|THE POOR: 1920’S
Often disregarded is the situation, even the mere existence of the poor in the "Golden Decade".
Prior to the economic boom, there was the post war depression of 1918. The high demand for lifestyle goods could not be met by the industry, needing time to adjust their facilities. Tanks and machine guns were no longer in demand; cars and electric appliances were in want. In consequence, inflation rates went up (cf. DiBacco p.511). The slump was under control in 1919 and business began to pick up momentum, but the high cost of living remained (cf. Sellers p.331). Industrial workers, who had worked hard to supply the military with weapons and thus supported the American soldiers, now started to go on strike to obtain higher wages. Employers fired many of them, especially those who had joined labour unions (cf. DiBacco p.511). Those fired where often not given a second chance, they found themselves in a cruel situation: either they had to set up their own business - always a risky adventure - or they had to work for even lower wages. At the end of 1920 another short recession followed.
During such inconstant economical circumstances, many people lost their money and went bankrupt. Even in the glorious twenties, only a minority was privileged to live the American Dream and ascend from poverty to wealth (cf. the dishwasher to millionaire stereotype in Hollywood movies, e.g. the early Chaplin films). Hence the unfortunate silent majority lived in suburbs of the big cities, merely trying to survive while others accumulated enormous fortunes by mergers.
Furthermore when real wages for workers rose, this was "not in proportion to the increase of productivity and profit" (Sellers p.338). Consequently, individual purchase power even decreased although wages were raised: hence most factory workers remained in a position of poverty (cf. Sellers p.338). They earned less than half as much as would have been necessary to provide for "universal well-being" (Sellers p.338). The maldistribution of income in the United States was worse than ever before "the top 0.1 percent of American families in 1929 had an aggregate income equal to that of the bottom 42 percent."(McElvaine p.38)
Hence even though there is not much fiction or non-fiction literature (with the possible exception of Upton Sinclair and Sinclair Lewis [cf. Daiches p.97ff]) about these impoverished people of the twenties, there was a significant number of them. As Burl Noggle put it when writing about the role of the women in the twenties:
"And for every Fitzgerald Flapper of the twenties there were countless fatigued and undernourished textile mill operators and migratory fruit pickers and mining town and ghetto housewives who never knew the life of Zelda Fitzgerald." (Noggle p.165)
The New Rich
The people that added the "Roaring" to the twenties were the new rich that had climbed up the social ladder and now lived in ostentation (the English call them "snobs").
Legal Sources of Income
The two important presidents who influenced the decade were Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge. Both of them were Republicans and they basically believed in "laissez faire" (Rand p.vii & 141; DiBacco p.514) that is French for "let (us) do" and means that government keeps its hands out of the economical developments. Harding's philosophy was to exclusively support business, but never intervene in it otherwise. He raised tariffs and lowered taxation of industry (cf. DiBacco p.515). In consequence profit and productivity rose sharply from 1923 on (cf. Sellers p.337f). When Harding died in 1923 Calvin Coolidge (who later won the 1924 election in a landslide) replaced him.
Coolidge once said "The business of America is business" and accordingly, he left the economy to itself (called Open Market by critical economists such as J. M. Keynes [cf. Brockhaus 1990, vol. 11 pp.654-656] and J. K. Galbraith [cf. Galbraith 1952; Brockhaus 1989, vol.8 p.90]). Productivity rose further and the (ohne Artikel)wealth started to spread. The income was particularly spent on cars and new modern electric appliances like washing machines and electric stoves (cf. De Long p.8). Distributors of those appliances made fortunes, for example General Electric.
The effect on the stock market was positive indeed, and numerous investors often made tremendous gains within few months.
In contrast to the established upper class the new rich did not inherit their wealth but acquired it by themselves. This myth "from rags to riches" (Thies p.586), the "American Dream" (Commager pp.vii-xvii), was revived during this decade.
Sellers, C., May, H., McMillen, N. R. A Synopsis of American History: Volume 2: Since the Civil War 3rd ed. (Chicago: 1974)
DiBacco T. V., Mason L. C., Appy C.G., History of the United States Students Edition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1991)
McElvaine, R. S. The Great Depression: America 1929-1941 (Toronto: Times Books, 1984)
Noggle B. Into the Twenties. The United States from Armistice to Normalcy (Urbana: University of Illinois Pr, 1974)