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1. "Age of Prosperity"

A "chicken in every pot, and a car in every backyard." So ran a Republican slogan during Herbert Hoover's 1928 presidential campaign—the phrase that has come to symbolize the unparalleled prosperity of the 1920s. The nation's economy reached astounding production, consumption, and stock market records, rendering the severe postwar recession a bad memory, except, unfortunately, for farmers, working-class laborers, and African Americans and other minorities. As W.E.B. Du Bois asserted in 1926, "We have today in the United States, cheek by jowl, Prosperity and Depression."1

How did it happen? Would it last? How could the excesses of prosperity be moderated? How could those left out be included? And whose responsibility was all this? business? government? the individual? We begin this Theme with an overview of the decade's perspective on itself, as an "age of prosperity." Was the nation's economic engine a charged dynamo or a short-fused bomb?

    Collected commentary on economic prosperity in the 1920s PDF file
  • Collected commentary. This collection offers contemporary commentary from businessmen and financial analysts, consumer and social activists, historians and a novelist, white and black leaders, and Democrats and Republicans, including the three Republican presidents of the decade, Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover. Selections can be divided among students for research and classroom discussion. How varied were the perspectives on "prosperity," its causes, and consequences? How secure or tenuous were the economic times? (10 pp.)

  • Political cartoons on 1920s prosperity PDF file
  • Political cartoons. Twelve political cartoons are presented in this collection, from four general circulation (white-owned) newspapers and one black-owned newspaper. They span the years 1919, when the nation was mired in postwar recession and unrest, to 1928, when undreamed-of prosperity seemed in the grasp of anyone with capital, energy, and gumption. What perspectives were presented in these cartoons? What affirmations, recommendations, judgments, and warnings? Complete the cartoonist analysis chart to study the visual and symbolic aspects of the cartoons. (13 pp.)

Discussion Questions

  1. According to the commentators and cartoonists, what were the causes, outcomes, and possible consequences of the unrivaled prosperity of the 1920s?
  2. What affirmations, recommendations, judgments, and warnings did they put forth?
  3. How could the excesses of prosperity be moderated? How could those left out be included?
  4. Whose responsibility was it to nurture prosperity and to address its problems? business? government? the individual?
  5. How secure or tenuous was the prosperity of the "roaring twenties"?
  6. According to Frederick Lewis Allen, author of Only Yesterday (1931), "what made the United States so prosperous?"
  7. According to financial writer Donald Hanson, how would the prosperity of the 1920s be explained by the banker, the labor union head, the manufacturer, the "habitué of Wall Street," and a foreign observer? Why did he say that "probably all are correct to a certain degree"?
  8. How was the automobile a major impetus of the decade's prosperity, according to Stuart Chase and Frederick Lewis Allen?
  9. How did the novelist John Dos Passos reflect the economic conflicts and ideological divisions in the "newsreel" from The Big Money?
  10. Using the resources in this section, write a "newsreel" that reflects 1920s prosperity from another perspective, e.g., of a Republican president, a Democratic cartoonist, historian T. J. Wertenbaker, or black leader W.E.B. Du Bois.
  11. What were the core disagreements between Republicans/conservatives and Democrats/liberals about economic prosperity in the 1920s?
  12. How did Republicans/conservatives and Democrats/liberal refute each others' positions?
  13. To what extent did Republicans and Democrats acknowledge each others' viewpoints on prosperity?
  14. How did Republicans acknowledge the "friction of modern industrialism"? How did Democrats acknowledge that "prosperity . . . has certainly been with us"?
  15. Complete the chart of political cartoonists to analyze their viewpoints and the visual devices they used to convey them, e.g., Gale's portrayal of Uncle Sam and Orr's use of multiple labels.
  16. Drawing evidence from the readings and cartoons in this section, write a brief overview of the economic prosperity of the 1920s, beginning or ending with one of these statements from the resources:

Framing Questions

  • What factors nurtured or weakened the unprecedented prosperity of the 1920s?
  • How did "prosperity" become a hallmark of national pride? How was the word adapted for political and psychological aspirations of the nation?
  • What role did "workingmen" and labor unions play in the economic panorama of the period?
  • Compare the Twenties' boom-and-bust with similar economic cycles before and after the decade.


Political cartoons
10 pp.
13 pp.
23 pp.

Supplemental Sites

Prosperity and Thrift: The Coolidge Era and the Consumer Economy (Library of Congress)

Why It Happened [1920s economy] (Digital History, Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, et al.)

"Times look pretty dark to some," political cartoon, Chicago Tribune, 1921 (History Matters; George Mason University and the City University of New York)

Analyzing political cartoons: guides from

1 W.E.B. Du Bois, "The Shape of Fear," The North American Review, June 1926.

– Advertisement, Holeproof Hosiery Co. (detail), Scribner's, April 1922. Reproduced by permission of the Modernist Journals Project, Brown University and the University of Tulsa.
– "Fifth Avenue," photograph (detail); written on image: New York World, April 17, 1921. Courtesy of the New York Public Library, Digital ID 810014.
– "A Chicken for Every Pot," political advertisement, Republican Business Men, Inc., New York, 1928. Courtesy of the Hoover Presidential Library, National Archives, ARC Identifier 187095.
– Morris, "Hot Dog," political cartoon, George Matthew Adams Newspaper Service; published in the Los Angeles Times, July 25, 1926. Copyright holder of Adams Newspaper Service content unidentified; in copyright search. Digital image courtesy of ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
– Edmund Gale, "Watch Your Step!" political cartoon, Los Angeles Times, Nov. 14, 1925. Reproduced by permission of the Los Angeles Times. Digital image courtesy of ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
– Advertisement, Underwood portable typewriters (detail), Scribner's, June 1922. Reproduced by permission of the Modernist Journals Project, Brown University and the University of Tulsa.

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