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2020s vs. 1920s: Will History Repeat?


Century of Change

With the 2020s well underway, we're still looking to see how predictions in everything from  cars  to investments  play out — but also seeing similarities some parallels with what America experienced a century ago. That starts, of course, with a coronavirus pandemic that had striking similarities to the Spanish Flu pandemic that began in 1918 and continued into the early 1920s. Read on for more about that, and to see how history does and doesn't repeat itself in other ways, and share your reactions and observations in the comments.

Related:   12 Things We Can Learn From the Great Depression

1920s: The Spanish Flu

1920s: The Spanish Flu

In the fall of 1918, a mutated version  of the virus that claimed its first victims in the spring made its way around the world, causing the death rate to escalate quickly, eventually killing as many as 50 million people worldwide, 675,000 of those being U.S. citizens. During this time, the CDC says, "no coordinated pandemic plans existed in 1918. Some cities managed to implement community mitigation measures, such as closing schools, banning public gatherings, and issuing isolation or quarantine orders, but the federal government had no centralized role in helping to plan or initiate these interventions during the 1918 pandemic." The Spanish flu didn't truly end until sometime in the early part of 1920, and its repercussions were felt well beyond. 

2020: Coronavirus

2020: Coronavirus

Fast-forward 100 years to news that was eerily similar. The first coronavirus cases were reported in China just before the dawn of a new decade, and the pandemic continues, having killed an estimated 6.5 million , with about 1.1 million of those in the United States. Health care has made leaps and bounds in the century since the Spanish Flu, though, and the general population is better informed — and therefore able to implement life-saving measures — than those who lived 100 years ago.

1920s: Culture Wars

1920s: Culture Wars

As European economies recovered and the USA boomed in the wake of World War I, the number of Americans living in cities exceeded the number on farms for the first time. Many began to hold increasingly liberal views on drug use and sexuality, not to mention the equality of women and minorities. These cultural shifts provoked considerable backlash. "There are so many current trends that started in the 1920s," says Chip Rhodes, historian and author of “Structures of the Jazz Age.” "Pop cultural trends away from tradition toward a focus on entertainment and pleasure, [and] trends away from religion and ruralism toward studio-monopolized movies."

2020s: Culture Wars

2020s: Culture Wars

Americans are still ideologically polarized, but the intervening century has made it harder to define the battlefronts of a culture war along strictly geographic lines. "There's not so much a divide between urban and rural as a generational divide," says Jay David Bolter, a new media expert and professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He says digital media use among younger generations have entrenched this separation — the old filtering their perspective through television and film, the young through social media and video games. The urban and rural divide still exists on our political landscape , but expect that to get less clear-cut.

2020s: Finance

1920s: Finance

America's wealth more than doubled  in the years between 1920 and '29. Most of this wealth funneled into finance and industry, but enough trickled down to low-level employees to let them participate in a new consumer culture. According to Rhodes and other historians, the crash of '29 resulted from overproduction, "an inherent contradiction in consumer-oriented capitalism," with banks loaning more than they could cover and companies producing more than the middle or working classes could afford. The same excesses that powered the '20s became its downfall.

2020s: Finance

2020s: Finance

If the 2010s are akin to the 1920s – the decade of seeming financial prosperity belied by growing inequality – it might be reasonable to predict the 2020s mirroring the 1930s, when overspeculation came crashing down and economic woes came to the forefront. With corporate profits plateauing, financial prognosticators in 2019 were already trying to pinpoint  the start of the next crash. Now they have a war in Ukraine, persisting supply-chain issues, stubborn inflation, and a labor shortage to examine.

Related: What You Need to Know About Buying a House Now  

1920s: Alcohol Prohibition & Organized Crime

1920s: Alcohol Prohibition & Organized Crime

America's Temperance Movement achieved its primary goal Jan. 16, 1920, when the 18th Amendment's ban on making and selling intoxicating liquors took effect. Instead of going away, alcohol just went underground, with  speakeasies  replacing taverns and stronger moonshine supplanting milder forms such as beer. The continued demand meant the task of transporting and selling booze fell to criminal organizations that had been just petty street gangs before. Bootleggers and mob bosses such as Chicago's Al Capone amassed enough power to influence cops, lawyers, and politicians in their favor, and they consolidated into syndicates to control more turf. By the time Prohibition was repealed with the 21st Amendment in 1933, it was too late to pull the plug. Organized crime pivoted to income streams such as drugs, gambling, and prostitution.

Related: From Bootleggers to Checkered Flags: The History of NASCAR

2020s: The War on Drugs & Organized Crime

2020s: The War on Drugs & Organized Crime

Today, the legal market for alcohol is steady if not trending downward, given the renewed competition from recreational cannabis and rise of alternative beverage forms  such as hard seltzers. A more apt point of modern comparison to Prohibition might be the ongoing war on drugs. There are now whole economies powered by the illicit drug trade, particularly concentrated in southeast Asia's Golden Triangle. Such organizations' global spread and sophisticated use of digital technologies and international shipping services means they'll only become more elusive  to law enforcement agencies.

Drei Portiermadels

1920s: Cannabis

Marijuana really caught on in the 1920s, particularly among jazz musicians and others in show business. It gained prominence no doubt in part due to Prohibition's crackdown on alcohol, so while liquor bootleggers and speakeasies were under close legal scrutiny, cannabis clubs in major cities, or "tea pads ," were largely tolerated by authorities. It wasn't until 1930 that the U.S. Federal Bureau of Narcotics made the substance a primary target of its propaganda campaign, depicting users, particularly foreigners and minorities, as dangerous, violent addicts.

2020s: Cannabis

2020s: Cannabis

The 2010s saw a major turnaround in U.S. policy regarding cannabis  and non-psychoactive hemp, and the industries' continued development  is looking like one of the biggest economic stories of the 2020s. While researchers make up for nearly a century of lost time studying the crop and optimizing its applications for fiber, food, and medicine , people's polarized perceptions of the Schedule 1 substance appear to be changing.

Related: Surprising Facts About the Marijuana Industry

1920s: Income Gaps

1920s: Income Gaps

While swanky speakeasies  and flapper fashion styles were a part of the so-called Roaring Twenties, they existed in a context of widespread social and economic inequality that's easy to forget. Urbanization and new forms of mass media highlighted these wealth gaps, so struggling immigrants and rural workers were reminded of the luxury they lacked. "The most misrepresented developments [of the 1920s] are often about 'prosperity,'" Rhodes says, "which tend to focus attention on the wealthy and to ignore rampant poverty — a wealth gap much like the one that exists today."

2020s: Income Gaps

2020s: Income Gaps

The ultra-rich haven't possessed as great a share  of America's wealth as they do today since the Jazz Age. Yet again, new media forms — in this case the internet — have brought renewed attention to inequities in income and treatment by employers and law enforcement agencies. Without the same increasing prosperity as the 1920s, however, social mobility remains stalled , with a lessening supply  of stable jobs for even the well-educated. "If we don't figure out something about wealth disparities, there are many things that could go wrong," Rhodes says.

1920s: Technological Change

1920s: Technological Change

If World War I saw industrialization debut on the battlefield, the Jazz Age saw it enter the lives of average citizens. Fridges, vacuums, telephones, radios, and electricity all became household fixtures. These technological innovations connected people and populations across great distances, contributing to the cultural progress and tensions that played out throughout the decade.

Related: Products You Never Thought Would Be Obsolete

2020s: Technological Change

2020s: Technological Change

Culture is again being transformed by what might be called "digitization," merging computer processes with physical ones. A few specific predictions on what that might look like from Future Timeline  include internet use expanding to 5 billion worldwide, the proliferation of 5G connectivity , 3D printing becoming more common (particularly for medical purposes), and continued blurring of the lines between human and artificial intelligences. While technology promises to make some industrialists very rich, the ultimate impact on our overall physical, mental, and even economic health is still hotly debated .

Related: Things We Use All the Time That Didn't Exist 10 Years Ago

1920s: The Automation of Work

1920s: The Automation of Work

Despite the booming economy, many in the 1920s were fearful that new technologies and means of mass production would make human workers obsolete. The new focus on streamlining and efficiency meant workers did more monotonous single tasks to speed up production. "While making work more routinized, more alienating, mass production also led to increased wages," Rhodes says. "Henry Ford realized that he had to pay workers a wage that would enable them to be both workers and consumers. Long-term, it has gradually led to the disappearance of stable jobs that paid livable wages for workers."

2020s: The Automation of Work

2020s: The Automation of Work

People around the world again  live in fear  of being replaced by technology, specifically in the workplace. Automation and artificial intelligence are already making redundant many tasks that once depended on middle-skill occupational workers . It's not all fire and brimstone, however. Bobby Warren of  Budgeting Couple  predicts that AI will become more routine as a way to streamline financial decisions, and with "secured, read-only access to our bank and credit card accounts, they can scan our transactions, see what we are paying, and compare it with a database of users to see if we are overpaying. Look at what AI-based robo advisers are doing in the investment world" with trillions of assets under their management.

1920s: Consumer Culture

1920s: Consumer Culture

New modes of transportation and communication in the 1920s connected huge swaths of the population that had previously been isolated culturally and economically from one another. After the first commercial radio station launched in Pittsburgh  in 1920, more than 12 million households had radios by the end of the decade. Suddenly, people all across the nation could buy the same goods from the same makers and aspire to the same statuses, spawning a homogenized, geography-spanning "mass culture." "Mass consumption [endangered] local cultures," Rhodes says. "The influence of the movies and radio and magazines created desire for mass production commodities that were copies of what local residents had seen."

Instagram and Influencers

2020s: Consumer Culture

Looking ahead in the 21st century, mass consumption still reigns, but with some caveats — namely owing to the ongoing upheaval of digital outsourcing and Web-based business models. Social media and online advertising personalize what each consumer sees, while companies deploy increasingly sophisticated algorithms to monitor and predict our behavior, profiting from a one-sided exchange of data — the new currency  But even as companies profit from our digitization, we are able to use it to connect. As Bolter says, "You don't have to live in the same place anymore to be a community."

1920s: Transportation

1920s: Transportation

Though invented in Europe in the late 19th century, the automobile really took off in 1920s America. By 1928, 20% of Americans  owned a car, thanks in large part to the system of assembly line-style mass production introduced by Henry Ford to make his signature Model-T more affordable. This method of production combined with the automobile itself transformed the U.S. economy, bolstering existing industries and creating new ones. At the same time, transnational air travel was being proved viable by pioneers such as Charles Lindbergh, who completed the first solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927.

Related: The Greatest American Inventions of the Past 50 Year

2020s: Transportation

2020s: Transportation

More and more private companies (including Amazon's Blue Origin and Tesla's SpaceX) are wading into space travel, even designing consumer-oriented experiences such as those on offer  from Virgin Galactic. Meanwhile, car travel may be on the verge of transforming. Driverless trucks, taxis, and buses may yet  be in use  by the end of the next decade. A switch to electricity and other renewable energy sources is well underway, and more commuters may come to rely on ridesharing or other services that lower private car ownership. Finally, high-speed train travel could see some major innovations , such as through magnetic levitation, or "maglev," trains being developed in China and South Korea.

Related: Electric Cars That Are Cheaper Than a Tesla  

1920s: The Rise of Film

1920s: The Rise of Film

"The auto industry, personified by Henry Ford and mass production, and the film industry, personified by the stars, not the producers, used the same production process — and for the same reasons," Rhodes says. Cars, clothes, and movie attendance were all based on an appeal to luxury and leisure. Often showcasing an opulence the average citizen could now supposedly aspire to, silent movies spawned film's first enduring, nationally known celebrities before being displaced by sound films beginning in 1927. By the end of the decade, 95 million cinema tickets  had been sold, with an estimated three-quarters of America's population visiting every week.

Related: Historic Movie Theaters Across America

Netflix Subscription

2020s: The Demise of Film

The film medium — or at least Hollywood — is in an existential spiral. The only truly stable major studio remaining is Disney, a once-scrappy animation startup now gobbling up big-name competition such as 20th Century Fox to build audience using endless cross-format ties and series repackaging. "Movies still have an extremely large community, but there are lots and lots of people who don't belong to that community and don't follow what's happening in Hollywood the way they did, even into the '80s and '90s," Bolter says. Film won't go away in the 2020s, but it will keep transforming, likely into something less centralized and harder to categorize.

1920s: Feminism

1920s: Feminism

The 19th Amendment granting women suffrage took effect in August 1920, and the ensuing decade saw women asserting their independence culturally and economically. Millions began working in white-collar jobs and participating in a new consumer economy, while the emergence of birth control devices lessened the necessity of motherhood. "In general, the only tangible progress that followed in the wake of suffrage was the cultural progressivism of the flapper, in which women insisted on power in their personal lives but lost interest in political progressivism," Rhodes says. "The long, ongoing fight for equal rights began in the 1920s, driven by pioneers in women's rights, but in a largely self-contained community."

2020s: Feminism

2020s: Feminism

Today the fight for gender equality is concentrated more on achieving economic justice in the workplace and abolishing coercive sexual mores, and it's hard to guess where it will go from here, aside from incrementally forward. It's likely that gender definitions will only become more fluid and transgender or nonbinary identifiers more common, though not without conservative cultural backlash. The arrival of male contraceptives  in the coming decade is also likely to have an impact.

Related: Careers Where Women Are Paid More Than Men

1920s: Race

1920s: Race

"On the positive side, urbanization was (and still is) the engine for diversity and racial mixing that has brought whites and blacks into greater contact in new settings," Rhodes says. "This has led to healthy, cultural sharing, but it has also led to increased segregation within cities." After World War 1, more than 1 million  African Americans relocated from the segregated South to northern cities in what's now known as the Great Migration. The Harlem Renaissance, which included literature by Zora Neale Hurston, poetry by Langston Hughes, and the jazz of Louis Armstrong and others, blossomed in New York, but racial prejudice was still widespread in Northern cities. After the NAACP and others were able to negotiate anti-lynching onto Republican Warren G. Harding's presidential platform in 1920, membership in the Ku Klux Klan reached an all-time peak of 4 million to 5 million members in the first half of the decade, including in northern states such as Indiana and Illinois.

2020s: Race

2020s: Race

Polarization over racial issues hasn't gone away, and when asked to predict the future, Rhodes says, "the war over race and immigration will only become more violent." As in the urbanized '20s, some segments of the culture embrace racial integration and justice while others reject it — only now these groups are separated by digital algorithms and media silos as much as by urban redlining. "The economic, political, and cultural 'wars' that split the U.S. in [the '20s] are eerily similar to the conflicts of today," Rhodes says. "Arguably, through the intervening decades, we made genuine (if slow) progress on these most vexing issues. But it does seem like that progress was always fragile and sometimes just rhetorical; so we're back to the 1930s, I fear."

1920s: Music

1920s: Music

"Jazz was both the image and engine for the new, cosmopolitan, racially mixed culture," Rhodes says, "and also sought to tap into an emotional or spiritual impulse that 'civilized' America had repressed." The improvisational genre became a major sensation  at dance halls while more and more records sold (100 million in 1927 alone), offering black people a rare means to profit from the era's economic prosperity. The reaction against this supposedly "depraved" genre seemed no match for the spread of mass culture's first runaway pop music sensation.

2020s: Music

2020s: Music

As a liberating, youth-oriented musical force, jazz was eventually supplanted by rock. It's unlikely we'll see another form of pop music capture the zeitgeist so completely in our networked future, except perhaps a hybrid of genres we already know. "There's no real cultural center," Bolter says. "Even the big pop music superstars aren't really known by everyone. There's not the same claim to cultural dominance that there was even in the era of rock music in the 1960s ."

1920s: Fashion

1920s: Fashion

Thanks to advertising, mass production, and disposable incomes, clothing became a major object of desire, while also modernizing in a few crucial ways. The '20s — particularly the late '20s — were the age of the flapper, a label for women who sported the new, corset-free styles . The idea of the liberated "new woman" was a reflection of their renewed economic power during the war and political power after the passage of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote. As for men, formal attire became less of a necessity, and sportswear became popular.

2020s: Fashion

2020s: Fashion

Some trendsters predicted  a resurgence of Roaring '20s styles such as silk stockings and bob haircuts for the 2020s. It could still happen. But singular fashion trends, and specifically American ones, are less likely to exert the same gravitational pull they did at the dawning of mass media. Vogue forecasts  that China's geopolitical prominence will soon translate into the fashion world; that production of pants and other garments will have to switch to sustainable sources such as algae; and that what we wear may soon gain 5G connectivity.

1920s: Celebrity

1920s: Celebrity

"The cult of celebrity and the allure of fame took firm hold in the 1920s," says Rhodes, whether people were idolizing film stars such as Charlie Chaplin and original "It" girl Clara Bow, athletes such as Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey, or socialites such as Zelda Fitzgerald and Coco Chanel. Thanks to mass consumption and our long-standing tradition of "working your way to the top," America in particular became a "mimetic culture" in which consumers imitate those they aspire to be, even if the ideal of fame was only rarely tied to the old-fashioned values of hard work and humility.

2020s: Celebrity

2020s: Celebrity

The concept of movie stars and public celebrities known and beloved by all is becoming less and less applicable. Different cultural communities have their own celebrities, which can include stars of their own YouTube channel , and fans now expect them to be more accessible and real rather than untouchably luxurious. "There's this incredible diversity of participation that we're seeing now in our culture, that I think is quantitatively different from the way culture was organized even 100 years ago," Bolter says. "It started in the 2000s with user-generated content, and now this is a phenomenon where we have individuals and groups of people generating their own content that has large audiences, if not on the same scale."

Related: Celebs Whose First Job Was Worse Than Yours

1920s: Energy

1920s: Energy

During the 1920s, while fragmented electricity grids were just maturing in towns and cities (the national grid  not coming on until 1933), petroleum and to a lesser extent natural gas was fast gaining on coal among the nation's energy sources. Foreign companies began drilling operations in South America, with Venezuela becoming the world's second-largest oil-producing nation. Petroleum would overtake coal in the midcentury and has remained our primary means of energy ever since .

Related: Which States Have the Highest Gas Bills?  

2020s: Energy

2020s: Energy

"Politically, if we don't recognize the lessons of science about climate change, well, that will be that," says Rhodes, referring to the rising sea levels, natural disasters, and mass migrations and extinctions that  science forecasts  if the humanmade buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere continues at pace. Renewables (including solar, wind, nuclear, and biofuel), changes in agricultural practices, and engineering projects that recapture carbon from the air back into the Earth could be America's new direction. "For the first time since the 1950s, the U.S. produced more energy than consumed at more than 100 quadrillion BTU's," notes Spencer McGowan , a certified investment management analyst. "Renewables and, of course, carbon-reducing natural gas will play a key part in U.S. energy dominance."

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Copyright notice

This article is from Tar Heel Junior Historian , published for the Tar Heel Junior Historian Association by the North Carolina Museum of History. Used by permission of the publisher. For personal use and not for further distribution. Please submit permission requests for other uses directly to the museum editorial staff .

Is anything in this article factually incorrect? Please submit a comment.

Have a question or a suggestion about this entry contact ncpedia at https://www.ncpedia.org/contact, 1920s : a decade of change.

by Barrett A. Silverstein Reprinted with permission from the Tar Heel Junior Historian . Spring 2004. Tar Heel Junior Historian Association, NC Museum of History

Related Entry: How the Twenties Roared in North Carolina

Have you ever heard the phrase “the roaring twenties?” Also known as the Jazz Age , the decade of the 1920s featured economic prosperity and carefree living for many. The decade began with a roar and ended with a crash.

To paraphrase Charles Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities , “It was the best of times, and sometimes it was the worst of times.”

The 1920s was a decade of change, when many Americans owned cars, radios, and telephones for the first time. The cars brought the need for good roads. The radio brought the world closer to home. The telephone connected families and friends. Prosperity was on the rise in cities and towns, and social change flavored the air. A substantial growth of industry occurred in North Carolina, especially in the areas of tobacco, textiles, and furniture. Some rural farmers were leaving their farms in order to receive a regular paycheck in the factories. Unions were on the rise. Women shortened, or “bobbed,” their hair, flappers danced and wore short fancy dresses, and men shaved off their beards.

In 1920 the average life span in the United States was about fifty-four years, whereas today it’s about seventy-seven years. In 1920 the average time a student spent in school each year was 75 days, and today it’s about 180 days.

In 1920 the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed, creating the era of Prohibition. The amendment forbade the manufacture, sale, or transportation of alcoholic beverages. Many people ignored the ban, however. In 1933 the amendment was abolished, and it became the only Constitutional amendment to be repealed.

The 1920s began with the last American troops returning from Europe after World War I . They were coming back to their families, friends, and jobs. Most of the soldiers had never been far from home before the war, and their experiences had changed their perspective of life around them. After seeing Europe, they wanted some of the finer things in life for themselves and their families. 

Two events in 1920 kicked off the era of change that Americans experienced. On August 18 the Nineteenth Amendment was passed, giving women the right to vote. And on November 2 the first commercially licensed radio broadcast was heard, from KDKA in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In North Carolina, women voted for better roads and better education for their children. And radio became a family experience. Everyone would gather around the radio and listen to the news, the comedy shows, and the music. The first North Carolina radio station, WBT, started broadcasting in Charlotte in 1922.

Musical styles were also changing in the 1920s. In 1922 Louis Armstrong started improvising and adding personal musical variations with his trumpet, playing in a style known as jazz . In 1925 the flappers found a new dance craze, called the Charleston. In 1927 The Jazz Singer became the first successful “talking picture.” Before that time, motion pictures had been silent. In 1928 Mickey Mouse first appeared in the cartoon Steamboat Willie , and in 1929 Popeye first appeared in the comic strip Thimble Theater.

Aviation represented another area in which things were changing quite rapidly, helped by advances and improvements in aircraft during World War I. Up to this time only a few daredevils and barnstormers had flown. In 1924 the United States Air Service circumnavigated the world in airplanes, just twenty-one years after Orville Wright flew the first powered plane for only forty yards here in North Carolina. On May 20–21, 1927, Charles Lindbergh flew solo from New York to Paris, and on June 17, 1928, Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean. Before the decade was over, commercial passenger air travel had begun. 

In 1924 Congress passed a law that made all American Indians citizens of the United States. The Fourteenth Amendment had already given African Americans citizenship in 1866. Yet segregation , or separation of the races, continued to be practiced in North Carolina and in the South. Modern civil rights laws for minorities were still many years away. 

As mentioned in the beginning of this article, the decade also represented the worst of times. In 1921 a revival of the white supremacist group the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) took place. The KKK was targeting Catholics, blacks, and Jews with its terrorism.

Here in North Carolina, Thomas W. Bickett was the governor until 1921. He was followed by Cameron Morrison , the “Good Roads governor,” whose efforts in transportation had a lasting impact on the state.

In the mid-1920s, citizens debated Charles Darwin’s controversial evolution theory, as did most people throughout the nation. The Scopes “monkey trial” in Tennessee gained national attention in 1925. 

That same year, Edna Ferber was living in Bath when she wrote her Pulitzer Prize­winning book, So Big . The following year, she wrote Show Boat , a story about people she met at the John Adams Floating Theater on the Pamlico River. Show Boat became the basis for the popular musical of the same name. North Carolina native Paul Green won a Pulitzer Prize in 1927 for his play In Abraham’s Bosom . And Asheville’s Thomas Wolfe published his book Look Homeward, Angel in 1929.

Toward the end of the decade in October 1929, the stock market crashed, and America’s invested wealth suddenly lost $26 billion in value. Prosperity had ended. The economic boom and the Jazz Age were over, and America began the period called the Great Depression . 

The 1920s represented an era of change and growth. The decade was one of learning and exploration. America had become a world power and was no longer considered just another former British colony. American culture, such as books, movies, and Broadway theater, was now being exported to the rest of the world. World War I had left Europe on the decline and America on the rise. The decade of the 1920s helped to establish America’s position in respect to the rest of the world, through its industry, its inventions, and its creativity.    

Barrett A. Silverstein, a retiree of IBM Corporation, volunteers for both the North Carolina Museum of History and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences . He is also a volunteer instructor for classes in popular music and radio at North Carolina State University ’s Encore Center.

Additional Resources:

WBT Charlotte in the Golden Age of Radio. ANCHOR. https://www.ncpedia.org/anchor/wbt-charlotte-golden-age

UNC. The Evolution Controversy in North Carolina in the 1920's. http://www.lib.unc.edu/ncc/evolution/

Forsyth County Public Library. Winston-Salem in the Jazz Age. http://northcarolinaroom.wordpress.com/2010/09/28/winston-salem-in-the-j...

North Carolina Museum of History. A New Woman Emerges. http://www.ncmuseumofhistory.org/collateral/articles/s04.new.woman.emerg...

The Roaring Twenties. ANCHOR.  https://www.ncpedia.org/anchor/roaring-twenties

The Booming Twenties. ANCHOR.  https://www.ncpedia.org/anchor/booming-twenties

The Flapper. ANCHOR.  https://www.ncpedia.org/anchor/flapper

Video Credits:

October 19, 2009. "The 1920's Charleston." Located at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TRveIIe4uAs . Accessed February 28, 2012.

October 29, 2007. "Crazy 1920's Inventions." Located at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wAGAeTC9fIo . Accessed February 28, 2012.

1 January 2004 | Silverstein, Barrett A.

The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History Advanced Placement United States History Study Guide

AP US History Curriculum Study Guide

Period 7: 1890-1945

The roaring twenties.

The 1920s heralded a dramatic break between America’s past and future. Before World War I the country remained culturally and psychologically rooted in the nineteenth century, but in the 1920s America seemed to break its wistful attachments to the recent past and usher in a more modern era. The most vivid impressions of that era are flappers and dance halls, movie palaces and radio empires, and Prohibition and speakeasies. Scientists shattered the boundaries of space and time, aviators made men fly, and women went to work. The country was confident—and rich. But the 1920s were an age of extreme contradiction. The unmatched prosperity and cultural advancement was accompanied by intense social unrest and reaction. The same decade that bore witness to urbanism and modernism also introduced the Ku Klux Klan, Prohibition, nativism, and religious fundamentalism. America stood at a crossroads between innovation and tradition. Many Americans were looking boldly ahead, but just as many were gazing backward, to cherished memories of a fabled national innocence.

Age of Convergence

Many of the trends that converged to make the twenties distinct had been building for years, and in some cases, decades.

We think of the twenties as an era of liberation for women. Indeed, the decade gave rise to the flapper, described by Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary as “a young girl, esp. one somewhat daring in conduct, speech and dress,” immortalized in the short stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald and by silent film stars like Clara Bow, Colleen Moore, and Louise Brooks. But women had been breaking down the separate spheres of Victorian culture for quite some time. A powerful women’s political movement demanded and won the right to vote in 1920. Spurred on by the growth of an urban, industrial economy that required a larger female labor force, and by the emergence of public amusements that defied the old nineteenth-century courting system, many young women now had the wherewithal and drive to lead independent lives. By the dawn of the decade, anywhere between one-quarter and one-third of urban woman workers lived alone in private apartments or boardinghouses, free from the watchful eyes of their parents, and as early as 1896, newspaper columnist George Ade used the term “date” to describe a new convention by which boys and girls paired off to frolic at dance halls, amusement parks, and other public spaces, free from adult supervision.

Closely associated with the rise of the flapper, the twenties gave rise to a frank, national discussion about sex. But this trend, too, had been building over time. As early as 1913, the Atlantic Monthly announced that the clock had tolled “Sex o’clock in America,” indicating a “Repeal of Reticence” about issues that had once been considered taboo. To be sure, these trends accelerated after World War I: surveys suggest that 14 percent of women born before 1900 engaged in pre-marital sex by the age of 25, while as many as 39 percent of women who came of age in the 1910s and 1920s lost their virginity before marriage. But the fundamental structural changes that were at play in earlier decades—namely, urbanization and industrialization—long predated the twenties. Between 1800 and 1920 the number of children borne by the average American woman fell from seven to three. Americans were not necessarily having less sex. Rather, in an urbanizing society, where more children were a cost rather than an asset, they stepped up their use of birth control, and in so doing, redefined sex as something to engage in for pleasure rather than procreation.

We think of the twenties as an era of prosperity, and in many respects, Americans had never lived so well. But this trend, too, claimed earlier roots. As factories and shops mechanized, the work week of the urban blue-collar worker fell from 55.9 hours in 1900 to 44.2 in 1929, while his or her real wages rose by 25 percent. By the dawn of the twenties, Americans had more time and money to spend on new kinds of public amusements like dance halls, movie theaters, fun parks, and baseball stadiums. They also had more opportunities to buy competitively priced durable items, thanks to new methods of production and distribution. The prosperity of the post-war period greatly accelerated this trend. By 1929, American families spent over 20 percent of their household earnings on such items as phonographs, factory-made furniture, radios, electric appliances, automobiles, and “entertainment.” What people couldn’t afford, they borrowed. By the mid-’20s Americans bought over three-quarters of all furniture, phonographs, and washing machines on credit.

The proliferation of advertising—alongside the maturation of the publishing, music, and film industries—exposed citizens to a new gospel of fun that was intimately associated with the purchase of goods and services. “Sell them their dreams,” a prominent ad-man intoned. “Sell them what they longed for and hoped for and almost despaired of having. Sell them hats by splashing sunlight across them. Sell them dreams—dreams of country clubs and proms and visions of what might happen if only. After all, people don’t buy things to have them. . . . They buy hope—hope of what your merchandise might do for them.” [1]

Age of Wonders

If many of the social trends that we associate with the twenties had long been building, the decade was indeed unique in many ways.

It was a decade of firsts. For the first time ever, more Americans (51 percent) lived in cities than in villages or on farms.

It was a decade of economic expansion. Between 1919 and 1929 horsepower per wage earner in manufacturing skyrocketed by 50 percent, signaling a robust wave of mechanization that increased productivity by 72 percent in manufacturing, 33 percent in railroads, and 41 percent in mining.

And it was a decade of technological wonder.

In 1912, only 16 percent of American households had electricity; by the mid-20s, almost two-thirds did. Overnight, the electric vacuum cleaner, the electric refrigerator and freezer, and the automatic washing machine became staples in middle-class homes.

At the dawn of the twentieth century, automobiles were still unreliable and scarce, but in the years just prior to World War I, pioneers like Ransom Olds, Henry Leland, and Henry Ford revolutionized design and production methods to make the car affordable and trustworthy. When the sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd interviewed high school students in Muncie, Indiana, in the mid-20s, they found that the most common sources of disagreement between teenagers and their parents were 1) “the number of times you go out on school nights during the week”; 2) “the hour you get in at night”; 3) “grades at school”; 4) “your spending money”; and 5) “use of the automobile.” [2]

Another pre-war technology that came of age in the twenties was film. By the mid-1920s movie theaters were selling 50 million tickets each week, a sum equal to roughly half the US population! And the generation that came of age in the twenties learned things at the movie palace that they couldn’t learn in school. “The only benefit I ever got from the movies was in learning to love and the knowledge of sex,” a young woman confided to an interviewer in the mid-20s. “If we didn’t see such examples in the movies,” explain another, “where would we get the idea of being ‘hot?’ We wouldn’t.” [3] These young informants might have been thinking of the 1923 blockbuster Flaming Youth , which one reviewer described as “intriguingly risqué, but not necessarily offensively so. The flapperism of today, with its jazz. . . . and its utter disregard of the conventions, is daringly handled in this film. And it contains a bathing scene in silhouette that must have made the censors blink.” [4]

Like film, radio was invented in the late nineteenth century but experienced its formative era of commercial expansion in the twenties. On November 2, 1920, radio station KDKA in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, broadcast the presidential election returns. It was the first-ever live radio transmission for a popular audience, and although few Americans that evening had the necessary technology to hear the results, by 1922 more than three million households had acquired radio sets. Seven years later more than twelve million households owned radios, fuelling an industry that saw $852 million in annual sales.

Americans living in the 1920s could listen to Roxy and His Gang, the Clicqot Club Eskimos, and the Ipana Troubadours. They could hear Gartland Rice announce the World Series— live —or listen to Floyd Gibbons relate the day’s news. Radio proved a highly democratic medium, and by mid-decade local stations helped bring “race music,” “hillbilly” sounds, and ethnic recordings into living rooms across the country. In the late 1920s enterprising American businessmen built powerful “X-stations” just across the border in northern Mexico to evade federal radio frequency regulations. From this vantage point they were able to beam the music of “Fiddlin’ John Carson,” the Carter Family, and Jimmie Rodgers to every destination from California to New York City.

Return to Normalcy

Since the dawn of the twentieth century, American politics had been dominated by Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, two presidents whose outsized personalities and dueling visions of the progressive spirit defined the tenor and tone of public life. After 1920, Americans seemed to aspire to “normalcy.” In Warren G. Harding, they got exactly what they bargained (and voted) for.

Harding’s best qualities were his extreme affability and striking good looks. Both got him in trouble regularly. Even as a young boy, the future president seemed all too inclined to please everyone and offend no one. As a successful newspaper publisher, local politician and, later, US senator from Ohio, Harding joined the Rotary Club, the Elks, the Odd Fellows, the Hoo Hoos, the Red Men, and the Moose. He relished poker games and excelled at public speaking. He played the b-flat trumpet in the town marching band. Indeed, Warren Harding was the very embodiment of Sinclair Lewis’s Babbit—and proud to be so.

The ever-genial Harding stacked his Cabinet with cronies from Ohio. He let his attorney general sell pardons and pledges of government non-interference to the highest bidders. He looked the other way while his secretary of the interior accepted almost $400,000 in kickbacks in exchange for a long-term lease on oil-rich federal lands at Teapot Dome, Wyoming. All the while, he adhered to a limited and conservative vision of government, pressing for lower taxes and less regulation and issuing an implicit repudiation of Wilsonian reformism.

Despite—or perhaps even because of—his limitations, Warren Harding was widely admired by the American electorate. When he died halfway through his term, the public offered up a great outpouring of sorrow and sympathy. It was only in the following months that Warren Harding’s countrymen learned of their late president’s extramarital affairs and scandal-ridden administration. But by then, it hardly seemed to matter. Everything was back to normal.

Harding’s successor, Calvin Coolidge, may have been the most reticent man ever to occupy the White House. Austere, laconic, and conservative to a fault, “Silent Cal” perfectly embodied the laissez-faire ethic that governed American politics throughout the “Jazz Age.” He slept eleven hours each day, vetoed far more bills than he proposed, and claimed that his only hobby was “holding public office.” He had little to say. When a constituent bet that she could “get more than two words” out of him, the President replied simply: “You lose.” Upon hearing that Coolidge had passed away in 1933, the famous wit Dorothy Parker asked: “How could they tell?”

Coolidge slashed the federal budget by almost half, eliminated the gift tax, sliced the estate tax by 50 percent, and lowered the maximum federal surtax from 60 percent to 20 percent. The president disavowed anything beyond minimal regulation of business and commerce. He denied a federal role in labor relations and repeatedly affirmed his absolute faith in market forces. What was “of real importance to wage-earners,” he claimed, “was not how they might quarrel with their employers but how the business of the country might so be organized as to insure steady employment at a fair rate of pay.” [5]

In 1928 Coolidge announced unexpectedly and without fanfare that he did “not choose to run for president” again. His wife was as surprised as anyone. “Isn’t that just like the man!” she exclaimed. “I had no idea.”

The Engineer

When Herbert Hoover took the oath of office as the nation’s thirty-first president in 1929, the New York Times sounded an enthusiastic note of approval, applauding the new chief executive for his “versatile ability,” “sterling character,” and “Progressive leanings.”

Orphaned at the tender age of nine, Hoover was raised by austere Quaker relatives in Iowa. He worked his way through Stanford University, where he earned a degree in engineering and graduated first in his class. Over the next twenty years he ascended steadily up the corporate ladder, carving out a brilliant career as a mine operator, engineer, and businessman. During World War I he served as US food administrator and masterminded voluntary production and consumption standards that kept the American Expeditionary Force well nourished and domestic prices steady. After the war he headed up the American relief effort in Belgium, where he was widely credited with feeding and clothing several hundred thousand European refugees. After saving Belgium, Hoover served as secretary of commerce under Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge. In that office he greatly expanded the government’s collection and dissemination of industrial data, organized dozens of voluntary corporate councils, and brought the executive branch into close cooperation with business and labor.

It was Herbert Hoover’s great misfortune that the Depression began only months into his term in office. Smart, well educated, well traveled, and enormously capable, Hoover considered himself an activist and a Quaker humanitarian. As an engineer, he embodied the guiding spirit of progressivism, with its faith in rational and informed public policy. The poverty and despair of his countrymen profoundly affected Hoover.

But like most public men of his era, Herbert Hoover believed that sound volunteerism was the best remedy for economic distress. Rather than adopt strong federal regulatory and fiscal measures, he called for more studies and for an organized—but voluntary—response on the part of the private sector.

By 1930, this pattern of inaction made Herbert Hoover one of the most despised men in America. A popular Vaudeville skit had the straight-man announce that the Depression was over. “Has Herbert Hoover died?” his sidekick would ask. In public appearances, the president seemed thoroughly defeated. “A rose would wilt in his hand,” one observer famously remarked.

Culture Wars

The great revolution in morals, aesthetics, and everyday life that was sweeping through America didn’t meet with uniform approval. Though the twenties are remembered primarily as a decade of bold innovation and experimentation, they also witnessed a fierce counter-revolutionary tendency.

In 1925 a group of local boosters in Dayton, Tennessee, persuaded a young high school science teacher, John Scopes, to violate the state’s anti-evolution law. They merely wanted to draw attention to their economically depressed crossroads town. Instead, what followed was a sensational trial that pitted the famous “lawyer for the damned” Clarence Darrow, a committed civil libertarian and almost fanatical atheist, against William Jennings Bryan, the famously eloquent Nebraskan who had thrice failed to attain the presidency but who remained a hero to rural fundamentalists in the South and Midwest. The trial’s climax came when Darrow called his adversary to the stand as a biblical expert and Bryan reluctantly admitted that some scriptural language might be more allegorical than literal.

The trial seemed like the culmination of a long-simmering clash between liberal and fundamentalist Christians. Although it was technically a win for the prosecution, liberals declared it a great victory for their cause. Bryan, they said, had unintentionally exposed fundamentalism as a simpleton’s creed, while Darrow had established the supremacy of science over fundamentalist Christianity. In fact, the conservatives were far from beat. They immediately began to regroup and charter missions, publishing houses, and radio stations. Fifty years later, they would reemerge as a powerful force in American public life.

More successful in the immediate term was the Ku Klux Klan, a Reconstruction-era paramilitary group that had faded from American life until 1915, when Colonel William Simmons re-founded the organization at a small ceremony on Stone Mountain, in Georgia. By 1925 the organization claimed at least five million members and controlled politics in Indiana, Texas, Oklahoma, and Colorado; it was enormously powerful in several other states, notably California and Georgia. The Klan’s greatest legislative achievement came in 1924, when it joined a broad coalition of conservative groups that won passage and approval of a draconian anti-immigration statute. The golden door would remain closed for another forty years.

The new Klan represented diverse ideas to its polyglot membership. It was avowedly white supremacist, but for good measure it also included Jews, Catholics, Asians, and “new women” among its list of enemies. Its followers could be found in cities as well as in the countryside, but as a general rule, the organization was fundamentalist and conservative in both profile and disposition. As one sympathetic observer explained, “The Ku Klux movement seems to be another expression of the general unrest and dissatisfaction with both local and national conditions—the high cost of living, social injustice and inequality, poor administration of justice, political corruption, hyphenism, disunity, unassimilated and conflicting thought and standards—which are distressing all thoughtful men.” [6]

In 1924, the organization enjoyed sufficient strength to force a deadlock at the Democratic National Convention, where supporters of New York’s governor, Al Smith—a Catholic—faced off against Klansmen aligned with former Treasury Secretary William McAdoo. While Smith’s supporters shouted “Ku Klux McAdoo!”—to which McAdoo supporters taunted their opponents with cries of “Booze! Booze! Booze!”—the convention came to a deadlock. On the 103rd ballot, exasperated, and desperate, the convention agreed on a compromise candidate, a lackluster federal judge named John W. Davis, who was resoundingly defeated by the incumbent, Calvin Coolidge. It was the high-water mark for the Klan.

Arguably, Prohibition was the most successful achievement of anti-modern forces in the 1920s. Writing just after Congress and states ratified the Eighteenth Amendment, which authorized a ban on the production and sale of alcoholic beverages, the great urban wit H. L. Mencken attributed such “crazy enactments” to “the yokel’s congenital and incurable hatred of the city man—his simian rage against everyone who, as he sees it, is having a better time than he is.” In his shrill, visceral response to Prohibition, Mencken may have overstated the intensity of America’s rural-urban divide. Over the next decade there would be no shortage of bathtub gin and woodshed stills in the countryside. Yet he was right on one count: passage of the Eighteenth Amendment and its accompanying federal statute, the Volstead Act, both of which took effect in 1920, were the culminating events in a long effort by conservative forces to check the growing power of America’s immigrants and urban dwellers—one and the same, in some respects, since first- and second-generation Americans comprised the overwhelming (75+ percent) part of the population in metropolises like New York, Chicago, and Boston. Though Americans widely flouted the new law (and, accordingly, the twenties are remembered as a particularly liquid era), in fact, per capita alcohol consumption plummeted during Prohibition, lending the decade yet another paradoxical trait.

End of an Era

The twenties were always something of a gilded age. Even amid the great prosperity and excess of the decade, America’s economy was fundamentally weak. Over 40 percent of Americans got by on less than $1,500 each year, which economists cited as the minimum family subsistence level. The income of the top 0.1 percent of families equaled the income of the bottom 42 percent. Most country folk did not experience the prosperity of the Roaring Twenties. Farm prices hit rock bottom in the aftermath of World War I and widened the gulf between America’s (relatively) prosperous cities and impoverished farms.

Such glaring inequality had consequences. Boom times relied on mass consumption, and eventually, working people reached their limit. The very wealthy could only buy so many cars, washing machines, radio sets, and movie tickets. When consumer demand bottomed out, America’s economy simply stopped functioning.

When the stock market collapsed in 1929, and when the twin influences of under-consumption and over-speculation began wreaking structural havoc on the American economy, the nation’s revolution in values and aesthetics remained incomplete. The twenties were arguably the nation’s first modern decade, but many of its social and cultural revolutions would play themselves out in future years.

[1] William Leach, Land of Desire: Merchants, Power and the Rise of a New American Culture (New York, 1993), 298.

[2] Robert S. Lynd and Helen Merrell Lynd, Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture (New York, 1929), 257, 524.

[3] Garth S. Jowett, Ian C. Jarvie, and Katherine H. Fuller, eds., Children and the Movies: Media Influence and the Payne Fund Controversy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 276.

[4] Joshua Zeitz, Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and the Women Who Made America Modern (New York: Crown, 2006), 211.

[5]   William E. Leuchtenberg, The Perils of Prosperity: 1914-1932 (New York, 1958, rev. 1993), 97.

[6] Lynn Dumenil. Modern Temper: American Culture and Society in the 1920s (New York, 1995), 235.

Joshua Zeitz has taught American history at Harvard University and Cambridge University. He is the author of Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity and the Women Who Made American Modern (2006) and White Ethnic New York: Jews, Catholics, and the Shaping of Post-War Politics ( 2007). He is currently writing a joint biography of John Hay and John Nicolay.

Thank you.Very helpful for my national history day project.=)

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This helped me out so much i just love learning about history

I love this!! Very helpful, Thank You!!

I've started to use essay to replace the boring textbook in my US History classes

This is very useful! Thanks!

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The Differences Between The 1920s And The 2010s

Austin Rogers profile picture

As I observed in my previous article discussing seven ways in which our current decade resembles the 1920s, history may rhyme, but it does not repeat.

For all the relevant similarities, there are also relevant differences - indeed, more differences than similarities.

Perhaps the most obvious one, which I won't discuss directly in this article, is the gold standard of the 1920s versus the fiduciary (fiat) money system of today. The monetary base did increase during the twenties, mainly due to (1) increasing mining efficiency and output as well as (2) gold inflows from war-battered Europe. And yet, prices held steady, rising a mere 0.4% over the course of the decade (David Pietrusza, Silent Cal's Almanack , p. 19). A stable currency, as we will see, marks one of the major differences between the two decades.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let us begin our exploration of the differences between the decades by addressing what seemed to many readers a glaring omission in the Similarities article: tax cuts.

1. Both decades witnessed major tax cuts, but the details of the cuts were quite different

Not all tax cuts are created equal. Though it is true that tax rates were cut in both the 1920s and in the 2010s (beginning in 2018), examining the details of these cuts reveals more differences than similarities.

In the 1920s, tax cuts were simply a reversion back toward the pre-WWI mean. From 1913 to 1915, top marginal tax rates were 7%, rising somewhat to 12% in 1916, then skyrocketing to 66% in 1917 when the US entered the war, peaking at 77% in 1918. Quite simply, after the war ended, the federal government didn't need to spend nearly as much, and thus it also did not need to tax nearly as much. So, the Harding and Coolidge administrations lowered top rates to 58% in 1922-23 and finally to 25% in 1925. Note, however, that even after the dramatic tax cuts of the twenties, top marginal tax rates were still double their highest pre-war level.

Moreover, though the reform resulted in a huge net tax cut, not all tax rates were lowered. I quote James Grant's The Forgotten Depression :

The [corporate] excess-profits tax was repealed, but the corporate income-tax rate was raised to 12.5 percent from 10 percent. Surcharges on high earners were capped . . . at a rate of 50 percent, not [Andrew] Mellon's preferred 32 percent. A special rate on capital gains was instituted; for many investors, it would be 12.5 percent, with no specified holding period. [p. 147]

The cuts were also offset by federal spending cuts and a budget surplus. From 1790 until 1916, federal government spending as a percentage of GDP averaged around 3% , spiking significantly higher only during the Civil War. From 1920 to 1929, federal spending dramatically shrank from the wartime peak of 23% of GDP down to a historically average ~3%.

In 1921, the Senate Finance Committee investigated the efficacy of the then-current tax system, concluding that cutting tax rates in half would yield more revenue. Why? Per James Grant:

Sky-high marginal rates, the committee said, were driving capital into municipal bonds and "encouraging taxpayers to avoid the tax through the device of gifts, division of their income, refraining from profitable sales and placing their money in investments which promise well for the future, but yield no immediate return." [p. 146]

Indeed, as the committee discovered in their due diligence, far more tax filers reported high incomes prior to the imposition of high wartime surcharges. In 1916, 1,296 tax filers admitted to incomes of over $300,000. In 1919, that number of American tax filers shrank to 679, despite the number of total filers increasing twelvefold (Grant, 145).

The tax cuts in the first half of the twenties were significant enough to lure capital back into productive investments rather than tax avoidance schemes and state and municipal bonds.

Could it have added fuel to the fire of the stock market bubble? Certainly. Some of the money previously invested in tax-advantaged muni bonds, for instance, may have shifted into stocks. But personal and corporate investment in productive purposes such as capital expenditures (CapEx) and research and development (R&D) also rose significantly in the early twenties, fueling rising earnings and wage growth. Moreover, even if much of the tax cuts wound up in the stock market, publicly traded companies took advantage of their high stock prices in the latter half of the decade by issuing shares in order to raise equity capital (far different from the behavior of corporations today, buying back $1+ trillion of their own shares annually).

In other words, stock prices rose based on solid fundamentals and corporate profitability rather than mere multiple expansion (i.e. rising P/Es). Since corporate profits were rising speedily, even the market run-up in 1928-29 only resulted in P/E ratios for the S&P 500 of 15.47 and 17.77, respectively. The index peaked in September 1929 at a 20.17 P/E ratio. The stock market boom became bubbly in quality in the latter half of the decade when stock investment became popular even among the middle class, who did not benefit nearly as much from the tax cuts.

In the 2010s, the tax cut was not offset by spending cuts but was rather pared with spending increases. As such, it increased the deficit. And while the sharp cut to the corporate rate repatriated hundreds of billions of dollars in corporate income (having lowered the effective rate from 29% to somewhere probably in the high teens), it came at an inopportune time, for a few reasons.

First, it was enacted eight years into an economic recovery when many of the planned corporate investments had already been made or were already in the pipeline. Second, it came at a time when wage growth has been tepid for many years, resulting in an average consumer not strong enough to merit a significant increase in corporate investment. The cuts to personal income tax rates, on the other hand, were too slight to produce a significant shift in capital allocation.

The tax cut in 1921, unlike that of 2017, came at a time of economic weakness and high unemployment and thus acted as a springboard for growth and recovery. It freed up capital for productive investment and fueled job growth.

Tax cuts work far less well as an economic stimulant when investment and employment are already strong.

2. The American population grew much faster in the Roaring Twenties than in the 2010s

Population growth is an integral component of GDP growth. Populations that grow faster tend to produce and consume more. Of course, population growth is not the only factor in GDP growth, but it's an important one. Let's compare the population growth of both decades:

assignment 18 compare and contrast the 1920's to today

As you can see from the first chart above, population growth averaged around 1.4% during the twenties and corresponded with immigration inflows. Growth subsided after immigration-restrictionist legislative measures in 1921 and 1924. Population growth in the 2010s, on the other hand, has averaged 0.7% per year, half that of the 1920s. A falling birthrate in the current decade has been tempered by only modest immigration inflows:

assignment 18 compare and contrast the 1920's to today

The faster population growth during the 1920s goes a long way in explaining why GDP grew around 7% annually from 1921 to 1929 versus the tepid 2% average annual growth in the present decade.

3. Nativism is too weak today to effectuate its immigration restriction goals

"Nativism" is defined as "a policy of favoring native inhabitants as opposed to immigrants."

In the 1920s, nativism took the form of immigration legislation that severely restricted inflows of certain ethnic groups. For instance, only a few hundred Asians were allowed in per year. Inflows of Southern and Eastern Europeans were sharply diminished as well, while entry of Northern and Western Europeans remained effectively unlimited. Ironically, Central American immigration went unchanged as Californians enjoyed the cheap migrant labor from south of the border ( America: The Essential Learning Edition , p. 804).

Nativist policies, though currently experiencing a spike in popularity on the political right, are much less likely to be enacted today. The nation in 2019 is far more ethnically diverse - including both major political parties - than it was in the 1920s. The Trump administration's order to block immigration from Muslim-majority countries was met immediately with court challenges, and his signature campaign promise to build a wall along the southern border did not make it through Congress.

As pointed out by Richard Yeselson in The Atlantic :

The desire for social, cultural, and racial homogeneity is much harder to sustain and impose in the United States today than it was in the 1920s. On the whole, it is a weaker phenomenon now than it was then. But its political impact is no longer regionally and politically diffused; it is concentrated within the Republican Party.

4. Prevailing economic policy was drastically different in the 1920s

Reading the economic policy statements and speeches of politicians and government officials of the twenties rings foreign in the ears of a 21st century observer.

Laissez-faire ("let it be") ideology dominated that era, and those who favored government activism felt that they bore the onus of proof to justify their stances. It was an age encapsulated by the most famous saying of President Calvin Coolidge: "The business of the American people is business." Government back then was not predominantly thought of as "what we do together" but rather as what some people force upon everyone else.

Today, government is expected to be the guarantor of the economic well-being of individuals and the nation alike. Those who espouse a laissez-faire view bear the onus of justifying their stances since government activism dominates.

The severe but short-lived recession of 1921 was presided over by laissez-faire-minded federal authorities such as Andrew Mellon, Warren Harding, and Calvin Coolidge. There were only two policy responses during the recession: (1) At the urging of Mellon, the Fed discount rate was gradually lowered from 7% in 1921 to around 4% in mid-1922. But many months before the rate-cutting phase ended, the economy had already gotten back on its feet. (2) The 1921 tax cuts were enacted, although they were not really motivated by the recession at all and likely would have happened regardless.

Coolidge - "Silent Cal" - famously "chose not to run" for president in 1928, despite presiding over one of the most prosperous times in American history. The accidental president (only ascending to the job after the sudden death of Harding in 1923) was perhaps the most committed presidential devotee of laissez-faire in the 20th century. Even in October 1930, after the severe market crash and onset of a recession, Coolidge wrote in a newspaper column:

If business can be let alone and assured of reasonable freedom from government interference and increased taxes, that will do more than all kinds of legislation to relieve depression. Local governments are justified in spending all the money necessary for direct relief of distress. But the nation and the states will only increase the difficulties by undertaking to restore confidence through legislation. It will be the part of wisdom to give business a free hand to supply its own remedies. [Pietrusza, 54-55]

Instead of Coolidge presiding over the crash of 1929 and the ensuing recession, that job fell to the much more energetic and activist Herbert Hoover, whom Coolidge often referred to as "Wonder Boy."

In today's context, who does our current president more resemble: "Silent Cal" Coolidge, or "Wonder Boy" Hoover? If a recession struck this year or next, would most Americans prefer a hands-off leader or an active manager? I submit that, like nativism, laissez-faire thinking has significantly diminished as a trait of Americanism.

5. Federal budget surplus/deficit, then and now

The federal government ran a budget surplus every year of the 1920s, even while cutting tax rates several times.

assignment 18 compare and contrast the 1920's to today

6. Total debt and federal government spending were a much smaller percentage of GDP in the 1920s

Fed government spending began in the 1920s at 7.6% of GDP, ending the decade in 1929 at 3.64% of GDP - halving in a mere decade. The following is a chart of total government (federal, state, and local) spending as a percentage of GDP, which also fell, though more faintly.

assignment 18 compare and contrast the 1920's to today

Federal spending as a percentage of GDP has likewise fallen in the 2010s from above 24% to around 20%:

assignment 18 compare and contrast the 1920's to today

Total debt in 1920 sat at 148% of GDP (Grant, 8), while it ended the decade at a little above 180% of GDP. In the 2010s, total public and private debt began the decade at 292% of GDP and now sits at 307% of GDP. (Other calculations of total debt to GDP put the percentages much higher.)

7. Productivity growth surged in the Roaring Twenties but has languished in the 2010s

Let's start with the current decade this time. Sadly, productivity growth has slowed to a crawling pace compared to many decades of the 20th century, especially the 1920s and 1930s.

Total factor productivity (TFP) growth in the 2010s has expanded at an average annual rate of 0.84% thus far.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics , business productivity growth in the past decade has been slower than any time since the stagflation of the 1970s.

assignment 18 compare and contrast the 1920's to today

Methods of increasing production efficiency exploded during that decade. According to Marquette University economic historian Gene Smiley,

Some changes, such as the standardization of parts and processes and the reduction of the number of styles and designs, raised the productivity of both capital and labor. Modern management techniques . . . were introduced on a wider scale.

An important means of productivity growth was the shift to using electricity in the manufacturing process, especially electricity generated off-site and purchased from utility companies. Writes Smiley:

By 1929 about 70 percent of manufacturing activity relied on electricity, compared to roughly 30 percent in 1914. Steam provided 80 percent of the mechanical drive capacity in manufacturing in 1900, but electricity provided over 50 percent by 1920 and 78 percent by 1929. An increasing number of factories were buying their power from electric utilities. In 1909, 64 percent of the electric motor capacity in manufacturing establishments used electricity generated on the factory site; by 1919, 57 percent of the electricity used in manufacturing was purchased from independent electric utilities.

Likewise, the shift from coal to oil and natural gas cheapened energy and increased its efficiency. As might be expected, most of the productivity gains (around 84%, according to Robert Shackleton of the Congressional Budget Office) were concentrated in manufacturing, which enjoyed an average annual growth rate in TFP of 5%.

As Smiley documents,

"Labor productivity grew much more rapidly during the 1920s than in the previous or following decade. Capital productivity had declined in the decade previous to the 1920s while it also increased sharply during the twenties and continued to rise in the following decade."

To put this into numbers, annual labor productivity growth in the decade from 1899 to 1909 averaged 1.3%; from 1909 to 1919, 1.14%; from 1919 to 1929, an impressive 5.44% ; and from 1929 to 1939, back down to 1.95%. Average annual capital productivity was actually declining from 1899 to 1919 between 1.5% and 2%, but then turned around in the twenties and jumped up to 4.21% , slowing a bit to 2.38% in the thirties.

This dynamic and innovative environment spawned some of the nation's (and, in some cases, the world's) most successful companies, including : Lowe's ( LOW ) (1921), RadioShack (1921), CVS ( CVS ) (1922), the Walt Disney Corporation ( DIS ) (1923), Burlington Coat Factory (1924), NAPA Auto Parts (1925), Winn-Dixie Stores (1925), Supervalu (1926), as well as AMC Theaters , Pep Boys , Kenworth , Ace Hardware , AT&T Laboratories , Florida Power & Light (now owned by NextEra Energy Inc. ( NEE )), McKinsey & Company , and many others.

Santa Clara University economist Alexander Field has argued that the 1930s were the most productive decade of US history in terms of multifactor (labor and capital) productivity growth and technological progress. This is bolstered by Shackleton's research , which shows a ~3% average annual growth rate in TFP during the thirties.

How could there have been such impressive growth during the Great Depression? In a previous article , I discussed Ester Fano's observation that private employment of scientists and researchers exploded in the thirties and concluded that one of the primary reasons for this was the fact that wage deflation had made them inexpensive to employ.

Perhaps one of the springboards for innovation in the 1920s was the wage deflation in the early years of the decade. This brings up the next difference.

8. The deflationary reset of the 1920s and the lack thereof in the 2010s

The 1920s began with a recession that brought a strong bout of deflation. Wages fell along with all kinds of prices - wholesale, consumer, and asset.

assignment 18 compare and contrast the 1920's to today

This acted as a "reset" to the economy, wiping away the inflationary excesses of the war years and reconnecting prices with the fundamentals of the economy. After this sharp and painful deflation, prices remained fairly stable for the remainder of the decade.

Compare this to the early, recessionary years of the 2010s, in which prices were kept from falling through a combination of fiscal and monetary stimulus.

assignment 18 compare and contrast the 1920's to today

Instead of stable prices, inflationary stimulus has helped prices to rise by an average ~1.8% per year. Likewise, wages were not allowed to fall, causing pent-up wage deflation which may still not be fully worked out.

9. Wage growth was much faster in the 1920s than in the 2010s

Let's just take nominal wages for now. In our own time, nominal wage growth fell from a healthy range of 3-4% prior to the Great Recession to around 2%, bottoming out at 1.5% in October 2012, before edging back up to 3% by Q3 2018.

assignment 18 compare and contrast the 1920's to today

Compare this to the nominal wage changes of the 1920s:

assignment 18 compare and contrast the 1920's to today

Notice, first, the 10-12% nominal wage deflation experienced during the recession of 1920-21. This is right in line with the fall in consumer prices (meaning real wages stayed flat). Next, notice the 11.8% nominal wage growth for skilled or semi-skilled male workers between 1920 and 1929. This equates to a 1.18% average annual nominal gain. Or, if you measure from the depth of the recession in 1921, nominal wages rose 24.5% (2.72% annually). Unskilled male workers enjoyed a 25.7% increase in nominal wages from the depth of the recession, or 2.85% annually.

It is often pointed out in summaries of the 1920s that output increased by 70%, while nominal labor income rose only 11%. Surely part of the reason for this is that capital claimed a larger percentage of the generated wealth. And surely, the relative weakness of unions played a part, too. But there are other, perhaps more significant factors.

For one, according to Smiley, the labor force participation rate grew faster than the population during the twenties. More competition for a scarce amount of jobs suppressed wages. But the composition of the workforce played a part as well. The labor force participation rate for men fell slightly, while the rate rose slightly for women. The wage gap between men and women in that era was much starker than it is today. "Unskilled males received on average 35 percent more than females during the twenties," writes Smiley. More women competing for jobs with men also suppressed wages, and unfortunately, nominal wage growth for women rose only 1.7% between 1923 and 1929.

I might add that African Americans were becoming more integrated into the workforce during that decade as well, and though I don't have the data to back this up, the wage gap between whites and blacks in the 1920s was also probably quite pronounced. More African Americans filling job posts would surely drag down average wage growth.

But, of course, it needs to be stressed that real wage growth (accounting for price levels) of 22% was double the nominal growth, largely because wages fell less than prices in 1920-21 and rose faster than prices for most of the rest of the decade. (See Pietrusza, p. 19.)

Moreover, numerical data about wages doesn't include the value of improved working conditions. Per Smiley: "Electricity brought about improved illumination, ventilation, and cleanliness in the plants, dramatically improving working conditions." It also increased safety via electric machines that reduced workplace accidents and made manual labor less strenuous.

Compare this to real (inflation-adjusted) wage growth since 2010:

assignment 18 compare and contrast the 1920's to today

10. The Fed's balance sheet was much smaller in the 1920s than in the 2010s

I mentioned this in the Similarities article as it related to the Fed's selling off of its Treasury holdings in the late twenties. What I didn't discuss was the total size of the balance sheet, then versus now.

assignment 18 compare and contrast the 1920's to today

This chart only goes through 2012. Here is an up-to-date one:

assignment 18 compare and contrast the 1920's to today

Any further Fed asset purchase programs (aka "quantitative easing") would lift the central bank's balance sheet assets into historically unprecedented territory.

I'll let the reader draw their own conclusions about the similarities and differences between these two decades of American history. The reader can probably discern my own perspective about the potential link (or lack thereof) between the Roaring Twenties and our own time simply based on the points I've curated. For those interested, I've got one more (much shorter) concluding article coming which will wrap up my thoughts on the lessons to learn from the 1920s.

But what do you think? Are there other similarities or differences worth mentioning? Let me know in the comments!

This article was written by

Austin Rogers profile picture

My adult life can be broken out into three distinct phases. In my early 20s, I earned a bachelor's degree in Cinema & Media Arts (emphasis in screenwriting), but I hated working in Hollywood. Too much schmoozing and far too much traffic. So, after leaving California, I earned a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Western State Colorado University. I loved writing fiction, but it didn't pay the bills.

In my mid-20s, I became a real estate agent and gained some very valuable experience in residential and commercial real estate. But my passion for writing never went away.

Now, in my early 30s, I write for Jussi Askola's excellent marketplace service, High Yield Landlord, as well as its sister service, High Yield Investor. I also perform freelance research for a family office that owns and manages over 40 net lease commercial properties in Texas and Arkansas. Writing about finance and investing scratches that creative itch while paying the bills - the best of both worlds.

I'm a Millennial with a long-term horizon and am fascinated with the magic of compound interest and dividend growth investing. I also have an interest in macroeconomic trends, though I am but an amateur in that field.

Disclosure: I/we have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.

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Similarities Between The 1920's And Today

1950's dbq analysis.

The 1920’s were a period of tension between new and changing attitudes on one hand and traditional values and nostalgia on the other. Following WWI it was a transitional time period to modernization, and the old America was being forgotten. From the old and new to urban and rural, generations were feuding over the advancement of American Society. To a great extent social, economic, and cultural changes affected the leading tensions between the old and the new and was manifested greatly by those. Although political changes are usually the cause of disagreements, the tensions in the 1920’s were manifested by social, economic, and cultural changes.

Similarities Between The 1920s And 1930s

The 1920s began shortly after World War I when the United States and the allies defeated the Germans in 1918. The 1920’s became known as the “Roaring Twenties,” because of its changes in politics, economics, society, culture and foreign policy. Industries were making their products at an increasing rate; they became richer and more powerful than before World War I. The 1920s were also seen as a decade of contradiction, increase and decrease faith, great hope and great despair.

Social Changes In The 1920's

Three ways society changed in the 1920’s are through culture, economy, and social norms like fashion and women's rights. The 1920’s was a time of change. The United States had just won the war and after the war the United States just wanted to “return to normalcy”. But nothing was normal after the war; the 1920s was a time where the United States was at a peak prosperity. But this can be countered with organized gang violence, increased rate of murder, and countless robberies. Even though prosperity in the 1920s can be counter argued. Overall the 1920s was a time of change; a time for a change in culture, for a change in the economy, and for a change in social norms.

Social And Cultural Changes In The 1920's

The 1920’s was a great and important decade for the United States. After World War I, the United States went through events and changes that, overall, made the United States a much better place to live. New advances in technology and industry improved American life in more ways than just one. Americans had better wages during this time, more leisure time, and overall, had a better life than ever before. In addition, the 1920’s advocated social and cultural change as well. During this time period, the United States did not return to Normalcy, and instead developed attitudes that changed the life of the people of the United States forever thanks to social changes, cultural changes and changes in technology.

Similarities And Differences Between The 1920s And 1950s

The 1920’s were a very important era in America for better or worse. There were many issues in relation to race and how people of different ethnic groups were treated. African American had a cultural rejuvenation that being the Harlem Renaissance. The advent of the Ford Model T change the way how people traveled. Many may say an era like the 1950’s were highly comparable. Race related issues were on a decline as America as whole sought to be more accepting and the oppressed started to speak out on it. While some may argue that the 1920’s and the 1950’s were similar time periods, you can say they were different due to how the way minority ethnic groups were treated and the new consumerist lifestyles of people in the 1950’s. I believe that

The Similarities and Differences of the 1920’s and 1950’s

Out of some of the most turbulent times in history have come the greatest ages of success and prosperity. The 1920’s and 1950’s are two eras that exemplify the spirit of triumph and wealth. In both decades, a nation thrilled by the victorious conclusion of war and the return of their loved ones from war entered into an age of capitalism and materialism, bolstering the economy and with it national pride. Some of features most common to the 20’s and 50’s were consumerism and the accompanying optimistic mindset, the extent to which new ideas entered society, and discrimination in terms of both sexism and racism.

The Good and the Bad of the 1920's

Although the 1920’s is often categorized by widespread prosperity and pleasure, there was no lack of tension. Struggles revealed themselves between those who were beginning to form a new approach to the world, and those who wished to stick to traditional ideals. The rise of consumerism, technological advancements, and conditions in a post-war society all caused America to change in different ways; leading to either support of this change or a desire to preserve the past. As both sides fought to have their way, this strain regarding the role of women, rights of minorities, religious teachings, and the growth of industry manifested itself in a variety of ways, including physical violence and government legislation.

Changing Roles Of Women During The 1920s

The 1920s had a big impact on American life all around; however, one of the biggest changes during this time period was in the roles of women. During this time period, women started dressing different, leaving the house, getting jobs, and gaining rights. On top of all of that, they had a bigger role in education, they began taking parts in politics, and divorce became more of a common thing. This may not seem like a big deal to people today, but this was very important at the time. Prior, women had next to no rights. They lived to wait on and please their husbands. Women rarely even left the house. This time period could be said to have paved the way for modern day feminism and women’s roles. This was the time period when they began to be free and stop worrying about how society thought they should live. However, the question still remains: Did the changing roles of women in the 1920s really have a significant effect on women’s roles today? In the next few pages, one will be given examples of women’s role before, during, and after the 1920s. In each paragraph, the roles, rights, impacts, and more that women had at these times will be explained. To conclude, a comparison on how women were thought to act in these different time periods will be made in order to come up with an answer for the question stated above.

What Are The Similarities Between The 1930s And Today

From the novel to kill a mockingbird we are going to experience some of the economic inequality problems that they have faced and the tolerances that they were going through that time of history. Like the economic classes they face like weather they are poor ,middle class or rich or racist thing that people went through at that time of history.

The 1920's: The Lost Generation

The 1920’s was the era of not only mass consumerism, social changes, and profound cultural conflicts but that of the Lost Generation and the effects of World War I during this time period. World War I had a significant impact on the lives and the writing styles of the Lost Generation, changing their perspectives on both the government and their lives.

The Role Of Women In The Colonial Era

The role of women in each era saw a change in society from the colonial era to the Civil War era. The role that women held in politics and economics were few, but the change in how society viewed them changed and pushed women’s freedoms and rights further into the new centuries.

Similarities Between 1930s And 1930s

By the year 1930, the United States of America’s economy was in a “critical [state of] national emergency” (Roosevelt, 1933). With reference to F. D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” – the policies of economic reform introduced to rebuild the American economy – this essay will compare and contrast the economic situation of present-day South Africa, with that of the United States of America in the 1930s, and will serve to explore the economic theory supporting the major policies implemented in attempt to alleviate the stress on the economy. Lastly, it will build on this theory to suggest two supply-side fiscal policies – education and skills development, and tax reform – which, if implemented effectively by government, would contribute to addressing unemployment and poverty in South Africa.

1920s And 1950s Similarities

The 1920s and 1950s both starts out different and ends on different circumstances. The 1920s started out with a wrongful lawsuit and ended with and economic shutdown. The 1950s started out with fighting in wars against communism and ended with and economic growth. Both eras were a lesson for society. The 1920s and 1950s has many differences and similarities between each other.

Life In The 1920's

Many changes in the 1920s in day to day life happened. In the 1920s most of it was under President Woodrow Wilson. During this time many Americans challenged past traditions and created their own. Many people became interested in new popular culture. New traditions such as listening to the radio, and watching film brought new thrills about news, sports, and made party’s better.

Change of Attitudes Toward the Role and Status of Women During the 1920's and 1930's

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Unit 7: Lesson 3

American culture in the 1920s

The First World War

The lost generation, jazz and the “roaring twenties”, the harlem renaissance, what do you think, want to join the conversation.

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  1. Compare Contrast Essay Assignment

    assignment 18 compare and contrast the 1920's to today

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    assignment 18 compare and contrast the 1920's to today

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    assignment 18 compare and contrast the 1920's to today

  5. Assignment 18

    assignment 18 compare and contrast the 1920's to today

  6. Assignment 1: COMPARE / CONTRAST ESSAY)

    assignment 18 compare and contrast the 1920's to today


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