Tales of the 20s told at Porter Library
The 1920s may often bring to mind flappers, Tommy guns and the Prohibition but, as Michael Goldstein explained to a packed house on Oct. 24, it was also a period of cultural and economic progress.
Goldstein, a history instructor at Cuyahoga Community College, gave a 90-minute lecture about the “Roaring 20s” at Westlake Porter Public Library, peppered with local tales and musical interludes.
In the decade preceding the Great Depression, Cleveland – along with the rest of the nation – underwent a cultural awakening bolstered by a strong economy. Employment was high, wages were rising and a middle class was rapidly growing. Women were enjoying greater freedom, thanks to the 19th Amendment granting them the right to vote, as well as affordable amenities that reduced their housework load. By decade’s end, nearly 65% of homes had electricity, and many had refrigerators, vacuum cleaners and cars.
Cleveland’s cultural boom brought construction of the city’s public library, art museum, Institute of Music, Severance Hall and the Palace and Hanna theaters. Interurban railways were crisscrossing the region and the Terminal Tower was erected downtown. The first “talkie” movie shorts were delighting audiences across the country.
Equipped with a saxophone, recorder and bassoon, Goldstein played selections from some of the decade’s popular songs. Toes were tapping to the sounds of “Ain’t She Sweet,” “Camptown Races” and “Sweet Georgia Brown.”
Goldstein also discussed the nation’s growing pains as religious and ethnic minority groups gained prominence. Labor strikes, gangsters and an increased mixing of nationalities fed a simmering anti-immigrant sentiment and led to a revival of the Ku Klux Klan, primarily in the South. Many states enacted laws to restrict immigration and promote “American” ideals. One such law – Oregon’s Compulsory Education Act of 1922 – aimed to eradicate Catholic schools, which some viewed as teaching non-American values. The law was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in the landmark Pierce v. Society of Sisters case.
A few years later, however, Al Smith became the first non-Protestant to win a major party’s presidential nomination. Smith, a Catholic from New York, was popular with anti-Prohibition voters, but lost the 1928 election to Herbert Hoover.
As the 1920s came to a close, ominous signs of a looming economic crisis began to surface. Goldstein reported that more than 2,200 Ohio farms faced foreclosure in 1927, and 50 Ohio banks failed. At least six leading economists predicted a market crash in the near future. The cultural, economic and infrastructure expansion of the 1920s came to a sharp halt with the Wall Street Crash of 1929, sending the country into a Great Depression that would last throughout the next decade.