se tourne pas vers le gouvernement, les grandes corporations ou les plus riches, mais contre des boucs émissaires toujours faibles et facilement résignables.

It is during these years that the Ku Klux Klan rose from its ashes since it had almost disappeared after 1865 and with the black codes it was no longer necessary; after 1915 it is the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan which is linked to the diffusion of the film The Birth of a Nation which is a film to the glory of the southern confederates during the Civil War promoting a shocking racism.[16]

En 1925, le Klan déclare avoir 5 millions de membres actifs, c’est aussi une époque où les lynchages se multiplient, mais pas seulement contre les noirs au Sud, mais se répandent aussi à l’Ouest et dans certains États du Nord contre les Mexicains, les Italiens, les Russes, les juifs, les catholiques et contre certains blancs notamment contre les femmes blanches qui avaient des relations avec des noirs.

C’est une violence raciale qui va aller au-delà de la violence anti-noire, néanmoins ce sont les Afro-Américains qui paient le prix le plus terrible.

Cependant, des scandales se produisent au Ku Klux Klan perdant peu à peu son pouvoir vers 1930.

Immigrants[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

Immigrants are also the scapegoat, this anti-immigrant feeling spreads quite quickly; already in 1917 there are demonstrations and riots against emigrants. It was the first government that passed laws against emigrants; in 1917 the literacy law was passed to give emigrants a reading test.[17][18][19][20] In the 1920s a quota law was passed limiting the number of immigrants according to their origins. Pseudo-scientific theories were used to establish a hierarchy of immigrants according to race, with the Anglo-Saxons at the top.[21][22]

These laws do not currently affect migrants from the Americas. In this period there is a whole press against immigrants.

This emigration is limited for Europeans, but is open for Mexicans and Puerto Ricans.

The "Reds"[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

Illustration from 1919 depicting a "European anarchist" attacking the Statue of Liberty.

This anti-immigrant feeling also takes a political form with the fear of the Reds, communists, anarchists and socialists.

It is interesting to see that the rise of this feeling increases a lot during the First World War and especially at the end because there are many strikes. After the First World War, American nationalism found a new enemy in Bolshevik Russia, which found a leader in the strikes of 1918 and 1919.

Communism is worrying while some attacks favour collective hysteria against emigrants consisting of mass deportations, but also lynchings.

The most symbolic case is that of two Italian anarchists, Nicola Sacco and Venzetti, who were arrested in 1905 after two hold-ups in Boston. These two men have always claimed their innocence, yet they were tried by a xenophobic extreme right-wing jury at the same time as an election campaign in Massachusetts.

This verdict aroused an outrage that went beyond the United States and spread throughout the world, becoming symbols of American class justice. Arrested in 1920, many years of litigation were conducted with evidence exonerating them, but in 1926 the Massachusetts Supreme Court upheld their conviction and in 1927 the state governor refused to grant them a pardon despite interventions from the Vatican and the left.[23][24][25][26]

Before being executed Venzetti says:

« not only have I never committed this crime, but I have never committed violence in all my life, but I am actually convinced that I am being condemned for things of which I am guilty: radical and Italian; and if I could be reborn after my execution I would be radical and Italian again and I would do again what I have done with my life and you would execute me a second time for what I have done[27] ».

The Prohibition[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

A police raid in 1925 in Elk Lake, Ontario.

It must be seen that Anglo-Saxon America's reaction will also be a rural reaction against the debauchery of the cities, which is attributed in large part to the consumption of alcoholic beverages manifested by Prohibition.

Between 1903 and 1918, 32 states passed laws condemning the consumption of alcohol; in 1919, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution prohibited the manufacture, sale, and transportation of intoxicating liquor within the United States and its dominions.[28][29][30][31][32][33]

It is the prohibition that encourages smuggling and clandestine consumption that will strengthen crime and in particular the power of the mafias with Al Capone; it will also encourage government corruption.[34][35]

Christian fundamentalism[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

Grant Wood, American Gothic (1930), Art Institute of Chicago. Une représentation symbolique de l’Amérique « puritaine »

Finally the Anglo-Saxon reaction manifests itself in Christian fundamentalism; men and women brandish the Pioneer Bible against atheists, Catholics, Jews and socialists; the most notorious case is the conviction in 1925 of a biology teacher who had violated a law banning the teaching of Darwin's theory of evolution being sentenced, but to a penalty that will be minimal.[36][37][38]

Shortly afterwards it was also during this period that more aggressive cults such as Jehova's witnesses recruited not only in the countryside but also in the cities.

Conclusion[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

The 1920s saw in the United States a rapid growth of industrial production and consumption by the upper and middle classes, which gave rise to great optimism and a blind belief by the governments in liberalism, which was in fact distorted by the protectionists who shielded US production from international competition.

At the same time all these governments ignore the dysfunctions, the growing gap between the rich and the great majority, all of which will contribute to the great crash of 1929.

Annexes[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

References[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

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  8. based on data in Susan Carter, ed. Historical Statistics of the US: Millennial Edition (2006) series Ca9
  9. Ryan, Joe (October 5, 2007). "Looking Back: The World Series' radio debut".
  10. Cox, Jim (2009). American Radio Networks: A History. pp. 14–98. ISBN 978-0-7864-4192-1.
  11. Buck, Christopher (2013). Harlem Renaissance in: The American Mosaic: The African American Experience. ABC-CLIO. Santa Barbara, California.
  12. Huggins, Nathan. Harlem Renaissance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973. ISBN 0-19-501665-3
  13. Davarian L. Baldwin and Minkah Makalani (eds.), Escape from New York: The New Negro Renaissance beyond Harlem. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2013.
  14. Jeffrey B. Perry, Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.
  15. Shannon King, Whose Harlem Is This? Community Politics and Grassroots Activism During the New Negro Era. New York: New York University Press, 2015.
  16. The Birth of a Nation de D. W. Griffith, 1915. Movie available here:
  17. The Text of the Act (PDF)
  18. Bromberg, Howard (2015). "Immigration Act of 1917". Immigration to the United States. Archived from the original on 22 November 2015.
  19. Powell, John (2009). Encyclopedia of North American Immigration. New York, New York: Infobase Publishing. ISBN 978-1-4381-1012-7.
  20. Sohi, Seema (2013). "Immigration Act of 1917 and the 'Barred Zone'". In Zhao, Xiaojian; Park, Edward J.W. (eds.). Asian Americans: An Encyclopedia of Social, Cultural, Economic, and Political History [3 volumes]: An Encyclopedia of Social, Cultural, Economic, and Political History. ABC-CLIO. pp. 534–535. ISBN 978-1-59884-240-1.
  21. Van Nuys, Frank (2002). Americanizing the West: Race, Immigrants, and Citizenship, 1890-1930. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas. ISBN 0-7006-1206-8.
  22. Koven, Steven G.; Götzke, Frank (2010). American Immigration Policy: Confronting the Nation's Challenges. New York, New York: Springer Science & Business Media. ISBN 978-0-387-95940-5.
  23. "Sacco and Vanzetti Put to Death Early This Morning". New York Times. August 23, 1927.
  24. Waxman, Olivia B. “Sacco and Vanzetti Case 90 Years Later: What to Know.” Time, Time, 22 Aug. 2017,
  25. Michael A. Musmano (January 1961). The Sacco-Vanzetti Case: A Miscarriage of Justice. 47 No. 1. American Bar Association. p. 29,30.
  26. Avrich, Paul (1996). Sacco and Vanzetti: The Anarchist Background. Princeton University Press. pp. 13, 31. ISBN 9780691026046.
  27. Extrait de ses dernières paroles au juge Webster Thayer, prononcées le 9 avril 1927
  28. Kyvig, David E. Law, Alcohol, and Order: Perspectives on National Prohibition Greenwood Press, 1985.
  29. Behr, Edward. (1996). Prohibition: Thirteen Years That Changed America. New York: Arcade Publishing. ISBN 1-55970-356-3.
  30. Burns, Eric. (2003). The Spirits of America: A Social History of Alcohol. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. ISBN 1-59213-214-6.
  31. Kobler, John. (1973). Ardent Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons. ISBN 0-399-11209-X.
  32. McGirr, Lisa. (2015). The War on Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State. New York: W. W. Norton. ISBN 0-393-06695-9.
  33. Okrent, Daniel. (2010). Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. New York: Scribner. ISBN 0-7432-7702-3. OCLC 419812305
  34. Kobler, John. Capone: The Life and Times of Al Capone. New York: Da Capo Press, 2003. ISBN 0-306-81285-1
  35. Deirdre Bair. Al Capone: His Life, Legacy, and Legend. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Oct 25, 2016
  36. Supreme Court of Tennessee John Thomas Scopes v. The State
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