Modern history

Conclusion: The Roaring Twenties

While the second industrial revolution spurred extraordinary prosperity, the 1920s ended in an unprecedented economic collapse. During the decade, industrialists produced and marketed wares in a manner that drew the mass of Americans into the economy as laborers and consumers. Automobiles, fueled by gasoline, traveled up and down streets and highways. Electricity powered household appliances and ran movie projectors in theaters throughout the nation. People living in California, Michigan, Florida, or New Jersey had similar opportunities to buy consumer products and partake in a mass culture made possible by movies and radio. Producing for a mass market, industrial giants like Henry Ford transformed the nature of work and pleasure. The assembly line revolutionized the pace of labor and turned it into a standardized routine. The automobile transformed dating patterns and opened up new opportunities for the exploration of romance and sex.

For most Americans earning very modest incomes, the fruits of the consumer revolution were beyond their reach. The image of the 1920s as an era of widespread prosperity is exaggerated. Most Americans lived at or below the poverty line and earned just enough money to acquire the bare necessities. They could live beyond their means through an ample supply of credit, but their poverty contrasted with the increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of the richest Americans. Businessmen like Henry Ford attempted to take care of their workers through higher wages and assorted benefits, but their paternalism depended on the continuation of good economic times. The stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression exposed the shortcomings of the corporate business world, inadequate oversight by the federal government, and an overreliance on the private sector to look after the nation’s economic health.

The weaknesses of the economy, which appear clear in retrospect, were often hidden behind the clash over cultural differences. Guardians of traditional morality and values worried about the effects of more than fifty years of industrialization, immigration, and urbanization. Issues such as the enforcement of prohibition, the teaching of evolution in the schools, and whether a Catholic should be elected president dominated political discussion, while efforts to assist farmers and workers were unsuccessful. These battles marked a turning point in American history—the transition from a traditional, rural, Protestant society to an urban, ethnically and religiously diverse one. The widespread popularity of D. C. Stephenson’s Ku Klux Klan throughout the South and the North demonstrated that the older America of white, northern European Protestants did not intend to relinquish political or cultural power without a struggle. At the same time, ethnic minorities represented by Al Smith had no intention of backing down. Neither did millions of African Americans, whether they joined the NAACP, as did Ossian Sweet, or supported Marcus Garvey’s UNIA. During the next decade, Americans from all backgrounds would battle more than cultural threats; they would fight for their economic survival.

Chapter Review


Identify and explain the significance of each term below.

Red scare (p. 540)

Palmer raids (p. 541)

great migration (p. 542)

American Plan (p. 544)

Teapot Dome scandal (p. 544)

second industrial revolution (p. 544)

new woman (p. 549)

Lost Generation (p. 549)

New Negro (p. 550)

Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) (p. 552)

Sacco and Vanzetti case (p. 553)

National Origins Act (p. 554)

Black Tuesday (p. 560)


Answer the focus questions from each section of the chapter.

1. What factors combined to produce the turmoil of the immediate postwar period?

2. What factors contributed to the rise in racial tensions that accompanied the transition from wartime to peacetime?

3. Describe the relationship between business and government in the 1920s.

4. Why was a high level of consumer spending so critical to 1920s prosperity, and why was the economic expansion of the 1920s ultimately unsustainable?

5. How did new forms of entertainment challenge traditional morality and traditional gender roles?

6. Describe the black cultural and intellectual renaissance that flourished in the 1920s.

7. What was the connection between anti-immigrant sentiment and the defense of tradition during the 1920s?

8. Who challenged the new morality associated with modernization? Why?

9. How did divisions within the Democratic Party contribute to Republican political dominance in the 1920s?

10. What underlying economic weaknesses led to the Great Depression?



• Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) formed


• Ku Klux Klan revived


• 400,000 African Americans leave South as part of great migration


• Russian Revolution begins


• Worldwide influenza epidemic


• 4 million workers go on strike nationwide

• Race riots erupt in twenty-five U.S. cities

• Radicals mail incendiary devices to prominent Americans

• Palmer raids begin


• American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) formed

• David Curtis Stephenson joins the Ku Klux Klan


• Harlem Renaissance


• J. Edgar Hoover becomes director of the Bureau of Investigation (later the FBI)

• Teapot Dome scandal


• National Origins Act passed

• Charles Dawes negotiates with the Allies to reduce Germany's reparations payments


• U.S. farm income drops by 50 percent


• Scopes trial


• Ossian Sweet and family acquitted of first-degree murder charges


• Sacco and Vanzetti executed


• Democrat Al Smith loses presidential election but wins ten largest cities


• Stock market crash sparks Great Depression

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