Gene Smiley, Marquette University
The interwar period in the United States, and in the rest of the world, is a most interesting era. The decade of the 1930s marks the most severe depression in our history and ushered in sweeping changes in the role of government. Economists and historians have rightly given much attention to that decade. However, with all of this concern about the growing and developing role of government in economic activity in the 1930s, the decade of the 1920s often tends to get overlooked. This is unfortunate because the 1920s are a period of vigorous, vital economic growth. It marks the first truly modern decade and dramatic economic developments are found in those years. There is a rapid adoption of the automobile to the detriment of passenger rail travel. Though suburbs had been growing since the late nineteenth century their growth had been tied to rail or trolley access and this was limited to the largest cities. The flexibility of car access changed this and the growth of suburbs began to accelerate. The demands of trucks and cars led to a rapid growth in the construction of all-weather surfaced roads to facilitate their movement. The rapidly expanding electric utility networks led to new consumer appliances and new types of lighting and heating for homes and businesses. The introduction of the radio, radio stations, and commercial radio networks began to break up rural isolation, as did the expansion of local and long-distance telephone communications. Recreational activities such as traveling, going to movies, and professional sports became major businesses. The period saw major innovations in business organization and manufacturing technology. The Federal Reserve System first tested its powers and the United States moved to a dominant position in international trade and global business. These things make the 1920s a period of considerable importance independent of what happened in the 1930s.
National Product and Income and Prices
We begin the survey of the 1920s with an examination of the overall production in the economy, GNP, the most comprehensive measure of aggregate economic activity. Real GNP growth during the 1920s was relatively rapid, 4.2 percent a year from 1920 to 1929 according to the most widely used estimates. (Historical Statistics of the United States, or HSUS, 1976) Real GNP per capita grew 2.7 percent per year between 1920 and 1929. By both nineteenth and twentieth century standards these were relatively rapid rates of real economic growth and they would be considered rapid even today.
There were several interruptions to this growth. In mid-1920 the American economy began to contract and the 1920-1921 depression lasted about a year, but a rapid recovery reestablished full-employment by 1923. As will be discussed below, the Federal Reserve System’s monetary policy was a major factor in initiating the 1920-1921 depression. From 1923 through 1929 growth was much smoother. There was a very mild recession in 1924 and another mild recession in 1927 both of which may be related to oil price shocks (McMillin and Parker, 1994). The 1927 recession was also associated with Henry Ford’s shut-down of all his factories for six months in order to changeover from the Model T to the new Model A automobile. Though the Model T’s market share was declining after 1924, in 1926 Ford’s Model T still made up nearly 40 percent of all the new cars produced and sold in the United States. The Great Depression began in the summer of 1929, possibly as early as June. The initial downturn was relatively mild but the contraction accelerated after the crash of the stock market at the end of October. Real total GNP fell 10.2 percent from 1929 to 1930 while real GNP per capita fell 11.5 percent from 1929 to 1930.
Price changes during the 1920s are shown in Figure 2. The Consumer Price Index, CPI, is a better measure of changes in the prices of commodities and services that a typical consumer would purchase, while the Wholesale Price Index, WPI, is a better measure in the changes in the cost of inputs for businesses. As the figure shows the 1920-1921 depression was marked by extraordinarily large price decreases. Consumer prices fell 11.3 percent from 1920 to 1921 and fell another 6.6 percent from 1921 to 1922. After that consumer prices were relatively constant and actually fell slightly from 1926 to 1927 and from 1927 to 1928. Wholesale prices show greater variation. The 1920-1921 depression hit farmers very hard. Prices had been bid up with the increasing foreign demand during the First World War. As European production began to recover after the war prices began to fall. Though the prices of agricultural products fell from 1919 to 1920, the depression brought on dramatic declines in the prices of raw agricultural produce as well as many other inputs that firms employ. In the scramble to beat price increases during 1919 firms had built up large inventories of raw materials and purchased inputs and this temporary increase in demand led to even larger price increases. With the depression firms began to draw down those inventories. The result was that the prices of raw materials and manufactured inputs fell rapidly along with the prices of agricultural produce—the WPI dropped 45.9 percent between 1920 and 1921. The price changes probably tend to overstate the severity of the 1920-1921 depression. Romer’s recent work (1988) suggests that prices changed much more easily in that depression reducing the drop in production and employment. Wholesale prices in the rest of the 1920s were relatively stable though they were more likely to fall than to rise.
Economic Growth in the 1920s
Despite the 1920-1921 depression and the minor interruptions in 1924 and 1927, the American economy exhibited impressive economic growth during the 1920s. Though some commentators in later years thought that the existence of some slow growing or declining sectors in the twenties suggested weaknesses that might have helped bring on the Great Depression, few now argue this. Economic growth never occurs in all sectors at the same time and at the same rate. Growth reallocates resources from declining or slower growing sectors to the more rapidly expanding sectors in accordance with new technologies, new products and services, and changing consumer tastes.
Economic growth in the 1920s was impressive. Ownership of cars, new household appliances, and housing was spread widely through the population. New products and processes of producing those products drove this growth. The combination of the widening use of electricity in production and the growing adoption of the moving assembly line in manufacturing combined to bring on a continuing rise in the productivity of labor and capital. Though the average workweek in most manufacturing remained essentially constant throughout the 1920s, in a few industries, such as railroads and coal production, it declined. (Whaples 2001) New products and services created new markets such as the markets for radios, electric iceboxes, electric irons, fans, electric lighting, vacuum cleaners, and other laborsaving household appliances. This electricity was distributed by the growing electric utilities. The stocks of those companies helped create the stock market boom of the late twenties. RCA, one of the glamour stocks of the era, paid no dividends but its value appreciated because of expectations for the new company. Like the Internet boom of the late 1990s, the electricity boom of the 1920s fed a rapid expansion in the stock market.
Fed by continuing productivity advances and new products and services and facilitated by an environment of stable prices that encouraged production and risk taking, the American economy embarked on a sustained expansion in the 1920s.
Population and Labor in the 1920s
At the same time that overall production was growing, population growth was declining. As can be seen in Figure 3, from an annual rate of increase of 1.85 and 1.93 percent in 1920 and 1921, respectively, population growth rates fell to 1.23 percent in 1928 and 1.04 percent in 1929.
These changes in the overall growth rate were linked to the birth and death rates of the resident population and a decrease in foreign immigration. Though the crude death rate changed little during the period, the crude birth rate fell sharply into the early 1930s. (Figure 4) There are several explanations for the decline in the birth rate during this period. First, there was an accelerated rural-to-urban migration. Urban families have tended to have fewer children than rural families because urban children do not augment family incomes through their work as unpaid workers as rural children do. Second, the period also saw continued improvement in women’s job opportunities and a rise in their labor force participation rates.
Immigration also fell sharply. In 1917 the federal government began to limit immigration and in 1921 an immigration act limited the number of prospective citizens of any nationality entering the United States each year to no more than 3 percent of that nationality’s resident population as of the 1910 census. A new act in 1924 lowered this to 2 percent of the resident population at the 1890 census and more firmly blocked entry for people from central, southern, and eastern European nations. The limits were relaxed slightly in 1929.
The American population also continued to move during the interwar period. Two regions experienced the largest losses in population shares, New England and the Plains. For New England this was a continuation of a long-term trend. The population share for the Plains region had been rising through the nineteenth century. In the interwar period its agricultural base, combined with the continuing shift from agriculture to industry, led to a sharp decline in its share. The regions gaining population were the Southwest and, particularly, the far West.— California began its rapid growth at this time.
During the 1920s the labor force grew at a more rapid rate than population. This somewhat more rapid growth came from the declining share of the population less than 14 years old and therefore not in the labor force. In contrast, the labor force participation rates, or fraction of the population aged 14 and over that was in the labor force, declined during the twenties from 57.7 percent to 56.3 percent. This was entirely due to a fall in the male labor force participation rate from 89.6 percent to 86.8 percent as the female labor force participation rate rose from 24.3 percent to 25.1 percent. The primary source of the fall in male labor force participation rates was a rising retirement rate. Employment rates for males who were 65 or older fell from 60.1 percent in 1920 to 58.0 percent in 1930.
With the depression of 1920-1921 the unemployment rate rose rapidly from 5.2 to 8.7 percent. The recovery reduced unemployment to an average rate of 4.8 percent in 1923. The unemployment rate rose to 5.8 percent in the recession of 1924 and to 5.0 percent with the slowdown in 1927. Otherwise unemployment remained relatively low. The onset of the Great Depression from the summer of 1929 on brought the unemployment rate from 4.6 percent in 1929 to 8.9 percent in 1930. (Figure 5)
Earnings for laborers varied during the twenties. Table 1 presents average weekly earnings for 25 manufacturing industries. For these industries male skilled and semi-skilled laborers generally commanded a premium of 35 percent over the earnings of unskilled male laborers in the twenties. Unskilled males received on average 35 percent more than females during the twenties. Real average weekly earnings for these 25 manufacturing industries rose somewhat during the 1920s. For skilled and semi-skilled male workers real average weekly earnings rose 5.3 percent between 1923 and 1929, while real average weekly earnings for unskilled males rose 8.7 percent between 1923 and 1929. Real average weekly earnings for females rose on 1.7 percent between 1923 and 1929. Real weekly earnings for bituminous and lignite coal miners fell as the coal industry encountered difficult times in the late twenties and the real daily wage rate for farmworkers in the twenties, reflecting the ongoing difficulties in agriculture, fell after the recovery from the 1920-1921 depression.
The 1920s were not kind to labor unions even though the First World War had solidified the dominance of the American Federation of Labor among labor unions in the United States. The rapid growth in union membership fostered by federal government policies during the war ended in 1919. A committee of AFL craft unions undertook a successful membership drive in the steel industry in that year. When U.S. Steel refused to bargain, the committee called a strike, the failure of which was a sharp blow to the unionization drive. (Brody, 1965) In the same year, the United Mine Workers undertook a large strike and also lost. These two lost strikes and the 1920-21 depression took the impetus out of the union movement and led to severe membership losses that continued through the twenties. (Figure 6)
Under Samuel Gompers’s leadership, the AFL’s “business unionism” had attempted to promote the union and collective bargaining as the primary answer to the workers’ concerns with wages, hours, and working conditions. The AFL officially opposed any government actions that would have diminished worker attachment to unions by providing competing benefits, such as government sponsored unemployment insurance, minimum wage proposals, maximum hours proposals and social security programs. As Lloyd Ulman (1961) points out, the AFL, under Gompers’ direction, differentiated on the basis of whether the statute would or would not aid collective bargaining. After Gompers’ death, William Green led the AFL in a policy change as the AFL promoted the idea of union-management cooperation to improve output and promote greater employer acceptance of unions. But Irving Bernstein (1965) concludes that, on the whole, union-management cooperation in the twenties was a failure.
To combat the appeal of unions in the twenties, firms used the “yellow-dog” contract requiring employees to swear they were not union members and would not join one; the “American Plan” promoting the open shop and contending that the closed shop was un-American; and welfare capitalism. The most common aspects of welfare capitalism included personnel management to handle employment issues and problems, the doctrine of “high wages,” company group life insurance, old-age pension plans, stock-purchase plans, and more. Some firms formed company unions to thwart independent unionization and the number of company-controlled unions grew from 145 to 432 between 1919 and 1926.
Until the late thirties the AFL was a voluntary association of independent national craft unions. Craft unions relied upon the particular skills the workers had acquired (their craft) to distinguish the workers and provide barriers to the entry of other workers. Most craft unions required a period of apprenticeship before a worker was fully accepted as a journeyman worker. The skills, and often lengthy apprenticeship, constituted the entry barrier that gave the union its bargaining power. There were only a few unions that were closer to today’s industrial unions where the required skills were much less (or nonexistent) making the entry of new workers much easier. The most important of these industrial unions was the United Mine Workers, UMW.
The AFL had been created on two principles: the autonomy of the national unions and the exclusive jurisdiction of the national union.—Individual union members were not, in fact, members of the AFL; rather, they were members of the local and national union, and the national was a member of the AFL. Representation in the AFL gave dominance to the national unions, and, as a result, the AFL had little effective power over them. The craft lines, however, had never been distinct and increasingly became blurred. The AFL was constantly mediating jurisdictional disputes between member national unions. Because the AFL and its individual unions were not set up to appeal to and work for the relatively less skilled industrial workers, union organizing and growth lagged in the twenties.
The onset of the First World War in Europe brought unprecedented prosperity to American farmers. As agricultural production in Europe declined, the demand for American agricultural exports rose, leading to rising farm product prices and incomes. In response to this, American farmers expanded production by moving onto marginal farmland, such as Wisconsin cutover property on the edge of the woods and hilly terrain in the Ozark and Appalachian regions. They also increased output by purchasing more machinery, such as tractors, plows, mowers, and threshers. The price of farmland, particularly marginal farmland, rose in response to the increased demand, and the debt of American farmers increased substantially.
This expansion of American agriculture continued past the end of the First World War as farm exports to Europe and farm prices initially remained high. However, agricultural production in Europe recovered much faster than most observers had anticipated. Even before the onset of the short depression in 1920, farm exports and farm product prices had begun to fall. During the depression, farm prices virtually collapsed. From 1920 to 1921, the consumer price index fell 11.3 percent, the wholesale price index fell 45.9 percent, and the farm products price index fell 53.3 percent. (HSUS, Series E40, E42, and E135)
Real average net income per farm fell over 72.6 percent between 1920 and 1921 and, though rising in the twenties, never recovered the relative levels of 1918 and 1919. (Figure 7) Farm mortgage foreclosures rose and stayed at historically high levels for the entire decade of the 1920s. (Figure 8) The value of farmland and buildings fell throughout the twenties and, for the first time in American history, the number of cultivated acres actually declined as farmers pulled back from the marginal farmland brought into production during the war. Rather than indicators of a general depression in agriculture in the twenties, these were the results of the financial commitments made by overoptimistic American farmers during and directly after the war. The foreclosures were generally on second mortgages rather than on first mortgages as they were in the early 1930s. (Johnson, 1973; Alston, 1983)
A Declining Sector
A major difficulty in analyzing the interwar agricultural sector lies in separating the effects of the 1920-21 and 1929-33 depressions from those that arose because agriculture was declining relative to the other sectors. A relatively very slow growing demand for basic agricultural products and significant increases in the productivity of labor, land, and machinery in agricultural production combined with a much more rapid extensive economic growth in the nonagricultural sectors of the economy required a shift of resources, particularly labor, out of agriculture. (Figure 9) The market induces labor to voluntarily move from one sector to another through income differentials, suggesting that even in the absence of the effects of the depressions, farm incomes would have been lower than nonfarm incomes so as to bring about this migration.
The continuous substitution of tractor power for horse and mule power released hay and oats acreage to grow crops for human consumption. Though cotton and tobacco continued as the primary crops in the south, the relative production of cotton continued to shift to the west as production in Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California increased. As quotas reduced immigration and incomes rose, the demand for cereal grains grew slowly—more slowly than the supply—and the demand for fruits, vegetables, and dairy products grew. Refrigeration and faster freight shipments expanded the milk sheds further from metropolitan areas. Wisconsin and other North Central states began to ship cream and cheeses to the Atlantic Coast. Due to transportation improvements, specialized truck farms and the citrus industry became more important in California and Florida. (Parker, 1972; Soule, 1947)
The relative decline of the agricultural sector in this period was closely related to the highly inelastic income elasticity of demand for many farm products, particularly cereal grains, pork, and cotton. As incomes grew, the demand for these staples grew much more slowly. At the same time, rising land and labor productivity were increasing the supplies of staples, causing real prices to fall.
Table 3 presents selected agricultural productivity statistics for these years. Those data indicate that there were greater gains in labor productivity than in land productivity (or per acre yields). Per acre yields in wheat and hay actually decreased between 1915-19 and 1935-39. These productivity increases, which released resources from the agricultural sector, were the result of technological improvements in agriculture.
Technological Improvements In Agricultural Production
In many ways the adoption of the tractor in the interwar period symbolizes the technological changes that occurred in the agricultural sector. This changeover in the power source that farmers used had far-reaching consequences and altered the organization of the farm and the farmers’ lifestyle. The adoption of the tractor was land saving (by releasing acreage previously used to produce crops for workstock) and labor saving. At the same time it increased the risks of farming because farmers were now much more exposed to the marketplace. They could not produce their own fuel for tractors as they had for the workstock. Rather, this had to be purchased from other suppliers. Repair and replacement parts also had to be purchased, and sometimes the repairs had to be undertaken by specialized mechanics. The purchase of a tractor also commonly required the purchase of new complementary machines; therefore, the decision to purchase a tractor was not an isolated one. (White, 2001; Ankli, 1980; Ankli and Olmstead, 1981; Musoke, 1981; Whatley, 1987). These changes resulted in more and more farmers purchasing and using tractors, but the rate of adoption varied sharply across the United States.
Technological innovations in plants and animals also raised productivity. Hybrid seed corn increased yields from an average of 40 bushels per acre to 100 to 120 bushels per acre. New varieties of wheat were developed from the hardy Russian and Turkish wheat varieties which had been imported. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Experiment Stations took the lead in developing wheat varieties for different regions. For example, in the Columbia River Basin new varieties raised yields from an average of 19.1 bushels per acre in 1913-22 to 23.1 bushels per acre in 1933-42. (Shepherd, 1980) New hog breeds produced more meat and new methods of swine sanitation sharply increased the survival rate of piglets. An effective serum for hog cholera was developed, and the federal government led the way in the testing and eradication of bovine tuberculosis and brucellosis. Prior to the Second World War, a number of pesticides to control animal disease were developed, including cattle dips and disinfectants. By the mid-1920s a vaccine for “blackleg,” an infectious, usually fatal disease that particularly struck young cattle, was completed. The cattle tick, which carried Texas Fever, was largely controlled through inspections. (Schlebecker, 1975; Bogue, 1983; Wood, 1980)
Federal Agricultural Programs in the 1920s
Though there was substantial agricultural discontent in the period from the Civil War to late 1890s, the period from then to the onset of the First World War was relatively free from overt farmers’ complaints. In later years farmers dubbed the 1910-14 period as agriculture’s “golden years” and used the prices of farm crops and farm inputs in that period as a standard by which to judge crop and input prices in later years. The problems that arose in the agricultural sector during the twenties once again led to insistent demands by farmers for government to alleviate their distress.
Though there were increasing calls for direct federal government intervention to limit production and raise farm prices, this was not used until Roosevelt took office. Rather, there was a reliance upon the traditional method to aid injured groups—tariffs, and upon the “sanctioning and promotion of cooperative marketing associations.” In 1921 Congress attempted to control the grain exchanges and compel merchants and stockyards to charge “reasonable rates,” with the Packers and Stockyards Act and the Grain Futures Act. In 1922 Congress passed the Capper-Volstead Act to promote agricultural cooperatives and the Fordney-McCumber Tariff to impose high duties on most agricultural imports.—The Cooperative Marketing Act of 1924 did not bolster failing cooperatives as it was supposed to do. (Hoffman and Liebcap, 1991)
Twice between 1924 and 1928 Congress passed “McNary-Haugan” bills, but President Calvin Coolidge vetoed both. The McNary-Haugan bills proposed to establish “fair” exchange values (based on the 1910-14 period) for each product and to maintain them through tariffs and a private corporation that would be chartered by the government and could buy enough of each commodity to keep its price up to the computed fair level. The revenues were to come from taxes imposed on farmers. The Hoover administration passed the Hawley-Smoot tariff in 1930 and an Agricultural Marketing Act in 1929. This act committed the federal government to a policy of stabilizing farm prices through several nongovernment institutions but these failed during the depression. Federal intervention in the agricultural sector really came of age during the New Deal era of the 1930s.
Agriculture was not the only sector experiencing difficulties in the twenties. Other industries, such as textiles, boots and shoes, and coal mining, also experienced trying times. However, at the same time that these industries were declining, other industries, such as electrical appliances, automobiles, and construction, were growing rapidly. The simultaneous existence of growing and declining industries has been common to all eras because economic growth and technological progress never affect all sectors in the same way. In general, in manufacturing there was a rapid rate of growth of productivity during the twenties. The rise of real wages due to immigration restrictions and the slower growth of the resident population spurred this. Transportation improvements and communications advances were also responsible. These developments brought about differential growth in the various manufacturing sectors in the United States in the 1920s.
Because of the historic pattern of economic development in the United States, the northeast was the first area to really develop a manufacturing base. By the mid-nineteenth century the East North Central region was creating a manufacturing base and the other regions began to create manufacturing bases in the last half of the nineteenth century resulting in a relative westward and southern shift of manufacturing activity. This trend continued in the 1920s as the New England and Middle Atlantic regions’ shares of manufacturing employment fell while all of the other regions—excluding the West North Central region—gained. There was considerable variation in the growth of the industries and shifts in their ranking during the decade. The largest broadly defined industries were, not surprisingly, food and kindred products; textile mill products; those producing and fabricating primary metals; machinery production; and chemicals. When industries are more narrowly defined, the automobile industry, which ranked third in manufacturing value added in 1919, ranked first by the mid-1920s.
Gavin Wright (1990) has argued that one of the underappreciated characteristics of American industrial history has been its reliance on mineral resources. Wright argues that the growing American strength in industrial exports and industrialization in general relied on an increasing intensity in nonreproducible natural resources. The large American market was knit together as one large market without internal barriers through the development of widespread low-cost transportation. Many distinctively American developments, such as continuous-process, mass-production methods were associated with the “high throughput” of fuel and raw materials relative to labor and capital inputs. As a result the United States became the dominant industrial force in the world 1920s and 1930s. According to Wright, after World War II “the process by which the United States became a unified ‘economy’ in the nineteenth century has been extended to the world as a whole. To a degree, natural resources have become commodities rather than part of the ‘factor endowment’ of individual countries.” (Wright, 1990)
In addition to this growing intensity in the use of nonreproducible natural resources as a source of productivity gains in American manufacturing, other technological changes during the twenties and thirties tended to raise the productivity of the existing capital through the replacement of critical types of capital equipment with superior equipment and through changes in management methods. (Soule, 1947; Lorant, 1967; Devine, 1983; Oshima, 1984) Some changes, such as the standardization of parts and processes and the reduction of the number of styles and designs, raised the productivity of both capital and labor. Modern management techniques, first introduced by Frederick W. Taylor, were introduced on a wider scale.
One of the important forces contributing to mass production and increased productivity was the transfer to electric power. (Devine, 1983) By 1929 about 70 percent of manufacturing activity relied on electricity, compared to roughly 30 percent in 1914. Steam provided 80 percent of the mechanical drive capacity in manufacturing in 1900, but electricity provided over 50 percent by 1920 and 78 percent by 1929. An increasing number of factories were buying their power from electric utilities. In 1909, 64 percent of the electric motor capacity in manufacturing establishments used electricity generated on the factory site; by 1919, 57 percent of the electricity used in manufacturing was purchased from independent electric utilities.
The shift from coal to oil and natural gas and from raw unprocessed energy in the forms of coal and waterpower to processed energy in the form of internal combustion fuel and electricity increased thermal efficiency. After the First World War energy consumption relative to GNP fell, there was a sharp increase in the growth rate of output per labor-hour, and the output per unit of capital input once again began rising. These trends can be seen in the data in Table 3. Labor productivity grew much more rapidly during the 1920s than in the previous or following decade. Capital productivity had declined in the decade previous to the 1920s while it also increased sharply during the twenties and continued to rise in the following decade. Alexander Field (2003) has argued that the 1930s were the most technologically progressive decade of the twentieth century basing his argument on the growth of multi-factor productivity as well as the impressive array of technological developments during the thirties. However, the twenties also saw impressive increases in labor and capital productivity as, particularly, developments in energy and transportation accelerated.
Warren Devine, Jr. (1983) reports that in the twenties the most important result of the adoption of electricity was that it would be an indirect “lever to increase production.” There were a number of ways in which this occurred. Electricity brought about an increased flow of production by allowing new flexibility in the design of buildings and the arrangement of machines. In this way it maximized throughput. Electric cranes were an “inestimable boon” to production because with adequate headroom they could operate anywhere in a plant, something that mechanical power transmission to overhead cranes did not allow. Electricity made possible the use of portable power tools that could be taken anywhere in the factory. Electricity brought about improved illumination, ventilation, and cleanliness in the plants, dramatically improving working conditions. It improved the control of machines since there was no longer belt slippage with overhead line shafts and belt transmission, and there were less limitations on the operating speeds of machines. Finally, it made plant expansion much easier than when overhead shafts and belts had been relied upon for operating power.
The mechanization of American manufacturing accelerated in the 1920s, and this led to a much more rapid growth of productivity in manufacturing compared to earlier decades and to other sectors at that time. There were several forces that promoted mechanization. One was the rapidly expanding aggregate demand during the prosperous twenties. Another was the technological developments in new machines and processes, of which electrification played an important part. Finally, Harry Jerome (1934) and, later, Harry Oshima (1984) both suggest that the price of unskilled labor began to rise as immigration sharply declined with new immigration laws and falling population growth. This accelerated the mechanization of the nation’s factories.
Technological changes during this period can be documented for a number of individual industries. In bituminous coal mining, labor productivity rose when mechanical loading devices reduced the labor required from 24 to 50 percent. The burst of paved road construction in the twenties led to the development of a finishing machine to smooth the surface of cement highways, and this reduced the labor requirement from 40 to 60 percent. Mechanical pavers that spread centrally mixed materials further increased productivity in road construction. These replaced the roadside dump and wheelbarrow methods of spreading the cement. Jerome (1934) reports that the glass in electric light bulbs was made by new machines that cut the number of labor-hours required for their manufacture by nearly half. New machines to produce cigarettes and cigars, for warp-tying in textile production, and for pressing clothes in clothing shops also cut labor-hours. The Banbury mixer reduced the labor input in the production of automobile tires by half, and output per worker of inner tubes increased about four times with a new production method. However, as Daniel Nelson (1987) points out, the continuing advances were the “cumulative process resulting from a vast number of successive small changes.” Because of these continuing advances in the quality of the tires and in the manufacturing of tires, between 1910 and 1930 “tire costs per thousand miles of driving fell from $9.39 to $0.65.”
John Lorant (1967) has documented other technological advances that occurred in American manufacturing during the twenties. For example, the organic chemical industry developed rapidly due to the introduction of the Weizman fermentation process. In a similar fashion, nearly half of the productivity advances in the paper industry were due to the “increasingly sophisticated applications of electric power and paper manufacturing processes,” especially the fourdrinier paper-making machines. As Avi Cohen (1984) has shown, the continuing advances in these machines were the result of evolutionary changes to the basic machine. Mechanization in many types of mass-production industries raised the productivity of labor and capital. In the glass industry, automatic feeding and other types of fully automatic production raised the efficiency of the production of glass containers, window glass, and pressed glass. Giedion (1948) reported that the production of bread was “automatized” in all stages during the 1920s.
Though not directly bringing about productivity increases in manufacturing processes, developments in the management of manufacturing firms, particularly the largest ones, also significantly affected their structure and operation. Alfred D. Chandler, Jr. (1962) has argued that the structure of a firm must follow its strategy. Until the First World War most industrial firms were centralized, single-division firms even when becoming vertically integrated. When this began to change the management of the large industrial firms had to change accordingly.
Because of these changes in the size and structure of the firm during the First World War, E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company was led to adopt a strategy of diversifying into the production of largely unrelated product lines. The firm found that the centralized, divisional structure that had served it so well was not suited to this strategy, and its poor business performance led its executives to develop between 1919 and 1921 a decentralized, multidivisional structure that boosted it to the first rank among American industrial firms.
General Motors had a somewhat different problem. By 1920 it was already decentralized into separate divisions. In fact, there was so much decentralization that those divisions essentially remained separate companies and there was little coordination between the operating divisions. A financial crisis at the end of 1920 ousted W. C. Durant and brought in the du Ponts and Alfred Sloan. Sloan, who had seen the problems at GM but had been unable to convince Durant to make changes, began reorganizing the management of the company. Over the next several years Sloan and other GM executives developed the general office for a decentralized, multidivisional firm.
Though facing related problems at nearly the same time, GM and du Pont developed their decentralized, multidivisional organizations separately. As other manufacturing firms began to diversify, GM and du Pont became the models for reorganizing the management of the firms. In many industrial firms these reorganizations were not completed until well after the Second World War.
Competition, Monopoly, and the Government
The rise of big businesses, which accelerated in the postbellum period and particularly during the first great turn-of-the-century merger wave, continued in the interwar period. Between 1925 and 1939 the share of manufacturing assets held by the 100 largest corporations rose from 34.5 to 41.9 percent. (Niemi, 1980) As a public policy, the concern with monopolies diminished in the 1920s even though firms were growing larger. But the growing size of businesses was one of the convenient scapegoats upon which to blame the Great Depression.
However, the rise of large manufacturing firms in the interwar period is not so easily interpreted as an attempt to monopolize their industries. Some of the growth came about through vertical integration by the more successful manufacturing firms. Backward integration was generally an attempt to ensure a smooth supply of raw materials where that supply was not plentiful and was dispersed and firms “feared that raw materials might become controlled by competitors or independent suppliers.” (Livesay and Porter, 1969) Forward integration was an offensive tactic employed when manufacturers found that the existing distribution network proved inadequate. Livesay and Porter suggested a number of reasons why firms chose to integrate forward. In some cases they had to provide the mass distribution facilities to handle their much larger outputs; especially when the product was a new one. The complexity of some new products required technical expertise that the existing distribution system could not provide. In other cases “the high unit costs of products required consumer credit which exceeded financial capabilities of independent distributors.” Forward integration into wholesaling was more common than forward integration into retailing. The producers of automobiles, petroleum, typewriters, sewing machines, and harvesters were typical of those manufacturers that integrated all the way into retailing.
In some cases, increases in industry concentration arose as a natural process of industrial maturation. In the automobile industry, Henry Ford’s invention in 1913 of the moving assembly line—a technological innovation that changed most manufacturing—lent itself to larger factories and firms. Of the several thousand companies that had produced cars prior to 1920, 120 were still doing so then, but Ford and General Motors were the clear leaders, together producing nearly 70 percent of the cars. During the twenties, several other companies, such as Durant, Willys, and Studebaker, missed their opportunity to become more important producers, and Chrysler, formed in early 1925, became the third most important producer by 1930. Many went out of business and by 1929 only 44 companies were still producing cars. The Great Depression decimated the industry. Dozens of minor firms went out of business. Ford struggled through by relying on its huge stockpile of cash accumulated prior to the mid-1920s, while Chrysler actually grew. By 1940, only eight companies still produced cars—GM, Ford, and Chrysler had about 85 percent of the market, while Willys, Studebaker, Nash, Hudson, and Packard shared the remainder. The rising concentration in this industry was not due to attempts to monopolize. As the industry matured, growing economies of scale in factory production and vertical integration, as well as the advantages of a widespread dealer network, led to a dramatic decrease in the number of viable firms. (Chandler, 1962 and 1964; Rae, 1984; Bernstein, 1987)
It was a similar story in the tire industry. The increasing concentration and growth of firms was driven by scale economies in production and retailing and by the devastating effects of the depression in the thirties. Although there were 190 firms in 1919, 5 firms dominated the industry—Goodyear, B. F. Goodrich, Firestone, U.S. Rubber, and Fisk, followed by Miller Rubber, General Tire and Rubber, and Kelly-Springfield. During the twenties, 166 firms left the industry while 66 entered. The share of the 5 largest firms rose from 50 percent in 1921 to 75 percent in 1937. During the depressed thirties, there was fierce price competition, and many firms exited the industry. By 1937 there were 30 firms, but the average employment per factory was 4.41 times as large as in 1921, and the average factory produced 6.87 times as many tires as in 1921. (French, 1986 and 1991; Nelson, 1987; Fricke, 1982)
The steel industry was already highly concentrated by 1920 as U.S. Steel had around 50 percent of the market. But U. S. Steel’s market share declined through the twenties and thirties as several smaller firms competed and grew to become known as Little Steel, the next six largest integrated producers after U. S. Steel. Jonathan Baker (1989) has argued that the evidence is consistent with “the assumption that competition was a dominant strategy for steel manufacturers” until the depression. However, the initiation of the National Recovery Administration (NRA) codes in 1933 required the firms to cooperate rather than compete, and Baker argues that this constituted a training period leading firms to cooperate in price and output policies after 1935. (McCraw and Reinhardt, 1989; Weiss, 1980; Adams, 1977)
A number of the larger firms grew by merger during this period, and the second great merger wave in American industry occurred during the last half of the 1920s. Figure 10 shows two series on mergers during the interwar period. The FTC series included many of the smaller mergers. The series constructed by Carl Eis (1969) only includes the larger mergers and ends in 1930.
This second great merger wave coincided with the stock market boom of the twenties and has been called “merger for oligopoly” rather than merger for monopoly. (Stigler, 1950) This merger wave created many larger firms that ranked below the industry leaders. Much of the activity in occurred in the banking and public utilities industries. (Markham, 1955) In manufacturing and mining, the effects on industrial structure were less striking. Eis (1969) found that while mergers took place in almost all industries, they were concentrated in a smaller number of them, particularly petroleum, primary metals, and food products.
The federal government’s antitrust policies toward business varied sharply during the interwar period. In the 1920s there was relatively little activity by the Justice Department, but after the Great Depression the New Dealers tried to take advantage of big business to make business exempt from the antitrust laws and cartelize industries under government supervision.
With the passage of the FTC and Clayton Acts in 1914 to supplement the 1890 Sherman Act, the cornerstones of American antitrust law were complete. Though minor amendments were later enacted, the primary changes after that came in the enforcement of the laws and in swings in judicial decisions. Their two primary areas of application were in the areas of overt behavior, such as horizontal and vertical price-fixing, and in market structure, such as mergers and dominant firms. Horizontal price-fixing involves firms that would normally be competitors getting together to agree on stable and higher prices for their products. As long as most of the important competitors agree on the new, higher prices, substitution between products is eliminated and the demand becomes much less elastic. Thus, increasing the price increases the revenues and the profits of the firms who are fixing prices. Vertical price-fixing involves firms setting the prices of intermediate products purchased at different stages of production. It also tends to eliminate substitutes and makes the demand less elastic.
Price-fixing continued to be considered illegal throughout the period, but there was no major judicial activity regarding it in the 1920s other than the Trenton Potteries decision in 1927. In that decision 20 individuals and 23 corporations were found guilty of conspiring to fix the prices of bathroom bowls. The evidence in the case suggested that the firms were not very successful at doing so, but the court found that they were guilty nevertheless; their success, or lack thereof, was not held to be a factor in the decision. (Scherer and Ross, 1990) Though criticized by some, the decision was precedent setting in that it prohibited explicit pricing conspiracies per se.
The Justice Department had achieved success in dismantling Standard Oil and American Tobacco in 1911 through decisions that the firms had unreasonably restrained trade. These were essentially the same points used in court decisions against the Powder Trust in 1911, the thread trust in 1913, Eastman Kodak in 1915, the glucose and cornstarch trust in 1916, and the anthracite railroads in 1920. The criterion of an unreasonable restraint of trade was used in the 1916 and 1918 decisions that found the American Can Company and the United Shoe Machinery Company innocent of violating the Sherman Act; it was also clearly enunciated in the 1920 U. S. Steel decision. This became known as the rule of reason standard in antitrust policy.
Merger policy had been defined in the 1914 Clayton Act to prohibit only the acquisition of one corporation’s stock by another corporation. Firms then shifted to the outright purchase of a competitor’s assets. A series of court decisions in the twenties and thirties further reduced the possibilities of Justice Department actions against mergers. “Only fifteen mergers were ordered dissolved through antitrust actions between 1914 and 1950, and ten of the orders were accomplished under the Sherman Act rather than Clayton Act proceedings.”
The search for energy and new ways to translate it into heat, light, and motion has been one of the unending themes in history. From whale oil to coal oil to kerosene to electricity, the search for better and less costly ways to light our lives, heat our homes, and move our machines has consumed much time and effort. The energy industries responded to those demands and the consumption of energy materials (coal, oil, gas, and fuel wood) as a percent of GNP rose from about 2 percent in the latter part of the nineteenth century to about 3 percent in the twentieth.
Changes in the energy markets that had begun in the nineteenth century continued. Processed energy in the forms of petroleum derivatives and electricity continued to become more important than “raw” energy, such as that available from coal and water. The evolution of energy sources for lighting continued; at the end of the nineteenth century, natural gas and electricity, rather than liquid fuels began to provide more lighting for streets, businesses, and homes.
In the twentieth century the continuing shift to electricity and internal combustion fuels increased the efficiency with which the American economy used energy. These processed forms of energy resulted in a more rapid increase in the productivity of labor and capital in American manufacturing. From 1899 to 1919, output per labor-hour increased at an average annual rate of 1.2 percent, whereas from 1919 to 1937 the increase was 3.5 percent per year. The productivity of capital had fallen at an average annual rate of 1.8 percent per year in the 20 years prior to 1919, but it rose 3.1 percent a year in the 18 years after 1919. As discussed above, the adoption of electricity in American manufacturing initiated a rapid evolution in the organization of plants and rapid increases in productivity in all types of manufacturing.
The change in transportation was even more remarkable. Internal combustion engines running on gasoline or diesel fuel revolutionized transportation. Cars quickly grabbed the lion’s share of local and regional travel and began to eat into long distance passenger travel, just as the railroads had done to passenger traffic by water in the 1830s. Even before the First World War cities had begun passing laws to regulate and limit “jitney” services and to protect the investments in urban rail mass transit. Trucking began eating into the freight carried by the railroads.
These developments brought about changes in the energy industries. Coal mining became a declining industry. As Figure 11 shows, in 1925 the share of petroleum in the value of coal, gas, and petroleum output exceeded bituminous coal, and it continued to rise. Anthracite coal’s share was much smaller and it declined while natural gas and LP (or liquefied petroleum) gas were relatively unimportant. These changes, especially the declining coal industry, were the source of considerable worry in the twenties.
One of the industries considered to be “sick” in the twenties was coal, particularly bituminous, or soft, coal. Income in the industry declined, and bankruptcies were frequent. Strikes frequently interrupted production. The majority of the miners “lived in squalid and unsanitary houses, and the incidence of accidents and diseases was high.” (Soule, 1947) The number of operating bituminous coal mines declined sharply from 1923 through 1932. Anthracite (or hard) coal output was much smaller during the twenties. Real coal prices rose from 1919 to 1922, and bituminous coal prices fell sharply from then to 1925. (Figure 12) Coal mining employment plummeted during the twenties. Annual earnings, especially in bituminous coal mining, also fell because of dwindling hourly earnings and, from 1929 on, a shrinking workweek. (Figure 13)
The sources of these changes are to be found in the increasing supply due to productivity advances in coal production and in the decreasing demand for coal. The demand fell as industries began turning from coal to electricity and because of productivity advances in the use of coal to create energy in steel, railroads, and electric utilities. (Keller, 1973) In the generation of electricity, larger steam plants employing higher temperatures and steam pressures continued to reduce coal consumption per kilowatt hour. Similar reductions were found in the production of coke from coal for iron and steel production and in the use of coal by the steam railroad engines. (Rezneck, 1951) All of these factors reduced the demand for coal.
Productivity advances in coal mining tended to be labor saving. Mechanical cutting accounted for 60.7 percent of the coal mined in 1920 and 78.4 percent in 1929. By the middle of the twenties, the mechanical loading of coal began to be introduced. Between 1929 and 1939, output per labor-hour rose nearly one third in bituminous coal mining and nearly four fifths in anthracite as more mines adopted machine mining and mechanical loading and strip mining expanded.
The increasing supply and falling demand for coal led to the closure of mines that were too costly to operate. A mine could simply cease operations, let the equipment stand idle, and lay off employees. When bankruptcies occurred, the mines generally just turned up under new ownership with lower capital charges. When demand increased or strikes reduced the supply of coal, idle mines simply resumed production. As a result, the easily expanded supply largely eliminated economic profits.
The average daily employment in coal mining dropped by over 208,000 from its peak in 1923, but the sharply falling real wages suggests that the supply of labor did not fall as rapidly as the demand for labor. Soule (1947) notes that when employment fell in coal mining, it meant fewer days of work for the same number of men. Social and cultural characteristics tended to tie many to their home region. The local alternatives were few, and ignorance of alternatives outside the Appalachian rural areas, where most bituminous coal was mined, made it very costly to transfer out.
In contrast to the coal industry, the petroleum industry was growing throughout the interwar period. By the thirties, crude petroleum dominated the real value of the production of energy materials. As Figure 14 shows, the production of crude petroleum increased sharply between 1920 and 1930, while real petroleum prices, though highly variable, tended to decline.
The growing demand for petroleum was driven by the growth in demand for gasoline as America became a motorized society. The production of gasoline surpassed kerosene production in 1915. Kerosene’s market continued to contract as electric lighting replaced kerosene lighting. The development of oil burners in the twenties began a switch from coal toward fuel oil for home heating, and this further increased the growing demand for petroleum. The growth in the demand for fuel oil and diesel fuel for ship engines also increased petroleum demand. But it was the growth in the demand for gasoline that drove the petroleum market.
The decline in real prices in the latter part of the twenties shows that supply was growing even faster than demand. The discovery of new fields in the early twenties increased the supply of petroleum and led to falling prices as production capacity grew. The Santa Fe Springs, California strike in 1919 initiated a supply shock as did the discovery of the Long Beach, California field in 1921. New discoveries in Powell, Texas and Smackover Arkansas further increased the supply of petroleum in 1921. New supply increases occurred in 1926 to 1928 with petroleum strikes in Seminole, Oklahoma and Hendricks, Texas. The supply of oil increased sharply in 1930 to 1931 with new discoveries in Oklahoma City and East Texas. Each new discovery pushed down real oil prices, and the prices of petroleum derivatives, and the growing production capacity led to a general declining trend in petroleum prices. McMillin and Parker (1994) argue that supply shocks generated by these new discoveries were a factor in the business cycles during the 1920s.
The supply of gasoline increased more than the supply of crude petroleum. In 1913 a chemist at Standard Oil of Indiana introduced the cracking process to refine crude petroleum; until that time it had been refined by distillation or unpressurized heating. In the heating process, various refined products such as kerosene, gasoline, naphtha, and lubricating oils were produced at different temperatures. It was difficult to vary the amount of the different refined products produced from a barrel of crude. The cracking process used pressurized heating to break heavier components down into lighter crude derivatives; with cracking, it was possible to increase the amount of gasoline obtained from a barrel of crude from 15 to 45 percent. In the early twenties, chemists at Standard Oil of New Jersey improved the cracking process, and by 1927 it was possible to obtain twice as much gasoline from a barrel of crude petroleum as in 1917.
The petroleum companies also developed new ways to distribute gasoline to motorists that made it more convenient to purchase gasoline. Prior to the First World War, gasoline was commonly purchased in one- or five-gallon cans and the purchaser used a funnel to pour the gasoline from the can into the car. Then “filling stations” appeared, which specialized in filling cars’ tanks with gasoline. These spread rapidly, and by 1919 gasoline companies werebeginning to introduce their own filling stations or contract with independent stations to exclusively distribute their gasoline. Increasing competition and falling profits led filling station operators to expand into other activities such as oil changes and other mechanical repairs. The general name attached to such stations gradually changed to “service stations” to reflect these new functions.
Though the petroleum firms tended to be large, they were highly competitive, trying to pump as much petroleum as possible to increase their share of the fields. This, combined with the development of new fields, led to an industry with highly volatile prices and output. Firms desperately wanted to stabilize and reduce the production of crude petroleum so as to stabilize and raise the prices of crude petroleum and refined products. Unable to obtain voluntary agreement on output limitations by the firms and producers, governments began stepping in. Led by Texas, which created the Texas Railroad Commission in 1891, oil-producing states began to intervene to regulate production. Such laws were usually termed prorationing laws and were quotas designed to limit each well’s output to some fraction of its potential. The purpose was as much to stabilize and reduce production and raise prices as anything else, although generally such laws were passed under the guise of conservation. Although the federal government supported such attempts, not until the New Deal were federal laws passed to assist this.
By the mid 1890s the debate over the method by which electricity was to be transmitted had been won by those who advocated alternating current. The reduced power losses and greater distance over which electricity could be transmitted more than offset the necessity for transforming the current back to direct current for general use. Widespread adoption of machines and appliances by industry and consumers then rested on an increase in the array of products using electricity as the source of power, heat, or light and the development of an efficient, lower cost method of generating electricity.
General Electric, Westinghouse, and other firms began producing the electrical appliances for homes and an increasing number of machines based on electricity began to appear in industry. The problem of lower cost production was solved by the introduction of centralized generating facilities that distributed the electric power through lines to many consumers and business firms.
Though initially several firms competed in generating and selling electricity to consumers and firms in a city or area, by the First World War many states and communities were awarding exclusive franchises to one firm to generate and distribute electricity to the customers in the franchise area. (Bright, 1947; Passer, 1953) The electric utility industry became an important growth industry and, as Figure 15 shows, electricity production and use grew rapidly.
The electric utilities increasingly were regulated by state commissions that were charged with setting rates so that the utilities could receive a “fair return” on their investments. Disagreements over what constituted a “fair return” and the calculation of the rate base led to a steady stream of cases before the commissions and a continuing series of court appeals. Generally these court decisions favored the reproduction cost basis. Because of the difficulty and cost in making these calculations, rates tended to be in the hands of the electric utilities that, it has been suggested, did not lower rates adequately to reflect the rising productivity and lowered costs of production. The utilities argued that a more rapid lowering of rates would have jeopardized their profits. Whether or not this increased their monopoly power is still an open question, but it should be noted, that electric utilities were hardly price-taking industries prior to regulation. (Mercer, 1973) In fact, as Figure 16 shows, the electric utilities began to systematically practice market segmentation charging users with less elastic demands, higher prices per kilowatt-hour.
Energy in the American Economy of the 1920s
The changes in the energy industries had far-reaching consequences. The coal industry faced a continuing decline in demand. Even in the growing petroleum industry, the periodic surges in the supply of petroleum caused great instability. In manufacturing, as described above, electrification contributed to a remarkable rise in productivity. The transportation revolution brought about by the rise of gasoline-powered trucks and cars changed the way businesses received their supplies and distributed their production as well as where they were located. The suburbanization of America and the beginnings of urban sprawl were largely brought about by the introduction of low-priced gasoline for cars.
The American economy was forever altered by the dramatic changes in transportation after 1900. Following Henry Ford’s introduction of the moving assembly production line in 1914, automobile prices plummeted, and by the end of the 1920s about 60 percent of American families owned an automobile. The advent of low-cost personal transportation led to an accelerating movement of population out of the crowded cities to more spacious homes in the suburbs and the automobile set off a decline in intracity public passenger transportation that has yet to end. Massive road-building programs facilitated the intercity movement of people and goods. Trucks increasingly took over the movement of freight in competition with the railroads. New industries, such as gasoline service stations, motor hotels, and the rubber tire industry, arose to service the automobile and truck traffic. These developments were complicated by the turmoil caused by changes in the federal government’s policies toward transportation in the United States.
With the end of the First World War, a debate began as to whether the railroads, which had been taken over by the government, should be returned to private ownership or nationalized. The voices calling for a return to private ownership were much stronger, but doing so fomented great controversy. Many in Congress believed that careful planning and consolidation could restore the railroads and make them more efficient. There was continued concern about the near monopoly that the railroads had on the nation’s intercity freight and passenger transportation. The result of these deliberations was the Transportation Act of 1920, which was premised on the continued domination of the nation’s transportation by the railroads—an erroneous presumption.
The Transportation Act of 1920 presented a marked change in the Interstate Commerce Commission’s ability to control railroads. The ICC was allowed to prescribe exact rates that were to be set so as to allow the railroads to earn a fair return, defined as 5.5 percent, on the fair value of their property. The ICC was authorized to make an accounting of the fair value of each regulated railroad’s property; however, this was not completed until well into the 1930s, by which time the accounting and rate rules were out of date. To maintain fair competition between railroads in a region, all roads were to have the same rates for the same goods over the same distance. With the same rates, low-cost roads should have been able to earn higher rates of return than high-cost roads. To handle this, a recapture clause was inserted: any railroad earning a return of more than 6 percent on the fair value of its property was to turn the excess over to the ICC, which would place half of the money in a contingency fund for the railroad when it encountered financial problems and the other half in a contingency fund to provide loans to other railroads in need of assistance.
In order to address the problem of weak and strong railroads and to bring better coordination to the movement of rail traffic in the United States, the act was directed to encourage railroad consolidation, but little came of this in the 1920s. In order to facilitate its control of the railroads, the ICC was given two additional powers. The first was the control over the issuance or purchase of securities by railroads, and the second was the power to control changes in railroad service through the control of car supply and the extension and abandonment of track. The control of the supply of rail cars was turned over to the Association of American Railroads. Few extensions of track were proposed, but as time passed, abandonment requests grew. The ICC, however, trying to mediate between the conflicting demands of shippers, communities and railroads, generally refused to grant abandonments, and this became an extremely sensitive issue in the 1930s.
As indicated above, the premises of the Transportation Act of 1920 were wrong. Railroads experienced increasing competition during the 1920s, and both freight and passenger traffic were drawn off to competing transport forms. Passenger traffic exited from the railroads much more quickly. As the network of all weather surfaced roads increased, people quickly turned from the train to the car. Harmed even more by the move to automobile traffic were the electric interurban railways that had grown rapidly just prior to the First World War. (Hilton-Due, 1960) Not surprisingly, during the 1920s few railroads earned profits in excess of the fair rate of return.
The use of trucks to deliver freight began shortly after the turn of the century. Before the outbreak of war in Europe, White and Mack were producing trucks with as much as 7.5 tons of carrying capacity. Most of the truck freight was carried on a local basis, and it largely supplemented the longer distance freight transportation provided by the railroads. However, truck size was growing. In 1915 Trailmobile introduced the first four-wheel trailer designed to be pulled by a truck tractor unit. During the First World War, thousands of trucks were constructed for military purposes, and truck convoys showed that long distance truck travel was feasible and economical. The use of trucks to haul freight had been growing by over 18 percent per year since 1925, so that by 1929 intercity trucking accounted for more than one percent of the ton-miles of freight hauled.
The railroads argued that the trucks and buses provided “unfair” competition and believed that if they were also regulated, then the regulation could equalize the conditions under which they competed. As early as 1925, the National Association of Railroad and Utilities Commissioners issued a call for the regulation of motor carriers in general. In 1928 the ICC called for federal regulation of buses and in 1932 extended this call to federal regulation of trucks.
Most states had began regulating buses at the beginning of the 1920s in an attempt to reduce the diversion of urban passenger traffic from the electric trolley and railway systems. However, most of the regulation did not aim to control intercity passenger traffic by buses. As the network of surfaced roads expanded during the twenties, so did the routes of the intercity buses. In 1929 a number of smaller bus companies were incorporated in the Greyhound Buslines, the carrier that has since dominated intercity bus transportation. (Walsh, 2000)
A complaint of the railroads was that interstate trucking competition was unfair because it was subsidized while railroads were not. All railroad property was privately owned and subject to property taxes, whereas truckers used the existing road system and therefore neither had to bear the costs of creating the road system nor pay taxes upon it. Beginning with the Federal Road-Aid Act of 1916, small amounts of money were provided as an incentive for states to construct rural post roads. (Dearing-Owen, 1949) However, through the First World War most of the funds for highway construction came from a combination of levies on the adjacent property owners and county and state taxes. The monies raised by the counties were commonly 60 percent of the total funds allocated, and these primarily came from property taxes. In 1919 Oregon pioneered the state gasoline tax, which then began to be adopted by more and more states. A highway system financed by property taxes and other levies can be construed as a subsidization of motor vehicles, and one study for the period up to 1920 found evidence of substantial subsidization of trucking. (Herbst-Wu, 1973) However, the use of gasoline taxes moved closer to the goal of users paying the costs of the highways. Neither did the trucks have to pay for all of the highway construction because automobiles jointly used the highways. Highways had to be constructed in more costly ways in order to accommodate the larger and heavier trucks. Ideally the gasoline taxes collected from trucks should have covered the extra (or marginal) costs of highway construction incurred because of the truck traffic. Gasoline taxes tended to do this.
The American economy occupies a vast geographic region. Because economic activity occurs over most of the country, falling transportation costs have been crucial to knitting American firms and consumers into a unified market. Throughout the nineteenth century the railroads played this crucial role. Because of the size of the railroad companies and their importance in the economic life of Americans, the federal government began to regulate them. But, by 1917 it appeared that the railroad system had achieved some stability, and it was generally assumed that the post-First World War era would be an extension of the era from 1900 to 1917. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Spurred by public investments in highways, cars and trucks voraciously ate into the railroad’s market, and, though the regulators failed to understand this at the time, the railroad’s monopoly on transportation quickly disappeared.
Communications had joined with transportation developments in the nineteenth century to tie the American economy together more completely. The telegraph had benefited by using the railroads’ right-of-ways, and the railroads used the telegraph to coordinate and organize their far-flung activities. As the cost of communications fell and information transfers sped, the development of firms with multiple plants at distant locations was facilitated. The interwar era saw a continuation of these developments as the telephone continued to supplant the telegraph and the new medium of radio arose to transmit news and provide a new entertainment source.
Telegraph domination of business and personal communications had given way to the telephone as long distance telephone calls between the east and west coasts with the new electronic amplifiers became possible in 1915. The number of telegraph messages handled grew 60.4 percent in the twenties. The number of local telephone conversations grew 46.8 percent between 1920 and 1930, while the number of long distance conversations grew 71.8 percent over the same period. There were 5 times as many long distance telephone calls as telegraph messages handled in 1920, and 5.7 times as many in 1930.
The twenties were a prosperous period for AT&T and its 18 major operating companies. (Brooks, 1975; Temin, 1987; Garnet, 1985; Lipartito, 1989) Telephone usage rose and, as Figure 19 shows, the share of all households with a telephone rose from 35 percent to nearly 42 percent. In cities across the nation, AT&T consolidated its system, gained control of many operating companies, and virtually eliminated its competitors. It was able to do this because in 1921 Congress passed the Graham Act exempting AT&T from the Sherman Act in consolidating competing telephone companies. By 1940, the non-Bell operating companies were all small relative to the Bell operating companies.
Surprisingly there was a decline in telephone use on the farms during the twenties. (Hadwiger-Cochran, 1984; Fischer 1987) Rising telephone rates explain part of the decline in rural use. The imposition of connection fees during the First World War made it more costly for new farmers to hook up. As AT&T gained control of more and more operating systems, telephone rates were increased. AT&T also began requiring, as a condition of interconnection, that independent companies upgrade their systems to meet AT&T standards. Most of the small mutual companies that had provided service to farmers had operated on a shoestring—wires were often strung along fenceposts, and phones were inexpensive “whoop and holler” magneto units. Upgrading to AT&T’s standards raised costs, forcing these companies to raise rates.
However, it also seems likely that during the 1920s there was a general decline in the rural demand for telephone services. One important factor in this was the dramatic decline in farm incomes in the early twenties. The second reason was a change in the farmers’ environment. Prior to the First World War, the telephone eased farm isolation and provided news and weather information that was otherwise hard to obtain. After 1920 automobiles, surfaced roads, movies, and the radio loosened the isolation and the telephone was no longer as crucial.
Othmar Merganthaler’s development of the linotype machine in the late nineteenth century had irrevocably altered printing and publishing. This machine, which quickly created a line of soft, lead-based metal type that could be printed, melted down and then recast as a new line of type, dramatically lowered the costs of printing. Previously, all type had to be painstakingly set by hand, with individual cast letter matrices picked out from compartments in drawers to construct words, lines, and paragraphs. After printing, each line of type on the page had to be broken down and each individual letter matrix placed back into its compartment in its drawer for use in the next printing job. Newspapers often were not published every day and did not contain many pages, resulting in many newspapers in most cities. In contrast to this laborious process, the linotype used a keyboard upon which the operator typed the words in one of the lines in a news column. Matrices for each letter dropped down from a magazine of matrices as the operator typed each letter and were assembled into a line of type with automatic spacers to justify the line (fill out the column width). When the line was completed the machine mechanically cast the line of matrices into a line of lead type. The line of lead type was ejected into a tray and the letter matrices mechanically returned to the magazine while the operator continued typing the next line in the news story. The first Merganthaler linotype machine was installed in the New York Tribune in 1886. The linotype machine dramatically lowered the costs of printing newspapers (as well as books and magazines). Prior to the linotype a typical newspaper averaged no more than 11 pages and many were published only a few times a week. The linotype machine allowed newspapers to grow in size and they began to be published more regularly. A process of consolidation of daily and Sunday newspapers began that continues to this day. Many have termed the Merganthaler linotype machine the most significant printing invention since the introduction of movable type 400 years earlier.
For city families as well as farm families, radio became the new source of news and entertainment. (Barnouw, 1966; Rosen, 1980 and 1987; Chester-Garrison, 1950) It soon took over as the prime advertising medium and in the process revolutionized advertising. By 1930 more homes had radio sets than had telephones. The radio networks sent news and entertainment broadcasts all over the country. The isolation of rural life, particularly in many areas of the plains, was forever broken by the intrusion of the “black box,” as radio receivers were often called. The radio began a process of breaking down regionalism and creating a common culture in the United States.
The potential demand for radio became clear with the first regular broadcast of Westinghouse’s KDKA in Pittsburgh in the fall of 1920. Because the Department of Commerce could not deny a license application there was an explosion of stations all broadcasting at the same frequency and signal jamming and interference became a serious problem. By 1923 the Department of Commerce had gained control of radio from the Post Office and the Navy and began to arbitrarily disperse stations on the radio dial and deny licenses creating the first market in commercial broadcast licenses. In 1926 a U.S. District Court decided that under the Radio Law of 1912 Herbert Hoover, the secretary of commerce, did not have this power. New stations appeared and the logjam and interference of signals worsened. A Radio Act was passed in January of 1927 creating the Federal Radio Commission (FRC) as a temporary licensing authority. Licenses were to be issued in the public interest, convenience, and necessity. A number of broadcasting licenses were revoked; stations were assigned frequencies, dial locations, and power levels. The FRC created 24 clear-channel stations with as much as 50,000 watts of broadcasting power, of which 21 ended up being affiliated with the new national radio networks. The Communications Act of 1934 essentially repeated the 1927 act except that it created a permanent, seven-person Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
Local stations initially created and broadcast the radio programs. The expenses were modest, and stores and companies operating radio stations wrote this off as indirect, goodwill advertising. Several forces changed all this. In 1922, AT&T opened up a radio station in New York City, WEAF (later to become WNBC). AT&T envisioned this station as the center of a radio toll system where individuals could purchase time to broadcast a message transmitted to other stations in the toll network using AT&T’s long distance lines and an August 1922 broadcast by a Long Island realty company became the first conscious use of direct advertising.
Though advertising continued to be condemned, the fiscal pressures on radio stations to accept advertising began rising. In 1923 the American Society of Composers and Publishers (ASCAP), began demanding a performance fee anytime ASCAP-copyrighted music was performed on the radio, either live or on record. By 1924 the issue was settled, and most stations began paying performance fees to ASCAP. AT&T decided that all stations broadcasting with non AT&T transmitters were violating their patent rights and began asking for annual fees from such stations based on the station’s power. By the end of 1924, most stations were paying the fees. All of this drained the coffers of the radio stations, and more and more of them began discreetly accepting advertising.
RCA became upset at AT&T’s creation of a chain of radio stations and set up its own toll network using the inferior lines of Western Union and Postal Telegraph, because AT&T, not surprisingly, did not allow any toll (or network) broadcasting on its lines except by its own stations. AT&T began to worry that its actions might threaten its federal monopoly in long distance telephone communications. In 1926 a new firm was created, the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), which took over all broadcasting activities from AT&T and RCA as AT&T left broadcasting. When NBC debuted in November of 1926, it had two networks: the Red, which was the old AT&T network, and the Blue, which was the old RCA network. Radio networks allowed advertisers to direct advertising at a national audience at a lower cost. Network programs allowed local stations to broadcast superior programs that captured a larger listening audience and in return received a share of the fees the national advertiser paid to the network. In 1927 a new network, the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) financed by the Paley family began operation and other new networks entered or tried to enter the industry in the 1930s.
Communications developments in the interwar era present something of a mixed picture. By 1920 long distance telephone service was in place, but rising rates slowed the rate of adoption in the period, and telephone use in rural areas declined sharply. Though direct dialing was first tried in the twenties, its general implementation would not come until the postwar era, when other changes, such as microwave transmission of signals and touch-tone dialing, would also appear. Though the number of newspapers declined, newspaper circulation generally held up. The number of competing newspapers in larger cities began declining, a trend that also would accelerate in the postwar American economy.
Banking and Securities Markets
In the twenties commercial banks became “department stores of finance.”— Banks opened up installment (or personal) loan departments, expanded their mortgage lending, opened up trust departments, undertook securities underwriting activities, and offered safe deposit boxes. These changes were a response to growing competition from other financial intermediaries. Businesses, stung by bankers’ control and reduced lending during the 1920-21 depression, began relying more on retained earnings and stock and bond issues to raise investment and, sometimes, working capital. This reduced loan demand. The thrift institutions also experienced good growth in the twenties as they helped fuel the housing construction boom of the decade. The securities markets boomed in the twenties only to see a dramatic crash of the stock market in late 1929.
There were two broad classes of commercial banks; those that were nationally chartered and those that were chartered by the states. Only the national banks were required to be members of the Federal Reserve System. (Figure 21) Most banks were unit banks because national regulators and most state regulators prohibited branching. However, in the twenties a few states began to permit limited branching; California even allowed statewide branching.—The Federal Reserve member banks held the bulk of the assets of all commercial banks, even though most banks were not members. A high bank failure rate in the 1920s has usually been explained by “overbanking” or too many banks located in an area, but H. Thomas Johnson (1973-74) makes a strong argument against this. (Figure 22)— If there were overbanking, on average each bank would have been underutilized resulting in intense competition for deposits and higher costs and lower earnings. One common reason would have been the free entry of banks as long as they achieved the minimum requirements then in force. However, the twenties saw changes that led to the demise of many smaller rural banks that would likely have been profitable if these —changes had not occurred. Improved transportation led to a movement of business activities, including banking, into the larger towns and cities. Rural banks that relied on loans to farmers suffered just as farmers did during the twenties, especially in the first half of the twenties. The number of bank suspensions and the suspension rate fell after 1926. The sharp rise in bank suspensions in 1930 occurred because of the first banking crisis during the Great Depression.
Prior to the twenties, the main assets of commercial banks were short-term business loans, made by creating a demand deposit or increasing an existing one for a borrowing firm. As business lending declined in the 1920s commercial banks vigorously moved into new types of financial activities. As banks purchased more securities for their earning asset portfolios and gained expertise in the securities markets, larger ones established investment departments and by the late twenties were an important force in the underwriting of new securities issued by nonfinancial corporations.
The securities market exhibited perhaps the most dramatic growth of the noncommercial bank financial intermediaries during the twenties, but others also grew rapidly. (Figure 23) The assets of life insurance companies increased by 10 percent a year from 1921 to 1929; by the late twenties they were a very important source of funds for construction investment. Mutual savings banks and savings and loan associations (thrifts) operated in essentially the same types of markets. The Mutual savings banks were concentrated in the northeastern United States. As incomes rose, personal savings increased, and housing construction expanded in the twenties, there was an increasing demand for the thrifts’ interest earning time deposits and mortgage lending.
But the dramatic expansion in the financial sector came in new corporate securities issues in the twenties—especially common and preferred stock—and in the trading of existing shares of those securities. (Figure 24) The late twenties boom in the American economy was rapid, highly visible, and dramatic. Skyscrapers were being erected in most major cities, the automobile manufacturers produced over four and a half million new cars in 1929; and the stock market, like a barometer of this prosperity, was on a dizzying ride to higher and higher prices. “Playing the market” seemed to become a national pastime.
The Dow-Jones index hit its peak of 381 on September 3 and then slid to 320 on October 21. In the following week the stock market “crashed,” with a record number of shares being traded on several days. At the end of Tuesday, October, 29th, the index stood at 230, 96 points less than one week before. On November 13, 1929, the Dow-Jones index reached its lowest point for the year at 198—183 points less than the September 3 peak.
The path of the stock market boom of the twenties can be seen in Figure 25. Sharp price breaks occurred several times during the boom, and each of these gave rise to dark predictions of the end of the bull market and speculation. Until late October of 1929, these predictions turned out to be wrong. Between those price breaks and prior to the October crash, stock prices continued to surge upward. In March of 1928, 3,875,910 shares were traded in one day, establishing a record. By late 1928, five million shares being traded in a day was a common occurrence.
New securities, from rising merger activity and the formation of holding companies, were issued to take advantage of the rising stock prices.—Stock pools, which were not illegal until the 1934 Securities and Exchange Act, took advantage of the boom to temporarily drive up the price of selected stocks and reap large gains for the members of the pool. In stock pools a group of speculators would pool large amounts of their funds and then begin purchasing large amounts of shares of a stock. This increased demand led to rising prices for that stock. Frequently pool insiders would “churn” the stock by repeatedly buying and selling the same shares among themselves, but at rising prices. Outsiders, seeing the price rising, would decide to purchase the stock whose price was rising. At a predetermined higher price the pool members would, within a short period, sell their shares and pull out of the market for that stock. Without the additional demand from the pool, the stock’s price usually fell quickly bringing large losses for the unsuspecting outside investors while reaping large gains for the pool insiders.
The Culture of the 1920s in America Essay
1707 Words7 Pages
The 1920s, often referred to as the Roaring Twenties, was a time of great change and a time of powerful enthusiasm in many areas of society. The world had just finished the biggest war in history, the First World War, and the United States was left almost unharmed by the war. The United States was able to experience a decade of peace and success following the war. During this decade, America became the wealthiest country in the world (Trueman, 2000). The people in the United States went through a colorful period during the twenties. However, at the same time the 1920s was also a very rebellious and difficult time for many. The culture of the 1920s has influenced the culture of America’s society today.
Overview of the 1920s “The decade of…show more content…
Technology played a vital part in helping America become the great economic and cultural success that it was during the 1920s. New advancements, new discoveries, and new inventions improved American lives in every imaginable way but not without a few negative side-effects. As mentioned earlier, the automobile really came into play during the 1920s by making traveling a common thing for anyone who could afford a car (Trueman, 2000). Henry Ford started the Ford Motor Company, which began to mass produce affordable automobiles known as the Model-T. Ford's Model-T car became such an irresistible success that by the end of the decade, there was almost one car per family in the United States (Bruce, 1981). The automobile seemed to give people a type of new freedom, but the automobile also proved to be a dangerous item in the hands of many irresponsible people who loved to drink during the 1920s. The washing machine, telephone, and radio made their arrival during the twenties. People were discovering life to be far easier than the previous generations because of technology, but they were also slowly being driven into an industrial nation. People were lured