WHAT WAS HAPPENING IN THE U.S. WHEN THE TWENTIES ROARED IN?
The 1920s were an age of dramatic social and political change. For the first time, more Americans lived in cities than on farms. The nation’s total wealth more than doubled between 1920 and 1929, and this economic growth swept many Americans into an affluent but unfamiliar “consumer society.” People from coast to coast bought the same goods (thanks to nationwide advertising and the spread of chain stores), listened to the same music, did the same dances and even used the same slang! Many Americans were uncomfortable with this new, urban, sometimes racy “mass culture”; in fact, for many – even most – people in the United States, the 1920s brought more conflict than celebration. However, for a small handful of young people in the nation’s big cities, the 1920s were roaring indeed.
The most familiar symbol of the “Roaring Twenties” is probably the flapper: a young woman with bobbed hair and short skirts who drank, smoked and said what might be termed “unladylike” things, in addition to being more sexually “free” than previous generations. In reality, most young women in the 1920s did none of these things (though many did adopt a fashionable flapper wardrobe), but even those women who were not flappers gained some unprecedented freedoms. They could vote at last: the 19th Amendment to the Constitution guaranteed that right in 1920. Millions of women worked in white-collar jobs (as stenographers, for example) and could afford to participate in the booming consumer economy. The increased availability of birth control devices made it possible for women to have fewer children. And new machines and technologies like the washing machine and the vacuum cleaner eliminated some of the drudgery of household work.
During the 1920s, many Americans had extra money to spend, and they spent it on consumer goods such as ready-to-wear clothes and home appliances like electric refrigerators. In particular, they bought radios. The first commercial radio station in the U.S., Pittsburgh’s KDKA, hit the airwaves in 1920; three years later there were more than 500 stations in the nation. By the end of the 1920s, there were radios in more than 12 million households. People also went to the movies: historians estimate that, by the end of the decade, three-quarters of the American population visited a movie theater every week.
The most important consumer product of the 1920s was the automobile. Low prices (the Ford Model T cost just $260 in 1924) and generous credit made cars affordable luxuries at the beginning of the decade; by the end, they were practically necessities. In 1929 there was one car on the road for every five Americans. Meanwhile, an economy of automobiles was born: businesses like service stations and motels sprang up to meet drivers’ needs.
Cars also gave young people the freedom to go where they pleased and do what they wanted. (Some pundits called them “bedrooms on wheels.”) What many young people wanted to do was dance: the Charleston, the cake walk, the black bottom, the flea hop. Jazz bands played at dance halls like the Savoy in New York City and the Aragon in Chicago; radio stations and phonograph records (100 million of which were sold in 1927 alone) carried their tunes to listeners across the nation. Some older people objected to jazz music’s “vulgarity” and “depravity” (and the “moral disasters” it supposedly inspired), but many in the younger generation loved the freedom they felt on the dance floor.
During the 1920s, some freedoms were expanded while others were curtailed. The 18th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1919, had banned the manufacture and sale of “intoxicating liquors,” and at 12 a.m. on January 16, 1920, the federal Volstead Act closed every tavern, bar and saloon in the United States. From then on, it was illegal to sell any “intoxication beverages” with more than 0.5% alcohol. This drove the liquor trade underground – now, people simply went to nominally illegal speakeasies instead of ordinary bars – where it was controlled by bootleggers, racketeers and other organized-crime figures such as Chicago gangster Al Capone. (Capone reportedly had 1,000 gunmen and half of Chicago’s police force on his payroll.)
To many middle-class white Americans, Prohibition was a way to assert some control over the unruly immigrant masses who crowded the nation’s cities. For instance, to the so-called “drys,” beer was known as “Kaiser brew.” Drinking was a symbol of all they disliked about the modern city, and eliminating alcohol would, they believed, turn back the clock to an earlier and more comfortable time.
Prohibition was not the only source of social tension during the 1920s. The Great Migration of African Americans from the southern countryside to northern cities and the increasing visibility of black culture — jazz and blues music, for example, and the literary movement known as the Harlem Renaissance — discomfited some white Americans. Millions of people in places like Indiana and Illinois joined the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. To them, the Klan represented a return to all the “values” that the fast-paced, city-slicker Roaring Twenties were trampling.
Likewise, an anti-Communist “Red Scare” in 1919 and 1920 encouraged a widespread nativist, or anti-immigrant, hysteria. This led to the passage of an extremely restrictive immigration law, the National Origins Act of 1924, which set immigration quotas that excluded some people (Eastern Europeans and Asians) in favor of others (Northern Europeans and people from Great Britain, for example).
These conflicts – what one historian has called a “cultural Civil War” between city-dwellers and small-town residents, Protestants and Catholics, blacks and whites, “New Women” and advocates of old-fashioned family values – are perhaps the most important part of the story of the Roaring Twenties.
- January 9 – Thousands of onlookers watch as “The Human Fly” George Polley, climbs the New York Woolworth Building. He reached the 30th floor before a policeman arrested him for climbing without a permit.
- January 16 – Prohibition begins with the 18th Amendment to the Constitution coming into effect.
- May 2 – The first game of the Negro National League baseball is played in Indianapolis, Indiana.
- June 13 – The U.S. Post Office rules that children may not be sent via parcel post.
- August 26 – 19th Amendment to the Constitution is passed, guaranteeing women’s suffrage.
- September 17 – The National Football League is founded.
- September 29 – First domestic radio sets come to stores in USA – a Westinghouse radio costs $10.
- November 2 – Republican U. S. Senator Warren G. Harding defeats Democratic Governor of Ohio James M. Cox in the U.S. presidential election, the first national U.S. election in which women have the right to vote.
BUT SOME 300 YEARS EARLIER . . .
Fairs and expositions lost their prominent place in American culture as the 1920s approached. Never again would such exhibitions so thoroughly dominate American imaginations – or the nation’s stamp program. More commemorative stamps were issued, but the trend was toward issuing fewer stamps for each event commemorated. Some of the events may be considered obscure today, or perhaps even inappropriate for commemoration, but stamps were sometimes issued in response to political pressures.
The 1920 Pilgrim Tercentenary Issue was the first to represent this change. The three stamps of the issue celebrated the 300th anniversary of the 1620 settlement of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and paid tribute to America’s origin as a haven of religious freedom and representative democracy. So well and widely known was the story of the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth that these stamps did not include the country of origin. These were the only American stamps ever issued without the words “United States” or the “U.S.” initials.
Some 102 people, many of them seeking religious freedom in the New World, set sail from England on the Mayflower in September, 1620. That November, the ship landed on the shores of Cape Cod, in present-day Massachusetts. A scouting party was sent out, and in late December the group landed at Plymouth Harbor, where they would form the first permanent settlement of Europeans in New England. These original settlers of Plymouth Colony are known as the Pilgrim Fathers, or simply as the Pilgrims.
The group that set out from Plymouth, in southwestern England, in September, 1620 included 35 members of a radical Puritan faction known as the English Separatist Church. In 1607, after illegally breaking from the Church of England, the Separatists settled in the Netherlands, first in Amsterdam and later in the town of Leiden, where the remained for the next decade under the relatively lenient Dutch laws.
Due to economic difficulties, as well as fears that they would lose their English language and heritage, they began to make plans to settle in the New World. Their intended destination was a region near the Hudson River, which at the time was thought to be part of the already established Virginia Colony. In 1620, the would-be settlers joined a London stock company that would finance their trip aboard the Mayflower, a three-masted merchant ship. A smaller vessel, the Speedwell, initially accompanied the Mayflower and carried some of the travelers, but it proved unseaworthy and returned to port during the same month it had gone underway.
Some of the most notable passengers on the Mayflower included Myles Standish, a professional soldier who would become the military leader of the new colony; and William Bradford, a leader of the Separatist congregation who wrote the still-classic account of the Mayflower voyage and the founding of Plymouth Colony. While still onboard the ship, a group of 41 men signed the so-called Mayflower Compact, by which they agreed to join together in a “civil body politic”. This document would become the foundation of the new colony’s government.
Rough seas and storms prevented the Mayflower from reaching its initial destination and after a voyage of 65 days, the ship reached the shores of Cape Cod, anchoring on the site of Provincetown Harbor in mid-November. After sending an exploring party ashore, the Mayflower landed in mid-December at what the settlers would call Plymouth Harbor on the western side of Cape Cod Bay. During the next several months, the settlers lived mostly on the Mayflower and ferried to and from shore to build their new storage and living quarters. The settlement’s first fort and watchtower was built on what is now known as Burial Hill (the area contains the graves of Bradford and other original settlers).
More than half of the English settlers died during that first winter, as a result of poor nutrition and housing that proved inadequate in the harsh weather. Leaders such as Bradford, Standish, John Carver, William Brewster and Edward Winslow played important roles in keeping the remaining settlers together. In April, 1621, after the death of the settlement’s first governor, John Carver, Bradford was unanimously selected to hold that position; he would be reelected 30 times and served as governor of Plymouth for all but five years until 1656.
The native inhabitants of the region around Plymouth Colony were the various tribes of the Wampanoag people who had lived there for some 10,000 years before the Europeans arrived. Soon after the Pilgrims built their settlement, they came into contact with Tisquantum, or Squanto, an English-speaking Native American. Squanto was a member of the Pawtuxet tribe (from present-day Massachusetts and Rhode Island) who had been seized by the explorer John Smith’s men in 1614-15. Mean for slavery, he somehow managed to escape to England and returned to his native land only to find that most of his tribe had died of plague. In addition to interpreting and mediating between the colonial leaders and Native American chiefs (including Massasoit, chief of the Pokanoket), Squanto taught the Pilgrims how to plant corn, which became in important crop, as well as where to fish and hunt beaver. In the fall of 1621, the Pilgrims famously shared a harvest feast with the Pokanokets; the meal is now considered the basis for the Thanksgiving holiday. After attempts to increase his own power by turning the Pilgrims against Massasoit, Squanto died in 1622 while serving as Bradford’s guide on an expedition around Cape Cod.
Other tribes, such as the Massachusetts and the Narragansetts, were not as well disposed toward European settlers, and Massasoit’s alliance with the Pilgrims disrupted relations among Native American peoples in the region. Over the next decades, relations between settlers and Native Americans deteriorated as the former group occupied more and more land. By the time William Bradford died in 1657, he had already expressed anxiety that New England would soon be torn apart by violence. In 1675, Bradford’s predictions came true, in the form of King Philip’s War. (Philip was the English name of Metacomet, the son of Massasoit and leader of the Pokanokets since the early 1660s.) That conflict left some 5,000 inhabitants of New England dead, three-quarters of those Native Americans. In terms of percentage of population killed, King Philip’s War was more than twice as costly as the American Civil War and seven time more so than the American Revolution.
Repressive policies toward religious nonconformists in England under King Jame I and his successor, Charles I, had driven many men and women to follow the Pilgrims’ path to the New World. Three more ships traveled to Plymouth after the Mayflower, including the Fortune in 1621, the Anne and the Little James both in 1623. In 1630, a group of 1,000 Puritan refugees under Governor John Winthrop settled in Massachusetts according to a charter obtained from King Charles I by the Massachusetts Bay Company. Winthrop soon established Boston as the capital of Massachusetts Bay Colony, which would become the most populous and prosperous colony in the region.
Compared with later groups who founded colonies in New England, such as the Puritans, the Pilgrims of Plymouth failed to achieve lasting economic success. After the early 1630s, some prominent members of the original group, including Brewster, Winslow and Standish, left the colony to found their own communities. The cost of fighting King Philip’s War further damaged the colony’s struggling economy. Less than a decade after the war, King James II appointed a colonial governor to rule over New England, and in 1692, Plymouth was absorbed into the larger entity of Massachusetts.
Bradford and the other Plymouth settlers were not originally known as Pilgrims, but as “Old Comers”. This changed after the discovery of a manuscript by Bradford in which he called the settlers who left Holland “saints” and “pilgrims”. In 1820, at a bicentennial celebration of the colony’s founding, the orator Daniel Webster made reference to “Pilgrim Fathers” and the term stuck.
THE 1920 PILGRIM TERCENTENARY COMMEMORATIVE STAMPS
The set of three stamps, as previously written, contains no indication that these are American stamps. “U.S.” or “United States” does not appear anywhere.
The 1¢ stamp illustrates the ship Mayflower that carried the Protestant Separatists to the New World. Though headed for the Virginia Charter Colony, after a difficult 66-day voyage, the ship landed at the tip of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Shortly thereafter, the weary Pilgrims established their Massachusetts Colony at Plymouth, as depicted on the 2¢ stamp. The 5¢ stamp celebrates the Compact (contract or agreement) that was signed aboard the Mayflower on November 21, 1620. The document – the colony’s constitution – was the first plan for an American style of democratic governance.