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


In which John Green teaches you about the United States in the 1920s. They were known as the roaring 20s, but not because there were lions running around everywhere. In the 1920s, America’s economy was booming, and all kinds of social changes were in progress. Hollywood, flappers, jazz, there was all kinds of stuff going on in the 20s. But as usual with Crash Course, things were about to take a turn for the worse. John will teach you about the Charleston, the many Republican presidents of the 1920s, laissez-faire capitalism, jazz, consumer credit, the resurgent Klan, and all kinds of other stuff.

Transcript Provided by YouTube:

00:00
Hi, I’m John Green, this is Crash Course US History, and today we’re gonna learn about one of the best eras ever:
00:05
the 1920s.
00:06
The 20s gave us jazz, movies, radio, making out in cars, illegal liquor,
00:11
and the 20s also gave us prosperity–although not for everybody–
00:14
and gangsters, and a consumer culture based on credit,
00:18
and lots of prejudice against immigrants,
00:20
and eventually the worst economic crisis the US has ever seen.
00:23
Mr. Green, Mr. Green, but what about Gatsby?
00:25
Yeah, me from the past, it’s true that Gastby turned out all right in the end,
00:28
but what preyed on Gatsby,
00:30
what foul dust trailed in the wake of his dreams,
00:32
did temporarily close out my interest in the aborted sorrows and short-winded elations of men.
00:37
*theme music*
00:47
So there’s a stereotypical view of the 1920s as “The Roaring 20s,”
00:50
a decade of exciting change and new cultural touchstones,
00:53
as well as increased personal freedom and dancing.
00:56
And it really was a time of increased wealth–
00:59
for some people.
01:00
The quote of the decade has to go to our famously taciturn president from Massachusetts, Calvin Coolidge, who said,
01:08
Jay-Z would later update this for the 21st century noting,
01:14
But anyway, during the 1920s, the government helped business grow like gangbusters,
01:17
largely by not regulating it much at all.
01:20
This is known as “laissez-faire” capitalism.
01:22
Or “laissez-faire” capitalism if you’re good at speaking French.
01:24
The Republican Party dominated politics in the 1920s,
01:27
with all the presidents elected in the decade being
01:29
staunch conservative Republicans.
01:31
The federal government hewed to the policies favored by business lobbyists,
01:34
including lower taxes on personal income and business profits,
01:37
and efforts to weaken the power of unions.
01:40
Presidents Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover stocked the boards of the Federal Reserve
01:44
and the Federal Trade Commission with men
01:45
who shared their pro-business views,
01:47
shifting the country away from the economic regulation that had been favored by Progressives.
01:51
And that was very good for the American economy,
01:53
at least in the short run.
01:55
The 1920s were also marked by
01:56
quite a bit of government corruption,
01:58
most of which can be pinned to the
01:59
administration of Warren G. Harding. Now,
02:01
Harding himself wasn’t terribly corrupt,
02:03
but he picked terrible friends. They
02:05
included Attorney General Harry
02:06
Daugherty who accepted money to not
02:08
prosecute criminals, and Interior
02:10
Secretary Albert fall, who took half a
02:12
million dollars from private business in
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exchange for leases to government oil
02:16
reserves at Teapot Dome. Fall later
02:18
became the first cabinet member ever to
02:19
be convicted of a felony, but on the
02:21
other hand, business, man! Productivity rose
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dramatically largely because older
02:26
industry’s adopted Henry Ford’s assembly
02:28
line techniques and newer industries
02:30
like aviation, chemicals, and electronics
02:32
grew up to provide Americans with new
02:34
products and new jobs. During the 1920s
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annual production of cars tripled to 4.8
02:39
million, and automobile companies were
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gradually consolidated into the big
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three that we know today: Ford, Chrysler,
02:46
and Harley-Davidson. What? General Motors.
02:49
By 1929 half of all American families
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owned a car and thus began the American
02:54
love affair with the automobile, which is
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also
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where love affairs were often
02:58
consummated, which is why in the 1920s
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cars came to be known as Scootaloo
03:02
pooping chariots. What’s that? They were
03:04
called brothels on wheels? And the
03:06
economy also grew because American
03:07
corporations were extending their reach
03:09
overseas, and American foreign investment
03:11
was greater than that of any other
03:12
country. The dollar replaced the pound as
03:15
the most important currency for trade
03:16
and by the end of the decade America was
03:18
producing eighty-five percent of the
03:20
world’s cars and forty percent of its
03:22
overall manufactured goods. Stan can I
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get a Libertage?
03:29
And companies turned out
03:30
all kinds of labor-saving devices like
03:32
vacuum cleaners, toasters, refrigerators,
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and not having to spend all day washing
03:36
your clothes, or turning over your own
03:38
toast like some kind of common or meant
03:40
that Americans had more time for leisure.
03:42
And this was provided by radios and
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baseball games boxing matches vacations
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dance crazes. I mean before Gangnam style
03:49
there was the windy and the Charleston
03:51
but probably the most significant
03:53
leisure product was movies and I’m not
03:55
just saying that because I’m staring
03:56
into a camera. The American film industry
03:58
moved out to Hollywood before World War
04:00
one because land was cheap and plentiful
04:02
all that sunshine meant that you could
04:04
shoot outside all year round and it was
04:06
close to everything: desert, mountains,
04:09
ocean, plastic surgeons. And by 1925 the
04:13
American film industry had eclipsed all
04:14
of its competitors and become the
04:16
greatest in the world, especially if you
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count by volume and not quality, and more
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and more people had money to go see
04:21
those movies thanks to consumer debt. The
04:24
widespread use of credit and lay away
04:26
buying plans meant that it was
04:27
acceptable to go into debt to maintain
04:29
what came to be seen as the American
04:31
standard of living and this was a huge
04:33
change in attitude. These days we don’t
04:35
even think of credit cards as debt,
04:37
really. But they are. And that was a
04:39
relatively new idea as was another
04:41
feature of American life in the 20s that
04:43
is still with us: celebrity. Opera singer
04:45
Enrico Caruso has often been called the
04:47
first modern celebrity but now he’s a
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lot less famous than Charlie Chaplin or
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Rudolph Valentino or Babe Ruth but
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probably the biggest celebrity of the
04:55
decade was Charles Lindbergh whose claim
04:57
to fame was flying across the Atlantic
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Ocean by himself without stopping
05:02
although he did use an airplane which
05:03
makes it slightly less impressive. Now
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Lindbergh wasn’t a truly contemporary
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celebrity in the sense of being famous
05:08
for being famous, but he was
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a business more than a businessman. High
05:13
culture also flourished. This was the age
05:15
of the lost generation of American
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writers, many of whom lived and worked in
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Europe but America had its own version
05:20
of Paris in New York. The decade of the
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1920s saw continued migration of African
05:25
American people from the South to cities
05:26
in the nNorth, and Harlem became the
05:28
capital of Black America. And speaking of
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migration, let us now migrated to the
05:32
chair for the Mystery Document.
05:35
The rules here
05:35
are simple: I guess the author of
05:37
the mystery document, I’m either right or
05:38
I get shocked with the shock pen.
05:40
Alright let’s see we got here.
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“If we must die would it not be like hogs hunted and
05:44
penned in an inglorious spot, while round
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us bark the mad and hungry dogs, making
05:50
their market are a curse a lot… Like men
05:53
we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
05:56
pressed to the wall, dying but fight back.”
06:01
Stan thank you for the poetry I
06:03
appreciate that it’s not some obscure
06:05
document from 18th century blah blah blah
06:08
It’s Claude McKay Harlem Renaissance
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poet, the poem is called “If We Must Die.”
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Ah, it’s the only thing in the world I’m
06:14
actually good at. Now I know this from the
06:16
imagery alone, especially the line about
06:18
“mad and hungry dogs” that would
06:20
figuratively and literally make up the
06:22
mobs at the lynchings, but the giveaway
06:23
here is the ultimate sentiment that we
06:26
will fight back. This was part of the
06:28
spirit of the Harlem Renaissance which
06:29
rejected stereotypes and prejudice and
06:32
sought to celebrate African-American
06:34
experience. Meanwhile, things for changing
06:36
for women as well, as they found new ways
06:38
to express autonomy. Flappers kept their
06:40
hair and skirts short, smoked and drank
06:42
illegally in public, and availed
06:44
themselves of birth control. And
06:45
marketers encouraged them to buy
06:47
products like cigarettes christened
06:48
torches of freedom by Edward Bernays.
06:50
Liberation had its limits though; most
06:52
women were still expected to marry, have
06:54
children, and find their freedom at home
06:56
through the use of washing machines, but
06:58
the picture of prosperity is as usual
07:00
more complicated than it at first
07:02
appears. The fact that so many Americans
07:04
were going into debt in order to pursue
07:06
the American dream meant that if the
07:08
economy faltered, and it did, there was
07:10
going to be lots of trouble. Let’s go to
07:12
the Thought Bubble. Prosperity in the 1920s
07:14
wasn’t equally distributed through the
07:16
population. Real industrial wages rose by
07:18
a quarter between 1922 and 1929 but
07:21
corporate profits rose at twice that
07:23
rate. By 1929,
07:24
one percent of the nation’s banks
07:25
controlled fifty percent of the nation’s
07:27
financial resources and the wealthiest
07:29
five percent of Americans share of
07:31
national income exceeded that of the
07:33
bottom sixty percent. An estimated forty
07:35
percent of Americans lived in poverty.
07:37
Now many Americans celebrated big
07:39
business, and Wall Street was often seen
07:41
as heroic possibly because by 1920 about
07:43
1.5 million Americans owned some kind of
07:46
stock, but big business also meant that
07:48
smaller businesses disappeared. During
07:50
the 1920s the number of manufacturing
07:52
workers declined by 5%, the first time
07:55
this class of workers had seen its
07:56
numbers drop, but not the last. Now some
07:58
of these jobs were made up for by new
08:00
jobs in retail finance and education, but
08:03
as early as the 1920s New England was
08:05
beginning to see unemployment in
08:06
deindustrialization as textile companies
08:09
moved their operations to the south
08:10
where labor was cheaper and
08:12
working-class people still made up the
08:13
majority of Americans and they often
08:15
couldn’t afford these newfangled devices,
08:17
like in 1930, seventy-five percent
08:19
of american homes didn’t have a
08:21
washing machine, and only forty percent
08:23
of them had a radio. Farmers were even
08:25
worse off many had prospered during
08:26
World War One when the government
08:28
subsidized farm prices in order to keep
08:30
farms producing for the war effort, but
08:32
when the subsidies ended, production
08:33
didn’t subside, largely due to
08:35
mechanization and increased use of
08:37
fertilizer. Farmers incomes dropped
08:39
steadily and many saw banks foreclose
08:41
upon their property. For the first time
08:43
in American history the number of farms
08:45
declined during the 1920s. For farmers
08:48
the Great Depression began early.
08:50
Thanks, Thought Bubble. So in general the federal
08:51
government did little to nothing to help
08:53
farmers or workers. The Supreme Court was
08:55
the only segment of the government that
08:57
kept any progressive ideas alive as they
08:59
began to craft a system of ideas that we
09:01
call the jurisprudence of civil
09:03
liberties. Now the court still voted to
09:05
uphold convictions of left-wing critics
09:07
of the government but gradually began to
09:08
embrace the idea that people had the
09:10
right to express dissonant views in what
09:13
Oliver Wendell Holmes called the
09:14
“Marketplace of ideas.” In Near vs. Minnesota,
09:17
the Supreme Court struck down
09:18
censorship of newspapers and by 1927
09:21
Justice Brandeis was writing that
09:23
“Freedom to think as you will and to
09:25
speak as you think are indispensable to
09:27
the discovery and spread of political truth.”
09:29
But despite increased free speech
09:31
and torches of liberty and flappers and
09:34
the Harlem Renaissance the 1920s was in
09:36
many ways a reactionary
09:37
period in American history. For instance
09:39
the decade saw the resurgence of the
09:40
Ku Klux Klan in a new and improved form and
09:43
by improved I mean much more terrible.
09:45
Spurred on by the hyper patriotism that
09:46
was fostered during World War One, the
09:48
Klan denounced immigrants and Jews and
09:50
Catholics as less than one hundred
09:52
percent American, and by the mid 20s the
09:54
Klan claimed more than 3 million members
09:57
and it was the largest private
09:58
organization right here in my home state
10:01
of Indiana. And with more immigrants
10:02
coming from Southern and Eastern Europe
10:04
who were often Catholic and Jewish,
10:06
White Protestants became more and more
10:08
concerned about losing their dominant
10:10
position in the social order.
10:11
Spoiler alert: it turns out okay for you, White Protestants
10:15
The first immigration
10:16
restriction bill was passed in 1921,
10:18
limiting the number of immigrants from
10:19
Europe to 357,000. In 1924, a new
10:23
immigration law dropped that number to
10:25
150,000 and established quotas based on
10:27
national origin. The numbers of
10:29
immigrants allowed from Southern and
10:31
Eastern Europe were drastically reduced
10:32
and Asians except for Filipinos were
10:34
totally forbidden. The quota for
10:36
Filipinos was set at 50 per year
10:39
although they were still allowed to
10:40
emigrate to Hawaii because their labor
10:42
was needed there. There were no
10:44
restrictions, however, on immigration from
10:45
the Western Hemisphere because
10:46
California’s large-scale farms were
10:48
dependent upon seasonal laborers from
10:50
Mexico. These immigration restrictions
10:52
were also influenced by fear of radical
10:54
anarchists and pseudo scientific ideas
10:56
about race; whites were seen as
10:58
scientifically superior to people of
11:00
color and as President Coolidge himself
11:02
declared when he signed the 1924
11:04
immigration law, “America must be kept American”
11:08
Tell me Calvin Coolidge about
11:09
how American you are. Are you Cherokee, or
11:12
Cree, or Lakota? The 1920s also saw
11:14
increased tension between science
11:16
education in the United States and
11:17
religious beliefs. The best known example
11:19
is of course the trial of John Scopes in
11:21
Tennessee in 1925. Scopes was tried for
11:23
breaking the law against teaching
11:26
evolution which he had been encouraged
11:27
to do by the ACLU as a test case for
11:29
freedom of speech. Scopes was prosecuted
11:31
by William Jennings Bryan whom you will
11:33
remember as having recently resigned as
11:35
Secretary of State and who had become a
11:36
leader of the Fundamentalist Movement.
11:38
And Scopes was defended by Clarence
11:40
Darrow, that famous defense attorney who
11:42
contemporary defense attorneys always
11:44
point to to argue that defense attorneys
11:46
aren’t all scum. Scopes and Darrow
11:48
actually lost the trial but the case
11:50
drew national attention and ultimately led to
11:52
evolution being taught in more American
11:54
schools. The Scopes trial is often seen
11:56
as a victory for free thinking and
11:57
science and modernism, and I suppose it
12:00
was, but for me it’s more a symbol of the
12:02
contradictions of the 1920s. This is the
12:04
decade that gave us mass consumer
12:06
culture and celebrity worship, which are
12:08
important and very complicated legacies.
12:10
And it also saw the birth of modern
12:11
conceptions of civil liberties. It was a
12:13
period when tolerance became an
12:15
important value, but at the same time it
12:17
saw a rise in lynchings. Immigrants were
12:19
necessary for the economic boom of the
12:21
1920s, but at the same time their numbers
12:23
were restricted, as they were seen as a
12:25
threat to traditional American value, and
12:27
that raises a question that we’re still
12:28
struggling with today: What are those
12:30
values? I don’t mean that rhetorically
12:32
let me know in comments.
12:34
Thanks for watching. I’ll see you next week.
12:35
Crash Course is produced and directed by
12:37
Stan Muller, our script supervisor is
12:39
Meredith Danko, the Associate Producer is
12:40
Danica Johnson to show is written by my high
12:42
school history teacher Raoul Meyer
12:43
Rosianna Rojas and myself and our
12:45
graphics team is Thought Cafe.
12:47
I nailed that.
12:47
Every week there’s a new caption
12:48
for the Libertage. You can suggest your
12:50
own in comments or ask questions about
12:52
today’s video that will be answered by
12:53
our team of historians.
12:54
Thank you for watching Crash Course,
12:56
If you enjoyed today’s episode make sure you subscribe.
12:57
And as we say in my hometown:
12:59
Don’t Forget to be Awesome.


This post was previously published on YouTube.

Photo credit: Screenshot from video

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