Exam preparation materials

Chapter 23: Tradition and Change in the 1920s



Henry Ford introduces the assembly line at his automobile plant


Modern Ku Klux Klan founded


18th Amendment ratified  •  Strike wave breaks out


Warren G. Harding elected president


Washington Naval Conference called  •  Emergency Quota Act passed


Fordney-McCumber Tariff passed


Calvin Coolidge assumes presidency


Teapot Dome scandal occurs  •  Dawes Plan enacted


Scopes trial takes place


The Jazz Singer, first “talkie” movie, opens  •  McNary-Haugen bill vetoed by Coolidge  •  Sacco and Vanzetti executed  •  Lindbergh makes trans-Atlantic flight


Herbert Hoover elected president  •  Kellogg-Briand Pact signed


21st Amendment ratified; 18th Amendment repealed


“100 percent Americanism”

Eugene V. Debs

Henry Ford

Herbert Hoover

Sinclair Lewis

National Origins Act

Red Scare

Margaret Sanger

welfare capitalism

buying on credit

Emergency Quota Act

Great Migration

Kellogg-Briand Pact

Charles Lindbergh


“return to normalcy”

Scopes trial

Calvin Coolidge

F. Scott Fitzgerald

Warren Harding

Ku Klux Klan

“Lost Generation” writers

Palmer raids

Babe Ruth

Teapot Dome Scandal

Dawes Plan


Harlem Renaissance

Robert LaFollette

Model T


Sacco and Vanzetti trial

Washington Naval Conference

“It was the best of the nationally advertised and quantitatively produced alarm clocks, with all modern attachments, including cathedral chime, intermittent alarm, and a phosphorescent dial. Babbitt was proud of being awakened by such a rich device…. He sulkily admitted that there was no more escape, but he lay and detested the grind of the real-estate business, and disliked his family, and disliked himself for disliking them.”

—from Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis, 1922


The United States moved in different directions in the 1920s. Great changes were afoot. Technological innovations, the immigration of Eastern and Southern Europeans, the growing importance of cities, the migration of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North, changing gender roles, changing standards of moral behavior—all these created an America very different from its 19th-century counterpart. At the same time, traditional ways of seeing the world and conservative politics were reasserted in the 1920s with new enthusiasm. These tensions are evident in the excerpt above from Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, as well as in a number of social and political issues that have come to define the era.


In his campaign for the presidency in 1920, Republican nominee Warren Harding promised a “return to normalcy.” This was both a rejection of the activist government of the Progressive era and a call to isolate America from war- and revolution-torn Europe. The Republicans controlled the White House from Harding’s victory in 1920 until Herbert Hoover’s defeat in 1932.

The Harding Administration

The Harding Administration is best known for its policy of isolationism, its ties with big business, and its scandals. Harding handily defeated the Democratic candidate, Ohio Governer James M. Cox, in the election of 1920. Socialist candidate Eugene V. Debs, running from prison (where he was sent for an Espionage Act conviction), received a little over 900,000 votes. Harding argued against President Wilson’s Progressive domestic agenda. In 1921, the United States called the Washington Naval Conference of major powers with interests in Asia (excluding communist Russia). The United States, Great Britain, Japan, France, and Italy agreed to scrap a percentage of their existing battleships, cruisers, and aircraft carriers. Fearing a flood of goods from a revived postwar Europe, Congress passed the Fordney-McCumber Tariff (1922), which raised tariff rates. This tariff act, which was especially high on agricultural goods, is seen as an expression of America’s desire to isolate itself from Europe.

The Harding administration was embroiled in a number of scandals. The most notorious was the Teapot Dome scandal (1921–1923). It involved bribery and the transfer of rights to precious oil reserves at Teapot Dome, Wyoming. The fallout included the conviction of U.S. Interior Secretary Albert B. Fall, who had accepted $400,000 in “gifts” from the owners of the companies to whom Fall had leased the oil reserves. The whole affair, when made public, demonstrated the administration’s shaky ethical foundation, as well as its pro-business slant, although Harding himself was not personally involved.

The Coolidge Administration

President Harding died, apparently from a heart attack, in 1923; Vice President Calvin Coolidge finished the term. In the election of 1924, the Democratic Party was divided at its 1924 convention between its Eastern wing, which was in favor of repealing Prohibition and condemning the Ku Klux Klan, and its more fundamentalist conservative Western/Southern wing. The party settled for an unknown conservative as its standard bearer. Meanwhile, a new Progressive Party saw an opening, with the major parties putting forth relatively conservative platforms, and ran Robert LaFollette from Wisconsin again. Though LaFollette received an impressive 5 million votes, Coolidge won the election handily.

Coolidge’s conservative, laissez-faire, pro-business approach to governing was evident in a number of actions. The president, who proclaimed that “the chief business of the American people is business,” twice vetoed (in 1927 and 1928) the McNary-Haugen Bill, which would have provided price supports to struggling farmers, an idea that would gain currency during the New Deal.

Perhaps the most contentious foreign relations problem the country faced in the 1920s was international debt. The United States had loaned England and France about $10 billion during World War I. The Europeans, in a precarious economic situation, resented U.S. insistence on payments. Americans, on the other hand, expected repayment as a matter of course. Complicating the situation was Germany’s inability to pay reparations to England and France. The Dawes Plan (1924) was the U.S. plan to provide loans to Germany so it could stabilize its currency and continue its reparations payments, which, in turn, would enable England and France to pay off loans to America. This cycle of money transfers benefited U.S. banking interests.

The Kellogg-Briand Pact (1928), signed by the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and many other countries, outlawed war, but it was little more than a statement of intent with no powers of enforcement. The pact, along with the Washington Naval Conference, reflected the naïve hope that America could avoid international entanglements through dramatic gestures and good intentions.

The Election of Herbert Hoover (1928)

The campaign in 1928 again reflected many of the tensions evident in 1920s American society. The Democrats ran New York Governor Alfred Smith, but his thick New York accent and Catholicism may have alienated some Americans, who could hear the presidential candidates on the radio for the first time. Republican Herbert Hoover’s call for “a chicken in every pot” tapped into the seeming prosperity of the decade and contributed to his victory.


The “Roaring Twenties” were characterized by a seemingly strong economy. After a brief recession following World War I (1919–1922), the economy recovered and grew, remaining strong until the stock market crash of 1929. The growth of the economy was based on increases in efficiency, manufacturing output, and consumption. The government made a point of keeping taxes down, foreign goods out, and profits up. The stock market soared, but few seemed to notice signs of danger, such as increased consumer debt and a struggling agricultural sector.

Increasing Production

America became the world’s leading manufacturer in the 1920s. Big business succeeded thanks to a weak union movement, an increase in efficiency, and a vital consumer sector.

In 1919, immediately following World War I, American workers, who had been forbidden to strike during the war, launched one of the largest strike waves in U.S. history, with over 4 million workers participating in over 3,000 strikes. The most significant incidents were the Seattle general strike and the Boston police strike. After 1919, union membership declined as employers pushed for open shops (nonunion workplaces). To head off efforts at unionization, employers used paternalistic techniques, which became known as “welfare capitalism.” Such efforts included safety programs and medical insurance. Organized labor would not rebound until the New Deal.

An industry buzzword in the 1920s was efficiencyEfficiency experts saw traditional methods of production, especially those based on craft knowledge, as hopelessly outdated and attempted to remake the shop floor. These experts were inspired by the work ofFrederick Winslow Taylor, who developed the field of scientific management (Taylorism). Time-and-motion studies using stopwatches were employed to increase efficiency.

The Automobile

The advent of the automobile had a huge impact on American society, and the person most responsible for bringing the automobile to the masses was Henry Ford. Ford had revolutionized the production process by introducing an assembly line at his Highland Park, Michigan, plant in 1913. While the pace of work, now determined by the speed of the conveyor belt rather than of the workers, could be exhausting, and the work itself could be repetitive and mind-numbing, production rates soared. Ford implemented a $5 a day wage—then a considerable sum—for loyal workers to cut down on attrition. The end product was the Model T Ford, and each year, the Model T was exactly the same down to the color (black). General Motors improved on Ford’s ideas and began introducing different colors in 1925. Ford belatedly followed suit, introducing his Model A in a variety of colors in 1927.

The impact of the automobile on American society was staggering. Development patterns changed, as people no longer had to live near an urban core or a suburban train station. The car brought greater independence to women and young people and reduced the sense of isolation for rural families. Automobiles became a status symbol and a symbol of the success of American industry. In the 1920s, over 80 percent of the world’s automobiles were in the United States. It was the auto industry that led the overall growth of the American economy in the 1920s.


The economic growth of the 1920s was largely driven by consumer spending. Electricity became widely available: About two-thirds of homes had electricity by the close of the ’20s. Many electric appliances were introduced or popularized during the decade, including the vacuum cleaner, toaster, refrigerator, washing machine, and radio.

Developed in tandem with new consumer products was a more sophisticated and widespread advertising industry. Tapping into Freudian psychology and a general sense of unease in a changing world, ads went beyond a simple description of a product. New products, advertising assured, could help one find a mate or keep friends. Doctors and other experts in ads assured the public that a particular product was essential. Not having the right product could entail being ridiculed or being seen as behind the times.

To facilitate spending, consumer credit was greatly expanded. Installment plans allowed people to put some money down and pay the rest, with interest, later. Some saw the increased use of credit as symptomatic of careless spending and indicative of a superficial prosperity.

Expansion of Big Business

The trend toward greater consolidation in business that was evident in the late 1800s continued into the 1920s. Oligopolies of a few large corporations controlled most major industries, such as the automobile industry. Corporations raised most of their money through the sale of stocks and bonds. Consequently, the demand for corporate loans decreased. Banks, therefore, invested their funds in the stock market. The dangers of this strategy became evident when the market crashed in 1929.


Farmers suffered a series of setbacks in the 1920s, which prevented them from sharing in the prosperity of the decade. As Europe recovered from World War I, the overseas market for U.S. agricultural products dried up. Further, farmers had difficulty repaying loans they had taken out to mechanize their farms. President Coolidge twice vetoed legislation intended to help farmers.


The automobile, the increased availability of electricity, and other technological advances dramatically changed America. Also important were several social trends that are often associated with the move toward modernity.

Changing Expectations for Women

The 19th Amendment (ratified in 1920), which gave women the right to vote, did not create profound changes in the political climate, as women did not vote as a bloc. But the right to vote was one of a host of changes in the 1920s that had the overall effect of opening doors and expanding acceptable modes of behavior for women. Women had more opportunities for asserting their independence in the 1920s. More women entered the workforce than previously, gravitating toward “women’s professions,” such as office work, teaching, and social work. Marriage was increasingly based on the choice of the two people involved rather than of their families, and more liberal divorce laws permitted women to end marriages more easily. Also, women could achieve a greater degree of sexual liberation as birth control became more readily available. Fashions were less constricting as well. Gone was the Victorian matronly style of petticoats and corsets, replaced by the more youthful and rebellious ideal of the “flapper.” This ideal valued shorter, even boyish, hair; waistless dresses cut above the knee; and a degree of self-assuredness. Flappers, more likely to be found in urban settings, even began smoking and drinking in public.

The Great Migration

Production in war-related industries expanded during World War I, but new workers were hard to find. Immigration from Europe dried up during the war, and when the United States entered the war, many young men entered the army. As a result, half a million African Americans made the move from the rural South to the urban North in the 1910s. This Great Migration continued in the 1920s; by the end of the decade, about 40 percent of America’s 12 million African Americans lived in cities. This migration was also fueled by such “push” factors as Jim Crow discrimination and low-paying jobs in the South, combined with bad cotton crops in 1915 and 1916. While African Americans did find work in war-related industries in the North, they still suffered discrimination and violence. Over 25 race riots erupted in Northern cities in 1919. America also became a more urban nation in the 1920s. Led by New York and Philadelphia, America’s cities drew rural migrants, as well as European immigrants.


Conservative tendencies are evident in several developments, as many Americans seemed uncomfortable with the march of modernity.

The Red Scare

Following World War I, American politics tended to move in a more conservative direction, a trend exemplified by the so-called “Red Scare.” The Red Scare was both a government attempt to expose and punish communists, anarchists, and radicals and a grassroots fear of the spread of a worldwide communist revolution. Two sets of circumstances set the stage for the Red Scare. First, in 1917, communists staged a successful revolution in Russia. They publicly expressed their hopes for a general uprising of workers in industrialized countries, and in 1919, they organized the Communist International to help achieve that goal. Second, the strike wave of 1919 convinced some that a communist uprising was imminent, though only a small minority of the strikers had any connection with the Communist Party or with anarchist groups.

The Red Scare was characterized by “Palmer raids, investigations of labor leaders and radicals, named after U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. Government agents raided homes, union halls, offices, and meetings, often without warrants, in their search for communist subversion.


Anti-immigrant sentiment, or nativism, had been present in the United States at least as far back as the first large waves of Irish immigration in the 1840s and ’50s. It gained strength during the latter part of the 19th century, as Eastern and Southern Europeans began immigrating to the United States. Protestants feared an influx of Jews, Catholics (Poles and Italians), and members of the Eastern Orthodox Church (Russians and Slavs). Organized labor feared that an influx of unskilled workers would drive wages down and make organizing unions more difficult. And some Americans simply resented so many people with different ways and languages entering the United States.

As European immigration increased after World War I, Congress established a quota system with the Emergency Quota Act (1921). The act set quotas for different nationalities based on the number of people from that nationality that had lived in the United States in 1890, thus discriminating against new immigrant groups. The National Origins Act of 1924 tinkered with this formula, but the net result was a dramatic decrease in European immigration from 1921 until 1965, when the Immigration Act ended the national origins quota system.

The Sacco and Vanzetti Case

In the atmosphere of the Red Scare and intense nativism, two Italian workers with anarchist sympathies, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, were arrested in 1920 for the murder of a factory paymaster and a guard and for stealing the payroll. Even though the case against the two was weak and the judge made prejudicial comments, the two were found guilty. The case provoked demonstrations both at home and abroad against the verdict and the sentence—the death penalty—which was carried out in 1927.

The Ku Klux Klan

As African Americans began leaving the South in large numbers as part of the Great Migration, the modern Ku Klux Klan was born (1915). By 1923, the new Klan boasted 5 million members (probably an exaggeration). The organization was strongest in the South, but its strength also was felt in the Midwest and Pacific Northwest. The Klan was devoted to “100 percent Americanism. This entailed opposition to African Americans and Catholics, as well as to Jews and immigrants in general. It also stood for fundamentalist Protestantism, Prohibition, and what it saw as traditional moral values. The organization resorted to repressive tactics, including cross burnings and lynchings, largely directed at African Americans.


The 18th Amendment, which banned the manufacture, sale, or transportation of alcoholic beverages, took effect in 1920. The specifics of Prohibition and its enforcement were delineated in the Volstead Act, which was passed in 1919, just before Prohibition became the law of the land. The temperance movement had gained strength in the 20th century, as conservatives from the rural South and West associated alcohol with urban depravity and immigrant vices. Prohibition proved very difficult to enforce. Bootleggers(illegal distributors of alcohol) and speakeasies (secret clubs that served alcohol) became common features of life in the 1920s and symbolized the futility of Prohibition. The 1932 victory of the Democrats led to the passage of the 21st Amendment (1933), which repealed the 18th Amendment and ended America’s “noble experiment.”

The Scopes Trial

Perhaps the best illustration of the tensions in American society in the 1920s was the Scopes trial. Conservative fundamentalist Protestants, led by William Jennings Bryan, had been pushing for the elimination of evolution from high school biology curricula. Fundamentalists believed in a literal interpretation of the Bible and saw Darwinian evolution as a threat to their belief system. They were successful in Tennessee, which passed legislation prohibiting the teaching of evolution in 1925. The American Civil Liberties Union was eager to challenge the law and found a biology teacher, John Scopes, who was willing to break the law to create a test case. Scopes was found guilty in a case that attracted national attention, as Bryan argued against evolution and the well-known lawyer Clarence Darrow defended Scopes’s right to teach it.


Americans, with more leisure time and more money in the 1920s, were much more apt to participate in mass culture than were previous generations. Movie attendance soared. Sound was first used in a feature movie in 1927’s The Jazz Singer, followed a year later by Walt Disney’s Steamboat Willie, the first movie with Mickey Mouse. Baseball was very popular—the public was captivated by the achievements of Yankee great Babe Ruth. Radio, an infant medium in 1920, was enormously popular by the close of the decade. Americans read tabloid newspapers, such as the New York Daily News, which featured sensationalized accounts of the day’s events, including Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic (1927). Time magazine, started by Henry Luce in 1923, attempted to interpret current events. The public seemed especially captivated by fads, such as flagpole sitting and dance marathons.

Some American writers became disillusioned with rampant materialism and were disgusted by small-town provinciality. Many members of this “Lost Generation” also wrote about the cruelty and seeming meaninglessness of World War I. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, which portrayed the emptiness of the lives of the wealthy and privileged, came to define the era. Sinclair Lewis’s novels, notably Main Street and Babbitt, ridiculed the narrowness and materialism of the middle class. Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms critiqued the glorification of war.

The Harlem Renaissance, arriving on the heels of the Great Migration, was a creative outpouring among African American writers, artists, and musicians. Foremost among poets was Langston Hughes; significant jazz musicians were Louis Armstrong and Duke EllingtonBessie Smith was a well-known blues singer. During this period, Marcus Garvey’s “back to Africa” movement gained a following among African Americans.


Americans grappled with the significance of the changes that shook the country in the 1920s. Some found solace in tradition, religion, and rural values, while others welcomed the changes. While society moved in new directions, the political trend was toward conservatism. Economic growth seemed limitless, but the shaky foundations of the economy would become evident in the coming decade.


•  Advertising: The promotion of products in various media; modern advertising, employing psychology, expert testimony, and other innovations developed in the 1920s.

•  Assembly line: This is a method of mass production whereby the products are moved from worker to worker, with each person performing a small, repetitive task on the product and sending it to the next for a different task until the item is assembled. In the 18th and 19th centuries in America, assembly lines did not move; instead, workers handed the product from one to the next. Car manufacturer Henry Ford invented the moving assembly line in the early 20th century.

•  Bootleggers: People who illegally manufactured, sold, or transported alcoholic beverages during the Prohibition period

•  Installment plans: The practice of paying for goods at regular intervals, usually with interest added to the balance, associated with consumption in the 1920s

•  Isolationism: The belief that the United States should not be involved in world affairs

•  Speakeasies: Illegal bars and saloons that operated during Prohibition


1.   The National Origins Act of 1924

(A)    favored immigration from all parts of Europe because America needed European workers.

(B)    greatly reduced the number of immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe.

(C)    favored immigration from Asia and Africa because the immigrants were likely to work for low wages.

(D)    had little impact on the flow of immigrants into the United States.

(E)    led to an immigration movement of U. S. residents back to Europe.

2.   This African American leader thought the way for African Americans to improve their position in American society was to gain vocational training to obtain jobs in agriculture, craft work, and manufacturing.

(A)    Booker T. Washington

(B)    W. E. B. DuBois

(C)    Marcus Garvey

(D)    Malcolm X

(E)    Martin Luther King Jr.

3.   Margaret Sanger is best known for

(A)    being the first female cabinet member in a presidential administration.

(B)    devoting her adult life to pushing for women to have the right to vote.

(C)    advocating prohibition.

(D)    singing jazz songs.

(E)    opening the first birth control clinic in the United States.

4.   Which of the following was not a cause of the Great Migration?

(A)    The need for workers in munitions plants during World War I

(B)    Lynchings in Southern towns

(C)    Jim Crow laws

(D)    The Great Depression

(E)    The failure of cotton crops in the 1910s


1.    B

The National Origins Act was an expression of nativism and isolationism. It was designed to reduce immigration in general but had the largest impact on immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe. The immigration acts of the 1920s reduced the number of immigrants allowed into the United States. The National Origins Act favored the “older” immigrant groups—that is, those who had a sizable presence in the United States before 1890. It had a major impact on immigration into the United States. There was never a sizable movement of people out of the United States.

2.    A

Washington is often contrasted with W. E. B. DuBois, who argued for a more political, direct challenge to racism in the United States. Garvey is associated with the “back to Africa” movement. Malcolm X is associated with Black nationalism and would have chafed at Washington’s accommodationist platform. King believed in pushing for equality and justice, not in accepting the prevailing racial hierarchy.

3.    E

Sanger is the person most closely identified with promoting birth control. Francis Perkins was the first female cabinet member, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were leaders of the women’s suffrage movement. Women, more than men, supported prohibition, but no one nationally recognized leader is associated with the movement. Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters were well-known jazz singers of the decade.

4.    D

The Great Depression occurred a short time after the Great Migration. The need for workers during World War I would be considered a “pull” factor, drawing African Americans to the North. Answer choices (B), (C), and (E) are all “push” factors, convincing many African Americans that life in the South was intolerable.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.org. Thank you!