The decade of the 1920's has been characterized as both an "age of anxiety" and a "period of hope". Why?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The beginning of the decade of the 1920's was certainly one of jubilation and hope as the end of World War I in 1918 brought peace and optimism, and, later, prosperity, but there was also the passage of the 18th Amendment which led to the proliferation of crime, and the end of the decade saw the sweeping despair of the stock market "crash." 

Period of Hope

  • America's total wealth doubled between 1920 and 1929 as manufactured goods and food were sold to England and France, who were so debilitated by the war.
  • The nation became a consumer society with the new prosperity. Credit purchases were introduced so that the rising middle class was able to make large purchases such as the new inventions of the refrigerator, washing machines, vacuum cleaners, and the automobile that has begun being built on the assembly line in the previous decade. With the rapid purchasing of automobiles--1 car for every 5 Americans--service stations and motels were constructed, and more restaurants appeared.
  • People had leisure time and the money to spend at nightclubs, the movies, and other forms of entertainment. 
  • The Harlem Renaissance became a hopeful period for African-Americans as their music, art, and literature was recognized outside their marginalized society.
  • African-Americans also found jobs as well as educational opportunities in the North 
  • Women enjoyed freedom in their society as many kept their jobs which they had taken during the war, they were given the right to vote, and they were able to dress more provocatively in public and to frequent nightclubs.
  • With increases in government and private funding, schools and colleges offered more people the opportunity for an education. By the end of the 1920's, more than 150,000 college degrees were awarded to graduates throughout the United States.
  • Because there was very little government regulation, businesses grew and competed without much regulation. By 1927 there were seventy thousand various retail locations throughout the country. Banking procedures offered good terms to borrowers. 

Period of Anxiety

  • With Prohibition came criminality as the illegal sale of alcohol fueled the growing underworld of crime, specifically the Mafia. Some of these people involved in the illegal manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages made many bootleggers millionaires. Consequently, their influence extended itself to local politics, especially, and other crimes such as prostitution and the sale of illegal drugs.
  • Prohibition also provided some control for American citizens over what they felt were the unruly immigrant masses who began to flood the cities. For example, the so-called "Drys" called beer "Kaiser brew," a name which conjured the enemy in WWII. Thus, the foreigners, who usually enjoyed beer, became suspect politically. These "Drys" hoped to return cities to a more "comfortable time."
  • There was a "Cultural Civil War." The Great Migration of African Americans from Southern states to the North caused racial uneasiness among some Americans. Along with people's frequenting of the Harlem nightclubs, and the interest in jazz and blues music, some worried about the "trampling" of values.
  • As the decade went on there grew a cultural war. Strife broke out among those who lived in the cities and those who dwelt in small towns, African-Americans and whites, the New Women" and traditional women, and and Catholics against Protestants. In addition, the Red Scare" in 1920 encouraged mass hysteria; in the wake of the Russian Revolution, in 1924 the National Origins Act was passed to prohibit Asians and Eastern Europeans from entering the country. This Act also established quotas for immigrants.
  • The lack of government regulation upon banks wrought an inordinate amount of bank loans that could not be liquidated, and the wild and risky investments of people brought about dangerous conditions in the stock market. Production had declined with the consequent rise in unemployment. Added to this, the agricultural sector was struggling. All these conditions led to the stock market collapse which caused mass panic.

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