Roaring: A Crashing End
On Sept. 16, 1920, as high noon struck, Wall Street was rocked by a terrorist bombing. Thirty souls were lost in a flash as the bomb detonated, and eight more would later die from wounds in the aftermath. When the dust settled on the shocking domestic tragedy, hundreds more would be counted as injured from the blast. It was, at the time, the worst act of terrorism on American soil. It was an explosive and tragic way to kick off the new decade.
The bombing’s perpetrators have never been discovered to this day, though there’s a long list of suspects and theories. The most likely truth is that it was yet another act of political protest wrapped up in violence, not uncommon to the political environment of late 1920. The country was in rough shape economically and socially, and the appalling act of evil that hit Wall Street that day was a sign of the times. Unfortunately, this incident would be surpassed by the Black Wall Street riots in Tulsa, Oklahoma, just a year later.
The bomb was followed by the decade that this series has spent the last year or so describing; a decade that saw the dominance of fiscal conservative politics and classical liberal thought; a decade that saw a forgotten depression succeeded by arguably one of the greatest economic booms in American history; a decade that saw social changes and upheaval that we still live with today; a decade that produced innovators that would changed their industries and our way of life, and villainous historic figures whose ghosts still haunt us in the present; a decade so alive with change, so loud in its part of history’s never-ending rhyme, that it came to be known as roaring.
But if the bombing of Wall Street in the fall of 1920 was a tragic start to such an important decade, another tragedy that would befall Wall Street would be the end of it as well nine years later. Granted this event didn’t involve terrorists or dozens of innocent people being killed at once, but it would deliver a hammer blow to the country’s health that it would take more than another decade to heal from. An economic catastrophe that would bring a crashing end to the party that had been the ’20s.
On Oct. 29, 1929, President Herbert Hoover was in the White House and overlooking a good peacetime economy that had brought his party to dominance throughout the last decade. It had been almost seven months since he had taken the torch of power from Calvin Coolidge, the man whose name was linked to the economic good times. He had declared during the 1928 campaign and after his victory that the country was on the verge of getting rid of poverty all together.
One big driver of Americans’ full wallets was the incredible amount of investing that had started to come into the stock market from regular folks, not just high money gambling stock brokers. In fact, more than two thirds of the stock market come that eventful day of 1929 was thought to have belonged to ordinary citizens.
With no regulations put in place at the time, speculation and overvalued stocks were able to run wild. Coolidge himself, among others, was worried the stock market was bound to take a hit in a bad cycle and that the record growing numbers in stocks investing could be a potential for big trouble if the bubble burst. After all, the stock market had crashed several times before in American history, sometimes being the precursor to bad economic eras known as “Great Panics.”
But the growing bubble finally busted that ominous Tuesday in October of 1929. The stock market crashed and a bank panic that was already building followed. Overnight, the country saw its economy go from “roaring” to a head-first dive into recession. In time as the years would pass that recession would become a depression, and the depression would become “The Great Depression.”
As the economy continued to fall, the political environment shifted dramatically. The GOP — once the dominant political party for nearly the entire decade, with a clear mandate from the people and three straight presidential landslides under their belt — became toxic and unpopular as Hoover became a heavy anchor to them. Hoover’s former sky high popularity had fallen with the stock market, and even after he tried desperate drastic measures such as imposing higher tariffs and taxes, he became the face of the economic decline. Hoover’s name would soon be added to slang for terms for homeless citizen’s dwellings and soup kitchens. The man who had claimed poverty was about to come to an end was now the one blamed as many entered into it.
Hoover’s inability to inspire confidence or courage to the country that saw him as the trouble behind the depression led his party to massive landslide defeats in the 1930 midterms and in 1932, when Hoover was booted from office by the Democrats’ 1920 vice presidential nominee, Franklin D. Roosevelt. A former Assistant Secretary of the Navy during World War 1, Roosevelt would usher his party to its own era of dominance known as “The New Deal Era,” becoming the face of 1930s America and to some extent 1940s America as well.
Meanwhile, the bad economic times helped lead to a push to end Prohibition. Movies would be entering a more prohibitive and regulated “Golden Age” that would turn movie stars from famous to iconic. Women who had lived the flapper lifestyle suddenly had to lower the hem of their skirts again and focus on feeding themselves and their families over partying it up in illegal bars. The parties and loud lifestyles were put on hold. Depression (and, in time, war) was now the way of life for so many.
And thus the 1920s were over. Just like that, the age that proved to be so influential and important to our modern way of American living had come and gone. As Roosevelt prepared to take the Oval Office and thus begin a shift from one era to the next, Coolidge was days from a fatal sudden heart attack. In those twilight days, he had commented to a friend regarding the sudden changes happening in the country at the time that: “I feel I no longer fit in with these times,” he had said. As the longest serving president of the ’20s, he was right on many fronts. The roaring decade was over. Depression and war had their turn up next.