Chapter 23 Boyer

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The 1920s: Coping with Change,
Sam Groipen of Medford, Massachusetts, was washing the windows of his
grocery store, the Cooperative Cash Market, in June 1928 when a meat
truck pulled up in front of the A&P supermarket next door. Sam knew the
meaning of this seemingly ordinary event: his days as an independent grocer
were numbered. A Russian-Jewish immigrant, Sam had opened his market in
1923, the year that he married. At first Sam and his wife did well. Sam served
the customers; his wife kept the books. They knew their patrons by name and
extended credit to neighbors short on cash.
In 1925, however, the chain stores came. A&P moved in next door, then
First National and Stop & Shop across the street. Small by today's standards,
the chain stores at first carried only brand-name groceries, not meat or fish.
But the A&P added meat and fish in 1928. Sam watched as former customers
who still owed him money walked past his door on their way to a supermar-
ket. "I felt like I was being strangled," he later recalled; "those bastard chains
were destroying me."
In 1935 Sam Groipen sold out. Abandoning his dream of prospering as an
A New Economic Order
independent businessman, he joined the giant Prudential Life Insurance
The Harding and Coolidge
Company. Eventually, Sam's bitterness toward the chains softened. "I have
been mellowed by the system," he reflected.
Mass Society, Mass Culture
Cultural Ferment and Creativity
A Society in Conflict
Hoover at the Helm

The 1920s: Coping with Change, 1920-1929
Groipen's experience paralleled that of many inde-
benefited, and farmers in particular suffered chronic
pendent entrepreneurs in the 1920s, as corporate con-
economic woes. Still, the overall picture seemed rosy. As
solidation, new techniques of mass marketing, and ris-
we shall see in later sections, these economic changes
ing consumer expectations transformed American
influenced the political, social, and cultural climate of
society. In the 1920s, too, the nation's vast industrial
the decade, as Americans struggled to cope with a socie-
capacity produced a tidal wave of automobiles, radios,
ty that was changing with breathtaking rapidity.
electrical appliances, and other consumer goods. This
stimulated the economy and transformed the lives of
Booming Business, Ailing Agriculture
ordinary Americans. Ingrained patterns of diet, dress,
travel, entertainment, and even thought changed rapid-
A sharp recession struck in 1920 after the government
ly as the economic order evolved.
canceled wartime defense contracts and returning vet-
These technological changes, following decades of
erans reentered the job market. Recovery came in 1922,
immigration and urban growth, spawned social ten-
however, and for the next few years the industrial sector
sions. While Republican presidents espoused conserva-
of the economy hummed (see Figure 23.1). Unem-
tive political and cultural values, conflicts ripped at the
ployment fell to as low as 3 percent, prices held steady,
social fabric. But this same ferment also stimulated cre-
and the gross national product (GNP) grew by 43 percent
ativity in literature and the arts.
from 1922 to 1929.
In the 1920s many features of contemporary
New consumer goods, including home electrical
American life first became clearly evident. Indeed, in
products, contributed to the prosperity. Many factories
some ways the decade marks the dawn of the modern
were already electrified, but now the age of electricity
era. This chapter explores how different groups of
dawned for urban households as well. By the mid-1920s,
Americans responded to technological, social, and cul-
with more than 60 percent of the nation's homes electri-
tural changes that could be both intensely exciting and
fied, a parade of appliances, from refrigerators, washing
deeply threatening.
machines, and vacuum cleaners to fans, razors, and mix-
ers, crowded the stores. The manufacture of such appli-
This chapter focuses on five major questions:
ances, as well as of hydroelectric generating plants and
equipment for the electrical industry itself, provided a
What economic developments underlay American
massive economic stimulus.
prosperity of the 1920s, and how did those develop-
The 1920s business boom rested, too, on the auto-
ments affect different social groups?
mobile. Already well established before World War I (see
What political values shaped public life in this era of
Chapter 21), the automobile in the 1920s fully came into
Republican ascendancy? How did Herbert Hoover's
its own. Registrations jumped from about 8 million in
social and political thought differ from that of presi-
1920 to more than 23 million in 1930, by which time
dents Harding and Coolidge?
some 60 percent of U.S. families owned cars (see Figure
23.2). The Ford Motor Company led the market until
How did the Republican administrations of the 1920s
mid-decade, when General Motors (GM) spurted ahead
promote U.S. economic interests abroad?
by touting a range of colors (Ford's Model T came only in
What is meant by "mass culture"? What forces
black) and greater comfort. GM's lowest-priced car,
helped create a mass culture in the 1920s, and how
named for French automotive designer Louis Chevrolet,
thoroughly did it penetrate U.S. society?
proved especially popular. Meeting the challenge, in
1927 Ford introduced the stylish Model A in various col-
The 1920s saw both cultural creativity and social
ors. By the end of the decade, the automobile industry
tensions. What developments in American society in
accounted for about 9 percent of all wages in manufac-
these years contributed to both the creativity and
turing and had stimulated such related industries as
the tensions?
rubber, gasoline and motor oil, advertising, and highway
Rising stock-market prices reflected the prevailing
prosperity. As the stock market surged ever higher, a
Fueled by new consumer products, innovative corporate
speculative frenzy gripped Wall Street. By 1929 the mar-
structures, and new methods of producing and selling
ket had reached wholly unrealistic levels, creating con-
goods, the economy surged in the 1920s. Not everyone
ditions for a catastrophic collapse (see Chapter 24).

A New Economic Order
Index of Industrial Production (1913=100)
Percentage of total population
IGURE 23.2
The Urban and Rural Population of the United States,
The urbanization of America in the twentieth century had profound political,
economic, and social consequences.
Source: Theodore Caplow, Louis Hicks, Ben J. Wattenburg, The First Measured Century: An
Economic Expansion, 1920-1929
Illustrated Guide to Trends in America, 1900-2000. Reprinted with permission of the American
After a brief postwar downturn, the American economy surged
Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, Washington, D.C.
in the 1920s.
Source: U.S. Department of Commerce, Long-Term Economic Growth (Washington,
D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, October 1966), 169.
The business boom also stimulated capitalist expan-
sion abroad. To supply overseas markets, Ford, GM, and
other big corporations built production facilities abroad.
Other U.S. firms acquired foreign factories or sources
of raw materials. U.S. meatpackers built plants in
Argentina; Anaconda Copper acquired Chile's biggest
copper mine; and the mammoth United Fruit Company
established processing plants across Latin America.
Capital also flowed to Europe, especially Germany, as
U.S. investors loaned European nations money to repay
war debts and modernize their economies. U.S. private
investment abroad increased nearly fivefold between
1914 and 1930.
But the era of a truly global economy still lay far
in the future. Economic nationalism prevailed in the
1920s, as the industrialized nations, including the
United States, erected high tariff barriers. The Fordney-
McCumber Tariff (1922) and Smoot-Hawley Tariff (1930)
pushed U.S. import duties to all-time highs, benefiting
domestic manufacturers but stifling foreign trade. As a
percentage of the GNP, U.S. exports actually fell between
1913 and 1929. Yet change was underway as U.S. indus-
try retooled for mass production. Manufactured goods,
less than half the value of total U.S. exports in 1913, rose
to 61 percent of the total by the end of the 1920s.

The 1920s: Coping with Change, 1920-1929
While overall wage rates rose amid the general pros-
sand workers announced only ten openings for foremen
perity of the 1920s, workers benefited unequally, reflect-
in 1924 and 1925.
ing regional variations as well as discriminatory patterns
Nevertheless, the new mass-production methods
rooted in stereotypes and prejudices. Of the regional
had a revolutionary impact. Fordism became a synonym
variations, the one between North and South loomed
worldwide for American industrial might and assembly-
largest. In 1928 the average unskilled laborer in New
line methods. In the Soviet Union, which purchased
England earned forty-seven cents an hour, in contrast to
twenty-five thousand Ford tractors in the 1920s, the peo-
twenty-eight cents in the South. Many textile corpora-
ple "ascribed a magical quality to the name of Ford," a
tions moved south in search of lower wage rates, devas-
1927 visitor reported.
tating New England mill towns. Women workers, blacks,
Business consolidation, spurred by the war, contin-
Mexican-Americans, and recent immigrants clustered at
ued. By the late 1920s, over a thousand companies a year
the bottom of the wage scale. African-American workers,
vanished through merger. Corporate giants dominated
many of them recent migrants from the rural South,
the major industries: Ford, GM, and Chrysler in automo-
faced special difficulties. "Last hired and first fired," they
biles; General Electric and Westinghouse in electricity;
generally performed the most menial unskilled jobs.
and so forth. Among public-utilities companies, consol-
Farmers did not share in the boom; for them, war-
idation became epidemic. Samuel Insull of the Chicago
time prosperity gave way to hard times. Grain prices
Edison Company, for example, built a multi-billion-
plummeted when government purchases for the army
dollar empire of local power companies. By 1930 one
dwindled, European agriculture revived, and America's
hundred corporations controlled nearly half the nation's
high protective tariff depressed agricultural exports.
business. Without actually merging, companies that
From 1919 to 1921, farm income fell by some 60 percent,
made the same product often cooperated through trade
and, unlike the industrial sector, it did not bounce back.
associations on such matters as pricing, product specifi-
When farmers compensated by increasing production,
cations, and division of markets.
the result was large surpluses and still weaker prices.
As U.S. capitalism matured, more elaborate man-
Farmers who had borrowed heavily to buy land and
agement structures arose. Giant corporations set up
equipment during the war now felt the squeeze as pay-
separate divisions for product development, market
ments came due.
research, economic forecasting, employee relations, and
so forth. Day-to-day oversight of these highly complex
corporate operations increasingly fell to professional
New Modes of Producing,
Managing, and Selling
The modernization of business affected wage poli-
Building on the industrial feats of the war years, the
cies. Rejecting the old view that employers should pay
1920s saw striking increases in productivity. New assem-
the lowest wages possible, business leaders now con-
bly-line techniques boosted the per capita output of
cluded that higher wages would improve productivity
industrial workers by some 40 percent during this
and increase consumer buying power. Henry Ford had
decade. At the sprawling Ford plants near Detroit, work-
led the way in 1914 by paying his workers five dollars a
ers stood in one place and performed repetitive tasks as
day, well above the average for factory workers. Other
chains conveyed the partly assembled vehicles past
companies soon followed his lead.
New systems for distributing goods emerged as well.
Assembly-line production influenced industrial em-
Automobiles reached consumers through vast dealer
ployees' view of their work and themselves. Managers
networks. By 1926 the number of Ford dealerships
discouraged expressions of individuality; even talking or
approached ten thousand. Chain stores accounted for
laughter could divert workers from their repetitive task.
about a quarter of all retail sales by 1930. The A&P gro-
Ford employees learned to speak without moving their
cery chain, which caused Sam Groipen such grief in
lips and adopted an expressionless mask that some
Medford, Massachusetts, boasted 17,500 stores by 1928.
called "Fordization of the face." As work became more
Department stores grew more inviting, with attractive
routine, its psychic rewards diminished. The assembly
display windows, remodeled interiors, and a larger array
line did not foster pride in the skills that came from
of goods. Air conditioning, an invention of the early
years of farming or mastering a craft. Nor did assembly-
twentieth century, made departments stores (as well as
line labor offer much prospect of advancement. In
movie theaters and restaurants) welcome havens on hot
Muncie, Indiana, factories employing over four thou-
summer days.

A New Economic Order
Above all, the 1920s business boom bobbed along
lidge praised American business and hobnobbed with
on a frothy sea of advertising. In 1929 corporations spent
businessmen. Magazines profiled corporate leaders.
nearly two billion dollars promoting their wares via
A 1923 opinion poll ranked Henry Ford as a leading
radio, billboards, newspapers, and magazines, and the
presidential prospect. In The Man Nobody Knows (1925),
advertising business employed some six hundred thou-
ad man Bruce Barton described Jesus Christ as a mana-
sand people. Advertising barons ranked among the cor-
gerial genius who "picked up twelve men from the bot-
porate elite. Chicago ad man Albert Lasker owned the
tom ranks of business and forged them into an organiza-
Chicago Cubs baseball team and his own golf course. As
tion that conquered the world." In Middletown (1929), a
they still do, the advertisers in the twenties used celebri-
study of Muncie, Indiana, sociologists Robert and Helen
ty endorsements ("Nine out of ten screen stars care for
Lynd observed, "More and more of the activities of life
their skin with Lux toilet soap"), promises of social suc-
are coming to be strained through the bars of the dollar
cess, and threats of social embarrassment. Beneath a
picture of a sad young woman, for example, a Listerine
mouthwash ad proclaimed: "She was a beautiful girl and
Women in the New Economic Era
talented too . . . . Yet in the one pursuit that stands fore-
most in the mind of every girl and woman--marriage--
In the decade's advertising, glamorous women smiled
she was a failure." The young woman's problem was
behind the steering wheel, operated their new ap-
"halitosis," or bad breath. The remedy, of course, was
pliances, and smoked cigarettes in romantic set-
Listerine, and lots of it.
tings. (One ad man promoted cigarettes for women as
Advertisers offered a seductive vision of the new era
"torches of freedom.") The cosmetics industry flour-
of abundance. Portraying a fantasy world of elegance,
ished, offering women (in the words of historian Kathy
grace, and boundless pleasure, ads aroused desires that
Peiss) "hope in a jar." In the advertisers' dream world,
the new consumer-oriented capitalist system happily
housework became an exciting challenge. As one ad
fulfilled. As one critic wrote in 1925,
put it, "Men are judged . . . according to their power to
delegate work. Similarly the wise woman delegates to
[W]hen all is said and done, advertising . . .
electricity all that electricity can do."
creates a dream world: smiling faces, shining
As for women in the workplace, the assembly line,
teeth, schoolgirl complexions, cornless feet,
involving physically less-demanding work, theoretically
perfect fitting [underwear], distinguished collars,
should have increased job opportunities. In fact, howev-
wrinkleless pants, odorless breath, regularized
er, male workers dominated the auto plants and other
bowels, . . . charging motors, punctureless tires,
assembly-line factories. Although the ranks of working
perfect busts, shimmering shanks, self-washing
women increased by more than 2 million in the 1920s,
dishes, backs behind which the moon was meant
their number as a proportion of the total female popula-
to rise.
tion hardly changed, hovering at about 24 percent.
Americans of the 1920s increasingly bought major pur-
Women workers faced wage discrimination. In 1929,
chases on credit. In earlier days credit had typically
for example, a male trimmer in the meatpacking indus-
involved pawnbrokers, personal loans, or informal
try received fifty-two cents an hour, a female trimmer,
arrangements between buyers and sellers. Now con-
thirty-seven cents. The weakening of the union move-
sumer credit was rationalized as retailers offered install-
ment in the 1920s (next page) hit women workers hard.
ment plans with fixed payment schedules. But while
By 1929 the proportion of women workers belonging to
today's consumers use credit cards for all kinds of pur-
unions fell to a miniscule 3 percent.
chases, from restaurant meals to video rentals, credit
Many women found work in corporate offices. By
buying in the 1920s involved mostly big-ticket items
1930 some 2 million women were working as secre-
such as automobiles, furniture, and refrigerators. By
taries, typists, or filing clerks. Few women entered the
1929 credit purchases accounted for 75 percent of auto-
managerial ranks, however. Indeed, office space was
mobile sales.
arranged to draw clear gender distinctions between
Business values saturated the culture. As the In-
male managers and female clerks. Nor did the profes-
dependent magazine put it in 1921: "America stands
sions welcome women. With medical schools impos-
for one idea: Business . . . Thru business, properly con-
ing a 5 percent quota on female admissions, the num-
ceived, managed, and conducted, the human race is
ber of women physicians actually declined from 1910
finally to be redeemed." Presidents Harding and Coo-
to 1930.

The 1920s: Coping with Change, 1920-1929
The proportion of female high-school graduates
changes played a role as well. The trade unions' strength
going on to college edged upward, however, reaching 12
lay in established industries like printing, railroading,
percent by 1930. Nearly fifty thousand women received
coal mining, and construction. These older craft-based
college degrees that year, almost triple the 1920 figure.
unions were ill suited to the new mass-production
Despite the hurdles, more college women combined
marriage and career. Most took clerical jobs or entered
Management hostility further weakened organized
traditional "women's professions" such as nursing,
labor. Henry Ford hired thugs to intimidate union
library work, social work, and teaching. A handful, how-
organizers. In Marion, North Carolina, deputy sheriffs
ever, followed the lead of Progressive Era feminist trail-
shot and killed six striking textile workers. Violence also
blazers to become faculty members in colleges and uni-
marked a 1929 strike in Gastonia, North Carolina, by the
communist-led National Textile Workers Union. When
armed thugs in league with the mill owners invaded
union headquarters, the police chief was shot. Strike
Struggling Labor Unions
leader Ella May Wiggins was killed by a bullet fired at a
in a Business Age
truck on the way to a union rally.
Organized labor faced tough sledding in the 1920s.
The anti-union campaign took subtler forms as well.
Union membership fell from 5 million in 1920 to 3.4 mil-
Manufacturers' associations renamed the nonunion
lion in 1929. Several factors underlay this decline. For
shop the "open shop" and dubbed it the "American Plan"
one thing, despite various inequities and regional varia-
of labor relations. Some firms set up employee associa-
tions, overall wage rates climbed steadily in the dec-
tions and provided cafeterias and recreational facilities
ade, reducing the incentive to join a union. Industrial
for workers. A few big corporations such as U.S. Steel
sold company stock to their workers at bargain prices.
Some publicists praised "welfare capitalism" (the term
for this new approach to labor relations) as evidence of
corporations' heightened ethical awareness. In reality, it
mainly reflected management's desire to kill off inde-
pendent unions.
By 1929 black membership in labor unions stood at
only about eighty-two thousand, most of whom were
longshoremen, miners, and railroad porters. The
American Federation of Labor officially prohibited racial
discrimination, but most AFL unions in fact barred
African-Americans. Corporations often hired blacks as
strikebreakers, increasing organized labor's hostility
toward them. Black strikebreakers, denounced as
"scabs," took such work only because they had to. As a
jobless black character says in Claude McKay's 1929
novel Home to Harlem, "I got to live, and I'll scab
through hell to live."
With Republicans in control of Congress and the White
House, politics in the 1920s reflected the decade's busi-
ness orientation. Reacting to the unsettling pace of social
change, many voters turned to conservative candidates
who seemed to represent stability and traditional values.
In this climate, former progressives, would-be reformers,
and groups excluded from the prevailing prosperity had
few political options.

The Harding and Coolidge Administrations
Stand Pat Politics
in a Decade of Change
In the 1920s the Republican party continued to attract
northern farmers, corporate leaders, businesspeople,
native-born white-collar workers and professionals, and
some skilled blue-collar workers. The Democrats' base
remained the white South and the immigrant cities.
With Republican progressives having bolted to
Theodore Roosevelt in 1912, GOP conservatives con-
trolled the 1920 convention and nominated Senator
Warren G. Harding of Marion, Ohio, for president. A
struggling newspaper editor, Harding had married the
local banker's daughter, who helped manage his elec-
tion to the Senate in 1915. A genial backslapper, he
enjoyed good liquor, a good poker game, and occasion-
al trysts with his mistress, Nan Britton. This amiable
mediocrity overwhelmed his Democratic opponent
James M. Cox. After the stresses of war and Wilson's lofty
moralizing, Harding's blandness and empty oratory had
a soothing appeal.
Harding made some notable cabinet selections:
Henry C. Wallace, the editor of an Iowa farm periodical,
as secretary of agriculture; Charles Evans Hughes, for-
mer New York governor and 1916 presidential candidate,
secretary of state; and Andrew W. Mellon, a Pittsburgh
in return for a $400,000 bribe. Like "Watergate" in the
financier, treasury secretary. Herbert Hoover, the war-
1970s, "Teapot Dome" became a shorthand label for a
time food czar, dominated the cabinet as secretary of
tangle of presidential scandals.
With Harding's death, Vice President Calvin Coo-
Harding also made some disastrous appointments:
lidge, on a family visit in Vermont, took the presidential
his political manager, Harry Daugherty, as attorney gen-
oath by lantern light from his father, a local magistrate. A
eral; a Senate pal, Albert Fall of New Mexico, as secretary
painfully shy youth, Coolidge had attended Amherst
of the interior; a wartime draft dodger, Charles Forbes,
College in Massachusetts, where he struggled to elimi-
as Veterans' Bureau head. These men set the sleazy and
nate all rural traces from his speech. Whereas Harding
corrupt tone of the Harding presidency. By 1922 Wash-
was outgoing and talkative, Coolidge's taciturnity
ington rumor hinted at criminal activity in high places,
became legendary. As he left California after a visit, a
and Harding confessed to a friend, "I have no trouble
radio reporter asked for a parting message to the state.
with my enemies. . . . But . . . my goddamn friends . . .
"Good-bye," Coolidge responded. Coolidge's appeal for
keep me walking the floor nights." In July 1923, vacation-
old-stock Americans in an era of rapid social change has
ing in the West, Harding suffered a heart attack; on
been summed up by historian John D. Hicks, "They
August 2 he died in a San Francisco hotel.
understood his small-town cracker-barrel philosophy,
In 1924 a Senate investigation pushed by Demo-
they believed in his honesty, and they tended to have the
cratic Senator Thomas J. Walsh of Montana exposed the
same respect he had for the big business leaders who
full scope of the scandals. Charles Forbes, convicted of
had known how to get on in the world."
stealing Veterans' Bureau funds, evaded prison by flee-
ing abroad. The bureau's general counsel committed
Republican Policymaking
suicide, as did an aide to Attorney General Daugherty
in a Probusiness Era
accused of influence peddling. Daugherty himself nar-
rowly escaped conviction in two criminal trials. Interior
The moral tone of the White House improved under
Secretary Fall went to jail for leasing government oil
Coolidge, but the probusiness climate, symbolized by
reserves, one in Teapot Dome, Wyoming, to two oilmen
the high tariffs of these years, persisted. Prodded by

The 1920s: Coping with Change, 1920-1929
Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, Congress lowered
tic sales of these commodities. Congress passed the
income taxes and inheritance taxes for the wealthy.
McNary-Haugen bill in 1927 and 1928, but Coolidge
Mellon embraced what later came to be called the "trick-
vetoed it both times, warning of "the tyranny of bureau-
le down" theory, which held that tax cuts for the wealthy
cratic regulation and control." The measure would help
would promote business investment, stimulate the
farmers at the expense of the general public, he went on,
economy, and thus benefit everyone. (Mellon did, how-
ignoring the fact that business had long benefited from
ever, resist pressure from rich Americans eager to abol-
high tariffs and other special-interest measures. These
ish the income tax altogether. Such a step, he warned,
vetoes led many angry farmers to abandon their tradi-
would build support for socialists and other left-wing
tional Republican ties and vote Democratic in 1928.
radicals.) In the same probusiness spirit, the Supreme
Court under Chief Justice William Howard Taft, who was
Independent Internationalism
appointed by Harding in 1921, overturned several
reform measures opposed by business, including a fed-
Although U.S. officials participated informally in some
eral anti-child-labor law passed in 1919.
League of Nations activities in the 1920s, the United
While eager to promote corporate interests, Coo-
States refused to join the League or its International
lidge opposed government assistance for other groups.
Court of Justice (the World Court) in the Netherlands.
His position faced a severe test in 1927 when torrential
Despite isolationist tendencies, however, the United
spring rains throughout the Mississippi River watershed
States remained a world power, and the Republican
sent a massive wall of water crashing downstream. Soil
administrations of these years pursued global policies
erosion caused by decades of poor farming practices
that they believed to be in America's national interest--
worsened the flood conditions, as did ill-planned engi-
an approach historians have called independent inter-
neering projects aimed at holding the river within
bounds and reclaiming its natural floodplain for devel-
President Harding's most notable achievement was
opment purposes. One official described the river as
the Washington Naval Arms Conference. After the war
"writh[ing] like an imprisoned snake" within its artificial
ended in 1918, the United States, Great Britain, and
confines. From Cairo, Illinois, to the Gulf, the water
Japan edged toward a dangerous (and costly) naval-
poured over towns and farms, inundating twenty-seven
arms race. In 1921 Harding called for a conference to
thousand square miles in Illinois, Tennessee, Arkansas,
address the problem. When the delegates gathered in
Mississippi, and Louisiana. It is estimated that more
Washington, Secretary of State Hughes startled them by
than a thousand people died, and the refugee toll,
proposing a specific ratio of ships among the world's
including many African-Americans, reached several
naval powers. In February 1922 the three nations,
hundred thousand. Disease spread in makeshift refugee
together with Italy and France, pledged to reduce their
battleship tonnage by specified amounts and to halt all
Despite the scope of the catastrophe, Coolidge
battleship construction for ten years. The United States
rejected calls for government aid to the flood victims,
and Japan also agreed to respect each other's territorial
and even ignored pleas from local officials to visit the
holdings in the Pacific. Although this treaty ultimately
flooded regions. The government had no duty to protect
failed to prevent war, it did represent an early arms-
citizens "against the hazards of the elements," he
control effort.
declared primly. (Coolidge did, however, reluctantly sign
Another U.S. peace initiative was mainly symbolic
the Flood Control Act of 1928 and appropriate $325 mil-
and accomplished little. In 1928 the United States and
lion for a ten-year program to construct levees along the
France, eventually joined by sixty other nations, signed
the Kellogg-Briand Pact renouncing aggression and call-
Further evidence of Coolidge's views came when
ing for the outlawing of war. Lacking any enforcement
hard-pressed farmers rallied behind the McNary-
mechanism, this high-sounding document did nothing
Haugen bill, a price-support plan under which the gov-
to prevent World War II.
ernment would annually purchase the surplus of six
The Republican administrations of these years
basic farm commodities--cotton, corn, rice, hogs,
actively used international diplomacy to promote U.S.
tobacco, and wheat--at their average price in 1909-1914
economic interests. The government, for example, vig-
(when farm prices were high). The government would
orously sought repayment of the $22 billion it claimed
then sell these surpluses abroad at prevailing prices and
the Allies owed in war debts and Germany owed in repa-
make up any resulting losses through a tax on domes-
ration payments. A joint study commission in 1924

The Harding and Coolidge Administrations
sharply reduced these claims, but high U.S. tariffs and
nominated an obscure New York corporation lawyer,
economic problems in Europe, including runaway infla-
John W. Davis.
tion in Germany, made repayment of even the reduced
Calvin Coolidge easily won the Republican nomina-
claims unrealistic. When Adolph Hitler rose to power in
tion. The Republican platform praised the high Fordney-
Germany in 1933 (see Chapter 25), he repudiated all
McCumber Tariff and urged tax and spending cuts. With
reparations payments.
the economy humming, Coolidge polled nearly 16 mil-
With U.S. foreign investments expanding, the gov-
lion votes, about twice Davis's total. La Follette's 4.8 mil-
ernment worked to advance American business inter-
lion votes on the Progressive party ticket cut into the
ests abroad. For example, the Harding and Coolidge
Democratic total, contributing to the Coolidge land-
administrations opposed the Mexican government's
efforts to reclaim title to oilfields earlier granted to U.S.
companies. In 1927 Coolidge appointed Dwight Morrow,
Women and Politics in the 1920s:
a New York banker, to negotiate the issue with Mexico,
A Dream Deferred
but the talks collapsed in 1928 when Mexico's president
was assassinated. Complicating U.S.-Mexican relations
Suffragists' hope that votes for women would transform
was Washington's fear that Mexico, gripped by revolu-
politics survived briefly after the war. The 1920 major-
tionary upheaval, might go communist. These fears
party platforms endorsed several measures proposed
deepened in 1924 when Mexico recognized the Soviet
by the League of Women Voters. Polling places shifted
Union, nine years before the United States took the
from saloons to schools and churches as politics
same step.
ceased to be an exclusively male pursuit. A coalition of
women's groups called the Women's Joint Congressional
Committee lobbied for child-labor laws, protection of
Progressive Stirrings,
women workers, and federal support for education. It
Democratic Party Divisions
also backed the Sheppard-Towner Act (1921), which
The reform spirit survived feebly in the legislative
funded rural prenatal and baby-care centers staffed by
branch. Congress staved off Andrew Mellon's proposals
public-health nurses. Overall, however, the Nineteenth
for even deeper tax cuts for the rich. Senator George
Amendment had little political effect. Women who had
Norris of Nebraska prevented the Coolidge administra-
joined forces to work for suffrage now scattered across
tion from selling a federal hydroelectric facility at
the political spectrum or withdrew from politics alto-
Muscle Shoals, Alabama, to automaker Henry Ford at
bargain prices. And in 1927 Congress created the Federal
As the women's movement splintered, it lost focus.
Radio Commission, extending the regulatory principle
The League of Women Voters, drawing middle-class
to this new industry.
and professional women, abandoned activism for "non-
In 1922, a midterm election year, labor and farm
partisan" studies of civic issues. Alice Paul's National
groups formed the Conference for Progressive Political
Woman's party proposed an equal-rights amendment to
Action (CPPA), which helped defeat some conservative
the Constitution, but other reformers argued that such
Republicans. In 1924 CPPA delegates revived the
an amendment could jeopardize gender-based laws
Progressive party and nominated Senator Robert La
protecting women workers. The reactionary and materi-
Follette for president. The Socialist party and the
alistic climate of the 1920s underlay this disarray. Jane
American Federation of Labor endorsed La Follette.
Addams and other women's-rights leaders faced accusa-
The Democrats, split between urban and rural
tions of communist sympathies. Women of the younger
wings, met in New York City for their 1924 convention.
generation, bombarded by ads that defined liberation in
By one vote, the delegates defeated a resolution con-
terms of consumption, rejected the prewar feminists'
demning the Ku Klux Klan (see below). While the par-
civic idealism. One young woman in 1927 ridiculed "the
ty's rural, Protestant, southern wing favored former
old school of fighting feminists" for their lack of "femi-
Treasury Secretary William G. McAdoo for president, the
nine charm" and their "constant clamor about equal
big-city delegates rallied behind Governor Alfred E.
Smith of New York, a Roman Catholic of Irish, German,
The few reforms achieved by women's groups often
and Italian immigrant origins. The split in the Demo-
proved short-lived. The Supreme Court struck down
cratic party mirrored deep divisions in the nation. After
child-labor laws in 1922 and women's protective laws in
102 ballots, the exhausted delegates gave up and
1923. A 1924 child-labor constitutional amendment

The 1920s: Coping with Change, 1920-1929
passed Congress after heavy lobbying by women's
migrated cityward in massive numbers, especially after
organizations, but few states ratified it. The Sheppard-
the terrible 1927 Mississippi River floods. By 1930 more
Towner rural-health-care act, denounced by the Amer-
than 40 percent of the nation's 12 million blacks lived in
ican Medical Association as a threat to physicians'
cities, 2 million of them in Chicago, Detroit, New York,
monopoly of the health business, expired in 1929.
and other metropolitan centers of the North and West
(see Figure 23.4). The first black congressman since
Reconstruction, Oscar De Priest, won election in 1928
from Chicago's South Side.
For women, city life meant electric and gas appli-
The torrent of new consumer products, together with the
ances that reduced household labor. When the Lynds
growth of advertising, innovations in corporate organiza-
interviewed working-class women in Muncie in 1925,
tion, assembly-line manufacturing, and new modes of
nearly 75 percent reported spending less time on house-
mass entertainment, signaled profound changes in
work than had their mothers. Vacuum cleaners sup-
American life. Taken together, these changes infused the
planted brooms and dustpans. Wood-burning kitchen
decade with an aura of modernity that some found
stoves became a memory. Store-bought clothes replaced
tremendously exciting and others deeply disorienting.
homemade apparel. Electric refrigerators replaced
labor-intensive iceboxes. The electric washing machine
Cities, Cars, Consumer Goods
and electric iron lightened wash-day labor.
Food preparation and diet shifted in response to
In the 1920 census, for the first time, the urban popula-
urbanization and technological changes. The availabili-
tion (defined as persons living in communities of twen-
ty of canned fruit and vegetables undermined the annu-
ty-five hundred or more) surpassed the rural (see Figure
al ritual of canning. Home baking declined with the rise
23.3). The United States had become an urban nation.
of commercial bakeries. With refrigeration, supermar-
Urbanization affected different groups of Ameri-
kets, and motor transport, fresh fruits, vegetables, and
cans in different ways. African-Americans, for example,
salads became available year-round.
The Automobile Age: Passenger Cars Registered
The African-American Urban Population,
in the United States, 1900-1992
1880-1960 (in millions)
From a plaything for the rich, the automobile emerged after 1920 as
The increase in America's urban black population from under one
the basic mode of transportation for the masses, in the process
million in 1880 to nearly fourteen million by 1960 represents one of
transforming American life in countless ways.
the great rural-urban migrations of modern history.
Millions of cars
Population (in millions)
Sources: Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1970 (Washington, D.C.:
Source: Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1970 (Washington, D.C.
U.S. Government Printing Office, 1975), 716; Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1994
Bureau of the Census, 1975) vol. I p. 12.
(Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.