Learn about Life in the 1920s

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Changes in American society occurred due to events happening that impacted nearly everyone. Communism, immigration, race relations, Ku Klux Klan, prohibition, working women, women voting, evolutionary science, advances in medicine, new technology, and the stock market crash were all strong influences in most peoples lives.

Changes in 1920's Society

Technological advances created labor and time-saving devices that reduced the drudgery of everyday life. Refrigerators allowed food to be stored for longer periods which meant less trips to the store, and automobiles facilitated access to the stores. Frozen food became available which reduced preparation time for meals and the need for vegetable gardens.

Large department stores provided a huge range of products to choose from and chain stores reduced the price of goods putting many small shop and drug stores out of business.

The new ability to buy cars and household items like refrigerators, radios, pianos, furniture and washing machines on credit spurred manufacturing to new heights while reducing the workload for housewives in particular.

Consumption habits were influenced by the introduction of instalment plans and small loan credit. This was particularly prominent in the purchase of expensive commodities which had formerly been beyond the purchasing power of ordinary people. Instead of buying a large variety of smaller affordable items that were paid for in cash they switched to using these funds to buy expensive items. For example, instead of paying an ice delivery man to supply ice on a regular basis, a refrigerator was purchased on an instalment plan.

The number of children in families began to decline as an increasing portion of income was spent on buying a car or travel instead of food, clothing, schooling, and dental or medical expenses. New standards in regard to the amount and cost of commercial goods and services considered essential for modern child rearing made raising children more expensive than in previous generations.

In previous generations children were considered an economic asset and a widow with lots of children was very marriageable and could expect lots of suitors. Once urbanization and mechanization became the norm then children were viewed more as an expense.

Shifting values and ideas affected the behavior of consumers. Trends in contemporary society included increasingly urbanized living, looser family organization, rejection of religious standards and similar social changes, all of which caused tension and necessitated difficult personal adjustments. In the field of general social values as regards consumption as reported in "Prosperity and Thrift: The Coolidge Era and the Consumer Economy, 1921-1929" an individual had to find his way among such changing expectations as the following:

The lingering Puritan tradition of abstinence which makes play idleness and free spending sin; and the increasing secularization of spending and the growing pleasure basis of living.

The tradition that rigorous saving and paying cash are the marks of sound family economy and personal self-respect; and the new gospel which encourages liberal spending to make the wheels of industry turn as a duty of the citizen.

The deep rooted philosophy of hardship viewing this stern discipline as the inevitable lot of men; and the new attitude towards hardship as a thing to be avoided by living in the here and now, utilizing instalment credit and other devices to telescope the future into the present.

The tradition that the way to balance one's budget is to cut one's expenses to fit one's income; and the new American "solution" by increasing one's income to fit one's expenditures.

The increasingly baffling conflict between living and making money in order to buy a living; and the tendency, public and private, to simplify this issue by concentration on the making of money.

Working hours for most people decreased, while wages increased, enabling an increase in living standards and leisure time. Automobile trips into the country became popular family activities that led to the building of gas (petrol) stations and food venues along major highways and caused roads to be upgraded and new traffic regulations introduced.

An indication of changing trends in family budgets and spending comes from three studies made by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The data are not strictly comparable but are nevertheless suggestive. Ninety percent of the 12,096 working class families studied in 1918-1919 carried life and accident insurance, paying an average of $48 per year therefor; 87 percent of the 100 Ford families studied for 1929 carried life insurance, with average premiums of $68 per year; and 94 percent of the 506 government employees studied for 1927-1928 held life, accident and health insurance policies on which they paid an average of $102 per year. In 1918-1919, 26 percent of the working class families had vacation, costing on an average $28.97; in 1929 only 7 percent of the Ford families had vacations out of the city, averaging $37.00; and 30 percent of the government employees in 1928 averaged $79.37 on vacations.

The inroads of communism in Europe worried Americans who feared the same thing happening to the political system in their own country.

Women's organizations were influential in creating change, helping to promote prohibition and voting for women. Political parties could no longer afford to ignore women as they needed the female vote.

Movies and movie stars influenced changes as their reach was comprehensive and their impact strong. New dances, fashions and hairstyles were often seen in movies first and then copied by an adoring public.

Newspapers and magazines flourished and along with radio their advertising helped to shape the buying habits of consumers. Dorothy Dix started a newspaper advice column that was syndicated world-wide and influenced millions with her answers to questions on love and marriage.

Beauty contests featuring female bathing beauties became major events attracting entries from all over the world as the new shorter bathing costumes became generally acceptable.

Conflict occurred between religious groups, racial groups, and political parties. Immigrants were blamed for stealing jobs and fear of imported radicals led to a reduction in the immigrant quota. The resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan which fanned racial issues was accompanied by a rise in black nationalism.

The stock market crash toward the end of the decade resulted caused a major collapse in confidence nation-wide in addition to financial devastation.