The 1920s was a time of great change in the USA’s economic situation. After the First World War, America experienced an economic boom, which led to the state of society changing by vast differences. These differences were also apparent in the way that the change effected different people in different situations. The number of people living below the bread line in 1928 increased to an estimated forty-two percent of the American population, however this was during the same period that the number of Americans owning cars was around one car to every five people.
Therefore, there is great controversy over to what extent the USA achieved prosperity in the 1920s. Prosperity is a word that is used to describe affluence and wealth within a country. Estimating the rate at which a country experiences prosperity during a period would reveal hoe rich and well off that country was at the time. Many factors contribute and deduct from the prosperity of America during this period, as it is therefore difficult to say how far the current wealth of the country spread within all areas of society.
Factors that would state that America’s prosperity spread throughout the nation during the 1920s include the new industries and new industrial methods of the time, mass marketing of new products and the motorcar industry. However, contradicting these areas of American industry include the farming situation at the time, overpopulation of the country, USA’s black population, new immigrants to the country and people involved in old industries.
During the 1920s, new industries and new methods of production spread through American manufacturing. It was able to exploit it’s vast natural resources of raw materials to produce steel, chemicals, glass and machinery. These products then became the foundation for secondary industries- or consumer goods. Telephones, radios, vacume cleaners, and washing machines were mass-produced and therefore more people could afford them. Such an example shows hoe America was developing well as an industrial nation, and reveals how the people of the country were now able to buy consumer goods, which before were they were unable to afford.
Within this same period, big industries were developing advertising and marketing techniques. Advertising companies were a resultant factor, and came about as groups developed their ideas of propaganda developed during World War One and applied them to industry. This aspect of American society is further evidence for how the USA was favouring the consumer aspect of living in the early twentieth century.
Perhaps the most significant contribution to showing how all areas of America succeeded in achieving prosperity in the 1920s is the motor car industry. In 1900, only four thousand cars were built. By 1929, four million, eight hundred thousand were made- indeed it was believed that a Ford Model- T was completed every ten seconds. By 1928, the industry was America’s most successful, and employed hundred of thousands employees directly, and yet more indirectly. The car had vast impacts on the rest of American industry.
The businesses supplying raw materials required to make a car also prospered at a similar rate. More glass, rubber and steel were required; boosting these areas of industry. Furthermore, increased amounts of petrol were required, and more people found employment- building miles of roads across the country to cater for the increased amount of traffic. The car industry also stimulated the housing industry. It meant that more people were able to buy homes away from the cities in the suburbs, and commute on a daily basis into town. This factor, I feel was the most important cause to America’s successful spread of prosperity in the 1920s.
Apposed to these views, numerous factors exist which show evidence against the notion of America’s wealth in the 1920s being nationwide, and influencing every area of society.
A clear example of an industry, and therefore it’s people, which did not benefit from this time is farming. The average farm income fell from twenty- two billion dollars in 1919, to thirteen billion dollars in 1928. This was largely due to the European market. During the war, American has shipped millions of tons off grain to Europe. However, the war also bankrupted Europe, meaning few people could afford American goods. Furthermore, the Republican tax on American goods was still in place, resulting in Europe sill unable to afford American produce.
From 1900 to 1920, while farms were doing quite well, more and more land was being farmed. Improved machinery, especially combine harvesters and improved fertilisers made US agriculture extremely efficient. The result was that by 1920 it was producing surpluses of wheat, which nobody wanted. Farming communities were devastated as farms struggled to sell wheat, even at extremely low prices. The extent of this hardship is shown when it is realised around half of all Americans lived in rural areas. Mostly working on farms or in businesses that sold goods to farms. Therefore, this problem directly affected millions of people. As the farm income fell, the situation of many rural communities was desperate.
It is clear when looking at the effects American prosperity had on it’s Black and new immigrant populations that current American wealth did not reach all areas of people. The black population was badly hit. They held the tradition of holding the least skilled jobs in rural areas. As they lost their jobs on the farms, three quarters of a million of them became unemployed. The majority of farming families remained very poor throughout the 1920s, meaning that they did not see the technological advances of the time- including electricity, cars and radios.
New immigrant to the country at this time did not receive the great welcome of a liberated country they had all hoped. They faced discrimination in the work place, and took whatever work they could- partly because they were generally uneducated as other workers. A large number worked in the construction industry where, at the time, there was a big boom. However, despite this increase in the industries size, the average was only rose by four percent in the 1920s, because the immigrants were a source of cheap labour, and more work was becoming mechanised- resulting the lack of need for labourers. The unemployment rate within new immigrants rose throughout the decade.
Older industries were undergoing modernisation. Some industries such as steel, for which there was a boom, benefited from general expansion. However, in others, particularly the raw materials industries- cotton, coal, tin and copper- were suffering. There was an overproduction in these industries, prices dropped and wages fell.
From looking at this evidence, it is clear that the prosperity and affluence of the USA in the 1920 was highly apparent. However, it is also clear that it did not reach all areas of society. Therefore, it is justified to say that prosperity during this period was partial- as not everyone was buying cars, radios and other consumer goods. It is vital to remember that during a boom period, it is difficult to spread the wealth of the country evenly- due to the determination for personal gain, not for equality.