1910s: A Tumultuous Decade

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1910s: A Tumultuous Decade

The 1910s were a decade of great tumult and change in the United States. The decade began at a time of peace and prosperity. America found itself the richest nation in the world, thanks largely to the growth of huge companies that sold goods all over the world. The president, William Howard Taft (1857–1930), had succeeded Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919) as the leader of the Republican Party, which offered its support to American businesses. Many Americans enjoyed improved living standards, as more people owned cars and used electricity in their homes with every passing year.

Great disruptions soon came in politics, international affairs, and the economy, however. In the presidential elections of 1912, Roosevelt left the Republican Party to become the nominee of the Progressive Party, the first serious challenger to the two-party system in many years. He and Socialist Party candidate Eugene V. Debs (1855–1926) helped steal votes from Taft, which in turn led to the election of Democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924), a champion of progressive political reforms. Wilson led government efforts to reform the federal banking system, regulate large businesses, provide aid to farmers, and enact a progressive income tax (which meant higher tax rates for those who earned more). During the decade, four constitutional amendments were also adopted, calling for direct election of U.S. senators, the progressive income tax, the right to vote for women, and Prohibition (a ban on the sale of alcoholic beverages).

American foreign policy, which had long been concerned with having the United States avoid "entanglement" in foreign conflicts, also changed dramatically during the decade. In 1914, most of Europe became involved in World War I (1914–18), a terrible conflict that would claim nearly nine million lives. The United States tried to stay neutral, for it had economic ties to countries on both sides of the fight. But German attacks on U.S. shipping and the United States' historic friendship with England and France drew the Americans into the war against Germany in 1917. Two million American soldiers served overseas and one hundred thousand died, half of them from disease. Although President Wilson hoped that American involvement in the war would "make the world safe for democracy" and lead to more American engagement overseas, senators in Congress refused to ratify Wilson's peace treaty.

The war highlighted some of the economic and racial issues facing the country. American businesses were growing increasingly dependent on foreign trade (selling goods to foreign countries). War had threatened foreign trade, and some said that war was fought to keep foreign markets open to American business. American workers, especially those in labor unions, continued to fight for improved wages and working conditions, though strikes ended once America entered World War I. With many workers leaving to join the armed forces, black workers gained access to many jobs they had been barred from before. The existence of jobs in wartime industries in the North called forth a "great migration" of blacks from the South.

Once the war ended, labor unrest grew. In 1919, hundreds of thousands of American workers walked off their jobs in steel, coal mining, and other industries. Police went on strike in Boston, Massachusetts, and there was a general strike of all workers in Seattle, Washington. Black workers were outraged at being thrown out of jobs they had recently gained. This wave of strikes and protests scared businessmen and politicians. Police cracked down on strikers, causing riots in several cities. In what was known as the Red Scare of 1919, thousands of people were arrested and hundreds deported in a crackdown on people thought to be Communists, Socialists, or other radicals. The decade closed in a flurry of riots, arrests, and hysteria.

The 1910s saw a real flowering of popular culture in a number of areas. The most notable development in arts and entertainment was the development of the movie industry. Many Americans still saw short films in nickelodeons (cheap store-front theaters), but the movie industry was changing dramatically. Movies were longer and more polished, and they starred actors who soon became household names, such as Lillian Gish (1893–1993) and Rudolph Valentino (1895–1926). These movies were shown in ornate movie palaces. By 1916, nearly twenty-five million Americans saw a movie on any given day. Movies thus joined magazines in their ability to entertain millions of Americans across the nation. Magazines continued to flourish, with old standards such as Collier's, the American Magazine, and the Saturday Evening Post achieving circulations in the millions, while magazines such as True Story, Vanity Fair, and Vogue all emerged to provide different forms of reading material.

While movies and magazines provided entertainment to the great masses, other forms of culture also flourished. American artists and writers were thrilled by the Armory Show of European artists in 1913, which sparked a rebirth in American artistic and literary activity. Novelists Theodore Dreiser (1871–1945) and Willa Cather (1873–1947) published important works in the decade. Poet Carl Sandburg (1878–1967) published poems celebrating his home town of Chicago, Illinois. Perhaps the most popular artist of the day was actually a magazine illustrator, Norman Rockwell (1894–1978).

In their daily lives, Americans enjoyed an ever growing variety of amusements. The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was formed in this decade and boasted that it was the "Greatest Show on Earth." Sports fans thrilled or booed to the exploits of the New York Yankees. Hockey joined the ranks of professional sports in 1917 with the establishment of the National Hockey League. Two "crazes" swept the nation in this decade—the bridge craze, which saw millions of Americans playing the popular card game, and the crossword puzzle craze, with new word challenges offered each week in newspapers and magazines.

Americans fell in love with two new foods in the 1910s: Campbell's soup, which came in a convenient can, and Oreo cookies. Both products continue to this day as the most popular brand in their class. Homemakers also enjoyed the newest electrical appliance, the refrigerator, which allowed them to keep foods fresh longer and to not make so many trips to the grocery store.

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1910s: A Tumultuous Decade