Americans love to go shopping. We even have a holiday for shopping: Black Friday. Of course, we were not always like this. The first people who came to America had no stores after all.
So, when did we become a nation of shoppers? And since we did, has shopping become an important part of what makes us who we are? Would we still be American if we didn’t shop? Has a world where everyone’s always buying things come to be a key part of who we are as Americans?
A RETURN TO LAISSEZ FAIRE
The election in 1920 saw the end of one group of Progressive leaders. When former presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson died, so did many people’s excitement about progressive ideas. Wilson’s support of the League of Nations turned many people who had come from Ireland and Germany against the Democrats. Americans were tired of change and ready for a return to “normalcy.”
Most of all, the 1920s was a time when the government went back to helping business instead of regulating business. It was a time of a return to the laissez-faire ideas of the Gilded Age of the late 1800s. Calvin Coolidge’s idea that “the chief business of the American people is business,” often written as “the business of America is business” became the main idea of the times. During the 1920s, America’s leaders tried to lower taxes, get rid of government regulation and let business leaders do as they pleased.
In the election of 1920, many Republicans were ready to choose a man whom they could control. Warren G. Harding, a senator from Ohio, was just such a man. Harding was known for enjoying golf, alcohol, and poker, but not always in that order. Some people who didn’t like him thought he was weak, lazy, or unable to get things done, he was actually quite clever and politically wise. Together with his running mate, Calvin Coolidge, the governor of Massachusetts, they attracted the votes of many Americans who wanted Harding’s promised return to “normalcy,” a word he invented. In the election, Harding won by the greatest amount in the history of two-party politics. Harding won 61% of the popular vote.
Harding’s cabinet showed his pro-business goals. Herbert Hoover, a rich mechanical engineer and miner, became his Secretary of Commerce. Hoover had served as head of the plan to raise money for Belgium during World War I and helped to feed those in Russia and Germany after the war ended. He was a very good manager, trying to lower waste in the government and helping create partnerships between government and businesses. Harding’s Secretary of the Treasury, Andrew Mellon, was also a rich pro-business leader. Even more so than Hoover, Mellon thought government should run as well as any business, and he wrote that “the Government is just a business, and can and should be run on business principles.”
Harding proposed and signed into law tax cuts and created a presidential budget director. He also signed a law that required the president to submit a budget to Congress once each year. These changes helped the government pay back some of the money that the United States had borrowed during World War I.
Harding did some good things, but Harding’s team has gone down in history as full of problems. While Harding was honest, he worked with people who were not. Harding made the mistake of often turning to old friends and people who told lies. These old friends, nicknamed the Ohio Gang, gave Harding many problems. “I have no trouble with my enemies,” he once said. “I can take care of my enemies in a fight. But my friends, my goddamned friends, they’re the ones who keep me walking the floor at nights!”
Primary Source: Editorial Cartoon
An artist’s drawing of the Ohio Gang running for cover as news of the Teapot Dome Scandal broke in the press.
From 1920 to 1923, Secretary of the Interior Albert B. Fall was involved in a scam that became known as the Teapot Dome Scandal. Fall had sold the navy’s oil reserves in Teapot Dome, Wyoming, and two other places in California. The main problem was not that he was selling the government’s oil, but that he had sold it to businesses owned by his friends in secret. In return, the companies gave him $300,000 in cash, as well as cows for his farm. Fall went to jail for taking money from the oil companies and had to pay $100,000. It was the first time that a cabinet official had to go to jail.
In 1923, Harding also learned that the head of the Veterans Bureau, Colonel Charles Forbes, had stolen most of the $250 million that was being saved for fancy events. Forbes served two years in prison.
Harding was not president for the normal four years. In July 1923, while traveling in Seattle, the president suffered a heart attack. While he was still weak, he had a stroke and died in San Francisco. His vice president, Calvin Coolidge, took over as president.
Coolidge ended the problems, but did little more than that. Coolidge stuck to his idea that: “The business of America is business.” Coolidge thought the rich had things because they were good and that being poor was because of something people had done wrong. Most of all, Coolidge thought that since only the rich best knew about business, the government should let business leaders take care of their businesses with as little government regulation as possible.
So, staying quiet and doing nothing are what people remember about Coolidge. Coolidge was famous in Washington, DC for doing and saying very little. People told a story of how, at a dinner party at the White House, a woman bet her friends that she could get Coolidge to say more than three words. He looked at her and said. “You lose.”
After winning the 1924 election, Coolidge chose not to run again in 1928. Republicans turned to Herbert Hoover. The Democrats picked Alfred E. Smith of New York. Smith was everything that small-town people and farmers in America hated. He was Irish, Catholic, and a big city politician. He was fancy and he talked a lot. Most people thought what really was important was that they had enough money. They thought the Republican presidents were the ones who had made sure things were good. In the end, Hoover won easily with 21,000,000 votes over Al Smith’s 15,000,000.
In the end, all three republican presidents of the 1920s were the same: they tried not to make changes, let business leaders do what they did best, and enjoyed the good economy that was the result.
An invention that changed American life in the 20th Century was the car. It showed how the economy was growing in the 1920s.
The idea of the car was not new the 1920s, but Henry Ford made it more common. Ford used the idea of the assembly line for making cars. In Ford’s factories, instead of training each worker how to build a whole car, he trained each worker to complete just one step. Then, the cars moved through the factory, beginning with just parts at one end, and leaving as finished cars on the other end. He paid his workers a $5 a day when most workers were paid $2, hoping that it would help them do more work. Also, they might use their extra money to buy a new car.
Primary Source: Photograph
A picture of Henry Ford’s system, where cars were built quickly. Cars were high quality products Americans wanted to buy.
Ford cut options and the Model T sold for $490 in 1914, about one quarter what a car cost ten years before. By 1920, there were over 8 million people who had bought a car.
The car changed America. Businesses like glass, steel, and rubber factories grew to keep up with car making. The oil industry in California, Oklahoma, and Texas grew, as Americans’ need for oil grew and the nation went from using coal to using gas as the main source of power. Local and state governments had to pay for new roads. People in the suburbs stopped using streetcars and started driving their own cars.
Even the federal government became involved with the Federal Highway Act of 1921. Gas stations were built all over, and mechanics began to earn a living fixing cars when they broke down. Travelers on the road needed places to stop to sleep on long trips, so motels began to line the major long-distance roads.
Primary Source: Photograph
A service station in the 1920s. Now common throughout America, gas stations were a new feature of American roads in the 1920s.
The car led to many changes in the way people lived in America. Important American foods such as hamburgers, French fries, milk shakes and apple pies became a symbol for new restaurants that were build along the roads. Drivers wanted cheap, fast food so they spent their time doing other things. But the growth of new businesses meant that some other businesses started to die away. Since Americans started to use cars, the nation’s trains were used less. While Europeans spent money on mass transit, Americans spent money to build new roads, parking lots, and gas stations to support cars.
The car also led to social changes too. Families were now free to travel to places they couldn’t before. People in the city could travel and see beautiful natural places while farmers could drive to shop in towns and cities. Teenagers found more freedom since they could now travel where they wanted to. Boyfriends and girlfriends found that a car was a place to be alone and ideas about what was ok for people to do before marriage started to change.
There were some bad things about cars. America had the first traffic jams and accidents. The government made people get a license before they could drive. There were bad things about cars, but Americans loved them.
Primary Source: Photograph
Charles Lindbergh in front of his airplane, the Spirit of St. Louis. Lindbergh became an overnight hero in America after flying from New York to Paris.
The 1920s not only saw a change in the way people travelled on land but also big changes in air travel. By the mid-1920s, men, as well as some women like the African American pilot Bessie Coleman, had been flying for twenty years. Americans who had learned to fly during World War I bought the airplanes the army was selling after the war and travelled around the country. They would land in an open field and sell rides to people who, having never seen an airplane before, came from miles around to see the amazing airplanes. These barnstormers, a name they were given because of the trick of flying through a barn with doors open at both ends, made the airplane familiar across America.
In the 1920s, many people did not think that airplanes would ever be a way to travel. However, in 1927, Charles Lindbergh became the first person to fly alone across the Atlantic Ocean, flying from New York to Paris in thirty-three hours. Lindbergh’s flight made him an international hero: the best-known American in the world. On his return, Americans gave him a parade through Manhattan. His flight, which he completed in the monoplane Spirit of St. Louis, was a success and showed that Americans could do great things with the airplane. After Lindbergh’s flight, the small airline industry began to grow, and by the 1930s, companies like Boeing and Ford created airplanes made for passenger air transport. In 1934, the number of passengers on airplanes was just over 450,000 each year. By 1940, that number had grown to nearly two million.
CONSUMERISM AND CREDIT
The 1920s was a time when many people in the middle class had enough money to buy new things to make their lives easier. Before the 1920s, only rich people were able to pay for these fancy things. Some of these things were vacuum cleaners, refrigerators, washing machines, and electric irons. Stores created advertising to get people to buy these new inventions and made people think that everyone should have them.
New inventions made the life of women easier, because it was women who had to take care of housework. Before the 1920s, women spent most of their time cleaning, sewing, and taking care of their homes. By the end of the 1920s, they were able to buy clothes at stores and find food in supermarkets. The inventions of the 1920s really helped women have more free time.
THE STOCK MARKET
“Buy now, pay later” was an idea that many middle class Americans had in the 1920s. For a family with only one adult who had a job, all these new items were impossible to afford at once. However, stores wanted the people to buy everything. Department stores opened up lines of credit for those who could not pay up front but could show that they could pay in the future. Installment plans were invented for shoppers who wanted to pay for things little by little over time. This was offered to buyers who could not afford the one-time payment but could afford “twelve easy payments.” Over half of the nation’s cars sold on credit by the end of the ten years. People borrowed a lot more money in the 1920s than they had ever done before. In modern times we are comfortable with the idea of owing money. Credit cards are a form of owing money in which we buy things with the promise of paying off our bill at a later date, but in the 1920s, this kind of shopping was new.
While Americans were getting used to the idea of buying things they wanted with borrowed money, they were also beginning to be curious about the stock market. To be sure, the stock market was not new, but for the first time in the 1920s, everyday Americans started to buy stocks. As the government passed laws and cut regulation that helped big companies, their stocks did well. As ten years slowly went by and stocks continued to rise, so did the demand for stock.
Buying and selling stock was not really a problem. Today, Americans risk their savings in the stock market, knowing that prices may fall. However, the 1920s were different because Americans borrowed money to buy stock. This was called buying on margin, and meant that people borrowed cash to buy a stock, which they would later sell when the stock price went higher. Then, they would use the money that they made to pay back the money that they borrowed. If everything worked out, they would have some extra money left over. If stock prices only rose, the system worked well, and as stocks rose and rose during the ten years, more people bought stocks on margin. Of course, if a stock’s value fell, they would have to sell the stock, and pay back the loan. This would lead them to owe money. Buying on margin was a risky way to invest and in 1929 led to trouble.
THE LOST GENERATION
As old ways of life were replaced by new, some people did not like how things were changing. Although anything seemed possible, it also felt like Americans were trying to forget World War I by shopping, drinking, dancing, playing and driving their way to happiness. It seemed as if Americans were trying to lose themselves in anything shiny and new.
To show this idea that what was good about America was being lost, a new group of writers appeared. Called the Lost Generation, many of these writers moved away to the city of Paris, France. The name Lost Generation first appeared in Ernest Hemingway‘s book, The Sun Also Rises, which is about a group of Americans in Europe during the 1920s. Hemingway said the name came from Gertrude Stein, who was his guide and helped him while he was in Paris.
Primary Source: Photograph
F. Scott Fitzgerald in the 1920s around the time he wrote The Great Gatsby.
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about how people wanted and had too much in the 1920s. He and his wife Zelda lived among the rich people in New York, Paris, and on the French Riviera. The Great Gatsby, his most famous book, is about how it was bad that Americans only thought about having new, fancy things. T.S. Eliot wrote about how American life was empty in a popular poem called The Waste Land. Sinclair Lewis also did not like the middle class’ way of life and wrote about it in his book Main Street. After many successful books, Lewis was the first American writer to win a Pulitzer Prize.
Some of the names related to the Lost Generation group of writers were not part of Hemingway’s friends in Paris after the war, but are included because their early years or childhood happened just before or during World War I. Some of these writers are John Dos Passos, Waldo Peirce, Alan Seeger, John Steinbeck, Sherwood Anderson, Aldous Huxley, Malcolm Crowley, Isadora Duncan, James Joyce, and Henry Miller.
The Lost Generation was created because of World War I. American modern writers wrote about the mental harm and religious scars the war had caused, which were ideas in Hemingway’s writing and in Fitzgerald’s book This Side of Paradise.
Another book called All Quiet on The Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque was written in 1929 and it talks about the scary things of World War I. A movie released in 1930 based on the book was nominated for four Academy Awards and won two.
During the 1920s, inventions were changing and the world was exciting. It seemed like there was nothing that could not be done. Lindbergh had crossed the Atlantic, and business was growing. Politicians allowed businessmen to make new products for Americans to buy with their new money. Refrigerators, cars and toasters appeared in many homes. And, when there was not enough money to buy something a neighbor had, Americans bought on credit.
We may love Black Friday now, and be into having the latest thing in the 21st Century, but our love for buying things began in the 1920s.
Is our shopping now a part of who we are? Does shopping make us different in the world? Is always buying things an important part of what makes us American?
What do you think?
BIG IDEA: The 1920s was a time when the economy was good for most people and having the latest thing was important.
During the 1920s, three Republican presidents pursued laissez-faire policies by reducing taxes and regulation. The result was an increase in business activity. Higher wages led to higher spending and people remember the decade as a time of wealth and plenty.
The administration of President Harding however was plagued by scandal, including the Teapot Dome Scandal.
The 1920s were the first decade in which many Americans were able to own automobiles, especially due to innovations in production implemented by Henry Ford. Cars had the effect of changing America. Gas stations, paved roads, motels, and kissing in cars were all things that were new because of the availability of the automobile.
Airplanes were new in the 1920s. Most famously, Charles Lindbergh became the first person to fly non-stop from New York to Paris, becoming a great hero in the United States.
America became a consumer culture. Having the latest thing became an important part of life, especially new electronic inventions such as refrigerators and vacuum cleaners.
When they were unable to buy such things, Americans borrowed money. Being in debt became common.
This was a time when average Americans began buying stocks in the stock market. Some made the risky choice of borrowing money to buy stocks. However, since business was good during most of the decade, even investors who borrowed usually made money in the end.
Not all Americans believed this new emphasis on having things and making money was a good idea. A group of writers known as the Lost Generation felt that Americans had lost their sense of what was good and true and wrote novels focused on these themes.
PEOPLE AND GROUPS
Warren G. Harding: Republican president in the 1920s. He died in office.
Ohio Gang: A group of President Harding’s advisors. Their corruption causes the president a great deal of political trouble.
Calvin Coolidge: Republican president in the 1920s. He became president after the death of Harding and advocated pro-business policies.
Henry Ford: Entrepreneur who founded an automobile company and pioneered the use of the assembly line and famously paid his workers $5 per day.
Barnstormer: A pilot that travels from place to place performing tricks.
Charles Lindbergh: American pilot who was the first person to fly across the Atlantic Ocean non-stop. He became a national hero.
The Lost Generation: Group of American authors who wrote about disenchantment with consumerism and waste during the 1920s. They included Hemingway, Stein, and Fitzgerald.
Ernest Hemingway: Author of the Lost Generation. His books included The Sun Also Rises, The Old Man and the Sea, and For Whom the Bell Tolls.
Gertrude Stein: Author of the Lost Generation who hosted and mentored younger authors in Paris.
F. Scott Fitzgerald: Author of the Lost Generation who wrote The Great Gatsby.
T.S. Eliot: Author of the Lost Generation who wrote the poem The Waste Land.
Sinclair Lewis: Author of the Lost Generation who wrote Main Street, a criticism of small-town life.
Laissez-Faire: A government policy of low regulation and low taxation in order to spur business.
Return to Normalcy: President Harding’s campaign slogan. It tapped into Americans’ desire to move beyond the heartache of World War I.
The Business of America is Business: President Coolidge’s famous saying showing that he believed the government’s job was to support business.
Line of Credit: A set amount of money a store or bank was willing to loan a customer in order make purchases.
Installment Plan: A plan for paying back a loan for a purchase a small amount at a time over the course of a set time.
Buying on Margin: Purchasing stock with borrowed money in the hope that the stock will gain in value and the borrower will make money after paying back the loan.
Assembly Line: A system of production in which each worker performs one step and the product moves past the workers, beginning at one end of the factory as parts, and exiting the other end as a finished product.
Model T: Famous automobile built by Henry Ford. It was relatively inexpensive and always black.
Spirit of St. Louis: Charles Lindbergh’s airplane.
The Great Gatsby: Most famous novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Themes of the novel included the excess of the 1920s.
The Waste Land: Poem by Lost Generation author T.S. Eliot about the emptiness of life in the 1920s.
Main Street: Novel by Lost Generation writer Sinclair Lewis that criticizes small-town life.
Teapot Dome Scandal: Political scandal that hurt President Harding. It stemmed from the illegal sale of naval oil reserves.
Federal Highway Act of 1921: Law that allocated money to develop a system of national highways in the 1920 when automobiles were first becoming common.