You know how we call one war World War One and another war World War Two? Well, when World War One broke out, they didn't know that there was going to be a sequel, so they just called it the Great War.
You might have wondered why we just kind of skipped over the Great War in the last unit. Well, wonder no longer, because the Great War was not exactly part of the Progressive movement. In fact, the Great War is often credited with helping to end the Progressive movement.
The Progressive movement was all about high ideals and freeing humanity to make the best of itself. But the Great War was all about showing humanity the worst of itself.
The Great War was not glorious or revolutionary. There were no clear "good guys." America's allies in the Great War were Serbia, which was a proud supporter of international terrorism, and the British, French, and Belgian Empires, which had collectively killed tens of millions of people in their violent colonization of Asia and Africa. However, in our defense, we were fighting the aging, oppressive, and warlike regimes of imperial Germany, Austro-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire. No one was in the right.
America's President at the time was Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat and a proud Progressive. However, at the end of the Great War, Wilson totally dropped the ball. Wilson allowed his allies of Britain and France to divide up the Ottoman Empire, increasing the power and reach of these old aristocratic empires.
Wilson's seeming betrayal of Progressive values caused people to lose faith in the Progressive movement. It was just the same old story, of politicians saying whatever it took to win elections, then refusing to live up to their stated values. (Isn't that always the story, though?) By 1920, the Progressive movement had fallen apart Humpty Dumpty-style. America was disillusioned with the very idea of social progress. Why work for better hours and a living wage when you're just going to get shipped off to die from mustard gas?
And you know how people are, when we're disillusioned, we look for a brand new illusion! The new illusion in the 1920s was of infinite prosperity and opportunity, created by the new assembly line factories and the rising middle class.
The Republican administrations of the 1920s adopted very pro-big-business policies. Due in part to these policies, many people become fabulously wealthy. Many more people joined an emerging happy and prosperous middle class. In other words, bonbons for everyone.
The middle class became the most important consumer group. Businesses no longer focused on making goods fashionable to a small number of the super-rich but on mass-marketing products to the large numbers of the middle class. This was a big deal. As soon as there are a lot of buyers for luxury items, they can be mass-produced, which drives prices down, which in turn makes the luxury item available to even more people. Imagine if cars or washing machines had never been mass-produced. We'd all be hoofing it to school and using those ribbed washboard thingies. The need for mass-marketing led to the birth of the advertising industry as well as an expansion of media aimed at the middle class, including movies, radio programs, newspapers, and magazines. Every time you watch Mad Men or read Cosmo, you can thank the middle class of the '20s.
The 1920s middle and upper class lifestyles were based on media saturation, mass consumption, and automobiles. They were a perfect foreshadowing of the modern American lifestyle.
However, in the 1920s, this lifestyle was mostly an illusion. Much of the new wealth was based on speculation, or predictions of future growth. Some people were even going deep into debt to gamble on the stock market. You can probably guess how that turned out.
As people were focused on the future, the present day was not doing as well. The industries of necessary goods and tools, traditionally recession-proof industries (always gotta eat and build stuff, right?), were not growing nearly as fast as luxury industries. American farmers were facing a panic-inducing crisis as newly peaceful European countries flooded the global market with cheap crops. The pro-business policies of the Republicans were also lowering trade barriers, making it harder for the government to protect American producers. You know how it's always cheaper to buy a Chinese knock-off of your Beats by Dre? Same deal here.
Reality brought the Roaring '20s to an ugly end in 1929, when a stock market crash bankrupted investors, evaporated the middle class, and led to a new decade with more conservative values, not to mention some thrifty cooking skills. Ritz cracker apple pie, anyone?
By the end of this unit, you should be able to