A “chicken in every pot, and a car in every backyard.” So ran a Republican slogan during Herbert Hoover”s 1928 presidential campaign—the phrase that has come to symbolize the unparalleled prosperity of the 1920s. The nation”s economy reached astounding production, consumption, and stock market records, rendering the severe postwar recession a bad memory, except, unfortunately, for farmers, working-class laborers, and African Americans and other minorities. As W.E.B. Du Bois asserted in 1926, “We have today in the United States, cheek by jowl, Prosperity and Depression.”1
How did it happen? Would it last? How could the excesses of prosperity be moderated? How could those left out be included? And whose responsibility was all this? business? government? the individual? We begin this Theme with an overview of the decade”s perspective on itself, as an “age of prosperity.” Was the nation”s economic engine a charged dynamo or a short-fused bomb?
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According to the commentators and cartoonists, what were the causes, outcomes, and possible consequences of the unrivaled prosperity of the 1920s? What affirmations, recommendations, judgments, and warnings did they put forth? How could the excesses of prosperity be moderated? How could those left out be included? Whose responsibility was it to nurture prosperity and to address its problems? business? government? the individual? How secure or tenuous was the prosperity of the “roaring twenties”? According to Frederick Lewis Allen, author of Only Yesterday (1931), “what made the United States so prosperous?” According to financial writer Donald Hanson, how would the prosperity of the 1920s be explained by the banker, the labor union head, the manufacturer, the “habitué of Wall Street,” and a foreign observer? Why did he say that “probably all are correct to a certain degree”? How was the automobile a major impetus of the decade”s prosperity, according to Stuart Chase and Frederick Lewis Allen? How did the novelist John Dos Passos reflect the economic conflicts and ideological divisions in the “newsreel” from The Big Money? Using the resources in this section, write a “newsreel” that reflects 1920s prosperity from another perspective, e.g., of a Republican president, a Democratic cartoonist, historian T. J. Wertenbaker, or black leader W.E.B. Du Bois. What were the core disagreements between Republicans/conservatives and Democrats/liberals about economic prosperity in the 1920s? How did Republicans/conservatives and Democrats/liberal refute each others” positions? To what extent did Republicans and Democrats acknowledge each others” viewpoints on prosperity? How did Republicans acknowledge the “friction of modern industrialism”? How did Democrats acknowledge that “prosperity . . . has certainly been with us”? Complete the chart of political cartoonists to analyze their viewpoints and the visual devices they used to convey them, e.g., Gale”s portrayal of Uncle Sam and Orr”s use of multiple labels. Drawing evidence from the readings and cartoons in this section, write a brief overview of the economic prosperity of the 1920s, beginning or ending with one of these statements from the resources: – “Every man and woman knows that their comfort, their hopes and their confidence for the future are higher this day than they were seven and one-half years ago.”
– “The motor car . . . . is the outstanding Why of American prosperity—both commercial and visible.”
– “Common welfare is the goal of our national endeavor. Wealth is not inimical to welfare; it ought to be its friendliest agency.”
Pres. Calvin Coolidge, address, 15th meeting of the Business Organization of the Government, June 11, 1928
–“Republican prosperity has reduced hours and increased earning capacity, silenced discontent, put the proverbial “chicken in every pot.” And a car in every backyard, to boot.”
–“The Republican Party builds its case upon a myth. . . . Prosperity to the extent that we have it is unduly concentrated and has not equitably touched the lives of the farmer, the wage earner, and the individual businessman.”
–“In short, the result has been that in this country today human beings have reached a higher state of material welfare than in any other era of world history or in any other nation of the world.”
Democratic Party donkey in a political cartoon, Public Ledger, Philadelphia, n.d., reprinted in the Los Angeles Times, Sept. 14, 1926
What factors nurtured or weakened the unprecedented prosperity of the 1920s?How did “prosperity” become a hallmark of national pride? How was the word adapted for political and psychological aspirations of the nation?What role did “workingmen” and labor unions play in the economic panorama of the period?Compare the Twenties” boom-and-bust with similar economic cycles before and after the decade.
Prosperity and Thrift: The Coolidge Era and the Consumer Economy (Library of Congress)Why It Happened <1920s economy> (Digital History, Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, et al.)”Times look pretty dark to some,” political cartoon, Chicago Tribune, 1921 (History Matters; George Mason University and the City University of New York)Analyzing political cartoons: guides from
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