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

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 also 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, If you enjoyed today’s episode make sure you subscribe. And as we say in my hometown: Don’t Forget to be Awesome.

100 comments

  1. Studying for my social studies praxis. Any educators out there with some tips to hopefully pass the 5081 exam?

  2. Sorry to be a smart arse but its Edward Doheny, not Harry Doheny. Harding had another friend invloved in the teapot dome scandal called Harry Sinclair but Doheny's first name is Edward, not Harry

  3. Everyone in the comments is using the for exams and I'm just here trying to research for Call of Cthulhu ๐Ÿ˜‚

  4. It's incredible that, until the 1920's, the United States still used the British Pound. It shows that the U.S. used to be a childish, teenge-like version of Great Britain, while it is now a fully fledged adult. It's strange how different our culture is, despite how little time there was between us. History is incredibly fascinating.

  5. Thank youuuuu!!! Lmao ive been dumb and subconsciously pricrastinated revision for my mocks today๐Ÿ˜‚๐Ÿ˜‚

  6. (Leading up to the Great Depression): Staunch conservative Republicans hewed to the policies favored by business lobbyists including lower taxes on business profits and efforts to weaken the power of unions, the presidents stocked the boards of the federal reserve and federal trade commission with men who shared their pro business views shifting the country away from economic regulations, the presidencies were marked by government corruption (re appointed government positions). Big business meant that smaller businesses disappeared, and the number of manufacturing workers declined. Oh, and virtually everyone considered living in debt normal…
    sounding familiar?
    What we don't have today is the industrial and business boom that the 20s had, putting us in an even worse position than we were back then.

  7. British, grounded in the 18th century enlightenment values, but with a twist and a different accent. Mostly "Aspirational".

  8. That moment when you realize native Americans arent actually native to America at all. And that they in fact have no more claim to being American than any of us.

  9. " . . . it's true that Gatsby turned out alright in the end."? Really? I don't remember it that way.

  10. FYI, the REAL Native Americans were ancient CAUCASIANS from the region of ancient France thousands of years before the asiatic ancestors of those who call themselves "native Americans" today. They were called Solutreans, and they were here first. Their ancient DNA is still present in some eastern tribes today. So if you want to try and act intelligent, at least get your facts straight.

  11. You forgot about the stirrings of that wacky Ancient One, Cthulhu!
    Maybe that's why there were so many contradictions runnin' around…

  12. In my humble (and very late) opinion, American ideals are freedom, democracy, and acceptance of immigrants and refugees. So the statue of liberty, basically

  13. I feel bad for the farmers who lost their farms but the government wasnโ€™t created to subsidize farms. Subsidies take money from one group of people and give it to another. Itโ€™s

  14. can you really explain it in this modern day of cellphones? you'd would have to of been there to really understand it.

  15. USA Values: Labeling people, military might, legal cartel sponsored over-medicating, full spectrum entertainment, can't do attitude, fear vs. openness, Guns, guns, guns

  16. Crash Course and YouTube have replaced Clift Notes from back in the day. Not that I ever used them, I did the actual research from the libraries because I live in the Wash., DC area and went to the library of Congress as well.

  17. I had forgotten this was when the US dollar replaced the British pound as the major currency. The British must have (crapped) when that happened.

  18. At 10:30, John mentions that the immigration quota for Filipinos is capped at 50 per year; keep in mind that at this time, the Philippines was an American colony…

  19. I think a lot of those poor people are like new immigrants and there is a lot of them especially irish. If you work and work your way up you probably live pretty good compare to the rest of the world …

  20. I'm watching this in August 2019 and there are way, way, WAY too many parallels to today. What's that? The next episode is on The Great Depression? Terrific.

  21. Calvin Coolidge was born in VT. Although he did live and rise to prominence in MA. Small quibble for an otherwise awesome video.

  22. No TV, movies suck

    I'm here with my gal

    Shake your hands, kick around

    Wear a suit to breakfast

    Underwear that laces up

    All girls have a guy's haircut

    Crank your car to make it start

    You will die of measles

  23. Filling the government with pro-big business friends and weakening unions is exactly what's happening in Australia right now.

  24. 1920's Texas oil, car mass production, electricity, after Faraday, Maxwell's experiments, mathematics, 2020's solar, electric vehicles, high rise agriculture, from the photovoltaic systems of the 1920's quantum physicists, solar cells, light emitting diodes, cheap power, transportation and food. It takes a while, novelties like the solar LED calculator, in the 1970's, then , the price of solar halves every 3 years in the 2010's, leading to the second roaring twenties and the third or Grand Depression, in the 2030's.

  25. Considering America's history: Values would include: Racism, sexism, violence, war, imperialism, death of small business, reduced freedom AND reduced equality.

    That's why I always find this question dumb, you decide who you are, you decide your own values, If America is truly the land of the free, you have the right to maintain your own values. What idiots did in the past should not determine who you are now.

    Ex: I value science, liberty, love, peace and fresh tomatoes.

  26. It's funny how there's a Green Party, a KKK party, an American Nazi Party, an American Socialist Party, and a Soviets' Right Wing Party that run for president every year, have political debates inside their own parties, and still make up an average total (since 1998) of 3.46% of American votes every year.

  27. This is my roaring , roaring 20's I don't, don't even know me.
    Row me like a blunt cause I wanna go home row my like a blunt, I wanna go home.

  28. Honestly, I kind of feel like one of the traditional American values is, unfortunately, telling ourselves we are better than other people, whether Native Americans, more recent immigrants, people in other countries, or even our neighbors. Though to be fair this may be a traditional human value, because we are by no means the only people who do this.

  29. Being America is having an understanding of our history, an allegiance to the country, and most importantly a shared agreement of the cultural importance. Since we are not an ethno-state, or religiously homogeneous we need to agree on CORE values.

    That is what being American is.

  30. I'd say that the lives ofAmerican's changed more from 1919 to 1969',
    Than from1969 to 2019.
    Take that " exponential technological growth" pundits.

  31. John Green is one of those few who have pronounced Gangnam Style (almost) correctly. It's Ah- not Ae- people!

  32. I like his history review with sarcasm! "Tell me Calvin Coolidge, how American you are. Are you Cherokee, Cree, or Lakota?"

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