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Chapter 18. America in the 1920s: The Beginning of Modern America

During the 1920s tremendous transformations took place in America. In credible industrial growth created a consumer economy, with washing machines, radios, and automobiles available to every household that was willing to pay for these and other products using the installment plan. The continued migration of America from rural areas to the cities finally created a nation in 1925 where the majority lived in urban settings. A national culture was created during the 1920s; this was largely caused by the advent of the radio, the massive increase in advertising, and the incredible increase in popularity of motion pictures.

The nationalization (and urbanization) of American culture was resisted by many in small-town and rural America. Many of the cultural conflicts of the 1920s, including battles over Prohibition, evolution, racism, and immigration, were caused by attempts of the America that was ‘'being left behind” to attempt to keep small-town, rural values prominent in American society.

A DECADE OF PROSPERITY

By the middle of the 1920s many of the dire predictions of the effects of capitalism that had been preached by progressives 15 years earlier seemed like no more than ancient history. Business opportunities were plentiful: The prosecution of trusts, which took up much of the Justice Department’s time in World War I, were few in the 1920s. New opportunists with capital could challenge corporations like U.S. Steel and make profits doing it. Nevertheless, certain industries, such as the automobile industry, were virtually impossible to crack; by 1929 Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler controlled nearly 85 percent of all auto sales. Socialist predictions that the plight of the workers were getting worse seemed to be negated by statistics published in 1924 stating that industrial workers were making nearly double what they had made 10 years earlier.

Strikes and union activities were plentiful in the two years immediately following the end of World War I, but diminished greatly after that (many factory owners realized that paying their workers a decent wage would make them less likely to listen to speeches made by union “agitators”).

By the mid-1920s products made in American factories were available to Americans and also in many European and other world markets. The assembly line of Henry Ford continued to be perfected to the point that by 1925 a Model T was being produced in a Ford plant every 24 seconds. During the decade, the ideas of “scientific management” first proposed by Frederick W. Taylor (see Chapter 14) were utilized in businesses and factories across the country. Production was now being done more efficiently; this ultimately lowered the cost of production and the cost to the consumer.

Many other consumer products, such as vacuum cleaners, refrigerators, and: radios, were also churned out by American factories at record rates. Many of the products also were produced by assembly line techniques, and the stream of workers who continued to enter the cities from rural America could get work doing one of the monotonous jobs involved in assembly line production. For the consumer, products that were impossible to even dream about 10 years early could now be purchased with the installment plan. For 36 or 48 “easy” payments, a middle-class family in the 1920s could have an automobile, a refrigerator, and a vacuum cleaner. Some economists saw danger in the fact that by 1928 nearly 65 percent of all automobiles were being purchased on credit. Most Americans saw little problem with this, since they could not foresee a time when Americans would be unable to make payments on these goods.

The decade of the 1920s can be certainly seen as the beginning of the advertising age. Consumers were warned that if they wanted to live the “good life,” they had to have the latest model refrigerator or automobile. People living in urban, suburban, and rural areas all saw the same advertisements for products that had been placed in both national and local publications by advertising men. As stated previously, this helped to create a universal national culture: Advertisements showed the farmer in Kansas and the suburbanite in Connecticut that they had to have exactly the same product.

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