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Roaring Twenties and The Great Depression

The 1920s have long been remembered as the "Roaring Twenties," an era of unprecedented affluence best remembered through the cultural artifacts generated by its new mass-consumption economy: a Ford Model T in every driveway, "Amos n' Andy" on the radio and the first "talking" motion pictures at the cinema, baseball hero Babe Ruth in the ballpark and celebrity pilot Charles Lindbergh on the front page of every newspaper. As a soaring stock market minted millionaires by the thousands, young Americans in the nation's teeming cities rejected traditional social mores by embracing a modern urban culture of freedom - drinking illegally in speakeasies, dancing provocatively to the Charleston, listening to the sexy rhythms of jazz music.

The entrenched image of the 1920s as a sort of nationwide, decade-long party - à la the movable feast enjoyed by Jay Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald's fictional character who remains the iconic figure of the age - obscures a very different reality for many Americans: the "Roaring Twenties" left nearly half the country behind. The 1920 Census revealed, for the first time in United States history, a majority of Americans living in cities. Still, throughout the decade well over 40% of the country's population resided on farms and in tiny rural communities, and down on the farm the 1920s were anything but roaring.

For American farmers, the Great Depression began not with the stock market crash in 1929 but with the collapse of agricultural prices in 1920. Thus the entire decade of the 1920s was a time of poverty and crushing indebtedness, leading to ever-rising foreclosures of family farms. More than 90% of American farms lacked electricity, and the proportion of farms with access to a telephone actually decreased over the course of the decade.8 Furthermore, rural Americans - overwhelmingly native-born, white Protestants - found the modern, sexualized, multi-ethnic culture of the cities deeply offensive to their traditional beliefs. Their antagonism toward the perceived cultural excesses of the "Roaring Twenties" fueled a political backlash that allowed a resurgent Ku Klux Klan - anti-black as always, but now also anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic, anti-evolution, anti-drinking, and anti-sex - to take over several state governments.

The story of the 1920s is thus embodied no more by Henry Ford or Louis Armstrong than it is by Ed Jackson, Ku Klux Klansman, and the Governor of Indiana. The 1920s roared with a clash of civilizations as Americans struggled to reconcile the prosperous modernity of the city with the impoverished traditionalism of the country. The twenties and the thirties were very unusual time periods in American History. In some ways they are alike, but in most ways they are very different. The twenties were a time of fun and partying. This is probably the reason it is called the Roaring Twenties. All of the thirties were known as The Great Depression. It was probably called that because of the stock market collapse and the millions of people without jobs.

In the twenties, industry took a very big step. The automotive industry was the largest industry there was. The assembly line made mass production possible, and the industry boomed. Henry Ford's assembly line, located in Detroit, Michigan, was the largest one in the country and possibly in the world. When Ford first started making cars, the only car he made was a black Model-T. Almost everybody in the United States had a car. Three-out-of-four families owned one or more cars. With the assembly line they made a lot more cars in one day than they did before. Instead of paying for the cars with cash, people could now use credit to purchase items. Since most families didn't have the money, they would buy the car with credit and pay off the debt later.

The thirties was a bad time for the automotive industry. By now Ford had made a Model-A and had three new colors: tan, purple and black. All of the companies were making more cars than they could sell. Nobody had enough money to buy a car because of all of the banks going under. Millions of people lost whole fortunes. Since no one had the money for a car, the cars were not being sold. This caused a big problem. The dealers were very optimistic. They continued to make cars hoping that sales would go up.

The new credit law was a wonderful idea. It allowed people to purchase items like a television or radio. The invention of the radio united the nation. The news that was heard on the radio was heard by everyone that had a radio. It was the best form of entertainment of its time. Soon thereafter, the television was invented. Once again people took advantage of the credit and purchased televisions. The television still did not take place of the radio. The radio was still used for listening to music. Many people were spending more money than they had. Even in the thirties the radio and television were top forms of entertainment. Although, some people did not have these accessories, they could still go the movies if they had the money.

During the thirties, the parties and the outside events became less and less common. Horse races and movies were still very popular in spite all of the depressing times. Baseball and football became drastically popular and attracted large crowds. Babe Ruth was a great baseball star. 1939 was a vintage year for dreams. The Great Depression seemed to be cracking, melting and breaking up like an ice floe. Oh, the signs and portents of disaster were at hand, all right-Nazi Germany's march into the Rhineland, the Anschluss with helpless Austria, the sellout to Hitler at Munich. But because we wanted fervently not to see the gathering storm, we put these things at the backs of our minds and for a little while there the sun poked through the clouds and millions of Americans who are now on the far side of 40 enjoyed a transitory hope of freedom from economic, military and political anxiety. We were sure, for one thing, that our great and clever nation was back on the track at last.

In the twenties, people had parties all of the time. Everybody in America was keeping themselves busy. Hunting and camping were very popular, but there were also many other outside events to do. Movies and horse races were the best forms of entertainment for some. In the thirties, everyone watched a lot of television and listened to the radio. In contrast to the twenties, the thirties were very depressing. Evidentially, it lived up to its name.

It appears that the depressing thirties and the Roaring Twenties are very different. Though they have some similarities it is still hard to compare the Great Depression and the Roaring Twenties. The decade of the twenties did have its own peculiar character—because it was a time of unending change. It was a hollow time between wars. The 1914-18 war, which had been ever so much more cataclysmic than anybody had imagined any war could be, was over, but it had left smouldering wreckage all over the landscape; and if the next war was not yet visible, there was ominous heat lightning all along the hori/on to warn that there had been no real break in the weather. The certainties the adult American was used to, in 1920—the basic assumptions about world society which he had always taken for granted—were obviously either gone forever or rapidly going.

While many changes had occurred, some things in the county remained the same. Farmers were still producing much of their own food. Almost every family raised a milk cow, pigs for butchering, and chickens for their eggs and meat. Most farmers ground their own corn meal and grew large vegetable gardens. Profits from cash crops were down but, by raising their own food, small incomes were enough for most families to live relatively comfortably.

Comforts such as running water, electricity, paved roads and automobiles were slow to reach poor and remote communities, but they began to appear throughout the first half of the twentieth century. By 1920, the county had just over one hundred miles of what were then considered improved roads and by 1922 about one in sixty residents owned a car. This was no great number considering that about one in ten Americans had cars and the county ranked ninetieth for car ownership. Nonetheless, state highway officials moved to provide more paved roads by the end of the 1920s. Electricity was established by hydroelectric power plant. Lines were run to power businesses and public buildings, and families who were fortunate to live within reach of the lines began to get electricity. However, the majority of rural homes remained without electricity into the 1940s.

When people first heard news of the Wall Street market crash in October 1929 it seemed too far removed from life to cause much concern. New York City and remote communities could have been on two separate planets, their differences were so great. Although many country households had automobiles by 1930, few families had electricity and fewer had telephones. Despite differences between rural and big city living, the effects of the Great Depression would soon reach rural life as it would every corner of the United States.

Throughout the 1930s national crop prices decreased by 40 to 60 percent, and the demand for lumber and mined goods fell sharply. People were not building and no one seemed to be hiring. From 1930 to 1937 retail sales fell nearly 50 percent. Many people who had left the family farm for jobs in the cities now lost their jobs. With no employment alternatives available, they found themselves returning to cultivate the land. The farming population increased nearly 17 percent from 1930 to 1935. People grew and hunted the food they could not afford to buy, and neighbors helped one another survive the hard times. The relative isolation had taught its residents skills for self-sufficiency that people in other regions of the country had never needed to learn. Resourceful and resilient, country residents persevered through the Depression.

Murrow's sober, authoritative voice - and those of his colleagues, H.V. Kaltenborn, William L. Shirer, Raymond Gram Swing, Gabriel Heatter, Edwin C. Hill, Elmer Davis - told of terrible happenings across the Atlantic. At dawn on Sept. 1, 1939, Hitler's panzer divisions clanked crunchingly into Poland, and within a couple of days Great Britain and France were committed to World War II.

What we had for a long, complacent winter called the "phony war" suddenly cracked wide open. In April, German soldiers gained a grip on Norway in a matter of hours. In France, after a tank-led blitzkrieg in May and June, they were in Paris. Despite our ingrained insularity we all knew that we would be at war ourselves before long. As 1939 itself drew to a close we knew nothing could ever be the same. And as the dreams of 1939 came true in the years that followed, some of them turned out to be nightmares.

The Twenties and Thirties. 123HelpMe.com. 10 May 2009.


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