The motivation behind the exclusion laws was partly xenophobia (especially in the case of the Chinese and other Asians, whose appearance and customs are so different than the western European heritage of most native-born Americans in the 1920s) and partly to protect jobs, wages and resources for the benefit of Americans (Ibid.).
Prohibition, Speakeasies and Bootlegging
The issue of prohibition illustrates the polarity of sentiment felt by many Americans during the Twenties. Many believed that alcohol was the cause of a significant number of social evils and that its eradication would permanently erase those evils (Rumbarger 11). After prohibition went into effect, many urban dwellers began to frequent 'secret' clubs known as speakeasies where they could illegally purchase and consume alcohol. Many rural residents began to make their own alcohol, known as moonshine (Ibid 24).
The federal government was unable (and in many cases unwilling) to effectively enforce prohibition, which allowed the rise to the prominence of the modern organized crime syndicate, also known as the 'mob.' The mob became proficient at bootlegging alcohol into the speakeasies and other locations (Ibid 27). Thus, mobsters like Al Capone and Lucky Luciano, became national figures and organized crime became romanticized in American culture. Also, the use of customized automobile engines of bootleggers in the south directly led to one of America's most popular pastimes, NASCAR auto-racing.
Business and the Workplace
National Business and Capitalism
The 1920s were in fact an economic boom time for some and there was a chance for upward mobility greater than in previous generations. Tremendous consumer demand and increased factory productivity created industry captains, while the rise in finance and insurance industries created new wealth for others. The rise of big cities and big skyscrapers in New York and Chicago conjured the image of what was the 'Roaring Twenties' for many.
Workers, Farmers and Other Destitute Groups
For a far greater number of people, slice of the pie did not increase significantly. Labor Unions took a major step back during the 1920s. Unions suffered a number defeats in major strikes that left them dramatically weakened (Zinn Chapter 15). Also, because unions were long associated with radical, socialist and communist ideology, unions and labor leaders grew increasingly unpopular after World War I, as the country longed for its 'return to normalcy' and embraced a collective capitalist and laissez faire doctrine (Ibid.). As a result, the working class lost much of its economic clout gained during the Progressive era.
American farmers were perhaps the hardest hit economically in the 1920s. Advances in machinery decreased the demand for manual laborers at the same time that food prices dropped (McDean 79). Thus the farm laborer found his services were not needed or profitable and many were lured to the industrial boom towns. Without labor or the capital needed to purchase the new farming equipment, the small independent farmer was not to compete with larger farms. Small farms could no longer remain independent and many farmers were forced to merge into cooperatives in order to remain viable (Ibid 82). Also, President Coolidge declined to sign a bill which would have granted relief to thousands of farmers (Ibid 85). During the 1920s while this transition was taking place, many small farmers suffered enormous hardship.
While women did make gains in terms of acceptance in the workplace, many lost their factory and industry jobs to returning soldiers after the war. African-American women were particularly hard hit, finding employment opportunities mostly limited to the areas of field work and domestic servant work. The one really bright spot for women, and all working class laborers, was that there were plenty of jobs available as a result of the industrial growth.
Transportation and Communications
The United States became a smaller place as automobiles and telephones became readily available for many Americans in the 1920s. While not found in every household, these items were no longer limited to only the wealthiest as in previous years. Henry Ford's assembly line production in his Detroit plant paved the way for American production for the remainder of the century. As the automobile and telephone increased in popularity and availability, the modern day United States infrastructure began to develop. As highways and Interstate highways and telephone lines connected the country to both coasts, electrical lines, indoor plumbing and sewer systems brought the American lifestyle firmly into the 20th century.
One new innovation that roared during the Twenties was that of air flight. While invented prior to the start of the decade, passenger travel became a reality through the skies during the Twenties. The world hailed Charles Lindbergh as he completed the first solo-transatlantic flight from New York to Paris. Robert Goddard discovered rocket propulsion which laid the foundation for the space program in the 1950s.
Entertainment and Culture
Entertainment saw one of the bigger transformations in American life. As much as aspect of society, the entertainment world incorporated all of the changes enveloping society. The Entertainment world of the Twenties also gave birth to the modern world of entertainment that we know today. Movies, music and sports provided the lifeblood of our society's entertainment culture, just as they do today.
While 'movies' were introduced prior to the 1920s, the introduction of movies with sound, called 'talkies,' took the country by storm. Sports were the forum for larger than life personalities Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey and football began to develop an enormous following, as well, though the college game was the popular version and professional football was quite fledgling in the 1920s. Jazz, a purely American style of music became popular in the 1920s as a form of entertainment available to nearly everyone via commercial radio stations, another invention of the decade (Brown 3).
The entertainment and cultural changes in society were profound and its impact on society tells the story of the Roaring Twenties from the positive perspective. Talking pictures, commercial radio stations, Jazz, Babe Ruth and Charles Lindberg were larger than life achievements and/or figures that were 100% American (Ibid.). While Americans took pride in the accomplishments of their countrymen to be sure, these achievements and people proved that to Americans, absolutely nothing was impossible (Ibid.). This sense of unbridled optimism, partnered with a booming economy and the end of the World War (and the end of the world-wide Influenza epidemic of 1919), did make many Americans roar with life, vitality and prosperity.
The Roaring Twenties were a distinct period in United States (and world) history. Some portions of the population declared 'Full Speed Ahead!' At the breakneck pace and massive scope of the changes taking place within society. Others pulled on the brake level and held on for dear life. The changes that came about, and the further changes that were heralded for the near future, pitted society against itself. Those who embraced the change struggled with those who resisted it. Those who resisted the change perhaps had more to lose, for once change sweeps through society, the old landscape does not return and this is the crossroads that the Roaring Twenties presented.
It is difficult to say the Twenties roared because of the financial boom, when it only boomed for a small percentage of the population. It is difficult to say that the Twenties roared because of the gains made by women and other minority groups given the popularity of the Ku Klux Klan and the anti-immigrant exclusionary laws. Likewise, how can a decade roar due to its scientific achievement, when state governments are prosecuting school teachers for teaching Darwin's theory of evolution? Even further, entertainment hit new heights and even more people got to enjoy theatre, spectator sports and the arts, but much of the nation supported the 18th amendment which took away society's right to drink. Finally, Americans conquered the skies spanning the globe while deciding that nothing worthwhile was happening beyond its own borders.
The Roaring Twenties roared because Americans faced overwhelming change and accomplishment and an equally overwhelming resistance to that change and accomplishment. The United States became as disjointed as it has ever been. This was not due to civil war or any singular polarizing issue such as slavery or World War, but due to an overall indecisiveness of where American society was heading. As the modernization of the world and society became more inevitable and each year brought more new choices and issues that did not exist previously, America struggled loudly to collectively make these choices and sort through the issues. This was the roar that was heard throughout the Twenties. In this sense, America has been roaring ever since.
Best, Gary Dean. The Dollar Decade: Mammon And The Machine In 1920s America.
Westport, CT. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2003.
Brown, Maria A. America in Transition: 1920 to 1954 and Beyond. Lecture 8, U.S. Hostory
Gibson, Campbell, and Jung, Kay. Historical Census Statistics on Population Totals by Race,
1790 to 1990, and by Hispanic Origin, 1970 to 1990, for Large Cities and Other Urban Places in the United…