Roaring Twenties

Roaring Twenties

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The 1920s era went by such names as the Jazz Age, the Age of Intolerance, and the Age of Wonderful Nonsense. Numerous Americans felt buoyed up following World War I (1914-1918). America had survived a deadly worldwide Influenza epidemic (1918). The new decade of the roaring twenties would be a time of change for everyone — not all of it good.The presidential administrationsThe close of World War I saw the United States recede into an inward-looking stance. In spite of President Woodrow Wilson`s unflagging efforts, the Senate refused to ratify the Versailles Peace Treaty that ended World War I, and the U.S. failed to join the League of Nations. raised tariffs on imported goods, and free immigration came to an end.Elected president in 1920, Warren G. Harding promoted a "return to normalcy," which signaled a resurgence of nativism, Isolationism, and rejection of the progressive era`s governmental activism. Overall, Harding`s policies reflected a conservative, laissez-faire attitude. His administration was blighted by scandals, but most of them did not surface until following his death of a stroke in office in August 1923. One of the most notorious of them was the Teapot Dome Scandal, which appalled the public for years after Harding`s death.Calvin Coolidge was Harding`s vice president (1921-23). Coolidge was elected handily over Democrat John W. Davis and Progressive Robert M. La Follette. Such Coolidge administration policies as high tariffs and federal tax cuts were generally approved of during his four years, but they would become unpopular during the next decade.Having served as secretary of commerce under both Harding and Coolidge, Herbert Hoover was elected to the presidency in 1928, buoyed by the country`s prosperity. His personal popularity suffered, however, when he vetoed the Veterans`s Bonus proposal. His early relief efforts were generally viewed to be inadequate. A banking crisis had seized the nation and in 1932, he lost the presidential election to Franklin D. Roosevelt.Social fermentThe so-called Red Scares during the roaring twenties refer to the fear of Communism in the U.S. The highly publicized Sacco and Vanzetti Case exemplified what could happen to people who held radical views.Historians often point out that Americans had withdrawn into a provincialism as evidenced by the reappearance of the Ku Klux Klan, restrictive immigration laws, and Prohibition.Amendment 18 to the Constitution (1919) had prohibited the manufacture, transport and sale of intoxicating liquor. Prohibitionists anticipated that Prohibition would alleviate social problems and bolster the economy. Gangsters took control of bootlegging (illegal distribution of liquor) and violent lawlessness erupted. Lacking public support, the federal government was virtually unable to enforce Prohibition.Youthful "Flapper" women provoked older people with brief skirts, bobbed hair, and cavalier use of makeup and cigarettes.Crazes included such dances as the Charleston, dance marathons, flagpole sitting and flying stunts. Baseball`s Babe Ruth and other sports figures became heroes.The arts and ideasThe roaring twenties ushered in a rich period of American writing, distinguished by the works of such authors as Sinclair Lewis, Willa Cather, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Carl Sandburg and Ernest Hemingway.A uniquely American music form, whose roots lay in African expression, came to be known as jazz. The Jazz Age produced such greats as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson. George Gershwin, Cole Porter and others would bring jazz influences to Broadway and the concert hall. Bessie Smith hallowed the Blues on a sound recording.Charlie Chaplin and Rudolph Valentino were tremendous movie box office draws. Walt Disney would produce his first cartoon, Alice`s Wonderland.The lush, ornate style of Art Deco architecture, art, clothing, hairstyles, decor and furnishings flourished in the 1920s.In 1925, the "Scopes Monkey Trial," a celebrated case, altered the public`s view of Charles Darwin`s theory of evolution forever. The trial also was the first ever to be broadcast live on radio.In the Billy Mitchell Court-Martial (December 1925), General Mitchell`s widely publicized gambit emphasized the role of air power in the American military establishment.Will Durant`s The Story of Philosophy would sell millions of copies.The economy, technology and scienceAt the beginning of the roaring twenties, the United States was converting from a wartime to peacetime economy. In this decade, America became the richest nation on Earth and a culture of consumerism was born.It was the time of the $5 workday, good worker pay for those days. Real estate booms, most notably in Florida, sent land prices soaring.InventionTechnology played a vital part in delivering the economic and cultural good times that most of America enjoyed during the 1920s.Henry Ford blazed the way with his Model T; he sold more 15 million of them by 1927. The automobile`s popularity, and construction of roads and highways — pouring fresh public funds into the economy — brought tremendous economic prosperity during the roaring twenties.The radio found its way into virtually every home in America. Following the first public station, KDKA, in Pittsburgh, thousands more went on the air across the country. Radio became a national pastime; many listeners would gather in their living rooms to tune in sports, concerts, sermons, and "Red Menace" news.The year 1922 introduced the first movie made with sound, The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson. Consequently, the movie industry became a major part of American industry in general.Charles A. Lindbergh`s pioneering flight across the Atlantic Ocean in the Spirit of St. Louis in 1927 did much to stimulate the young aviation industry.Canned foods, ready-made clothing and household appliances liberated women from much household drudgery. The influence of Ford`s methods of mass production and efficiency enabled other industries to produce a huge variety of consumer appliances.However, not everyone benefited from technology.The number of people living and working on farms reached its peak at 32,530,000 back in 1916. New technology in the roaring twenties introduced a number of impacts on the American farm:

  • The use of machinery increased productivity, while decreasing the demand for manual laborers.
  • While productivity increased, the nation`s demand for food remained relatively steady. As a result, food prices — and profits — dropped.
  • Machinery was costly. The small farmer was no longer able to cope because he lacked the capital to buy the equipment. At the same time, the decade`s industrial boom lured numerous workers off the farm to the cities.
  • Small farms lost their viability, and many farmers were compelled to merge in order to compete. The lasting effect would be larger, but fewer farms.
  • The year 1920 was a historic watershed. For the first time in the United States, more people were living in cities than on farms.Science and the public health

    Science, medicine and health advanced remarkably during the roaring twenties. Albert Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics in 1921. Diphtheria became better controlled in 1923 by newly introduced immunization. An interest developed in nutrition, caloric consumption and physical vitality. With the Flapper`s focus on dieting and her popular look came a significant change in the dietary habits of Americans as a whole — less fat and meat, and more fruits and vegetables. The discovery of vitamins and their effects also occurred around the same time.Countervailing tendencies lay in cigarette consumption, which rose to roughly 43 billion annually, and bootleg liquor became a $3.5 billion-a-year business during the same period.The stock marketIt seemed as though Dow Jones Industrial Stock Index would never quit increasing. Stock speculation went sky high in the bull market of 1928-1929. No one suspected that a signal of the end would occur on October 24, 1929, with the infamous stock market crash, and that more than a decade of depression and despair would follow such an era of happiness and prosperity.Until that time, American life seemed fundamentally sound. The typical American was still hardworking and sensible. The coming storms lay unseen beyond the horizon as the twenties roared on. Writing in 1931, F. Scott Fitzgerald^ wrote in Echoes of the Jazz Age:

    It ended two years ago, because the utter confidence which was its essential prop received an enormous jolt, and it didn`t take long for the flimsy structure to settle earthward. And after two years the Jazz Age seems as far away as the days before the War. It was borrowed time anyhow — the whole upper tenth of a nation living with the insouciance of grand ducs and the casualness of chorus girls. But moralizing is easy now and it was pleasant to be in one`s twenties in such a certain and unworried time.

    1920s: The Roaring Twenties

    Popular histories of the 1920s are filled with dramatic stories of this vibrant decade. According to legend, bold bootleggers made fortunes off the thirsty habits of a nation rebelling against the prohibition against alcohol. High-rolling stock market speculators rode an optimistic wave in American business when money seemed to come easily to those who already had it. Women shortened their hair and hemlines to dance the Charleston in smoke-filled speakeasies (illegal bars). These stories of easy money, frivolous excesses, and general naughtiness carried a kernel of truth and gave the decade such nicknames as "The Jazz Age," "The Lawless Decade," and "The Era of Wonderful Nonsense." To be sure, "The Roaring Twenties" was truly one of the more interesting decades in an interesting century.

    Business growth in America fueled the optimistic mood of the time. Before World War I (1914–18), American trade with the rest of the world had been limited. During the war, the United States geared up its economy to supply its allies in Europe with solid American steel, agricultural goods, and all sorts of raw materials. With federal funding, the automobile, aircraft, and radio industries developed significantly, making America one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world. Rather than harming American business with a dramatic drop in orders, the end of the war left America in a dominant position in world trade, a position it would nurture for years to come. Presidents Warren G. Harding (1865–1923) and Calvin Coolidge (1872–1933) were probusiness. Herbert Hoover (1874–1964), the secretary of commerce under Coolidge, ran for—and won—the presidency in 1928 as a champion of business, especially business related to the development of aviation and radio.

    But the booming decade did leave some behind: those living in rural America. Business success was most readily available to urban, upper-middle-class Americans. Even though the economic indexes rose every year during the decade and politicians pronounced the end of poverty, most Americans lived a very different life from the "shebas" and "sheiks" (fashionable young women and men) who spent money without care and drank like fish. At the beginning of the decade, the census recorded the total population at 105,273,049 by the end of the decade, the number had risen to 122,288,177. Along with the population, big business grew at a dizzying pace, nearly 7 percent each year between 1922 and 1927. Jobs in the ever more crowded cities abounded. But workers in rural areas suffered farmers actually lost business, with four million of them quitting to move to the city during the 1920s. For the first time in American history, more people lived in urban areas than in rural areas. Technology was transforming the lives of those living in cities, with public utilities providing electricity, natural gas, and running water. But rural areas were left out of these advances only 10 percent of American farms had electricity and only 33 percent had running water by the end of the decade. New paved roads between cities left small towns isolated from the advances of the decade and effectively killed many of them.

    In addition, as jobs in factories demanded new skills, colleges opened in urban areas. But rural people were cut off from such educational opportunities. To make matters worse, 23 percent of blacks, most of whom lived in the rural South, were illiterate in 1920. But even with these inequalities, the average person did lead a healthier life, as shown by the dramatic decline in infant deaths and incidences of epidemic disease.

    There were several aspects of popular culture that almost everyone could enjoy. Jazz, the musical form created by black musicians, swept the nation and eventually the world. The boom in radio technology and broadcasting—from no radios produced in the United States in 1921 to more than four million in 1929, with more than ten million households owning a radio—brought jazz music into homes across the nation. Although radio broadcasts and recording studios favored white jazz musicians at first, especially "Jazz King" Paul Whiteman (1890–1967) and George Gershwin (1898–1937), African American musicians such as Jelly Roll Morton (1890–1941), Duke Ellington (1899–1974), and Louis Armstrong (1901–1971) soon became truly successful, playing to audiences of all races.

    The movie industry, one of the wealthiest businesses in the decade, hired writers, composers, designers, and painters for unprecedented sums to create "talkies" that anyone could see and hear on the big screen for a handful of change. Kodak introduced the first color motion pictures in 1928. Movie attendance rose from fifty-seven million weekly in 1927 to ninety-five million weekly by 1929. Broadway musicals soon were made into elaborate movie spectaculars that toured the country.

    Magazines and newspapers of the time carried the writings of syndicated columnists. Mass circulation ensured that magazines and newspapers could pay writers decent sums for their work. More and more Americans were reading the same stories and news. Readers thrilled to stories by such writers as Sinclair Lewis (1885–1951), F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896–1940), and Willa Cather (1873–1947), who became some of the most respected American writers of all time. The Western novels of Zane Grey (1875–1939) were top sellers. Raymond Chandler (1888–1959) and Dashiell Hammett (1894–1961) pioneered the American "hard-boiled" (tough-guy) detective story with stories for the Black Mask and other pulp magazines.

    As F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in his essay "Echoes of the Jazz Age," "It was an age of miracles." The 1920s produced more enduring figures than any other since, more people who changed their fields and captured the interest and imagination of the nation than in any other time in American history. Along with advances in medicine, science, and social work, the decade nurtured talents in the arts, literature, and sports. Charles A. Lindbergh (1902–1974) flew across the Atlantic in thirty-three and a half hours. Eugene O'Neill (1888–1953) became one of America's greatest playwrights, winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1920, 1922, and 1928. Babe Ruth (1895–1948) won the hearts of baseball fans when he hit his "Ruthian" blasts out of the park and led the New York Yankees to win their first World Series in 1923. The sheer number of advances during the era are a testament to the energy of the 1920s, a time when most Americans thought each day would be better than the last.

    The decade of such optimism was capped by Black Tuesday, the biggest stock market crash in American history, which occurred on October 29, 1929. Less than a month after the crash, unemployment had risen from 700,000 to 3.1 million. News stories remained optimistic about the future and movie theaters played upbeat shows to boost people's spirits, but the country would not recover for nearly another decade as the Great Depression (1929–41) took hold.

    Timeline of the Roaring 20s

    The Roaring '20s were marked by prosperity after World War I, drastic changes for women that included the right to vote and freedom from corsets and long, structured clothing to a more modern style of dress. Ladies bobbed their hair and displayed a more liberated demeanor. Prohibition brought the age of speakeasies and bootleggers, and everyone did the Charleston. The frivolity and excess ended with a loud crash of the stock market in October 1929, which was the first signal of the Great Depression to come.

    Women won the right to vote in 1920 with the adoption of the 19th Amendment, the first commercial radio broadcast aired, the League of Nations was established, and the Harlem Renaissance began.

    There was a bubonic plague in India, and Pancho Villa retired.

    Prohibition began in the United States, and though it was intended to eliminate the use of alcoholic beverages, it resulted in an abundance of speakeasies, bathtub gin, and the rise of the bootleggers.

    In 1921, the Irish Free State was declared after a five-year fight for independence from Britain, Bessie Coleman became the first female African-American pilot, there was extreme inflation in Germany, and the lie detector was invented.

    The "Fatty" Arbuckle scandal caused a sensation in the newspapers. The comedian was acquitted, but his career as a comedian was destroyed.

    Michael Collins, a prominent soldier and politician in the Irish fight for independence, was killed in an ambush. Benito Mussolini marched on Rome with 30,000 men and brought his fascist party to power in Italy. Kemal Ataturk founded modern Turkey, and the tomb of King Tut was discovered. And The Reader's Digest was first published, all in 1922.

    The Teapot Dome scandal dominated front-page news in the United States, the Ruhr region of Germany was occupied by French and Belgian forces, and Adolf Hitler was jailed after a failed coup in Germany.

    The Charleston swept the nation, and Time magazine was founded.

    In 1924, the first Olympic Winter Games took place in Chamonix and Haute-Savoie, France J. Edgar Hoover was appointed the first director of the F.B.I. Vladimir Lenin died, and the trial of Richard Leopold and Nathan Loeb shocked and riveted the country.

    The Scopes (Monkey) Trial was 1925's top news story. Flapper dresses were all the rage for modern women, and those women were called flappers the American entertainer Josephine Baker moved to France and became a sensation and Hitler's "Mein Kampf" was published, as was F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby."

    In this year mid-decade, actor Rudolph Valentino died suddenly at the age of 31, Henry Ford announced the 40-hour work week, Hirohito became the emperor of Japan, Houdini died after being punched, and mystery writer Agatha Christie went missing for 11 days.

    Richard Byrd and Roald Amundsen began their legendary race to be the first to fly over the North Pole, Gertrude Ederle swam the English Channel, Robert Goodard fired off his first liquid-fueled rocket, and Route 66, the Mother Road, was established across the United States.

    Last but certainly not least,​ A.A. Milne's "Winnie-the-Pooh" was published, which brought the adventures of Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore, and Christopher Robin to generations of children.

    The year 1927 was a red-letter one: Babe Ruth set a home run record that would stand for 70 years the first talkie, "The Jazz Singer," was released Charles Lindbergh flew solo across the Atlantic Ocean in the "Spirit of St. Louis" and the BBC was founded.

    That great thing, sliced bread, was invented in 1928, along with bubble gum. If that wasn't enough, the first Mickey Mouse cartoon was shown, penicillin was discovered, and the first Oxford English Dictionary was published.

    Chiang Kai-shek became the leader of China, and the Kellogg-Briand Treaty outlawed war.

    In the last year of the '20s, Richard Byrd and Floyd Bennett flew over the South Pole, the car radio was invented, the Academy Awards made their debut, and the murder of seven members of the Moran Irish gang in Chicago became infamous as the St. Valentine's Day Massacre.

    But this was all dwarfed by the October crash of the stock market, which marked the beginning of the Great Depression.

    The Roaring 'Twenties

    Project Leads: Emily Thompson, Princeton University and Scott Mahoy, University of Southern California

    Emily Thompson is a historian of sound. By offering a website dedicated to the sounds of New York City circa 1930, The Roaring 'Twenties is following the lead of countless other individuals and organizations who have turned the web into a vast sonic archive, delivering a previously unimaginable wealth of historic sound recordings to anyone with a connection and a desire to listen in.

    The aim here is not just to present sonic content, but to evoke the original contexts of those sounds, to help us better understand that context as well as the sounds themselves. The goal is to recover the meaning of sound, to undertake a historicized mode of listening that tunes our modern ears to the pitch of the past. Simply clicking a "play" button will not do.

    The Roaring Twenties: Overview

    The United States emerged from the Great War as a rich and powerful nation. American life changed dramatically in the 1920s, which saw the first trans-Atlantic phone call, the first movie with sound, the first enclosed car at popular prices, and the discovery of penicillin.

    And suddenly everyone seemed to have a radio. Radio had been a topic of research interest at NIST since its early years, when both the Army and Navy set up separate research facilities at its site to study wireless telegraphy. By the late 1920s there were hundreds of broadcasting stations and nearly 10 million privately owned radio sets in the United States, including quite a few that were handmade using instructions published by NIST. The Institute built the first alternating-current (ac) radio set in 1922, years before commercial firms offered ac-powered radios for the home (earlier models were battery powered). The Institute also helped train radio technicians, published early reference works, and coordinated the writing of an academic textbook that was admired by Thomas Edison as "the greatest book on this subject that I have ever read."

    Also booming in the 1920s were the building and construction and automobile industries, both of which received support from the nation's principal physical science research laboratory. NIST recommended revisions aimed at achieving greater uniformity in local building and plumbing codes and zoning regulations and published a popular handbook for prospective home buyers. NIST staff, in partnership with Underwriters Laboratories and the National Fire Protection Association, began developing methods to test the fire endurance of building structures this work led to test procedures that became ubiquitous throughout the world.

    Automobile research focused on two issues that would come to dominate the history of this technology-fuel economy and safety. Amid warnings that the nation's known petroleum reserves would be depleted in as little as 10 years, the Institute helped conserve gasoline by identifying the characteristics of engines, fuels, and oils that enhanced operating efficiency. To help establish safe driving speeds, it also investigated brakes, the braking ability of cars, and the reaction time of drivers in applying brakes.

    Meanwhile, NIST became internationally known for its technical prowess. Radium, a radioactive element used in medical treatments, became so expensive that its discoverer, Marie Curie, had a difficult time obtaining enough for her own studies. American women raised money to buy some for her and, in 1921, Madame Curie visited the United States to receive a gram of radium from President Warren Harding. It came with a certificate from the Institute attesting to the purity and radioactivity of the sample.

    While helping to enhance the quality of commercial products, the Institute also helped create new industries. After German sources of cane and beet sugar (sucrose) were cut off, for example, NIST scientists recreated the manufacturing processes to prepare small samples of corn sugar (dextrose) and other rare sugars for standardization and testing purposes. They also looked for ways to reduce costs, eventually developing a process for large-scale manufacturing of almost chemically pure, low-cost dextrose, which then became an industry unto itself. A spinoff of sugar research was the discovery of practical uses for process wastes. NIST developed products such as wall and insulating boards made from cornstalks, an early example of recycling.

    Another way of making the most of American products was standards. High quality made a difference, too. In the 1920s, NIST standards became official federal standards, unifying the specifications of some 40 government purchasing agencies and achieving greater economies in supplies. The Institute quickly prepared specifications for items such as fire hoses, pneumatic tires, and shoe sole leather and recommended simplified practices, such as reducing the number of milk bottle designs from 49 to nine. American industry saved tens of millions of dollars through simplification. Standards also reduced the price of incandescent lamps from $1.30 to 16 cents. Then came the stock market crash in 1929 and the Great Depression, ending the crusade for a time.

    How the ‘Roaring Twenties’ myth obscures the making of modern Britain

    We have lost sight of what made Britain’s experience of the 1920s unique, argues Matt Houlbrook. From Peaky Blinders to gangsters’ molls, popular images of the ‘jazz age’ can trick us into forgetting the radical importance of this period. Here, he explains why the decade was much more than a time of flappers and frivolity

    This competition is now closed

    Published: March 2, 2020 at 1:24 pm

    These are interesting times to be a historian of 1920s Britain. At the start of a new decade, the instinct to look back,rather than forward, has been striking. As we move into the 2020s, traces of our distant past seem everywhere. Conservative political commentators herald Boris Johnson’s election victory as the start of a new ‘Roaring Twenties’ the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra invited us to “party like it’s 1929” Great Gatsby themed parties marked the New Year’s arrival, and the ‘jazzing flapper’ and peak-capped Peaky Blinder are the fancy dress costumes du jour. A century after the decade began, the 1920s are back in fashion.

    The 1920s might be everywhere, but so too are the myths that govern how we think about the decade. Lazy clichés of the ‘Roaring Twenties’ or ‘Jazz Age’ make it impossible for us to see how this period was a far-reaching moment in the making of modern Britain. A century on, the vagaries of popular memory mean we have lost sight of the postwar decade’s character and significance.

    A long weekend?

    The 1920s is usually treated as part of the longer period ‘between the wars’, famously described as “The Long Week-End” by Robert Graves and Alan Hodge in their classic social history. Graves and Hodge’s book was first published in 1940, but their way of dividing up 20th-century British history has endured – and ultimately limits our ability to understand the period. Rather than seeking to understand the 1920s and 1930s in their own right, there is a tendency to define them by what precedes and follows – by what they were not, rather than what they were. The idea of a ‘weekend’ suggests this decade was a brief pause before the more serious business of war was inevitably resumed. Shaped by hindsight unavailable at the time, such assumptions draw attention away from the period itself. Emphasising the similarities between the 1920s and 1930s also means we lose sight of what made each decade unique. The tensions between the legacies of war and the accelerating pace of peacetime change meant the aftermath was a distinctive historical period. Ingrained habits of thinking about that period ‘between the wars’ efface the significance of the 1920s.

    Ideas of the ‘long weekend’ give the 1920s that enticing mood of frivolity, fun and escape that make the period so popular right now. Alluring as the sound of jazz and sight of the Charleston might be, these powerful images conceal more complex realities. Ideas of the ‘Roaring Twenties’ evoke the spectacle of the decadent and aristocratic high society of London and the English country house: the glamorous yet doomed Elizabeth Ponsonby Noël Coward singing “dance, dance, dance little lady” satirical novels of the ‘bright young people’ like Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies (1930). It might be clear that the world of Waugh and Ponsonby was far removed from that of ordinary Britons, but their reputation exerts enduring influence on how we think about the decade as a whole. Downton Abbey has much to answer for.

    A distinctly American flavour

    As the ubiquity of the ‘Great Gatsby’ party suggests, how we think about 1920s Britain has also been remarkably dominated by images taken from elsewhere. ‘Roaring Twenties’ Britain takes colour and form from vignettes, characters and motifs that are distinctly American: F Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Prohibition and speakeasies gangsters’ molls and Al Capone — the images have merged and made it difficult to disentangle British realities from American mythologies. It is true that the growing pace of global communications meant everyday life underwent a very real process of Americanisation. US corporations dominated British consumer culture, while US films, music, dances, fashions and chain stores like Woolworths were popular among ordinary men and women: a young working-class woman might want to be “as glorious as [American actress] Theda Bara”. Focusing on these stereotypical images, however, means we have lost sight of what made Britain’s experience of the 1920s unique.

    The myth of the ‘Roaring Twenties’, then, is symptomatic of a bigger problem in how we understand the period. After the Great War, just as Britons tried to come to terms with the loss of a generation, rapid and often unnerving social and cultural and economic changes marked what the journalist Thomas Burke called “our welcome to the new century”. It was in the 1920s that modern Britain came into being.

    What changed? After the Representation of the People Act of 1918 Britain became a modern mass democracy. Extending the vote to working-class men and women had political effects: it made public opinion of pressing importance and prompted politicians, bureaucrats and scientists to seek new ways of ensuring the wellbeing of ordinary Britons. Often unsuccessful at the time, these impulses nonetheless established the conditions for the development of the welfare state after 1945. Political reform also had cultural consequences. The extension of the franchise prompted anxious reflection on the influence of the media and consumer culture that anticipated recent scandals over the power of the press. Those debates mattered because the 1920s also witnessed the spectacular growth of a commercial culture that still looks remarkably familiar: the cinema, bestselling romantic novel, personal journalism and a new celebrity culture all reflected the affluence enjoyed by at least some Britons.

    The ‘sex appeal’ of the Hollywood star, moreover, was just the most visible aspect of a striking liberalisation of sexual attitudes and behaviour that reflected both young women’s changing horizons and progressive challenges to conventional moral codes. In the 1920s women gained more personal freedom rising real wages for those in work reinvigorated consumer culture and provided new leisure opportunities the world of chain stores, cinemas and dance halls expanded. The flapper dominates our image of the ‘Roaring Twenties’ because she was of vital importance to contemporary culture, and because new technologies of photography, cinema and newsreels ensured she remains visible today.

    The legacy of the Great War

    There were more troubling tensions behind this glossy veneer, however. Throughout the 1920s, the legacies of the Great War were inescapable. The war’s ongoing demands were partly about the process of remembering and memorialising the dead, providing for the physical and psychological needs of the traumatised living, and understanding the war through novels and autobiographies. Yet the rituals of Armistice Day were only the most visible traces of a conflict whose impress was everywhere. Pervasive and insistent, war lived on in anxious discussions of what it meant to be British and modern, and in powerful images of the 1920s as a traumatised and unnerved world.

    Not all Britons shared in the profits and possibilities of peace. Despite a brief boom after the Armistice, the costs of war and the vagaries of a competitive global economy were soon felt across the ‘old’ industrial regions of south Wales, northern England and Scotland. As early as autumn 1922 a social survey identified The Third Winter of Employment. This report proved a prescient recognition of the enduring social problems that defined the period for many. The conditions it described also underpinned the bitter industrial conflicts that coalesced in the General Strike in 1926, and the emergence of a radical politics that demanded the profits of peace be shared among the many, not the few. A growing regional divide coalesced in the idea of the ‘two nations’ – a declining industrial north set in sharp contrast to the burgeoning consumerism of London and the south-east.

    Fixating on the United States, finally, draws attention away from other – equally vital and important – global influences on 1920s British culture. Europe mattered, of course. Perhaps most significant was Britain’s global empire. Far from distant or marginal, empire was intrinsic to everyday life. It was studied at school, read about in newspapers, seen in newsreels and films and witnessed in the packets of tea sold in shops. It created an increasingly cosmopolitan population, particularly in ports like Liverpool, Cardiff and Glasgow. It shaped how Britons understood the world and their nation’s place in it. Empire also had a darker side: racial tensions and violence would be a recurrent feature of the 1920s, as the ideas of white superiority on which Britain’s power rested fuelled the popular racism and political interventions that made life so difficult for black or Asian Britons. All of this meant that it required – and still requires – remarkable cultural amnesia to portray 1920s Britain as stable, let alone characterised by hedonism and frivolity.

    From cocktails to crashes

    Let’s take the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s “sounds of the 1920s”. This was: “the decade of flappers, cocktails, and the Charleston, when the whole world danced to the wild new rhythms of jazz. And on Tin Pan Alley, songwriters from Gershwin to Irving Berlin created some of the most intoxicating songs of the new century. Fascinatin’ Rhythm, The Man I Love, Let’s Do It, Mack the Knife… they’re all here, so kick up your heels and let’s party like it’s 1929.”

    American songs and American songwriters – here is the myth of the hedonistic ‘Roaring Twenties’ writ small. The nod to Prince is a neat touch, but we would do well to remember that 1929 was also the year of the Wall Street crash, and an economic crisis that rippled across the world.

    In Britain, that same year, Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour government came to power after the first election in which the ‘flapper vote’ became a feature of political life. Women over 30 had gained the vote in 1918. It was only in July 1928, however, that women were enfranchised on the same terms as men and could vote from the age of 21. The Equal Franchise Act drew a line under the progressive advances in women’s social and political position triggered by the Great War. In January 1929, finally, RC Sherriff’s most famous play Journey’s End (which was adapted as a film in 2018) began its sell-out public run in London’s West End. Set in an officer’s dugout in France in the days leading up to a raid on the German trenches, Journey’s End encapsulates what we now think of as the literature of the Great War. It is an uncompromising study of the war’s futility, horror and psychological stresses. The transfer of Sherriff’s play in the same year as Erich Remarque’s classic antiwar novel All Quiet on the Western Front was first published in English marked the point at which a new literature of disillusionment began to take hold in the public imagination. The ways in which Britons thought about the Great War slowly began to change.

    There is little sign that the ‘Roaring Twenties’, ’Bright Young Things’, and United States are losing their hold on the public imagination – far from it. Only in the past two years has one of the largest online fancy dress shops added a recognisably British costume to its section on the 1920s. The ‘peaked cap gangster’ costume is striking evidence of how the remarkable success of Cillian Murphy, Helen McCrory, and Peaky Blinders has transformed how we think about postwar Britain. It remains only a partial version of the 1920s, however, and the depressing spectacle of fedoras, ‘Gangster’s Molls’, and ‘Charleston Red flapper dress’ dominates.

    Another absence: the range of costumes touted by the same online shop covers every decade from the 1920s through to the 1990s with one notable exception. It seems partygoers don’t find the ‘Hungry Thirties’ the most appealing theme for fancy dress, and the Jarrow marcher ‘look’ still isn’t back in fashion.

    Are these the grumblings of a curmudgeonly historian? Perhaps. But it’s important to think critically about the shorthand labels we fall back on when trying to understand the past. Charleston parties and flapper costumes seem like harmless fun – but they carry the most powerful myths about Britain after the Great War. The resilience of these myths mean that we misunderstand 1920s society and culture, and the decade’s significance in the making of modern Britain. Our obsession with glamour and hedonism distracts from equally compelling experiences of austerity, trauma and conflict the blaring jazz saxophone drowns out the emergence of radical new ideas for living and for organising society and politics. The spectacle of the ‘Roaring Twenties’ turns our attention from the decade’s importance as the moment when modern Britain came into being.

    Matt Houlbrook is a professor of cultural history at the University of Birmingham. You can find him on Twitter @TricksterPrince


    Prohibition outlawed alcohol for 13 years, splitting the nation morally and politically while empowering organized crime.

    Learning Objectives

    Summarize the implementation and effects of Prohibition

    Key Takeaways

    Key Points

    • Ratified by the Eighteenth Amendment in 1920, Prohibition sparked debate between those who argued the sale of alcohol to be both immoral and unhealthy, and those who saw the ban as an intrusion of rural Protestant ideals on mainstream, everyday life.
    • Enforcing Prohibition proved difficult due to the lack of coordination between federal and state law enforcement and the relative ease of crossing America’s northern and southern borders undetected.
    • The institution of Prohibition led to the rise of criminal organizations behind the illegal import and sale of alcohol, most notably the American Mafia.
    • The popularity of jazz music grew rapidly during Prohibition as a result of the popularity of the music in speakeasies.
    • Understanding the unpopularity of Prohibition, as well as the opportunity for greater tax revenue, Democrats called for the alcohol ban to be overturned, resulting in its repeal in the Twenty-first Amendment in 1933.

    Key Terms

    • Al Capone: (1899–1947) An American gangster who led a Prohibition-era crime syndicate. The Chicago Outfit, which subsequently became known as the “Capones” or “Capone Gang,” controlled smuggling, bootleg liquor sales, prostitution, and other illegal activities in Chicago from the early 1920s to 1931.
    • Twenty-first Amendment: An article to the United States Constitution that repealed the Eighteenth Amendment and ended the period of Prohibition in 1933.
    • Eighteenth Amendment: An article to the United States Constitution that prohibited commercial alcohol sales and consumption beginning in 1920.
    • American Mafia: An Italian-American criminal society sometimes called simply the Mafia or the Mob.

    Prohibition was a national ban on the sale, manufacture, and transportation of alcohol that lasted from 1920 to 1933. A hotly contested issue, the “Dries” who supported Prohibition proclaimed it to be a victory for public morals and health, while “Wets” criticized the alcohol ban as an intrusion of mainly rural, Protestant ideals upon a central facet of urban, immigrant, and Catholic life, as well as a loss of large amounts of tax revenue. Effective enforcement of the ban proved to be difficult, however, and led to widespread flouting of the law, as well as a massive escalation of organized crime.

    Volstead Act

    On October 28, 1919, the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution banning alcohol was implemented through the Volstead Act, which went into effect on January 17, 1920. A total of 1,520 Prohibition agents from three separate federal agencies—the Coast Guard Office of Law Enforcement, the Treasury Department/Internal Revenue Service Bureau of Prohibition, and the Department of
    Justice Bureau of Prohibition—were tasked with enforcing the new law. This effort lacked centralized authority, however, and many attempts to impose Prohibition were inhibited by the lack of transparency between federal and state authorities. The matter of geography presented further complications in that valleys, mountains, lakes, and swamps, as well as the extensive seaways, ports, and massive borders running along Canada and Mexico, made it exceedingly difficult to stop bootleggers intent on avoiding detection.

    Detroit police with confiscated brewery equipment: Enforcement of Prohibition was a major challenge throughout the 1920s due to a lack of coordination between law enforcement agencies and the difficulties of detecting and apprehending bootleggers.

    While the commercial manufacture, sale, and transport of alcohol was illegal, Section 29 of the Volstead Act allowed private citizens to make wine and cider from fruit, but not beer, in their homes. Up to 200 gallons per year could be produced, with some vineyards growing grapes for purported home use. In addition to this loophole, the wording of the act did not specifically prohibit the consumption of alcohol. In anticipation of the ban, many people stockpiled wines and liquors during the latter part of 1919 before alcohol sales became illegal in January 1920. As Prohibition continued, people began to perceive it as illustrative of class distinctions, since it unfairly favored social elites. Working-class people were enraged that their employers could dip into a cache of private stock while they were unable to afford similar indulgences.

    Organized Crime

    The rift between the Dries and the Wets over alcohol consumption and sales largely hinged on the long-running, historical debate over whether drinking was morally acceptable in light of the antisocial behavior that overindulgence could cause. Ironically, this dispute over ethics during the “Roaring Twenties” led to a sudden groundswell of criminal activity, with those who opposed legal alcohol sales unintentionally enabling the growth of vast criminal organizations that controlled the illegal sale and distribution of alcohol and a number of related activities including gambling and prostitution. Powerful gangs corrupted law enforcement agencies, leading to the blanket criminal activity of racketeering, which includes bribery, extortion, loan sharking, and money laundering. Illicit alcoholic beverage industries earned an average of $3 billion per year in illegal income, none of which was taxed, and effectively transformed cities into battlegrounds between opposing bootlegging gangs.

    Chicago, the largest city in Illinois and of one America’s true metropolises along with New York and Los Angeles, became a haven for Prohibition dodgers. Many of Chicago’s most notorious gangsters, including Al Capone and his archenemy, Bugs Moran, made millions of dollars through illegal alcohol sales. By the end of the decade, Capone controlled all 10,000 Chicago speakeasies, illegal nightclubs where alcohol was sold, and ruled the bootlegging business from Canada to Florida. Numerous other crimes, including theft and murder, were directly linked to criminal activity in Chicago and other cities in violation of Prohibition.

    Al Capone, June 1931: Alphonse “Al” Capone headed the largest criminal organization in the Chicago area during Prohibition. A colorful figure notorious for a multitude of crimes related to his illegal alcohol operation, Capone was eventually imprisoned for tax evasion in 1931.

    To prevent bootleggers from using industrial ethyl alcohol to produce illegal beverages, the government ordered the poisoning of industrial alcohols. Bootleggers combated this by hiring chemists who successfully renatured the alcohol to make it drinkable. In response, the Treasury Department required manufacturers to add even more deadly poisons to industrial alcohols, including Sterno (or “canned heat”) and the particularly deadly methyl alcohol. As many as 10,000 people died from drinking denatured alcohol before Prohibition ended.

    Jazz and Speakeasies

    Prohibition had a large effect on music in the United States, specifically on jazz. Speakeasies became far more popular during the Prohibition era, partially influencing the mass migration of jazz musicians from New Orleans to major northern cities such as Chicago and New York. This movement led to a wider dispersal of jazz, as different styles developed in different cities. Because of its popularity in speakeasies and its advancement due to the emergence of more advanced recording devices, jazz became very popular in a short amount of time.

    Jazz was also at the forefront of the minimal integration efforts of the time, as it united mostly black musicians with mostly white crowds. As the saloon began to die out, public drinking lost much of its macho association, resulting in an increased social acceptance of women drinking in the semipublic environment of a speakeasy, also known as a “blind pig” or a “blind tiger.” This new norm established women as a notable new target demographic for alcohol marketers, who sought to expand their clientele.

    Repeal of Prohibition

    The Eighteenth Amendment had outlawed, “intoxicating liquors for beverage purposes” but did not set a limit on alcohol content, which the Volstead Act did by establishing a limit of.5 percent alcohol per unit. The beer that could be legally consumed was essentially a very weak mixture. On March 22, 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an amendment to the Volstead Act known as the Cullen-Harrison Act, allowing the manufacture and sale of light wine and 𔄛.2 beer,” referring to 3.2 percent alcohol content. Upon signing the amendment, Roosevelt made his famous remark: “I think this would be a good time for a beer.”

    On December 5, 1933, ratification of the Twenty-first Amendment repealed the Eighteenth Amendment. As Prohibition ended, some of its supporters, including industrialist and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, openly admitted its failure. In a positive epilogue, however, the overall consumption of alcohol dropped and remained below pre-Prohibition levels long after the Eighteenth Amendment ceased to be law.

    Primary Sources

    Republican Senator and presidential candidate Warren G. Harding of Ohio delivered the following address to the Home Market Club of Boston on May 14, 1920. In it, Harding outlined his hope that the United States would, after a decade of progressive politics and foreign interventions, return to “normalcy.” In November, Harding received the highest percentage of the popular vote in a presidential election up to that time.

    In the following selection, Crystal Eastman, a socialist and feminist, considered what women should fight for following the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, which granted American women the right to vote.

    Inspired by the writings of Booker T. Washington, Jamaican-born Marcus Garvey became the most prominent Black Nationalist in the United States. He championed the back-to-Africa movement, advocated for black-owned businesses—he founded the Black Star Line, a transnational shipping company—and founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association. Thousands of UNIA chapters formed all across the world. In 1921, Garvey recorded a message in a New York studio explaining the object of the UNIA.

    The “Second” Ku Klux Klan rose to prominence in the 1920s and, at its peak, claimed millions of Americans as members. Klansmen wrapped themselves in the flag and the cross and proclaimed themselves the moral guardians of America. The organization appealed to many “respectable,” middle-class Americans. Here, Imperial Wizard Hiram Evans, a dentist from Dallas, Texas, outlines the Second Klan’s potent mix of Americanism, Protestantism, and white supremacy.

    Republican Herbert Hoover embodied the political conservatism of the 1920s. He denounced the regulation of business and championed the individual against “bureaucracy.” In November 1928, Hoover, a Protestant from the Midwest, soundly defeated Al Smith, an Irish Catholic from New York City. Here, in a speech delivered in late October, Hoover outlined his vision of American government.

    In the 1920’s Americans across the country bought magazines like Photoplay in order to get more information about the stars of their new favorite entertainment media: the movies. Advertisers took advantage of this broad audience to promote a wide range of goods and services to both men and women who enjoyed the proliferation of consumer culture during this time.

    This photo by popular news photographers Underwood and Underwood shows a gathering of a reported 300 Ku Klux Klansmen just outside Washington DC to initiate a new group of men into their order. The proximity of the photographer to his subjects for one of the Klan’s notorious night-time rituals suggests that this was yet another of the Klan’s numerous publicity stunts.

    This chapter was remixed by Dan Allosso, who adapted The American Yawp Chapter 22 and added original content. The original Yawp chapter was edited by Brandy Thomas Wells, with content contributions by Micah Childress, Mari Crabtree, Maggie Flamingo, Guy Lancaster, Emily Remus, Colin Reynolds, Kristopher Shields, and Brandy Thomas Wells.

    1928: All the Better To See You With

    So NIST began studying the manufacture of optical glass, a mixture of silica and chemicals melted in a clay pot, which often deteriorated and contaminated the glass. After more than a year's work, the researchers produced a superior clay pot, greatly reducing the difficulty, time, and cost of making these containers. The Institute made nearly 7 metric tons (15,000 pounds) of eight types of glass during the war, continuing its crucial research and production through World War II and into the 1950s.

    7 Roaring Twenties

    “A man wrote me and said: ‘You can go to live in France, but you cannot become a Frenchman. You can go to live in Germany or Turkey or Japan, but you cannot become a German, a Turk, or a Japanese. But anyone, from any corner of the Earth, can come to live in America and become an American.’ If we ever closed the door to new Americans, our leadership in the world would soon be lost.” — Ronald Reagan (R), January 1989

    “The Flapper,” F.A. Leyendecker, LIFE Magazine, February 1922

    When we think of the 1920s, many of us have an image of grainy black-and-white film showing Flappers doing the Charleston on a skyscraper beam or plane wing to a soundtrack of Dixieland jazz. Flappers were fashionable young women who eschewed bulky petticoats and heavy skirts for a lighter style, shorter “bobbed” hair, tight felt hats, and (per their name) galoshes that flapped if left unbuckled. If you’re a sports fan, maybe the image is Babe Ruth knocking a home run out of Yankee Stadium. Either way, the decade’s overriding image is frivolity and exuberance, often fueled by illegal alcohol (though hopefully, that didn’t apply to the skyscraper dancers or to most of Ruth’s 714 home runs). Everyone seems to enjoy being filmed unless the cops are dumping out their booze bottles.

    These images aren’t wrong, but they’re woefully insufficient. The Twenties is the first decade to come along where we need to be on guard against superficial impressions. We’ve all seen shows or commercials that condense entire decades down to iconic images: the sailor kissing his girl in Times Square when WWII ended in 1945, hippies twirling in the park or Apollo missions in the 󈨀s, depressing gas lines or disco balls in the 󈨊s, etc. These iconic clichés obscure any era’s underlying complexity and often only represent the experiences of a handful. I had dozens of relatives alive in the 1960s. To the best of my knowledge, none twirled in a park in a tie-dye shirt and I know for sure that none walked on the moon.

    We’ll dig beneath the surface of the 1920s and look at social conflict, politics, industry, and criminality, then conclude with a look at the rise of mass entertainment that’s dominated popular culture ever since.

    Modern Americans are familiar with controversies over immigration. The U.S. has always been a land of newcomers but its people go through waves of relative hospitality and xenophobia, or fear of outsiders. The Order of the Star-Spangled Banner (also known as the American Party and, later, the “Know-Nothings”) were a major force against Catholic immigration in the 1850s, though they’ve faded into the background of our historical memory because their cause was eclipsed by the sectional crisis preceding the Civil War and they folded into the GOP. In economic boom times, Mexican workers were welcomed but then deported in recessions like the 1930s. The 1920s came on the heels of over half a century of increasing immigration by Catholics, Jews, and southern and eastern Europeans who didn’t fit the mold of “native stock” WASPs (short for white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants). WASPs and other Americans from northern and western Europe didn’t consider the newcomers real Americans. The phrase WASP can refer more narrowly to the wealthy, East Coast, privately-educated Anglo-Americans who ran American business, politics, and diplomacy (and invented college football after the Civil War because they worried their sons were getting wimpy having missed the war).

    There’s a scene in the movie Petrified Forest (1936) when somebody compares 1930s gangsters with Old West outlaws. The grandfather says that they’re different because “gangsters aren’t American.” He doesn’t say real American the way some people thought of Barack Obama, as sort of a tweener he left out that qualifier and just said, “not American.” That was typical of how many “Native Americans” looked at even 2nd or 3rd-generation Italian-Americans, assuming that described the gangster in question. The WASPs had seen enough by the 1920s and dug in to retain their hold on American identity. It was partly due to World War I, that exposed soldiers to French ways and triggered a threatening Bolshevik revolution in Russia. That overlapped with tension at home between rural, more slow-paced, traditional America and the fast-growing cities. Cities were seen as repositories of all that was dangerous and alien to white Protestant farmers: immigrants, factories, moral promiscuity, and new ideas. WWI just widened the spigot of threats. In the previous chapter, we saw how America’s First Red Scare (1919-20) stoked fear of Italian and Russian immigrants.

    Bartolomeo Vanzetti (left) and Nicola Sacco, Boston Public Library

    In 1920, immigrants Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti stood accused of murdering a guard and paymaster in a shoe factory robbery in Braintree, Massachusetts, sealing WASP’ier Americans’ convictions that they were under siege from abroad. Legions of supporters across the globe protested their eventual conviction based on the flimsiness of the evidence and one radical bombed the judge’s home. But, for both supporters and detractors, Sacco and Vanzetti’s high-profile trial and 1927 electrocutions were more about the subtext of their Italian ethnicity and anarchist political convictions than about the robbery. They were exonerated posthumously in 1977.

    Town & Country
    In the 1920s, the usual xenophobic/nativist tensions had another demographic dimension. The 1920 census showed that, for the first time in U.S. history, city dwellers and suburbanites outnumbered those in small towns and rural areas, raising fears that a traditional way of life was being eclipsed. The pristine rural purity they imagined never existed in the first place, but there was definite truth to the notion that a traditional way of life was going by the wayside. Prohibition and the Ku Klux Klan can be partially understood as attempts to hang on to that traditional way of life, but they only made city dwellers and immigrants resent “country bumpkins” or “rubes,” worsening the problem. The caricatures of the hillbilly and hick emerged around this time, whereas they wouldn’t have made sense before the 1920s because most folks were rural to begin with, and even 19th-century cities had livestock and smelled like farms. The term jaywalker comes from country “jays” in Los Angeles who, not used to urban traffic and more familiar with horses, stepped out in front of cars and buses. Imagine if you’d grown up when people and animals roamed freely in the streets. It would take some getting used to learning to look in both directions before crossing. This was especially a source of tension early on when only the wealthy could afford cars.

    City Activities With A Dance Hall, Thomas Hart Benton, 1930

    The rural-urban split, as historians call it, also had an economic dimension. The 1920s was an uneven period for agriculture because exports declined after WWI and drought on the Southern Plains set in by decade’s end. Meanwhile, the cities were booming because of renewed industrialism and electrification. The 1920s resonates with modern Americans increasingly divided politically and economically not just into red (conservative) and blue (liberal) states, but also the disputed “Big Sort” of blue “island” cities within otherwise red states — of which Austin is a prime example.

    KKK Ascendant
    The 1920s version of the rural-urban split manifested in several ways, most famously the Ku Klux Klan’s (KKK) dramatic resurgence. A popular silent-era movie, Kentuckian D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915), based on a book by Klansman Thomas Dixon, was a sprawling Civil War-era epic that glorified the vigilante organization. Even President Woodrow Wilson, who was so progressive in his diplomatic ideals, endorsed the film at a special White House screening, and it included the quotation on the right from the founder of the League of Nations. Suffice it to say that protecting the millions of Blacks who lived in the Southern country wasn’t on their agenda of “pure Americanism.” The new Klan, though, had national not just regional appeal. They had urban chapters, to be sure, but in the 1920s, the KKK represented the attitude of many rural Americans North and South who hated Jews, Catholics, Blacks, Mexicans, homosexuals, intellectuals, and anyone else that didn’t fit the mold of the America they saw slipping away. They hated the Jewish producers who dominated Hollywood at Paramount, 20th-Century Fox, Columbia, Universal, MGM, and Warner Brothers, and paradoxically overlapped with the Catholics mainly responsible for regulating films (Chapter 4). For the Klan, early movies celebrated the drinking, womanizing, and criminal behavior they associated with Catholic immigrants and modernity, and they didn’t want gangsters or adulterous women depicted in movies unless they suffered punishments for their actions.

    This was the golden age of the new Klan, the original chapters of which originated during Reconstruction when Union troops occupied the South after the Civil War. The federal government outlawed that original Klan during Reconstruction, but Birth of a Nation spurred renewed interest, and it was released at just the right time to capitalize on renewed xenophobia. Newspaper editor William Simmons called for a meeting to rejuvenate the dormant group and they burned a ceremonial cross at Stone Mountain, outside Atlanta. Simmons served as Imperial Wizard from 1915-39. Desmond Ang’s optional study below shows a strong correlation between klaverns (Klan chapters) and proximity to theaters showing Birth of a Nation.

    World War I was also a factor. Unfortunately, membership in far-right hate groups spikes when veterans return home. While the percentage of veterans attracted to these groups is so tiny as to be immeasurable (less than 1%), the percentage of new recruits in hate groups is so weighted toward veterans that America being in a postwar period is the single biggest predictor of increased activity — a larger indicator than racial or economic tension, immigration, etc. Prominent examples include George Lincoln Rockwell (WWII vet, Holocaust denier and American Nazi Party commander in the 󈨀s) and Timothy McVeigh (Gulf War veteran and perpetrator of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing). Both men were drummed out of the military, all branches of which are inclusive and condemn such ideology.

    KKK Marching Down Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D.C., 1928, National Archives

    The 1920s was the one decade in American history when the Klan went mainstream enough that they could march proudly through the streets of any town, including 40k through Washington, D.C. They sponsored baseball teams, baby beauty contests, christenings, road rallies, father-son outings, and junior leagues. The Face At Your Window (1920) showed American Legionnaires dressed a lot like Klansmen beating up Bolsheviks radicals, hinting at more overlap between the Klan and mainstream conservatism and militarism than you’d see in other decades. The Klan became a nationwide phenomenon, especially in the Midwest and Colorado, standing for family and nation and supporting Prohibition. Indiana was ground zero. Future president Harry Truman felt compelled to sign on briefly when he ran for office in Missouri in 1924, though he quickly withdrew his membership. At its peak, the organization counted from 3-5 million members, before corruption, murders, and sex scandals contributed to its decline after 1925. According to the best-selling book Freakonomics (2005), the Klan thrived as a pyramid scheme, with members being paid to sign up new initiates and sell paraphernalia like costumes and an assortment of schwag starting with a K. Promoters called “klegals” signed up new members and “kluxed” the money upward toward the leaders. The Klan built on the post-WWI spirit of Red Summer when white Northerners lashed out at Blacks and Mexicans who’d moved north in the Great Migration.

    Postcard of Leo Frank’s Lynching, Frey’s Hill (Frey’s Mill?) Cobb County, Georgia, 1915, Kenneth G. Rogers Collection, Atlanta History Center

    Mary Turner, By Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, 1919

    New southern chapters also tapped into the post-Civil War resentment toward Yankee carpetbagger businessmen south of the Mason-Dixon Line, such as Jewish factory superintendent Leo Frank, whom they wrongly suspected of strangling a 13-year-old girl. He was pardoned posthumously in 1982, but in 1915 Georgia politicians used the trial to encourage a Klan revival. More wholesome Klan gatherings tapped into the decade’s penchant for nostalgic Americana and white pride, but lynchings like that of Frank or suspected black criminals also drew enthusiastic crowds and were the subject of a thriving postcard trade. It’s safe to say that, had social media then existed, lynching posts would’ve generated likes and wows interspersed with the occasional socially-conscious angries or sads. In Valdosta, Georgia in 1918, a white mob lynched African American Mary Turner for protesting her husband’s lynching the day before, then stomped to death her eight-month-old newborn infant when it fell to the ground.

    White banks wouldn’t lend to Blacks, making it impossible for them to start businesses. But, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, African Americans had followed the advice of activists Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. Dubois by opening their own bank which, in turn, lent to black entrepreneurs. Some had money to invest because there was oil on the land Cherokees had granted them at the end of the Trail of Tears when slavery was abolished in 1865. That, combined with Exodusters moving into Oklahoma after the Civil War, made greater Tulsa and surrounding towns the most prosperous African-American economy in the country, with the black neighborhood of Greenwood known colloquially as Black Wall Street.

    In 1921, after 19-year-old African American Dick Rowland purportedly accosted a white woman in an elevator, armed Blacks surrounded Tulsa’s courthouse to protect him when the Tulsa Tribune posted a call-to-arms entitled “To Lynch Negro Tonight!” A street riot ensued that killed twelve (ten white and two black) after a white man tried to grab an Army-issued .45 from WWI vet O.B. Mann, asking “N****r, where are you going with that pistol?” The following day, the sheriff deputized hundreds of Whites who destroyed Greenwood entirely (residential and commercial), burning down 30 square blocks and going door-to-door to torch houses and round up Blacks, marching them into temporary internment camps overseen by the National Guard and forcing them to carry identification badges. In the end, at least 36 died, possibly many more, with an all-white jury and Tulsa’s mayor T.D. Evans blaming the victims. No one was ever charged, despite a series of drive-by machine-gun shootings, grenade attacks, arsons, and even kerosene petrol bombs (aka Molotov cocktails) dropped from private airplanes. No one received compensation for their lost homes or businesses, or funeral bills.Given its traditional omission from textbooks until the 1990s, many Americans never learned about Tulsa until HBO’s Watchmen, based on a 1986 DC Comics series, came out in 2019, 98 years later. The massacre traumatized African Americans so badly that many didn’t tell their children or grandchildren about it, similar to combat veterans. The city of Tulsa, with may of culprits in charge, didn’t destroy the documents, but basically covered it up, never investigating. In 1922, 15k cheered a Klan march through downtown and, in 1923, a Klan-owned company built a meeting hall atop Greenwood’s ruins known as “Be No Hall” for its rules: Be No Negro, Be No Jew, Be No Catholic, Be No Immigrant. The city began to release information in the 1990s, and has since uncovered graves, but some of the best primary source documentation came, ironically, from the KKK’s souvenir postcards of “Little Africa” burning (above) and victims’ charred remains.

    The Tulsa Race Massacre was not unprecedented. In Wilmington, North Carolina in 1898, 2k Democrats overthrew an elected bi-racial Fusionist government (Republicans and Populists), killing hundreds and destroying a black-owned newspaper. Commentators spun the Wilmington Insurrection as a “race riot,” which it was, but with the implication that Blacks initiated it when really it was a violent coup led by supremacists. In Abraham Lincoln’s hometown of Springfield, Illinois, an entire black neighborhood was destroyed in a smaller 1908 riot that led white progressives to help co-found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The NAACP also used Mary Turner’s case in its anti-lynching crusades. While the prospect of black-on-white rape fueled much racism and paranoia and was featured in Birth of a Nation, the elevator incident was just the Tulsa Massacre’s pretext., escalated by the next day’s fight outside the courthouse. The real target was Greenwood and its broader implication that African Americans had access to middle class mobility. The Klan sent a message to steer clear of finance or running small businesses. That’s white stuff. Mobs razed neighborhoods and massacred Blacks in Elaine, Arkansas (1919), Occee, Florida (1920), and Rosewood, Florida (1923), with virtually no one punished — all an extension of Red Summer after World War I.

    Not everyone went along with the vigilantism. In Texas, Williamson County District Attorney Dan Moody, Jr. courageously prosecuted four Klansmen for beating and killing a white northern salesman and was later elected state governor. Moody’s predecessor, Texas Governor “Ma” Ferguson, also opposed the Klan despite being a conservative and populist on many other issues and not supporting women’s suffrage (she served as a stand-in for her husband James, who’d been impeached on corruption charges).

    Family Leaving Damaged Home After 1919 Chicago Race Riot, New York Public Library-Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

    From time to time, an Austin mob would scrap the skin off of a young black man by dragging him up and down Congress Avenue behind a Model T, just to send a message. Austin Blacks couldn’t swim in pools, try on clothes at stores, rent out ice skates, or attend movies at the Paramount or Stateside. Former plantation owner George Brackenridge donated Zilker Park to the city on the condition that no black child ever swim in Barton Springs. In 1928, Austin established a formal plan to move all minorities to the east side, with Blacks and Hispanics north and south of 6th street, respectively. No minority outside the boundary could get utilities. (More in Chapter 15).

    Give Us Your Tired, Your Poor, Your Huddled Masses…Or Not
    Famine and industrialization — including factories, improved rail and sea transportation, and the mechanization of agriculture — spurred emigration from Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Many went to Britain or America, especially the U.S., Canada, and Brazil, in search of economic opportunity and religious freedom (see peaks above). In the 1920s, though, racism and nativism virtually closed off immigration to the U.S. from eastern and southern Europe. The Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and Johnson-Reed Immigration Act of 1924 limited future immigration levels to 2% of ethnic ratios measured by the 1890 Census — taken when the number of Whites from the “wrongs parts of Europe” was lower. Senator Johnson hoped it would “stop a stream of alien blood.” The Immigration Act was engineered by lobbyist Harry Laughlin, America’s leading eugenicist and superintendent of the Eugenics Records Office, mainly to block “dysgenic” Italians and Eastern European Jews.

    Immigration xenophobia traced to the Great War: the Immigration Act of 1917 set the tone for the 󈧘s by renewing and expanding East Asian immigration restrictions from the late 19th century to exclude South Asians and Middle Easterners, and barring white European contract laborers, alcoholics, political radicals, polygamists, prostitutes, vagrants, epileptics, illiterates over 16, paupers, anyone mentally or physically ill, and “idiots.”

    The 1917 Act Added South Asia & Middle East To Existing (1882) Immigration Restrictions From East Asia, WikiCommons

    Additionally, the U.S. repatriated huge numbers of Mexican-Americans back across the border, many of whom had been in the U.S. for generations working the railroads and cotton fields of Texas and the Southwest. Georgia Governor Clifford Walker promoted a steel wall across the border to keep out immigrants. Although the Statue of Liberty has a bronze plaque from Emma Lazarus’ “New Colossus” poem that reads “Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” the door more or less slammed shut between the mid-1920s and mid-󈨀s. In one of the poorest argued cases in their history, the Supreme Court ruled in 1923 that Indian American Bhagat Singh Thind, a WWI veteran (left), wasn’t an American citizen because he “didn’t fit the common man’s perception of a white man.” The 1924 Racial Integrity Act, set up to reinforce sterilization policies and prevent interracial marriage, and oblivious to what we now know about DNA, officially divided all Americans into “white and colored.”

    Cover of Theater Programme for Israel Zangwill’s play “The Melting Pot,” 1916, University of Iowa Libraries Special Collections

    Despite America’s occasional fits of xenophobia, keep in mind that most countries didn’t populate themselves mostly through immigration the way the U.S. did, and today some disallow immigration altogether. For instance, while Denmark is invoked as a successful model of democratic socialism with free healthcare and college tuition, it protects its mostly white working class with strict immigration laws. People are more likely to share in homogeneous societies. Unlike Europe, though, the United States excels at assimilation. Indian-American Journalist Fareed Zakaria noted that the U.S. is so good at assimilating immigrants that first-generation parents often struggle to retain traditions among their children. America’s unique history makes all anti-immigration sentiment, other than that of American Indians, hypocritical, and even Indians’ ancestors emigrated from Asia thousands of years ago. As depicted in this 1870 Thomas Nast cartoon “Throwing Down the Ladder By Which They Rose,” any American who opposes immigration is throwing down the same ladder his or her family used. However, the U.S. is an attractive enough country that it can’t begin to accommodate everyone who would come if it threw open the gates and completely opened its borders in the spirit of the plaque on Lady Liberty. The question is: who gets in and who doesn’t? The 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act removed the Asian ban and the 1965 Immigration Act, under which the U.S. still operates — with the ban on homosexuals removed in 1990 and banning of welfare benefits for the first five years in 1996 — maintained quotas but eliminated racial and geographic restrictions except for a 7% annual cap on any one country, creating long waiting periods of 15+ years from China and India. Post-1965, the Statue of Liberty’s message aligned better with reality than it had for the previous forty years, though recently the government is considering limiting entry to wealthier immigrants (defined as those with high credit scores and existing private health insurance that can prove that they will never need public assistance). That would have a similar effect as the 1920s legislation.

    Most immigrants came hoping for better economic opportunities and to enjoy political and religious freedom, despite the annoyance of having to be around different people. People came to America from all parts of the world, but not to hug each other and sing “Kumbayah.” That’s why American cities weren’t melting pots so much as mosaics — patchwork quilts of contiguous ethnic enclaves. In the 1920s, the term melting pot had negative connotations, coined by those lamenting that America had become one. Modern-day xenophobes are likewise motivated by variations of Replacement Theory: the fear that Whites are being “invaded” and losing their dominant status or, in journalist Laura Ingraham’s words, that “the America we know and love doesn’t exist anymore” due to “massive demographic changes.” Fellow FOX personality Tucker Carlson said that immigration has made the U.S. “dirtier and poorer” and wrote of Hazleton, Pennsylvania, where Hispanics had become the majority, that it was “more change than human beings are designed to digest.” Later, Carlson opined that immigration dilutes the votes of existing citizens — true, but no truer now than ever.

    Others define the American Dream more broadly and see strength in diversity. The GOP establishment resisted Replacement Theory, with George W. Bush emphasizing that Republicans have a history of welcoming immigrants and “that people of every race, religion and ethnicity can be fully and equally American.” In 2021, he cited the failure to secure immigration reform when he had the chance as his biggest presidential regret. Immigration can depress wages in some sectors, but it provides skilled and unskilled labor, boosts technological ingenuity, correlates with high entrepreneurship, and is a net contributor to Social Security. Today, half of America’s PhD’s in math, science, and engineering are foreign-born, as are nearly 2.5 million people growing and distributing food, and 1.7 million in healthcare, with

    1/3 of the nurses in big cities. Since these aren’t vocations for which we have a surplus of native-born labor, it’s safe to say that, if we cut off immigration, we’d quickly become dumber, hungrier, and unhealthier. Home construction would slow to a snail’s pace. Some of America’s best entrepreneurs were first- or second-generation immigrants, across sectors like information technology (Apple, Amazon, Google, eBay, Yahoo, PayPal), retail (Proctor & Gamble, Colgate, Kraft Heinz, Nordstrom, Kohl’s, Levi Strauss & Co.), manufacturing (U.S. Steel, General Electric, DuPont, Honeywell, Emerson, Boeing, Tesla/SpaceX), banking (Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, Capital One), media (Fox News, Comcast/Xfinity), and pharmaceuticals (Pfizer). The Paypal Mafia that launched YouTube, Yelp, LinkedIn, etc. included first-generation immigrants from South Africa, Germany, China, Poland, and Ukraine. Immigrants mined iron ore and coal, grew crops, and built America’s railroads and the atomic bomb that ended World War II. Forced immigrants built the nation’s capitol and grew many crops, including the cotton that fueled the early industrial revolution and dominated America’s exports to Europe in the 19th century. As of 2019, recent immigrants had started 45% of companies on the Fortune 500. For immigrants, America as a “land of opportunity” isn’t just a corny cliché. Economically and culturally, the list of immigrant contributions to the U.S. is too vast to catalog here. Swedes brought log cabins. Spanish and Mexicans brought cowboys, ranching, and rodeos. Dutch brought golf, bowling, sledding, skating, the Easter Bunny, and one of many traditions that fed into modern Santa Claus. Jewish migrants invented comic book superheroes and, ironically, wrote iconic Christmas tunes (Stanford), including the best-selling song in history, “White Christmas,” that became a favorite of homesick overseas troops during World War II. Russian immigrant Israel Beilin, who changed his name to Irving Berlin, composed it. We could go on and on. First-generation immigrants even invented hot dogs and baseball.

    But these are challenging times for voters and citizens when it comes to immigration, with diverging Republican and Democratic parties staking out more radical positions than their immediate predecessors. Ignoring Lindsey Graham’s (R-SC) prediction that “ “We are not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term,” the GOP doubled -down in the opposite direction proposed by the 2012 Republican Growth & Opportunity Project, aka the Autopsy Report, that advised embracing minorities after Mitt Romney’s loss to Barack Obama. Instead, they reverted post-2014 to the 1920s, treating Central American asylum-seeking families inhumanely at the border while peppering their rhetoric with spurious charges of disproportionate criminality among undocumented workers and seeking to curtail legal immigration from the developing world. There are currently three main paths to legal immigration: family connections (75%), employment opportunities/skilled workers (20%), and refugees/asylum-seekers (5%) with some lottery mixed in. Donald Trump’s administration wanted to lessen the family chain migrations and lowered the refugee cap of those “yearning to be free” from 95k to 15k annually because “we’re full” and they preferred migrants from “places like Norway.” National Review wrote that refugee immigration had become a racket with State Department-sanctioned organizations like World Relief and Catholic Charities getting paid by the head to find refugees and land them spots on the list. According to a former Breitbart employee, Trump’s immigration adviser Stephen Miller had ties to white nationalism, a movement committed to keeping America majority white. Miller found inspiration in the dystopian novel Camp of Saints (1973), which depicts dark-skinned, “turd-eating” immigrant murderers who conquer Europe while resisting assimilation. The book returned to best-seller lists in the 2010s, promoted by Miller, Trump strategist Steve Bannon, Congressman Steve King (R-IA), and French National Rally leader Marine Le Pen. In 2021, the America First Caucus formed by representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) and Paul Gosar (R-AZ) declared that it would have to “sacrifice some sacred cows” to preserve America’s Anglo-Saxon heritage, meeting with swift rebuttals from mainstream Republicans and Democrats.

    Some Democrats have swung as far left on immigration as the GOP has swung right (see Peter Beinart’s optional article below). Progressive Democrats, in effect, endorse open international borders with sanctuary cities in defiance of federal law and promises of aid to any-and-all comers — aid that the U.S. couldn’t afford on a large scale. Most progressives don’t openly support open borders, but neither do they openly support enforcing the border with either humans or physical barriers or enforcing illegal immigration within the states. On immigration, at least, Ronald Reagan and both Bushes would be too liberal to run as Republicans today and Bill Clinton and Obama would be too conservative to run in the primaries as Democrats, as would Bernie Sanders ca. 2015. P rior to 2016, the GOP supported the post-1965 immigration laws and Democrats honored the right of the U.S. to police its borders. The debate was narrower — mainly over how or if to naturalize undocumented immigrants and their children (Dreamers), with bipartisan support as late as 2019 for granting citizenship to Dreamers in good legal standing who’d met certain educational or military requirements. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, aka DACA, provided a two-year reprieve for children but no path to citizenship. On the heels of Obama’s 2012 defeat of Romney, Trump and journalist Sean Hannity supported progressive immigration reform, with Hannity noting that he’d evolved on the issue. However, Bannon’s Breitbart website proved more in touch with populist conservatives and the rest of the GOP followed suit, especially after the defeat of pro-reform House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) in 2014. While this pushback came on the heels of increased immigration, it didn’t kick in politically until numbers were declining (PEW), then steadying. In 2020, the Supreme Court shot down the Trump administration’s attempt to end DACA. Trump’s promise to restrict immigration and his successor Joe Biden’s promise to loosen restrictions both triggered waves of Central America asylum-seekers, anxious to get across before laws changed in one direction or the other. In 2021, Biden tasked VP Kamala Harris with traveling to Central America and Mexico to discourage emigration and explore options for entrepreneurial aid and anti-corruption reform.

    Historian Johann Neem wrote: “We need to talk about immigration policy honestly and openly. Immigrants create jobs they also compete for them against Americans of all colors. Immigrants create wealth they also use public services. Immigrants ensure cultural vitality they can also place strains on cultural unity. A patriot and first-generation Indian-American immigrant, Neem writes autobiographically about these tensions in the optional article at the bottom of the chapter.

    The context and subtext animating this polarizing issue transcend jobs, budgets, culture, and crime (real or imagined) it is concern over future voting demographics. Unless they embrace diversity and appeal to conservative minorities per their 2012 Autopsy, then the whiter the country the better for the GOP and vice-versa for the Democrats. Texas is the epicenter with “red” Republicans hoping it doesn’t go in California’s direction and “flip blue.” Given the winner-takes-all nature of Texas’ electoral college, that would translate into certain presidential wins nationally for Democrats, who would then control New York, California, and Texas (despite some Rio Grande Valley Hispanics supporting the fossil fuel-backed GOP). The real underlying question in this debate is whether a nationwide, future majority coalition of minorities would mistreat or discriminate against a white plurality. So far, that hasn’t happened in modern California where that’s already the case. Yet, white Americans took advantage of initially liberal immigration policy to displace and disenfranchise Tejanos in northeast Mexico in the 1830s-󈧬s, showing that replacement can happen. For a skeptical take on modern white Texans’ fears, see the optional article below by Texas A&M immigration historian Walter Kamphoefner.

    Scopes Monkey Trial
    In the 1920s, new ideas also put off traditionalists, especially Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Many states forbade the teaching of evolution in public schools, including Tennessee with the 1925 Butler Act. In Dayton, Tennessee, businessmen and the school board thought they could drum up attention and tourist dollars by assigning a textbook with sections on evolution, extinction, and eugenics to a substitute public high school biology teacher, John Scopes. Evolution and extinction are intertwined ideas because they both deny the (unchanging) immutability of species implied in a fundamentalist reading of the Bible, instead endorsing transmutation and the idea that extinction is part of the evolutionary process. Had man really descended from the creatures that the Bible taught God had given man dominion over? While the idea that humans are animals took some getting used to, evolution was widely accepted after the 1870s and generated surprisingly little controversy in the late 19th century. The evidence, if not as incontrovertible as today, was persuasive to those who read Darwin or followed the research of real geneticists like Augustinian friar Gregor Mendel. What changed was the widespread advent of public high schools during the Progressive Era. Now mainstream Americans had to confront the theory and its unsettling implications.

    The case was somewhat of a farce insofar as the state had actually approved the text (despite the Butler Act) and Scopes wasn’t even sure at first if he’d taught anything having to do with evolution. Nonetheless, he agreed to go along with the case at the urging of the American Civil Liberties Union, who was advertising for a test case in the Chattanooga Times. The text, George William Hunter’s A Civic Biology (1914), would instead stand out today because of its racist eugenic passages, but the controversy at the time was over evolution. Scopes was indicted and the resulting Scopes “Monkey Trial” was perhaps the most famous in American history. It was the first trial broadcast on radio (WGN Chicago), creating a media sensation similar to the O.J. Simpson murder trial in 1994. It pit two high-profile attorneys against each other: agnostic Clarence Darrow of Chicago arguing for the defendant and Fundamentalist Christian William Jennings Bryan arguing for the plaintiff, Tennessee. You may recognize Bryan. He was a three-time Democratic presidential candidate (losing in 1896, 1900 and 1908), Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson and, some say, the inspiration for the Lion in Frank Baum’s Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

    Clarence Darrow (left) and William Jennings Bryan (right), ca. 1925 Dayton, Tennessee

    The Scopes trial pitted reason and modernity against faith and tradition, going straight to the heart of the rural-urban split in 1920s America. In a rare case where the defense cross-examined a counsel for the prosecution, Darrow grilled Bryan on the Bible, his supposed area of expertise. While Darrow was reared on the “Great Agnostic” Robert G. Ingersoll in his youth (Chapter 1), his superior Biblical knowledge allowed him to argue circles around the aging Bryan, who thought evolutionary theory opened the door for a ruthless, survival-of-the-fittest, capitalist society. As we saw in Chapter 3, by the Gilded Age, Darwin had been hijacked by Social Darwi nists to justify class warfare, so Bryan’s fears weren’t unwarranted. Not all Creationists are the same. Bryan was a “day-age” creationist insofar as he saw each of the seven days in the Genesis creation story as representing a long geological epoch, but he thought evolution constituted a slippery slope to atheism (right). Sadly, after several days arguing the high-profile case in the stifling heat of the crowded courtroom and then outdoors, the humiliated Bryan died in his sleep five days later. A few tourist dollars came in with a carnival atmosphere and even caged monkeys but, for the most part, the city planners’ gambit was a bust.

    At least Bryan and Tennessee won the case, though the State Supreme Court later acquitted Scopes. It was Pyrrhic victory for Fundamentalists since Darrow had cornered Bryan into admitting that he didn’t take everything in the Bible literally, but the case still galvanized their effort to keep evolution illegal in public schools up until the 1968 Epperson v. Arkansas Supreme Court case. Texas outlawed evolution in its public schools shortly after the Scopes case, spearheaded by Ma Ferguson. The debate continues today in the form of evolution/natural selection versus intelligent design or fine-tuned universe, “equal time,” and “teach the controversy” debates, with evolution’s inclusion in public school curriculums motivating many parents to home-school their children or send them to private schools. As for Dayton, Tennessee, they continue to cash in on “evo-tourism” dollars by hosting an annual Scopes Trial Play & Festival, vindicating the town fathers’ original strategy.

    Al Smith, Bain Collection-Library of Congress

    Democrats Divided
    Politically, Scopes wasn’t Democrat versus Republican mostly it was rural Democrats versus urban Democrats. In that charged rural/urban environment, Democrats failed to unite working classes on the national level in the 1920s. How could they, when they represented both intellectuals and Fundamentalists, and both ethnic immigrants from northern and Midwestern factories and mines and the remnants of the Confederacy that hated them? The Klan ran five state legislatures in the mid-1920s, not just in Texas and Oklahoma, but also Indiana, Colorado, and Oregon. The Democratic Solid South could dominate local and state elections, as could the Democratic machines of northern cities, but the two factions couldn’t find a common platform when they gathered for their national convention in New York’s Madison Square Garden to nominate a presidential candidate. The KKK tried to take over the boisterous 1924 Convention as northern Democrats failed to add anti-lynching legislation to the plank along with an outright denunciation of the Klan. This was an open convention, before primaries determined candidates ahead of time. The southern-and-western faction nominated William McAdoo of California and shouted “booze, booze, booze” at supporters of Irish Catholic New Yorker Al Smith because of his wetness (support for repealing Prohibition). Smith supporters chanted back “Ku Klux McAdoo” because he refused to denounce the Klan. Eventually, the Democrats nominated compromise candidate John Davis but he got annihilated by Calvin Coolidge in the electoral college as Progressive and ex-Republican Robert La Follette (P-WI) stole more votes from Davis than Coolidge.

    The same was true in 1928, when Al Smith won the Democratic nomination. As he campaigned across the South, Texans and Oklahomans jeered and pelted him with rotten fruit — the preferred projectile of rural Americans who wanted to harass but not seriously harm others. Many southern Democrats didn’t appreciate his (mild) New York accent, religion, or wetness. Bob Jones, founder of the South Carolina college bearing his name, spoke for some reactionaries when he said of the Yankee, “I’d rather have a n****r in the White House than see Al Smith as president.” Scores of other conservative Protestants didn’t share Jones’ bigotry and Smith won some Southeastern states, but Herbert Hoover dominated the North and won the presidency. Democrats struggled to unite a diverse coalition under a single umbrella and lost three presidential elections in the 1920s. Comedian Will Rogers quipped, “I belong to no organized political party…I’m a Democrat.” Rogers also captured the hypocrisy and indecision over Prohibition, joking that his home state of Oklahoma “would vote dry for as long as people can stagger to the polls.”

    L-R: President Warren G. Harding, First Lady Mrs. Florence Harding, Mrs. Grace Goodhue Coolidge, Vice President Calvin Coolidge, ca. 1921, National Photo Company-Library of Congress

    GOP In Control
    The GOP was better suited to the laissez-faire (free market) tendencies of booming economies, anyway, and the 1920s were booming. They didn’t repeal the Progressive legislation of the previous thirty years, though. That’s because Progressivism hadn’t killed off business so much as it improved life for workers and strengthened the middle class, laying the foundation for 1920s prosperity. A decently paid workforce with more time off provided the customers to buy products as the U.S. moved toward a consumer-driven economy. Still, the country’s prevailing political mood was to let the vibrant new economy run without further interference. Of three Republican presidents in a row – Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover – the first two, especially, shared their Secretary of Treasury Andrew Mellon’s view that Washington shouldn’t be poking around Wall Street or the wider economy. Mellon cut the top tax rate from 77 to 24% and loosened up stock market restrictions, allowing investors to leverage their bets by going in debt, or on margin (you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to suspect that we’ll hear more about that in the next chapter).

    Calvin [“Get Cool with”] Coolidge, future president Ronald Reagan’s second-favorite president behind Franklin Roosevelt, captured the era’s tone when he said, “The chief business of the American people is business.” Other than farming, which suffered due to the rebuilding of Europe after the war and dry weather, Harding and Coolidge presided over a strong economy that manufactured nearly half the world’s goods. Like China and Southeast Asia today in the popular imagination, the U.S. was the “workshop of the world” (really, it’s still the U.S.). Even wheat farming on the Southern Plains boomed until drought set in. Underlying the strong industrial economy was electricity going mainstream, now a half-century after Thomas Edison first developed an efficient light bulb and a century after Georg Ohm and Michael Faraday laid the groundwork for electrical engineering.

    New Industrialism
    Building out the electrical grid not only powered homes, offices, and factories, but the whole economy insofar as it created markets for electronic appliances. Most of America was juiced by 1930, augmenting the already thriving Industrial Revolution. Replacing steam engines, electric “dynamos” powered factory assembly lines, many dedicated to making plug-in appliances like refrigerators, washers/dryers, vacuum cleaners, and radios that themselves ran on electricity. Two years after the first radio station went on air in Pittsburgh in 1920 (KDKA), Americans spent $60 million on radios, parts, and accessories. Not only did new sectors open up in consumer durables, but also electricians were needed to wire homes and buildings. Times were good for both management and labor, as the 40-hour work-week became the norm for blue-collar workers. Railroad workers won the right to the eight-hour day and time-and-a-half for overtime with the Adamson Act of 1916. Other industries followed suit when the Supreme Court upheld the Act’s constitutionality.

    Power Company Setting Pole, Southern California, 1915, Source: Water & Power Associates

    Some lucky office workers labored in better conditions, too, because of air conditioning. AC, along with elevators and telephones, enabled skyscrapers, making it bearable to work on high floors that would otherwise get too warm and be too hard to get to by stairs. Willis Carrier introduced the first real system at a movie theater in New York in 1929. Hollywood was suffering from lower ticket sales in the summer because theaters were too stuffy. No AC, no summer blockbusters. Carrier modeled home units at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. Air conditioning raised worker productivity, home comfort levels — probably lengthening lives — and CO² levels in the atmosphere (but only about half as much as heaters). Air conditioning contributed to the demise of front porch socializing but also to Southern industrialization. Textile mills, for instance, could now set up nearer cotton fields. Assembly lines moved south as well. James Duke made over four million cigarettes per day in Durham, North Carolina. Steel mills like those in Pittsburgh, Gary, Baltimore, and Cleveland popped up in Birmingham, Alabama after the discovery of hematite (red ore) at nearby Red Mountain.

    Ultimately, AC led to a demographic shift in America away from the industrial Northeast toward the Sunbelt, booming cities like Miami, Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, and Phoenix. This occurred gradually over the next century, accelerated by the interstate highway system’s construction in the 1950s-󈨀s. In 1909, Las Vegas had fewer than a thousand residents. It would’ve stayed that way without air conditioning, better highways, and construction of Hoover Dam (next chapter).

    Meanwhile, Clarence Birdseye’s breakthroughs led to prepackaged foods when he figured out how to flash-freeze food without destroying nutrients and flavor. His epiphany came when living among the Inuit fishermen of Labrador, among whom he discovered that the quicker the freezing process, the smaller the ice crystals the smaller the crystals the fewer the nutrients lost and flavor destroyed. America had entered the age of frozen foods, making two-income families more practical because they sped up meal preparation, just as electric washers and dryers sped up and simplified laundry. Today, flash-frozen is more nutritious than all but the most freshly-picked produce.

    Auto Industry & Henry Ford
    In manufacturing, Henry Ford led the way among dozens of automakers around Detroit, Michigan, aka the “Motor City.” He, too, moved to eight-hour shifts in the 1910s, increasing production in the process. Ford didn’t invent the automobile (that honor goes to German Karl Benz) but he was a brilliant mechanic and businessman who understood the need to build an affordable, practical car for the masses. Ransom Olds had a similar notion and started building the Oldsmobile Curved Dash on an assembly line in 1901, but Ford’s post-1911 line, engineered by Danish immigrant William Knudsen, was bigger and powered by electricity — similar in scope to a meatpacking plant except in reverse: assembling cars rather than disassembling pigs and cows. While most early “horseless carriage” makers were obsessed with winning races, Olds and Ford realized the potential mass-market appeal of cars long before roads, bridges, and gas stations were there to service them. Ironically, Ford had to win races to make a name for himself in the auto industry and attract investors “win on Sunday, sell on Monday,” as the saying went. Racing stayed relevant as the testing ground of cars, leading to innovations like the rearview mirror, disc brakes, seat belts, and fuel injection.

    Ford wasn’t trying to spur the growth of cities, highways, and suburbs. Rather, he thought cars could save rural America by making it easier for farm families to get around. He understood the isolation of rural life and rightly thought that improved transportation would make living in the country more amenable. Despite a limited education, Ford knew his way around the courtroom, too. He was among the first to profit from the government’s anti-trust movement, as he won a case in 1911 against the ALAM (Association of Licensed Automobile Manufacturers) cartel that controlled automotive patents, the same year the government broke up Standard Oil. He also branched out beyond cars. As with horseless carriages, Ford didn’t invent tractors but he was first to mass-produce them (Fordsons). He was involved in the advent of modern supermarkets and airports and started a utopian rubber plantation in Brazil called Fordlândia — utopian not so much for the workforce but for securing Ford cheap supplies of rubber (vertical integration). He had hopes for mass marketing planes he called “flying flippers,” as flipper was slang for car. The first passenger airline, Stout Air Services (1925-30), connected Ford’s Dearborn airport to Cleveland and Grand Rapids. But earth-bound flippers were Ford’s bread and butter.

    Ford synthesized the assembly-line systems pioneered by Olds and meatpackers and attention to detail and efficiency promoted by Frederick Winslow Taylor and Richard Sears. He started Ford Motor Company in 1903, working his way through the alphabet with Models A-S. Each had a weakness he was dissatisfied with until he finally struck gold with the two-speed, four-cylinder, 20 HP Model T in 1908, a game-changing machine in world history. At his Highland Park plant outside Detroit, Ford tinkered with production just as he tinkered with transmissions. Gone were the movers and pushers of his early garages, replaced first by a rolling track, then gravity, and finally by an electric conveyor belt moving in front of stationary workers as Ford hovered nearby with his stopwatch. Precision engineering was key, as there was no time to stop and file down parts that didn’t fit. Ford also streamlined his engine, removing the water pump and need for a fuel pump by making sure the gas tank was higher than the engine. By 1923, his crew could bang out a Model T every 15-40 seconds, with each car taking about an hour-and-a-half to build start-to-finish. Ford built parts in Michigan and distributed knock-down kits for assembling Model T’s in West Coast cities, Japan, and throughout Europe and Latin America.

    Between 1908 and 1927, 15 million “Tin Lizzies” rolled off the assembly line. Because of efficiency of scale, the price plummeted from $850 to $260, making it affordable for the middle-classes. By the mid-20’s there was a market in used cars, offering mobility to the lower middle-classes. The Model T chassis could be converted into pickups, delivery trucks, etc. They proved their durability as ambulances on the Western Front in World War I. Each no-frills car came with few options outside the toolkit under the driver’s side seat. At first, even windshields were optional. Its hand-cranked magnetic generator powered the lights and ignited the engine. With few mechanics, owners had to do most of their maintenance and just starting it was a tedious 10-step process. Without a fuel pump, the car could run out of gas on extended inclines. Drivers adventuring west as “sagebrushers” needed trailers to haul extra gear, making their outfits look like a cross between a modern SUV and 19th-century covered wagon. In 1915, the AAA advised motorists to check loose nuts and bolts before every trip, know how to change brake pads, and keep gas, oil, two spares, two jacks, chains, copper wire, extra spark plugs, and a spade, axe, and rope in their vehicle at all times. Yet, while it doesn’t look the part to modern eyes, the Model T was sturdy enough to handle dirt and gravel roads in an era with few paved roads. For that matter, the Western Front in WWI didn’t have paved roads between trenches and field hospitals. Ford started building enclosed passenger cabins after the Essex company pioneered the trend away from open touring cars in 1922.

    Ford paid decent wages but turned his line up to maximum capacity at around one foot per minute. He disallowed talking, laughing, or whistling on the line. Although the work required more mechanical skill than commonly thought, it was monotonous. Despite being among the first factory owners to give employees two days a week off (1926), many workers couldn’t take the grind, leading to high turnover known as “Forditis.” He also reserved the right for his Sociological Department to enter workers’ homes to make sure they were clean and that the workers were married and weren’t drinking, spending their paychecks frivolously, or sending checks back to their home countries. If this sounds extreme, understand that today’s companies have the right to secretly screen, test, spy on, and track employees in ways that would make Ford blanch. At least he was transparent.

    Immigrants studied at Ford’s own ESL school before graduating at the Pageant of the Ford Melting Pot, in which students in native costumes went into a giant pot where teachers stirred giant spoons before graduates emerged in American clothes waving a U.S. flag. Such proactive assimilation wasn’t just a Gentile project. Jewish Hungarian Joseph Pulitzer’s [New York] World featured guides for fellow immigrants to American styles, customs, and etiquette (his paper also raised funds among children for the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal). In 1914, Ford raised wages to $5/day, or what comes to around $14.50/hr. or $30k/year gross, adjusted for inflation — exactly double the 2015 minimum wage. He paid African-Americans 90¢ on the white dollar, which was nearly unheard of elsewhere in the country and contributed to the Great Migration. However, they had to perform the most dangerous tasks of pouring steel in the foundry and lifting engines. Ford argued that good pay makes workers less likely to quit and better able to afford the cars themselves. Unlike Karl Marx or the 19th-century industrialists he condemned, Ford saw workers not just as the exploited proletariat but rather as potential consumers. His assembly line workers drove Model-T’s. For Ford, that included minorities and the immigrants from Poland, Russia, and the Middle East that he assimilated.

    Many working-class Americans idolized Ford because he’d done so well for himself despite not having gone past 8th grade. The more the press rode him for his ignorance of American history, etc., the more common people rallied behind him. But Ford’s melting pot workforce belied deeper bigotry. His anti-Semitism showed the underbelly of intellectual ignorance and he took advantage of his stature to spread that ignorance. Ford dealerships across the country distributed his Dearborn Independent weekly that explained how Jewish people were destroying the country and world. This was typical fare: “The Jews are the scavengers of the country…wherever there’s anything wrong with the country, you’ll find the Jews on the job there.” The paper ran Protocols of the Elders of Zion in serial form, a translated forgery from Czarist Russia depicting a Jewish conspiracy to take over the economy and media. The KKK bound and published 96 of the articles as The International Jew, the World’s Foremost Problem. Whereas the Protocols perpetuated the myth that Jews drank children’s blood during Passover, QAnon posits that liberal conspirators are operating a cannibalistic, child sex-trafficking ring, likewise appealing to maternalism.

    According to testimonies at the Nuremberg Trials after the Holocaust, The International Jew influenced Nazi ideology. The works attracted the attention of Adolf Hitler, who had a photo of Henry Ford in his office and who had him write the forward to his American edition of Mein Kampf. Nazis awarded the aging industrialist the Grand Cross of the German Eagle in 1938. His subsidiary in Germany, Ford Werke, worked Jewish slaves. Ford, then, represented not only the efficiency of the new industrialism but also the xenophobia of the 1920s. For him, Jews were “mere hucksters…traders who didn’t want to produce, but make something out of what someone else produces.” But Ford wasn’t a Nazi himself he’d even been somewhat of a pacifist when he tried to organize peace talks to end World War I. Stay tuned to this story because, despite his toxic and influential anti-Semitism, and despite helping to sustain and sanction Nazism by bridging the U.S. and Germany, Ford’s manufacturing technique contributed to America’s victory in WWII.

    River Rouge Ford Plant, Dearborn, Michigan, ca. 1927, Library of Congress

    Despite Ford’s anti-Semitism, Jewish architect Albert Kahn designed the Highland Park plant and its successor. From 1916 to 1928, Ford and Kahn built the largest factory in world history at River Rouge, near Ford’s farm outside Detroit. It was a model of vertical integration, complete with its own blast furnaces to smelt ore, foundries, tool works, power plant, fire department, security, and railroad connections to feed its 120 miles of conveyors belts. They dredged the nearby river to allow for freighters. The plant used more water daily than the cities of Detroit, Cincinnati, and New Orleans combined and employed 75k workers. Though he and Kahn conceived this colossal vanguard of industrialization, the River Rouge Complex was so gigantic, noisy, and heartless that Ford grew to hate it and gradually quit visiting. He put his time into a nostalgic 19th-century village called Greenfield and transplanted to the village his original small factory, the Wright Brothers’ bicycle shop from Dayton, Ohio, and his idol Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park from New Jersey. Today, it’s the biggest museum in America. Like Tesla, Ford worked for Edison but, unlike Tesla, Edison supported Ford’s ventures.

    In the 1910s, Ford sold over half the cars in the world, but a consortium of other manufacturers including Pontiac, Buick, Oldsmobile, and Cadillac formed General Motors (GM) to whittle away at Ford’s market share. Cadillac was the remnant of one of Ford’s own earlier companies. GM tried to buy out Ford, too, but his $3 million asking price was too high. Walter Chrysler retooled GM along the lines of Ford’s efficient assembly. After GM ousted its CEO, William Durant, Durant hired Swiss racer/designer Louis Chevrolet (right) to form his own company and, after Durant bought enough stock to regain leadership in GM, Chevrolet joined GM. Ford’s chief engineers, Horace and John Dodge, were unhappy that Ford never paid out dividends to his original minority investors (including the Dodge brothers), instead reinvesting back into the company. Ford hired his son Edsel as president to send fear into Wall Street, driving down Ford’s price enough that he could buy back his minority investors’ stock cheaply until he owned 100% of it himself (for perspective, consider that John Rockefeller never owned more than 25% of Standard Oil). Edsel was an innovative engineer and had a mind for business, but Henry never intended on letting his son run the company for as long as he was alive the stock ruse was a classic “poop and scoop” as opposed to the reverse “pump and dump.” The Dodge Brothers, whom Ford bought out for $25 million, left to form their own company but both died from flu complications at the end of World War I. Chrysler, who didn’t get along with Durant, then left GM and bought Dodge, renaming it Chrysler. There were hundreds of early car companies, but clear winners emerged by the 1920s that enjoyed an economy of scale and resources for efficient mass production. The “Big Three” that dominated for the next half-century was in place: Ford, GM, and Chrysler.

    GM and Chrysler/Dodge attacked Ford where he was weakest: the stodgy Model T never changed and its 20 HP engine wasn’t very strong. The Dodge brothers introduced the 35 HP all-steel unibody chassis Model 30 Series, which became a favorite of moonshiners during Prohibition. General Motors pioneered hydraulic brakes and electric starters while Ford stuck with mechanical brakes (friction) and the hard-to-use hand crank until 1919. GM excelled at planned obsolescence, introducing different colors and yearly model changes into a sector that suffered from too much durability. If Ford sold practicality, GM under Alfred P. Sloan marketed the aspirational. To maintain status, upwardly-striving Americans could dream of moving up the chain from Chevy to Cadillac. The other two companies followed GM’s tier business model, with Ford adding Mercury and Lincoln on top while Chrysler slotted Dodge and Plymouth below.

    Ford stubbornly refused yearly model changes at first, even firing advisors who suggested it. As for paint, he once said customers “could have any color they’d like as long as it was black” (that dried faster). Henry shot down and ridiculed Edsel’s ideas and Knudsen left for GM in 1924. Finally, by 1927, Ford discontinued the Model T and diversified into the revived Model A, built at River Rouge with an electric starter and available in a range of colors on installment plans. Edsel (right) designed the Model A and widened the valves to give it 40 HP but Henry took the credit and resented his son’s contribution. GM experimented briefly with the more powerful eight-cylinder engine, but Ford was first to mass-produce the iconic V8 in 1932. By now, he’d also publicly recanted his anti-Semitism because, as he un-remorsefully explained on his deathbed, “too many Jews were driving Chevys.” In his last interview in 1947, he said, “I’ll take my factory down brick by brick before I’ll let any Jew speculators get stock in the company.”

    Automobiles came to occupy a similar place in the American economy that trains had earlier. Cars and trucks were not only big businesses for manufacturers and dealers, they also provided markets for steel, rubber, oil, gas, upholstery, mechanics, and road builders. That fact made news in 2009 as the government debated bailing out General Motors. For every job at GM, there were ten more from companies feeding into GM. After the 1920s, cities built suburbs around highways, shopping malls went up at highway intersections, and drive-in restaurants, theaters, and dry cleaners sprouted up along roads. Better roads and cars gave rise to family vacations that had previously been limited to train routes. Dating habits changed, despite Ford shrinking the Model T’s backseat to restrict procreation. Cars ushered in modern American life and were more important than any other industry in boosting the economy. Most cities had streetcars early in the twentieth century but, outside of Chicago and the East Coast — where density made subways and urban rail practical — cities abandoned or tore up most tracks and replaced them with highways as Americans came to favor cars and trucks. Buses filled in the gaps for other commuters. The state and federal governments taxed gasoline to pay for a new system of bridges and paved highways made of concrete or asphalt, a sticky petroleum by-product mixed with gravel.

    L-R: Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, President Warren G. Harding, and Harvey S. Firestone, 1921, NYT Photo Archive

    Los Angeles was the most notorious and influential example of car culture, where a city (or series of cities in their case) destroyed mass transit infrastructure in favor of freeways. Critics since have bemoaned the L.A. Streetcar Conspiracy because the city took money from GM and oil and tire companies, and GM actually bought the trains to destroy them. But the public was trending in that direction anyway, as people preferred the freedom cars afforded them. Later, freeway and street congestion and limited parking offset the freedom of cars, so western cities like L.A., Portland, Seattle-Tacoma, Denver, Dallas, and Phoenix scrambled to rebuild the mass transit they’d taken out earlier in the 20th century.

    As mentioned, we’ll revisit Ford when examining World War II. Before that, novelist Aldous Huxley depicted a world converted to “Fordism” in his dystopian Brave New World (1932). His new World State is centered on mass production, standardization, and consumption, with time measured in A.F. for after Ford and people exclaiming “By Ford!” in reference to their creator. The Christian crucifix has been lopped off to form a T, as in Model T. Unlike George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), that depicts a totalitarian government, Huxley’s World State placates and modifies citizens with drugs and psychological conditioning, manipulating desire rather than inflicting pain. Whereas the government burns books in Orwell’s 1984, there’s no need to in Brave New World because a blissed-out, air-headed consumerism has obliterated any desire to read.

    Ford influenced other industries, like Harley-Davidson motorcycles, Hershey Co. chocolate (eventually 25 million Kisses® per day), Coca-Cola®, Wrigley gum, and Max Factor’s makeup. All applied mass-production assembly line systems and built global businesses, and all had five-day, 40-hour weeks and paid fair wages in a safe workplace. Hershey recycled George Pullman’s old idea of a nice company town, with schools, churches, parks, sports arena, country club, and zoo. In Pittsburgh, Heinz offered healthcare insurance, starting the employer-funded model that went mainstream during World War II and continues today with mixed results.

    With improved working conditions and fewer hours, a new consumer market for mass entertainment emerged in the 1920s. The years after WWI saw the convergence and maturation of key inventions and industries, including movies, records, and radio (or “wireless”). Motion pictures started to come of age in the 1910s, but the ’20s saw the first large-scale proliferation of theaters. By the early 󈧢s, they were often air-conditioned at a time when few homes were, making them summer retreats. Theaters were owned by big companies that churned out movies on an assembly line of their own called the studio system. The vertically integrated studios not only owned the theaters, they also owned the actors, in a sense, whom they kept under contract. Stars rarely branched out on their own with talent agencies until after WWII.

    The 1920s saw the first generation of movie stars, most notably Mary Pickford and comedians Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. All movie buffs should see Keaton classics Sherlock, Jr. (1924) and The General (1926). By 1927, engineers discovered how to merge film and sound, creating the first talkies and driving many actors/actresses out of the business whose accents didn’t fit the WASP ideal. Movie stars weren’t the only ones who could be filmed. Film magnified the advantage of performing unlikely feats like walking on a trapeze wire, escaping out of a coffin thrown into a river, or flying stunts. Keaton also did his own hair-raising stunts. The dancers doing the Charleston on a skyscraper beam we mentioned at the top of the chapter wouldn’t have risked their lives if they weren’t showing off for a camera. Escape artists like Harry Houdini, a poor immigrant from Hungary, made a living by daring escapes, but it wouldn’t have paid the bills or attracted live audiences for upcoming stunts if film hadn’t spread his feats to millions.

    Radio had an equally big impact after improvements in vacuum tube technology. By 1930, 60% of Americans owned one, transforming sports, entertainment, and — as we’ll see in coming chapters — politics. Radio brought large spectator sports like baseball, prizefights, horse races, and college football into Americans’ living rooms for the first time. By increasing interest in sports, radio paradoxically led to greater attendance at live events. Broadcasting the 1921 World Series between the Giants and Yankees, for instance, boosted attendance at ballparks the next year. Prior to radio, only people in big cities who went to games ever experienced major league baseball and there were no big-league teams in the South or West. Everyone else had to follow box scores in newspapers the next day and boys collected player cards from cigarette boxes. Radio and advent of the home run fence re-energized an already popular game, turning stars like the Yankees’ Babe Ruth into household names. Ruth’s notorious drinking and womanizing symbolized the decade’s trademark hedonism. In St. Louis, KMOX’s 50k-watt AM transmitter broadcast Cardinals games across the Midwest and as far south as Texas, creating a regional fan base.

    Babe Ruth, 1920, Library of Congress

    Colleges now had sufficient alumni to fund and take an interest in football, which grew into a big sport before its professional counterpart. In an age of WASP dominance, Notre Dame rallied underdog Catholics all over the country, generating a national following for the small Indiana school as the nation tried to stem Catholic immigration with the 1924 Immigration Act. Notre Dame thrived even as the Ku Klux Klan led anti-Catholic marches through its town of South Bend, Indiana. They exploited the situation by taking trains to opponents on the West Coast and New York (Army) to attract nationwide radio-listening fans and recognition for their team. In Los Angeles, a small Methodist school built a good team first, then used the proceeds to build most of their campus. Today, USC (Southern Cal) remains a football powerhouse.

    At first, most other radio entertainment was 19th-century fair — minstrel shows making fun of Blacks, vaudeville comedy, etc. — with occasional live music broadcasts. But eventually, stations realized they didn’t need to broadcast live comedians, bands, or orchestras. Show hosts derisively termed disc jockeys just played records into the radio instead. The advent of radio coincided with the mass production of records, whereas prior to 1902 each had to be individually recorded in other words, every early phonograph wax cylinder or gramophone disc was an original live recording, often hand-signed (sometimes they would record two or three at once). By the 1920s, radio introduced audiences to recording artists, who got a boost in their record sales and attendance at live shows. Long before American Idol, iPods®, downloads, and streaming, this radio-record business model sustained various waves of popular music through most of the 20th century, with jazz, blues, and country being the first to profit in the 1920s. Bars, juke joints, and honky-tonks without live music had jukeboxes, into which billions of dollars worth of nickels dropped annually by the 1940s. Advertising evolved beyond the printed page as companies sponsored radio shows, setting the stage for television ads in the coming decades.

    Jazz had both African and European roots. It sprung mainly from African-American slave hollers, spirituals, blues, and ragtime. After the Spanish-American War in 1898, military bands coming back into the U.S. via New Orleans traded their brass instruments at pawnshops in the Crescent City’s red-light district of Storyville. Street musicians picked up the instruments and (mixed raced) Creoles familiar with European melody invented a new art form, sometimes called “hot tunes” or “jungle” or “devil music” because of its association with Blacks and Creoles. Henry Ford called it “moron music,” claiming it was a Jewish conspiracy to Africanize America. At first, producers relied on white musicians for formal recordings and even the “king of jazz” was named Paul Whiteman (no pun intended). For that matter, “blacked up” [blackface] Whites had been singing African-American music in minstrel shows for years. But then the Great Migration brought the music to Kansas City, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and New York, where Blacks made their own records. Trumpeter/Corneter Louis Armstrong, for instance, grew up in Storyville and moved to Chicago’s South Side, then New York. Dozens of jazz greats honed their chops in Kansas City, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia before migrating to New York.

    Armstrong recorded his first solo tracks for King Oliver’s band at Gennett Records in Indianapolis in 1925. Little did the group know that their producer, Ezra Wickemeyer, was a Klansman. Weeks later Gennett recorded “The Bright Fiery Cross,” a popular record as the KKK spread across the Midwest in the 1920s. For Wickemeyer, there was no conflict between rural and urban or black and white as long as the money was green. The term jazz evolved from the word Jas, meaning sex. Whatever its name, it made people move and various dance crazes came and went such as the Charleston. In American Mercury, African-American Rudolph Fisher described Whites doing the Charleston as an “epidemic of negroism,” noting that “maybe these Nordics have at last tuned into our wavelength…are at last learning to speak our language.”

    Dancing dovetailed well with speakeasies (illegal bars during Prohibition) since women were frequenting drinking establishments for the first time. Traditional saloons were purely male sanctuaries but they declined in favor of mixed-sex clubs, including jazz bars and country honky-tonks. Speakeasies were also more likely to integrate racially than the old legal saloons (why not break two laws at once?). Duke Ellington’s band entertained white audiences who “went uptown” from lower Manhattan to Harlem’s Cotton Club, a famous speakeasy during the 1920s. Whites in the know understood that black clubs offered a higher grade of entertainment. Ellington even wrote a song entitled “Take the A Train” for those who took a common subway route north to Harlem. An entire artistic community emerged in Harlem, with writers, poets, and painters joining musicians to create the Harlem Renaissance. Harlem was so associated with African-American culture that when Abe Saperstein formed a group of barnstorming black basketball players in Chicago, he named them the Harlem Globetrotters.

    Blind Lemon Jefferson, ca. 1926

    Blues, too, had roots in African-American and slave history. Artists like Robert Johnson, Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, and Texan Blind Lemon Jefferson sold as many records as their jazz counterparts. Though less famously associated with the ’20s than jazz, blues is an equally American art form and had a bigger impact on later music like rhythm & blues and its “bleached” counterpart, rock & roll. A key transition artist between boogie-woogie R&B and rock was Fats Domino, unsurprisingly also from New Orleans.

    The radio and record combination commercialized country music, as well, especially that broadcast from the coast-to-coast 50k-watt towers at WSL in Chicago and WSM in Nashville. WSM’s weekly shows from the legendary Grand Ole Opry helped make that city the capital of country & western recording. Country, also known as “white man’s soul,” “old-time,” or “three chords and a beer,” had deep roots in history as well, tracing to the fiddle music of the British Isles and adopting banjos from African Americans and guitars that Muslims had originally brought to Spain. The first great country act, the Carter Family, borrowed from black gospel, including what later morphed into folksinger Woody Guthrie’s iconic Depression-era hit “This Land Is Your Land.” The second great country singer of the radio-record era was Jimmie Rodgers, known as the “Singing Brakeman” for his earlier job on southern railroads and his use of yodeling from Germany/Switzerland. Rogers cut “Blue Yodel #1 [T for Texas]” for the Victor Talking Machine Company (RCA) in 1927. Accordion-playing German immigrants and Hispanics in Texas also influenced country music, as did Hollywood’s “singing cowboys” (e.g. Gene Autry), lending the western to Country & Western. Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys incorporated Harlem Swing to country, creating Western Swing. As a teenager, Willie Nelson promoted shows for Bob Wills, carting a piano around in the back of his pickup.

    While rural audiences didn’t usually mix racially, Whites listened to jazz and blues and Blacks listened to country, setting the stage for more crossover music by mid-century. African-American country crooner Charley Pride grew up in Mississippi listening to the Grand Ole Opry on WSM. Yet, the purely American stew of Southern music was more integrated racially prior to records and radio, when marketers at studios like Okeh Records insisted on segregating “race” from “hillbilly” (instead of blackening their faces, some white musicians blackened their teeth to play hillbillies onstage). Nashville had the Opry but also Jefferson Street, a hotbed of African-American music, and, in the 1960s, the city broadcast both Hee Haw and Night Train. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. later said that part of the Civil Rights movement’s success traced to the popularity of black music among Whites.

    Prohibition Revisited
    Prohibition impacted the era in many ways beyond the speakeasies. As we saw in Chapter 4, it resulted from many causes dating back to the 19th century, including industrialization, domestic abuse, the Great Awakening, the Suffragist movement, anti-Catholic sentiment, and the advent of cars and trucks. The Ku Klux Klan’s rise added to those factors, as the Klan (even Klansmen that drank) helped tie alcohol to immigration. All these factors converged toward the end of WWI, resulting in the ban on the sale and distribution of alcohol throughout the U.S. There were numerous loopholes, though, for religious sacraments and prescriptions from doctors, dentists, veterinarians, and pharmacists. It was also legal to consume beer or liquor purchased before Prohibition kicked in. Male heads-of-household could attain permits to make 200 gallons of wine per year for personal consumption. Napa Valley vintners sold bricks of dried grape leaves with instructions, though the final product was often sub-par. Local winemaker Ernest Gallo described these concoctions as “something between grape juice in December and vinegar in June.” Some drinkers started taking communion that otherwise hadn’t, while some bootleggers even started their own churches. Others didn’t bother with the pretense and just sold moonshine, “hooch,” or fermented fruit juice at roadside stands in the country where a lookout could warn of police.

    In the South, “souped-up” (modified) engines could flee outmatched police cars and it’s no coincidence that stock car racing originated in Daytona Beach, Florida, near where bootleggers offloaded booze from offshore “rum runners.” (Today’s Daytona 500 is the successor of shorter races held on the beach.) With alcohol legal three miles offshore, “booze cruises” proliferated, seeding the post-Prohibition business of cruise vacations. In Chicago, Charles Walgreen’s drugstores took such advantage of the prescription loophole that they launched themselves into a national chain (whiskey was their preferred remedy). Urban speakeasies were the most famous symbols of Prohibition as outlawing alcohol doubled the number of New York City’s bars to 30k.

    Some speakeasies specialized in cocktails to mask the alcohol’s low quality. The government kept industrial alcohol legal but when people started drinking it they added methyl, making it even more poisonous. This “wood alcohol” inadvertently caused thousands of deaths and cases of blindness when the methyl converted to formaldehyde (methanal) inside drinkers’ bodies. Talented moonshiners could filter out the poison by re-distilling into ethyl (or grain) alcohol, resulting in a harsh taste one could mask with fruit juices, bitters, or grenadine — thus, the aforementioned hooch’s popularity or, in finer establishments, cocktails that faked aging with caramel color or burnt sugar. Popular drinks included the Sazerac, Whiskey Highball, Gin & Tonic, and French 75 (Tom Collins with Champagne).

    While Prohibition had some upside – decreased alcoholism, liver disease, and traffic accidents, at least initially (Chapter 4) – it spawned a massive black market and criminal culture where none had previously existed. How could it be otherwise when booze was the nation’s fifth-biggest industry prior to Prohibition? In Los Angeles, the police department and city hall actually ran the liquor racket. While gangs had a long history back east, involved in extortion, gambling, labor, and murder-for-hire, alcohol was the mother of all rackets. America’s homicide rate quintupled the first year of Prohibition as rival gangs jostled for turf. New York City had armed vigilantes patrolling the streets. Bootlegging spurred formation of the modern American Mafia in Chicago and New York, led by Lucky Luciano, Al Capone, and Meyer Lansky. The New York Mob organized into families called the Commission, while the Chicago Outfit paid out-gunned local judges, police, and public prosecutors to tolerate their bootlegging or just intimidated them. Cosa Nostra, as the American Sicilian Mafia called themselves, included gangs in outlying cities (e.g. Havana, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Kansas City, Dallas, New Orleans, Tampa, etc.) that answered to bosses in New York and Chicago. Organized crime will undoubtedly go on forever, but FBI-backed law enforcement decimated the Mafia’s power structure in the late 20th and early 21st centuries through a combination of wire-taps being made admissible as courtroom evidence, undercover agents, turned witnesses betraying the traditional omertà code of silence, and new RICO laws (1970- ) that outlawed the organization aspect of organized crime as opposed to just the crimes.

    Even in areas where Prohibition-era authorities weren’t on the take, they were undermanned against such brutal liquor rackets. America’s toughest-ever gun regulation, the National Firearms Act of 1934 (upheld in 1939’s U.S. v. Miller), banned machine guns, short-barreled rifles and shotguns, silencers and explosives like grenades, bombs, and poison gas, but only toward the tail-end of Prohibition. As we saw in Chapter 4, national and state authorities shoved responsibility off on each other, with the result that neither filled the void. In parts of the South, the KKK served as paramilitary enforcers of Prohibition in lieu of law enforcement but, while the Klan could be a rough bunch, they met their match with mobsters. By pushing for Prohibition, the KKK went after alcohol to get at immigrants in the same way that the Army killed buffalo to undermine Plains Indians in the late 19th century, but it backfired. Instead, Prohibition turned small-time hoodlums and thugs into efficient and ruthless capitalists. The speakeasies they owned and jazz music they sponsored were like a nightmare coming to life for Klansmen. The bad blood continued through the mid-20th century as some Southerners shielded their young from seeing the diverse and integrated Rat Pack started by the Dutch/English but vaguely un-WASPish-seeming Humphrey Bogart and including, among others, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin (Italian Catholics), and Sammy Davis, Jr. (Religiously Jewish African American). The Rat Pack ran with gangsters and photos of Sinatra and Sammy Davis hugging mocked the Klan’s hopes for a bleached America.

    Like the unregulated stock market and low tax rates of Andrew Mellon, Prohibition wasn’t destined to survive the changing of the guard when Franklin Roosevelt took over as president in 1933. One of his first actions was to re-legalize alcohol. By then, though, Prohibition had given rise to dance clubs, stock car racing, cocktails, Walgreen’s, ocean cruises, gun laws, and the Mafia.