The Roaring 20's: Crash Course US History #32

Hi, I'm John Green, this is Crash Course US History, and today we're gonna learn about one of the best eras ever:

the 1920s.

The 20s gave us jazz, movies, radio, making out in cars, illegal liquor,

and the 20s also gave us prosperity--although not for everybody--

and gangsters, and a consumer culture based on credit,

and lots of prejudice against immigrants,

and eventually the worst economic crisis the US has ever seen.

Mr. Green, Mr. Green, but what about Gatsby?

Yeah, me from the past, it's true that Gastby turned out all right in the end,

but what preyed on Gatsby,

what foul dust trailed in the wake of his dreams,

did temporarily close out my interest in the aborted sorrows and short-winded elations of men.

*theme music*

So there's a stereotypical view of the 1920s as "The Roaring 20s,"

a decade of exciting change and new cultural touchstones,

as well as increased personal freedom and dancing.

And it really was a time of increased wealth--

for some people.

The quote of the decade has to go to our famously taciturn president from Massachusetts, Calvin Coolidge, who said,

Jay-Z would later update this for the 21st century noting,

But anyway, during the 1920s, the government helped business grow like gangbusters,

largely by not regulating it much at all.

This is known as “laissez-faire” capitalism.

Or “laissez-faire” capitalism if you’re good at speaking French.

The Republican Party dominated politics in the 1920s,

with all the presidents elected in the decade being

staunch conservative Republicans.

The federal government hewed to the policies favored by business lobbyists,

including lower taxes on personal income and business profits,

and efforts to weaken the power of unions.

Presidents Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover stocked the boards of the Federal Reserve

and the Federal Trade Commission with men

who shared their pro-business views,

shifting the country away from the economic regulation that had been favored by Progressives.

And that was very good for the American economy,

at least in the short run.

The 1920s were also marked by

quite a bit of government corruption,

most of which can be pinned to the

administration of Warren G. Harding. Now,

Harding himself wasn't terribly corrupt,

but he picked terrible friends. They

included Attorney General Harry

Daugherty who accepted money to not

prosecute criminals, and Interior

Secretary Albert fall, who took half a

million dollars from private business in

exchange for leases to government oil

reserves at Teapot Dome. Fall later

became the first cabinet member ever to

be convicted of a felony, but on the

other hand, business, man! Productivity rose

dramatically largely because older

industry's adopted Henry Ford's assembly

line techniques and newer industries

like aviation, chemicals, and electronics

grew up to provide Americans with new

products and new jobs. During the 1920s

annual production of cars tripled to 4.8

million, and automobile companies were

gradually consolidated into the big

three that we know today: Ford, Chrysler,

and Harley-Davidson. What? General Motors.

By 1929 half of all American families

owned a car and thus began the American

love affair with the automobile, which is


where love affairs were often

consummated, which is why in the 1920s

cars came to be known as Scootaloo

pooping chariots. What's that? They were

called brothels on wheels? And the

economy also grew because American

corporations were extending their reach

overseas, and American foreign investment

was greater than that of any other

country. The dollar replaced the pound as

the most important currency for trade

and by the end of the decade America was

producing eighty-five percent of the

world's cars and forty percent of its

overall manufactured goods. Stan can I

get a Libertage?

And companies turned out

all kinds of labor-saving devices like

vacuum cleaners, toasters, refrigerators,

and not having to spend all day washing

your clothes, or turning over your own

toast like some kind of common or meant

that Americans had more time for leisure.

And this was provided by radios and

baseball games boxing matches vacations

dance crazes. I mean before Gangnam style

there was the windy and the Charleston

but probably the most significant

leisure product was movies and I'm not

just saying that because I'm staring

into a camera. The American film industry

moved out to Hollywood before World War

one because land was cheap and plentiful

all that sunshine meant that you could

shoot outside all year round and it was

close to everything: desert, mountains,

ocean, plastic surgeons. And by 1925 the

American film industry had eclipsed all

of its competitors and become the

greatest in the world, especially if you

count by volume and not quality, and more

and more people had money to go see

those movies thanks to consumer debt. The

widespread use of credit and lay away

buying plans meant that it was

acceptable to go into debt to maintain

what came to be seen as the American

standard of living and this was a huge

change in attitude. These days we don't

even think of credit cards as debt,

really. But they are. And that was a

relatively new idea as was another

feature of American life in the 20s that

is still with us: celebrity. Opera singer

Enrico Caruso has often been called the

first modern celebrity but now he's a

lot less famous than Charlie Chaplin or

Rudolph Valentino or Babe Ruth but

probably the biggest celebrity of the

decade was Charles Lindbergh whose claim

to fame was flying across the Atlantic

Ocean by himself without stopping

although he did use an airplane which

makes it slightly less impressive. Now

Lindbergh wasn't a truly contemporary

celebrity in the sense of being famous

for being famous, but he was

a business more than a businessman. High

culture also flourished. This was the age

of the lost generation of American

writers, many of whom lived and worked in

Europe but America had its own version

of Paris in New York. The decade of the

1920s saw continued migration of African

American people from the South to cities

in the nNorth, and Harlem became the

capital of Black America. And speaking of

migration, let us now migrated to the

chair for the Mystery Document.

The rules here

are simple: I guess the author of

the mystery document, I'm either right or

I get shocked with the shock pen.

Alright let's see we got here.

“If we must die would it not be like hogs hunted and

penned in an inglorious spot, while round

us bark the mad and hungry dogs, making

their market are a curse a lot... Like men

we'll face the murderous, cowardly pack,

pressed to the wall, dying but fight back.”

Stan thank you for the poetry I

appreciate that it's not some obscure

document from 18th century blah blah blah

It's Claude McKay Harlem Renaissance

poet, the poem is called “If We Must Die.”

Ah, it's the only thing in the world I'm

actually good at. Now I know this from the

imagery alone, especially the line about

“mad and hungry dogs” that would

figuratively and literally make up the

mobs at the lynchings, but the giveaway

here is the ultimate sentiment that we

will fight back. This was part of the

spirit of the Harlem Renaissance which

rejected stereotypes and prejudice and

sought to celebrate African-American

experience. Meanwhile, things for changing

for women as well, as they found new ways

to express autonomy. Flappers kept their

hair and skirts short, smoked and drank

illegally in public, and availed

themselves of birth control. And

marketers encouraged them to buy

products like cigarettes christened

torches of freedom by Edward Bernays.

Liberation had its limits though; most

women were still expected to marry, have

children, and find their freedom at home

through the use of washing machines, but

the picture of prosperity is as usual

more complicated than it at first

appears. The fact that so many Americans

were going into debt in order to pursue

the American dream meant that if the

economy faltered, and it did, there was

going to be lots of trouble. Let's go to

the Thought Bubble. Prosperity in the 1920s

wasn't equally distributed through the

population. Real industrial wages rose by

a quarter between 1922 and 1929 but

corporate profits rose at twice that

rate. By 1929,

one percent of the nation's banks

controlled fifty percent of the nation's

financial resources and the wealthiest

five percent of Americans share of

national income exceeded that of the

bottom sixty percent. An estimated forty

percent of Americans lived in poverty.

Now many Americans celebrated big

business, and Wall Street was often seen

as heroic possibly because by 1920 about

1.5 million Americans owned some kind of

stock, but big business also meant that

smaller businesses disappeared. During

the 1920s the number of manufacturing

workers declined by 5%, the first time

this class of workers had seen its

numbers drop, but not the last. Now some

of these jobs were made up for by new

jobs in retail finance and education, but

as early as the 1920s New England was

beginning to see unemployment in

deindustrialization as textile companies

moved their operations to the south

where labor was cheaper and

working-class people still made up the

majority of Americans and they often

couldn't afford these newfangled devices,

like in 1930, seventy-five percent

of american homes didn't have a

washing machine, and only forty percent

of them had a radio. Farmers were even

worse off many had prospered during

World War One when the government

subsidized farm prices in order to keep

farms producing for the war effort, but

when the subsidies ended, production

didn't subside, largely due to

mechanization and increased use of

fertilizer. Farmers incomes dropped

steadily and many saw banks foreclose

upon their property. For the first time

in American history the number of farms

declined during the 1920s. For farmers

the Great Depression began early.

Thanks, Thought Bubble. So in general the federal

government did little to nothing to help

farmers or workers. The Supreme Court was

the only segment of the government that

kept any progressive ideas alive as they

began to craft a system of ideas that we

call the jurisprudence of civil

liberties. Now the court still voted to

uphold convictions of left-wing critics

of the government but gradually began to

embrace the idea that people had the

right to express dissonant views in what

Oliver Wendell Holmes called the

“Marketplace of ideas.” In Near vs. Minnesota,

the Supreme Court struck down

censorship of newspapers and by 1927

Justice Brandeis was writing that

“Freedom to think as you will and to

speak as you think are indispensable to

the discovery and spread of political truth.”

But despite increased free speech

and torches of liberty and flappers and

the Harlem Renaissance the 1920s was in

many ways a reactionary

period in American history. For instance

the decade saw the resurgence of the

Ku Klux Klan in a new and improved form and

by improved I mean much more terrible.

Spurred on by the hyper patriotism that

was fostered during World War One, the

Klan denounced immigrants and Jews and

Catholics as less than one hundred

percent American, and by the mid 20s the

Klan claimed more than 3 million members

and it was the largest private

organization right here in my home state

of Indiana. And with more immigrants

coming from Southern and Eastern Europe

who were often Catholic and Jewish,

White Protestants became more and more

concerned about losing their dominant

position in the social order.

Spoiler alert: it turns out okay for you, White Protestants

The first immigration

restriction bill was passed in 1921,

limiting the number of immigrants from

Europe to 357,000. In 1924, a new

immigration law dropped that number to

150,000 and established quotas based on

national origin. The numbers of

immigrants allowed from Southern and

Eastern Europe were drastically reduced

and Asians except for Filipinos were

totally forbidden. The quota for

Filipinos was set at 50 per year

although they were still allowed to

emigrate to Hawaii because their labor

was needed there. There were no

restrictions, however, on immigration from

the Western Hemisphere because

California's large-scale farms were

dependent upon seasonal laborers from

Mexico. These immigration restrictions

were also influenced by fear of radical

anarchists and pseudo scientific ideas

about race; whites were seen as

scientifically superior to people of

color and as President Coolidge himself

declared when he signed the 1924

immigration law, “America must be kept American”

Tell me Calvin Coolidge about

how American you are. Are you Cherokee, or

Cree, or Lakota? The 1920s also saw

increased tension between science

education in the United States and

religious beliefs. The best known example

is of course the trial of John Scopes in

Tennessee in 1925. Scopes was tried for

breaking the law against teaching

evolution which he had been encouraged

to do by the ACLU as a test case for

freedom of speech. Scopes was prosecuted

by William Jennings Bryan whom you will

remember as having recently resigned as

Secretary of State and who had become a

leader of the Fundamentalist Movement.

And Scopes was defended by Clarence

Darrow, that famous defense attorney who

contemporary defense attorneys always

point to to argue that defense attorneys

aren't all scum. Scopes and Darrow

actually lost the trial but the case

drew national attention and ultimately led to

evolution being taught in more American

schools. The Scopes trial is often seen

as a victory for free thinking and

science and modernism, and I suppose it

was, but for me it's more a symbol of the

contradictions of the 1920s. This is the

decade that gave us mass consumer

culture and celebrity worship, which are

important and very complicated legacies.

And it also saw the birth of modern

conceptions of civil liberties. It was a

period when tolerance became an

important value, but at the same time it

saw a rise in lynchings. Immigrants were

necessary for the economic boom of the

1920s, but at the same time their numbers

were restricted, as they were seen as a

threat to traditional American value, and

that raises a question that we're still

struggling with today: What are those

values? I don't mean that rhetorically

let me know in comments.

Thanks for watching. I'll see you next week.

Crash Course is produced and directed by

Stan Muller, our script supervisor is

Meredith Danko, the Associate Producer is

Danica Johnson to show is written by my high

school history teacher Raoul Meyer

Rosianna Rojas and myself and our

graphics team is Thought Cafe.

I nailed that.

Every week there's a new caption

for the Libertage. You can suggest your

own in comments or ask questions about

today's video that will be answered by

our team of historians.

Thank you for watching Crash Course,

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And as we say in my hometown:

Don't Forget to be Awesome.