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The 1920's and 1980's in America

The 1920’s and 1980’s are similar in many ways. Their similarities are social, economical, and political. Some of the similarities between the decades are Prohibition and the War on Drugs, the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and 1987, and the influence of music on society.

Prohibition was passed as the 18th amendment, that importing, exporting, transporting, and manufacturing of alcohol was to be put to an end. Prohibition did not achieve its goals. Instead, it added to the problems that it intended to solve.

It was expected that the decrease in alcohol consumption would in turn reduce crime, poverty, death rates, improve the economy, and the quality of life.

As a result of the lack of enforcement of the Prohibition Act and the creation of an illegal industry of bootlegging an increase in crime transpired. The Prohibitionists hoped that the Volstead Act would decrease drunkenness in America and thereby decrease the crime rate, especially in large cities. Although towards the beginning of Prohibition this purpose seemed to be fulfilled, the crime rate soon skyrocketed to nearly twice that of the pre-prohibition period.

In large cities the homicide went from 5.6 (per 100,000 population) in the pre-prohibition period, to nearly 10 (per 100,000 population) during prohibition, nearly a 78 percent increase.

Serious crimes, such as homicides, assault, and battery, increased nearly 13 percent, while other crimes involving victims increased 9 percent. Many supporters of prohibition argued that the crime rate decreased. This is true if one is examining only minor crimes, such as swearing, mischief, and vagrancy, which did in fact decrease due to prohibition.

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The major crimes, however, such as homicides, and burglaries, increased 24 percent between 1920 and 1921. In addition, the number of federal convicts over the course of the prohibition period increased 561 percent (Hanson 31-34).

After Prohibition was deemed a failure, the National Prohibition Act, or Volstead Act, was passed. The Volstead Act was put into place to determine specific laws and methods of enforcement; the Federal Prohibition Bureau was formulated in order to see that the Volstead Act was enforced. Nevertheless, bootleggers and commoners alike flagrantly violated these laws. Bootleggers smuggled liquor from oversees and Canada, stole it from government warehouses, and produced their own. Many people hid their liquor in hip flasks, false books, hollow canes, and anything else they could find (Hanson 29).

Although one would think that prohibition would enhance the difficulty of obtaining alcohol, liquor was actually very easy to acquire. The bootlegging business was so immense that customers could easily obtain alcohol by simply walking down almost any street. Replacing saloons, which were all shut down at the start of prohibition, were illegal speak-easies. These businesses, hidden in basements, office buildings, and anywhere that could be found, admitted only those with membership cards, and had the most modern alarm systems to avoid being shut down (Hanson 28).

In the beginning of the 1980’s drugs begin to spread rapidly through inner cities because of the easy accessibility. In 1982 the National Survey on Drug Abuse found 22 million Americans had used cocaine one time in their life. It became the choice of drug for the famous and successful; professional athletes, celebrities in entertainment, lawyers, university professors, and Wall Street brokers. It became labeled as the “champagne of drugs”. Many people took to the popular form of cocaine known as crack, which could be disguised as smoking a cigarette even though it was incredibly addicting. People could also acquire crack cocaine easily and inexpensively. Dealers would disguise regular homes and apartments as “crack houses” where a user could easily obtain their fix.

In the 1980’s Reagan had a similar problem with the war on drugs. Inner city violence increased due to gangs fighting for territory. It was also an underlying cause in the rise of domestic violence, child abuse, homelessness, violence in school, and dropout rates. In 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act was passed in effort to stop the drug crisis. The Act was aimed towards accountability and zero-tolerance towards addicts.. Critics accused the government of spending too much on enforcing rather than educating and treatment. Its effects were similar to those of Prohibition so in 1988 the act was redone (Bondi 395).

It was almost impossible for government agencies to stop the smuggling of drugs into the U.S. It was done most commonly by boat but dealers would often find new ways to get their contraband past drug sniffing dogs and the border patrol at the Mexico border. When Reagan’s term ended and George W. Bush took office he gave his inaugural speech in which he said, “When the first cocaine was smuggled in on a ship, it may as well have been a deadly bacteria, so much has it hurt the body, the soul of our country. There is much to be done and much to be said, but take my word for it: This scourge will stop. (Bondi 396)”.

By the end of the 1920’s the Stock Market was flourishing. In 1928 the New York Stock Exchange was trading at about six to seven million shares a day. Many economists warned about the dangers of rising prices. People disregarded this information and speculation increased about the Stock Market being the easy way to make money. People invested their life’s savings. Banks too invested large sums of money into the Stock Market.

On Thursday, October 24, 1929, the bottom began to fall out. Prices dropped precipitously as more and more investors tried to sell their holdings. By the end of the day, the New York Stock Exchange had lost four billion dollars, and it took exchange clerks until five o’clock AM the next day to clear all the transactions. By the following Monday, the realization of what had happened began to sink in, and a full-blown panic ensued. Thousands of investors, many of them ordinary working people, not serious “players” were financially ruined. By the end of the year, stock values had dropped by fifteen billion dollars (Hanson 67).

Although the crash of 1929 was devastating on the economy, the crash on October 19, 1987,’Black Monday’, was more devastating be cause the Dow Jones Industrial Average plunged 508.32 points, losing 22.6% of its total value. The fall far surpassed the one-day loss of 12.9% that began the great stock market crash of 1929. The Dow’s 1987 fall also triggered panic selling and similar drops in stock markets worldwide. “What made this market break extraordinary was the speed with which prices fell, the unprecedented volume of trading and the consequent threat to the financial system.”

Both crashes were significant because they took a devastating toll on the economy. This led to the loss of jobs and shutting down of companies. Although much had been done after the crash of 1929, such as making Paper Companies illegal, it could not prevent the devastating losses of 1987 (Bondi 301).

In the early 1920’s times were prosperous and people begin to look for a new form of entertainment. It was the commercial dawn of radio, and the continued popularity of the phonograph. Neither invention was new. Radio had been experimented with as early as 1896, and Marconi stations lined the coasts before the Great War. The 20s saw the demise of the wax cylinder recorder (Edison manufactured them into the 20s), and the rise of the disk that was to stay with us in some form until the CD.

Music became widely available for the average person because of the availability of phonographs and the accessibility to the radio. Things like the Charleston and dance marathons became popular do to the music that could be played at any given time. Jazz and blues also became big because of musicians like Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Sam Morgan, and Oscar “Popa” Celestin (Hanson 25)..

On October 1, 1982 Sony introduced the CDP-101, the first Compact Disc audio CD player. This new technological advance sparked the development of a new type of music known as New Wave. Like Jazz, it began to gain popularity in New York City. The music became increasingly popular and began the attraction of people to nightclubs, such as CGBG’s (Bondi 135).

Despite the differences in technology and standards, the 1920’s and 1980’s were very similar. When it comes down to it, history really does repeat itself in many ways. Historians can only inform us as to what we can expect of the future and what we can do to prevent such devastating events.

Works Cited

  1. Bondi, Victor. American Decades 1980 – 1989. Washington D.C. : Amanly, Inc. Book 1996
  2. Hanson, Erica. Through the Decades The 1920’s. San Diego: Lucent Books, Inc. 1999

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The 1920's and 1980's in America. (2016, Jun 23). Retrieved from

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