The Roaring 20s: A Time of Massive Economic Expansion

Remembering the Roaring 20s -

A Skeptic’s View of American History

Episode 16 The Roaring 20s Reconsidered

Mark Stoler PhD

Film Review

In one of Stoler’s better lectures, he describes the 1920s as a time of major economic expansion. During this period, the US experienced an explosion in industrial productivity, thanks to “scientific” factory management, a consolidation of commercial enterprises (eg creation of grocery and department store chains) and a shift from heavy industry to consumer goods (thanks to an expanding electrical grid).

Henry Ford made the automobile a consumer item, using an assembly line to cut the cost of production and enabling workers to buy their own Fords by paying them an unprecedented $5 a day. The explosion of new consumer products was accompanied by a surge in advertising that played on people’s psychological desires to get them to purchase products they couldn’t afford and didn’t need. (See about Edward Bernays, the father of the public relations industry.

According to Stoler the car became a focal point of the US economy, leading to a surge in demand for steel, rubber, electronics, concrete and roadside restaurants.

A crisis in agriculture also led to a rise in urbanization, with city dwellers outnumbering rural residents for the first time in US history.The industrialization of farming created a food surplus and drop in income for individual farmers.

The new mass media (radio and motion pictures) helped spread the new culture of urbanization.

Stoler mainly examines the presidency of Warren G Harding, who only served two years between 1921-23,* with only a brief glance at Coolidge and Hoover, who succeeded him. All three were Republicans.

Harding, who is remembered as one of the second most corrupt presidents owing to the Teapot Dome scandal, is also remembered as the first president to present Congress with a coherent federal budget.

Significant treaties and legislation approved during this period include

  • The National Origins Act, which (until the 1960s) totally excluded Asia immigration, and set severe quotas for eastern and southern European immigrants.**
  • The Dawes Plan (1924), which ended the diplomatic crisis with Germany (which had defaulted on its reparations payments) by arranging for private loans to the German government and negotiating a new reparations schedule.
  • The Kellogg-Briand Pact (1928) outlawed war as an instrument of US of foreign policy.
  • The London Naval Arms Limitation Treaty (1930)

The 1920s also witnessed

  • The rise of a new Klu Klux Klan, attracting 3-5 million members (including many Northerners) in response to the migration of Southern blacks to Northern industrial cities. The new KKK would focus their attacks on Jews, Catholics and immigrants, as well as African Americans.
  • The start of Prohibition (the 18th Amendment approved in 1919 outlawed the production and sale of alcohol)
  • The granting of women’s voting rights ( in 1920 via the 19th Amendment)
  • The framing and execution of Italian immigrants Sacco and Vanzetti (1921-27)

*Stoler defines cities as towns of over 2,500 people.

**Teapot Dome, which was the second biggest presidential scandal after Watergate, involved the secret leasing by the Harding administration of federal oil reserves at Elk Hills, California, and Teapot Dome, Wyoming.

The film can be viewed free on Kanopy.

The History of Advertising

Sell and Spin: A History of Advertising

Produced by Rob Blumenstein (1999)

Film Review

Sell and Spin details the history of advertising, which apparently dates back 3,000 years to a wine ad painted on a wall in ancient Babylon. The documentary’s only weakness is its omission of the important role Edward Bernays, the father of the public relations industry played in incorporating psychological persuasion into advertising (see Edward Bernays: The Father of Water Fluoridation).

In Europe, advertising took a giant leap forward with the invention of the Guttenberg printing press in 1548 and a significant increase in literacy. The first printed ad appeared in 1580 – to promote the sale of books.

Newspapers, the first mass media, contained no ads when they first appeared in England in the early seventeenth century. The first newspaper ads appeared in 1625, alerting readers to the availability of various advertisers’ products. In the US, the first newspaper ad in appeared in the Boston News-Letter in 1704. In 1728, Benjamin Franklin was the first publisher to use images in newspaper ads in the Philadelphia Gazette.

Volney E Palmer created the first advertising agency in 1842. He worked solely for newspaper publishers, helping them find advertisers.

Magazines first accepted advertising after the Civil War. In 1883 the Ladies Home Journal was created as a vehicle for ads aimed at housewives.

In 1869 Wayland Ayer created the first full service advertising agency, writing copy as well as selling ads. Before long, “every orifice of the body was taken over by advertising,” as corporations invented fictitious illnesses and products to cure them. BO (body odor) was invented in 1919 to sell Odorono and halitosis in the 1920s to sell Listerine.

The first radio program was broadcast in 1920, announcing that Harding had won the US presidency. Although most European governments assumed responsibility for broadcasting in the public interest, in the US the private corporations Westinghouse (CBS) and General Electric (NBC) controlled the first radio networks. The first radio ad appeared in 1922.

In 1946, the first TV program was broadcast, and by 1951 there were more than 5 million TVs around the world.

Beginning in the early sixties, advertising agencies began incorporating sophisticated psychological persuasion techniques in their TV ads. According to the filmmakers, this was mainly under the influence of George Gallup, the father of the public opinion poll. Gallup, whose primary focus was the science of persuasion, was ultimately responsible for the major role focus groups and other forms of market research play in product development.

When this documentary was filmed in 1999, Internet advertising was only five years old. Yet advertisers were already tracking us with “cookies” monitoring which websites we visited and to targeting us with specific ads.




War is a Racket

war is a racket

War is a Racket

by Major General Smedley Butler (1933)

Book Review

Published in 1933 by retired Marine Major General Smedley Butler, War is a Racket is a historic expose of the role of Wall Street profiteering in instigating war.

The book begins with the startling statistic that World War I created 21,000 new millionaires and billionaires. President Woodrow Wilson borrowed (from Wall Street banks) the $50+ billion to pay for World War I, increasing the national debt from $1 billion to $52 billion. Of this amount, $16 billion was pure profit. Butler lists specific companies, starting with Du Pont and US Steel, and the obscene profits they made from World War I.

He also deplores the systematic inefficiency and fraud that caused the War Department to pay two to three times the retail charge for equipment such as saddles and mosquito nets that had no possible use in a modern European war. This was on top of millions spent on poorly crafted wooden ships that sank when put to sea and airplanes that were technologically obsolete by the time they were delivered.

Wilson had been elected to his second term based on a campaign promise to keep the US out of the Great War. War is a Racket also discusses his secret White House meeting with a European commission that caused him to reverse himself. After informing Wilson the allies were losing the war, they warned that they couldn’t repay the $5-6 billion they owed American bankers, manufacturers and munitions makers if they were defeated.

Butler maintains the real reason the US entered the war was to protect these Wall Street interests. Obviously this isn’t what Wilson and his Committee on Public Information (run by Edward Bernays, the father of public relations) told the American people. They would be barraged with incessant propaganda about the Germans being monstrous barbarians and the Great War being the war to end all wars because it would make the world safe for democracy.


War is a Racket: free PDF

Major General Smedley Butler is best known for foiling the 1933 Bankers’ Putsch. This was a failed military coup, instigated by America’s leading bankers and industrialists, to remove Roosevelt from office and replace him with a Mussolini-style dictatorship. Butler, who was recruited to lead the coup, blew the whistle to the House McCormick-Dirkson Committee. They responded by launching a cover-up. Details of the Bankers’ Putsch only became public knowledge in 1967, when journalist John Spivac uncovered the committee’s secret notes.

Marketing Politicians Through Social Engineering


The Century of the Self is a four part BBC documentary that delves deeply into the work of Edward Bernays, commonly known as the father of public relations. Parts 3 and 4 explore the glorification of selfish consumption after World War II and how Reagan, Thatcher, Clinton and Blair perfected the “politics of self” to win and hold power.

The Century of the Self

BBC Documentary (2005)

Film Review

Part 3 (There’s a Policeman Inside All Our Heads) and Part 4 (Eight People Sipping Wine in Kettering)

Link to Part 1 and 2

The Politics of Self

Following World War II, the CIA hired Sigmund Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays to advise them on controlling the “irrational aggression” of the masses. They were concerned that 49% of US soldiers evacuated from combat had to leave the battlefield for “emotional problems.” Today their condition would be diagnosed as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  In the mid-forties, the psychoanalysts who interviewed them diagnosed that they had unresolved conflicts related to their unconscious aggressive and sexual drives.

Convinced these problems were widespread among the greater population, in 1946 the Truman administration championed the passage of the Mental Health Act. The Act funded new guidance centers throughout the US to assist Americans to control and suppress their dangerous unconscious drives.

Meanwhile the public relations industry hired psychoanalysts to set up focus groups to use advertising more effectively to improve consumer demand for corporate products. These early focus groups employed psychoanalytic techniques to help advertisers improve sales by secretly appealing to unconscious needs and insecurities.

Students Opt for Self-Liberation

The anti-Vietnam War movement of the late sixties quickly morphed into a broader anti-capitalist movement that attacked corporations for corrupting government and brainwashing the public. This movement was strongly influenced by Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse, who had split with Sigmund and Anna Freud over their belief that unconscious aggressive and sexual drives had to be suppressed and controlled. Reich and Marcuse taught that it was repression itself that distorted unconscious aggressive and sexual drives and made them dangerous.

In 1970 the National Guard massacre of unarmed Kent State students in 1970 split in this anti-capitalist movement. For the most part middle class student supporters shifted their focus to “liberating” themselves rather than organizing for political change.

In addition to widespread experimentation with illicit drugs, this shift led to a surge of self-improvement initiatives and therapies, collectively called the Human Potential Movement.

Values and Lifestyle Marketing

Employing computer technology and psychologists trained in self-improvement techniques, the public relations industry adapted to this new individualism and preoccupation with self-expression with “values and lifestyle marketing.”

One of their main strategies was to blur the line between advertising and journalism by incorporating three key messages into news reporting: selfishness is good, the needs of individuals are more important than the needs of society and that only business can properly satisfy individual needs.

The Politics of Self

This deliberate promotion of selfishness and individualism cut across social classes and was a key factor in persuading blue collar voters to vote for Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher – and programs that significantly hurt their own economic interests.

Ultimately it was Bill Clinton and Tony Blair who perfected this new “politics of self” by incorporating focus groups and lifestyle marketing into their political campaigns. Their advisers convinced them that voters had to be regarded as consumers and that the secret to getting elected was by catering (i.e. pandering) to voters’ unconscious primitive selfish desires. It was a hell of a way to run government and would cause the Democrats to get the boot in 2000 and the Labour Party in 2010.

Animal Domestication and Capitalism

factory farm

In the past I have tended to dismiss the animal welfare movement as another “feel good” liberal cause that does little to redress human oppression and exploitation. I was wrong. A recent lecture by sociologist David Nibert from Wittenberg University has opened my eyes to the historical role of animal domestication in imperialistic wars, colonialism, genocide, and wealth inequality. Even more scary is the rapid spread of the meat-laden “western” diet, an invention of the public relations industry, to the developing world. There it continues to fuel untold violence and cruelty against the poor and disadvantaged, resource wars, and systematic degradation of the complex ecosystems that support human existence.

The title of Nibert’s talk, carried on Alternative Radio, is “The Animal Industrial Complex.” He isn’t being cute. This powerful institution has even more control over our daily lives than either the military or prison industrial complex.

Replacing Our Ancestors with Sheep

After reminding us of the plant-based, “original affluent” society that characterized most of human existence, Nibert traces the rise of the “western” meat-based diet across 10,000 years of human history. After causing thousands of years of European warfare, exploitation, and slavery in the 15th century animal domestication was foisted on the other continents. In South America it destroyed some of the world’ most advanced societies. Back in Europe, the need to provide sheep pasture was the chief rationale for the 18th century Enclosure Acts that drove most of our ancestors off their communal lands (see my review of Fred Harrison’s The Traumatised Society). According to Nibert, this massive expansion of “animal domesecration” was just as important as fossil fuels in the rise of the capitalist economic system.

The drive to clear new pasture to produce meat for global elites led to genocidal wars against native peoples in North and South America, Australia, and New Zealand.

The Socially Engineered Demand for Meat

In the 20th century Edward Bernays, the father of public relations, assisted the food industry in artificially inflating public demand for meat. After World War II, it culminated in what Nibert refers to as the “hamburger culture.”

In the sixties and seventies, corporate demand for new pasture led to US collaboration with right wing Central and South American dictatorships that systematically drove peasant farmers from their lands. Those who resisted were violently suppressed by US-trained troops and death squads, with US supplied bombers, gunships, and guns.

Animal Domestication and Influenza

Aside from the obesity, heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, animal domesecration poses an enormous public health threat, even for vegans and vegetarians who don’t eat meat. This stems from viral “zoonotic” illnesses that have spread to humans from chickens and pigs. Nibert reminds us that the 2009 H1N1 outbreak that killed nearly 285,000 people originated in factory farms in North Carolina. During the 20th century influenza pandemics (originating mainly from chickens and pigs) killed more than 50 million people.

Meanwhile, despite the major health and environmental problems caused by the western meat-based diet, demand for new pasture continues to force thousands of peasants from their land in Africa and South America. While desertification and water scarcity (caused by overgrazing) make food commodities and and shares in water companies the primo investment for banks and hedge fund managers.

Nibert finishes the interview with a critique of leftists who think they’re being political correct by only consuming local, free-range animal products:

“I applaud my friends for eating local plant-based foods but have to argue to them that the continued consumption of animal products is more harmful than they know. The reduction in ‘food miles’ from consuming local animal products is overshadowed by the energy and resources necessary for their production and refrigeration. And while the more affluent among us can afford the more expensive grass-fed products and thus avoid eating domesecrated animals plied with pesticides, antibiotics and hormones, the vast majority of people will continue to eat the cheapest fare that the Animal Industrial Complex can produce. And even if the world were more equitable, moral and environmental issues aside there simply is not enough land or water to “free range” the tens of billions of domesecrated animals necessary to meet the growing, socially engineered demand.”

The full presentation can be downloaded from Alternative Radio. A transcript is $3, an MP3 file $5.

Until Oct 25, you can listen to the interview free on line at KEXP 90.3 FM. Go to and click on “LAUNCH  PLAYER”

photo credit: Socially Responsible Agricultural Project via photopin cc