"Hey Brother Can You Spare a Dime?"
By Miriam B. Medina

Part II
The Roaring 1920s: A Unique Dramatic Era In All of Its Aspects

World War I was finally over and the military personnel and civilian employees in war work were discharged immediately with fifty percent of the men in armed forces, returning to civilian life by Christmas of 1919. War production had entirely ceased by June 30, 1919.(1)Image, Source: b&w film copy neg.

Many of the servicemen returning from the war were filled with resentment upon finding their former jobs in most instances occupied by someone else; though they were previously assured in every way that they would receive fair treatment economically after serving their military time.

When the 1920s rolled around, the economy was in an upswing. The veterans found the country in a tremendously prosperous state with a new breed of millionaires and well-to-dos created from the war profits.

The country was greater in population growth, increased by record immigration and more industrialized, where the laboring class depended on wages which gained substantially for their survival and pleasure. Americans found a better way to improve their lifestyle and enjoy life. Since the average person during the 1920s often made a lot of money they had enough spare cash to become involved in speculations and investments of the stock market. A wave of stock speculation was sweeping the nation and everywhere there was riotous extravagant spending and enormous profiteering. The increase of money deposited into saving accounts grew rapidly as did the amount of depositors...

The 1920s were considered a “Postwar Boom Period." America was enjoying an era of great prosperity." Economic expansion created booming business profits which in turn raised the standard of living for most Americans.

By 1921 Henry Ford was building a million cars a year. "Ford and his two chief rivals, General Motors and the Chrysler Corporation produced four-fifths of all automobiles in this country." Over a period of time there were 23 million cars on the highways.(2)

Image, Source: digital file from b&w film copy neg. of right half stereo

The auto manufacturers in their attempt to make their vehicles more affordable would offer the consumer a time-payment plan which could also be applied to radios, appliances and furniture. This encouraged and enabled the consumer to buy these goods which otherwise would have been out of reach for the average wage earner. As a result of the availability and expansion of consumer credit, sales of goods and services increased . "Installment selling of retailed goods reached a total of $7,000,000,000 in 1929 making available more automobiles furniture and radios than ever before. "(3) Homes were filled with all kinds of consumer goods and garages with new cars.

The radio and the automobile were one of the major consumer products of the 1920s. For many families it was a luxury which they simply felt they could not afford. Without the radio those who lived in the rural areas namely farmers were isolated from all communication from each other and from other parts of the country. As a result of the economical boom, higher wages were paid, profits made and the items that were considered luxuries before the war were able to be purchased. At the end of the day families and friends , would gather around the radio to listen to the nation's most popular nightly comedy radio show, "Amos and Andy." which first aired in 1926. Radio stations began mushrooming all over America, the programs being paid for from advertising.

Now with the purchase of a radio, farm families from even the remotest corners of the country were brought into immediate and daily contact with the rest of the nation. With just a twist of the dial, entertainment, sports, religion, latest news and music could be heard.

"Farm family listening to their radio"

Consumer credit was also making it easy for the American population to buy on time, even when they did not have the money. Newer products were continually being produced flooding the buyers market with enticing advertisements that awakened an irresistible urge of "Ooooooh... this I must have." So by the end of the 1920s "nearly half of the American population had purchased automobiles, radios, and other consumer goods such as refrigerators and vacuum cleaners.

"In 1925, the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) released statistics indicating that of the 26,000,000 homes in the United States, 5,000,000, or 19.2 percent, had radio receivers, though the number of broadcast listeners was estimated at 20,000,000. In his Historical Dictionary of the 1920s (1988), James S. Olson notes that sales of radio went from $60 million in 1922 to $843 million in 1929. It is estimated that by 1929, approximately 35 to 40 percent of American families owned radios, and the number ran considerably higher, in some cases up to 75 percent, in both wealthy suburban and larger metropolitan areas." (4)

Although the radio had its high priority in just about every household as a form of recreation from early morning until far into the night, the automobile revolutionized the use of leisure time. Families were able to leave the surroundings of their homes and partake of sports, beaches, parks, flock to theaters, and visit amusement areas. The automobile offered families opportunities for travel all over the country.

Image, Source: b&w film copy neg.

The 1920s was a decade that was distinguished by such creative people and their great works as in "The Beautiful and the Damned" (1922) and "The Great Gatsby (1925) by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Also in his book "This Side of Paradise (1920)" F. Scott Fitzgerald expresses the atmosphere of the Jazz Age. Other noted works such as Babbitt (1922) Main Street (1920) by Sinclair Lewis, Ernest Hemingway's "A Farewell to Arms" (1929) , Theodore Dreiser's "An American Tragedy "(1925), Willa Cather's "Death Comes for the Archbishop" (1927)as well as Emily Post's Etiquette (1922) flooded the reader's market across the entire nation and world..

Celebrities with their Vaudeville Acts were at an all-time high. Eddie Cantor's big hit "Making Whoopee," ; Mae West, appearing in "Pleasure Man" and Joan Crawford a new uprising Hollywood star of the popular 1928 film "Our Dancing Daughters, relishes her place in the camera's spot-light.

It was an era where gangsterism with its fast cars, ra-ta-tat machine guns, sawed-off shotguns, prostitution, gambling, illegal booze, racketeers, corrupt officials, Al Capone, disrespect for the Law, and organized crime was dominant. The Prohibition era began at midnight on January 16, 1920. Bootleggers, Speakeasy and the gangster were popular terms used during this era. Profits available to criminals from illegal alcohol corrupted almost every level of government. Bootleggers fought bloody battles for a monopolistic position... Anyone who opposed would be gunned down with machine guns as seen in the Valentine Day Massacre of 1929.

For the first time in its history foreign immigration became restricted during the 1920s with The Immigration Act of 1924 (Johnson-Reed Act). "The Immigration Act of 1924 limited the number of immigrants allowed entry into the United States through a national origins quota. The quota provided immigration visas to two percent of the total number of people of each nationality in the United States as of the 1890 national census. It completely excluded immigrants from Asia." (5)

The 1921 arrest and trial of Sacco and Vanzetti had coincided with the period of the most intense political repression in American history, the "Red Scare" 1919-20.(6)

"The Sweet case gripped the nation's attention in 1925 and 1926 as race riots became commonplace, the Ku Klux Klan's influence grew, and rapid urbanization and industrialization created an array of new urban problems." (7)

The Teapot Dome scandal occurred in the early 1920s, during the administration of President Harding. The name referred to the Teapot Dome Reserve, a 9,321 acre oilfield on public land near Casper, Wyoming, which was set aside in 1915 as an oil reserve for the U.S. Navy. President Warren C. Harding, at the insistence of his Secretary of the Interior Alfred B. Fall, signed an executive order transferring the naval petroleum reserves from the Navy to Fall's Department of the Interior. In 1922 Secretary of
the Interior Albert Bacon Fall secretly leased the two oil reserves to private oil companies; Harry Sinclair's Mammoth Oil Company and the 38,000-acre Elk Hills Reserve in California, to Edward Doheny's Pan-American Petroleum Company. As a result of the Senate Committee's investigation under Senator Thomas J. Walsh in 1923, Fall was convicted on federal bribery charges, having received about $400,000 for manipulating the leases. He was sentenced to one year in prison and assessed a $100,000 fine. (8).

(Continue on Page: 2  of Part II The Roaring 1920s: A Unique Dramatic Era In All of Its Aspects)


1)      Dummond, Dwight Lowell; America in Our Time 1896-1946; Page: 283 Henry Holt and Company (1937)

2)     Wish, Harvey;  Society and Thought in Modern America; Volume II Page: 439; David McKay Company, Inc.-New York  (1952)

3)     Wish, Harvey; Society and Thought in Modern America; Volume II Page: 441 David McKay Company, Inc.-New York  (1952)

4)     Library of Congress, American Memory; Coolidge-Consumerism, “Radio: A Consumer Product and a Producer of Consumption”

5)    The U.S. Department of State, “The Immigration Act of 1924 (The Johnson-Reed Act) http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ho/time/id/87718.htm

6)    Famous American Trials “The Trial of Sacco and Vanzetti 1921 http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/SaccoV/SaccoV.htm

7)    Organization Of American Historians” Defending the Home: Ossian Sweet and the Struggle Against Segregation in 1920s Detroit

8)   Flexner, Stuart Berg; I Hear America Talking, An Illustrated History of American Words and Phrases; A Touchstone Book Published by Simon and Schuster-New York (1976)

        Photo Credit: Soldiers Returning From World War I Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

Photo Credit: Family and Friends gathering around the Radio; LC-USZ62-109738 Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

Photo Credit: Great Automobile Factory; LC-USZ62-63968 LC-USZ62-63968 Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

Photo Credit: Al Capone; Flexner, Stuart Berg; I Hear America Talking, An Illustrated History of American Words and Phrases; A Touchstone Book Published by Simon and Schuster-New York (1976)

       Photo Credit: National Archives: One Hundred Years of Photography; Farm family listening to their radio, By George W. Ackerman, probably Ingham County, Michigan, August 15, 1930 National Archives and Records Administration, Records of the Extension Service (33-SC-14524c) [VENDOR # 172]






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