Prosperity and Thrift: The Coolidge Era and the Consumer Economy, 1921-1929, contains sources that document widespread prosperity during the Coolidge years, the nation's transition to a mass consumer economy, and the role of government in this transition. The collection includes photographs, films, audio selections, personal papers, institutional papers, books, pamphlets, and legislative documents, along with selections from consumer and trade journals. The collection is particularly strong in advertising and mass-marketing materials and highlights economic and political forces at work in the 1920s
These online presentations provide context and additional information about this collection.
- Introduction to Prosperity and Thrift
- Guide to People, Organizations, and Topics in Prosperity and Thrift
These historical era(s) are best represented in the collection although they may not be all-encompassing.
- Emergence of Modern America, 1890 - 1930
Related Collections and Exhibits
- The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920
- George Washington Papers, 1741-1799
- Mr. Lincoln's Virtual Library
- Portraits of the Presidents and First Ladies, 1789-Present
- The Thomas Jefferson Papers at the Library of Congress
- Theodore Roosevelt: His Life and Times on Film
Recommended additional sources of information.
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Specific guidance for searching this collection.
Search the collection using a keyword search of the bibliographic records (descriptive information) or the full text of the documents in the collection. Select either Descriptive Information or Full Text to begin your search.
For help with general search strategies, see Finding Items in American Memory.
Prosperity and Thrift: The Coolidge Era and the Consumer Economy provides users an opportunity to examine a variety of source materials (ranging from print ads and books to personal correspondence and short films) as they investigate the mass consumer economy of the 1920s. Materials reflecting the opposing forces of advertising and the promotion of thrift, labor conditions, economic policies, and some immigration concerns of the era allow for a detailed understanding of prevalent concerns and ideas under the Coolidge administration. Before reviewing the collection, users should examine the seven introductory essays in the Special Presentation, "Introduction to Prosperity and Thrift: The Coolidge Era and the Consumer Economy, 1921-1929." These essays highlight some of the principal themes of the collection and suggest some points of entry into the materials.
1) Andrew Mellon and America's Economic Policy
From 1921 to 1932, Andrew Mellon served as the Secretary of the Treasury for the Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover administrations. His economic policies influenced the prosperity and perils of America’s economy during this era.
A search on Accomplishments of the Coolidge Administration provides Andrew Mellon’s October 17, 1928 press release that highlights Republican accomplishments on behalf of Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover’s 1928 presidential campaign. A search on Mellon yields details of his tax reduction plans as well as opposition to his policies.
You can read a letter sent to Hamilton Kean, the Republican National Committee member from New Jersey, criticizing Mellon’s plan as “satisfactory only to 330,000 taxpayers while it displeased 13,000,000 of the working class.” There is also an article in the February 8, 1928 issue of The New Republic claiming: “The power which Mr. Mellon now exercises is the most sinister single fact in American life.” After reviewing Andrew Mellon’s policies and the subsequent public reaction, consider the following questions.
- Who benefits from the tax reduction plans?
- Why does the letter to Hamilton Kean distinguish between “taxpayers” and “the working class”?
- Why would The New Republic make the preceding statement in 1928 if Mellon had been Secretary of the Treasury since 1921?
2) American Labor
A search on Industrial Strikes produces letters, newspaper articles, and telegrams sent to the White House on working conditions, workers’ standards of living, and strikes in various industries. A search on labor also produces accounts of industrial working conditions such as the U.S. Department of Labor’s Behind the Scenes at a Candy Factory. After describing long hours, unsafe working conditions, and other demands of the high-output industry, the report states:
Conditions described in the candy industry are probably more or less typical of those in all low-wage, seasonal industries in which the workers are young and unskilled. Evidently fair wages and fair conditions cannot be left to the altruism of the individual employer where the worker is unable to enforce her own demands. In some cases, fair wages and conditions are granted voluntarily by far-sighted and intelligent owners who realize that such conditions make for greater efficiency and bigger profits in the long run. But on the whole, the young unorganized worker must look to the public for some protection until she is able to protect herself.
For a comprehensive review of the position of labor in the 1920s, readers can also review Recent Social Trends in the United States, a research report commissioned by President Herbert Hoover and published in 1933.
3) The American Federation of Labor
Users also have an opportunity to review press releases and letters from the American Federation of Labor (AFL), including correspondence between AFL President Samuel Gompers and President Coolidge by searching on American Federation of Labor. In 1923, Gompers sent newspaper clippings about the condition of American labor to the President. Coolidge replied with a letter thanking Gompers for sending him the articles and asking for a meeting to discuss the matter.
Other letters and articles chronicle the increasingly strained relations between Coolidge and the AFL. On November 14, 1923, Gompers sent the President resolutions recently adopted during the 43rd annual AFL convention calling for a reduction in living costs. In his letter, Gompers stated, “It is common knowledge that high living costs can be traced directly to profiteering.”
During the 1924 election, the AFL solicited funds for Independent candidate Robert La Follette’s presidential campaign. On September 16, 1924, the AFL issued a press release stating that Coolidge and the Ku Klux Klan were “running neck and neck as the spokesmen of God and the Constitution.”
That same day, however, Mother Mary Jones, an outspoken proponent of organized labor, showed her support for President Coolidge by posing with him outside the White House. Use the preceding examples and following questions to better understand American labor and politics.
- Explain Gompers’ statement, “It is common knowledge that high living costs can be traced directly to profiteering.”
- Keeping in mind the Department of Labor’s report on working conditions, why would the AFL be interested in supporting an independent presidential candidate?
- What tactics does the AFL press release use to associate Coolidge with the KKK?
- What does the press release imply regarding organized labor’s regard for Coolidge?
- To what group or groups of voters was this press release directed?
- Why would some labor organizers such as Mary Jones support Coolidge in the election?
Although Prosperity and Thrift emphasizes domestic policy, readers have an opportunity to review a few documents regarding the “melting pot” approach to American immigration. Searches on immigration and citizenship, for example, yield Pearl Idelia Ellis’ Americanization Through Homemaking, a primer on homemaking and citizenship for Mexican women immigrating to the United States.
Before discussing topics such as sewing, cooking, childcare, and motherhood (topics that the author acknowledges are applicable to all immigrant women), Ellis addresses the claim that the education of Mexican women will soon be irrelevant.
It has been said that since Mexico is developing irrigation projects to reclaim arid lands, building National highways, and about to furnish free textbooks to pupils, that immigration will decrease and the question of ‘restriction’ will regulate itself. Be that as it may, some will come and many will remain here. As an economic proposition in the Southwest they are a necessity. We who employ them are challenged to raise their standards of living, improve sanitation, and control disease. Strenuous efforts in that direction will redound to the public good. If we expect them to adopt our customs, our ideals, and our country, let us set them a most worthy example.
Compare this guide with A.C. Strange’s article, “Becoming an American” in The United American Magazine of Good Citizenship, a publication declaring itself "devoted to the cause of Americanization, assimilation and group elimination; pointing the way to a constitutional Americanism, to equality in citizenship, and a better understanding between native born and foreign born."
- What assumptions does Ellis make about Mexican-Americans?
- How does Ellis’ description of what it means to assimilate differ from Strange’s notions on citizenship?
- What is the reason for these differences?
In the 1920s, almost everything that could be sold was sold through print, radio, and film ads. Claude Hopkins, the president of the Lord and Taylor advertising agency and author of Scientific Advertising, compared advertising to “a war, minus the venom. Or much, if you prefer, like a game of chess . . . We must have skill and knowledge . . . We dare not underestimate opponents . . . We also need strategy of the ablest sort, to multiply the value of our forces.” Searches on merchandising and advertising present a number examples of the specific strategies Hopkins refers to in his book.
Although film and radio were in their infancy in the 1920s, advertising agencies embraced the media in an effort to reach new consumers. The science of print ads was applied to the new technology and a cross-promotional effort between print and radio advertising increased the strength of the agencies. This synchronicity between print and radio advertising is celebrated in two speeches by William Rankin in "Advertising and its Relation to the Public." While speaking before the Broadcasting Division of the New York Advertising Club, Rankin praises the value of newspapers:
It is the daily newspapers that have helped most to make the Radio the great success it is today. The splendid support that they have given the Radio since its beginning . . . and the fine things that they are doing for it every day of the week are the real reasons for Radio’s enormous popularity.
Examine any number of periodicals available throughout Prosperity and Thrift to see if the print ads (and even a short film advertisement celebrating Werner’s rust-proof corsets) adhere to the claims made by Hopkins, Rankin, and others.
- What do newspapers gain from promoting radio?
- Is this relationship part of what Hopkins describes as “multiplying the value of our forces”?
- How does advertising respond to different media?
While easy credit and advertising encouraged living beyond a consumer’s means, Calvin Coolidge and organizations such as the Y.M.C.A. promoted saving for the future. A search on thrift yields an undated statement made by Coolidge.
It is not so much what we earn today as what we save today that determines our position tomorrow . . . No man is so poor that he cannot begin to be thrifty. No man is so rich that he does not need to be thrifty.
Also available are details about National Thrift Week, an economic movement beginning annually on January 17th with a celebration of Benjamin Franklin’s birthday and a discussion of a specific thrifty enterprise for each day of the week.
You can also search on Anna Kelton Wiley Papers for the September 1928 newsletter with 10 Financial Commandments Still Going Strong for Thrift as well as copies of the National Thrift News and Thrift Week programs.
- Why does National Thrift Week begin on Benjamin Franklin’s birthday?
- Why would President Coolidge be interested in promoting thrift?
- Who is most likely to need the “10 Financial Commandments”?
- Are there specific “commandments” for different parts of society?
- How would you reorganize these “commandments”? Why?
The written narratives, audio recordings, films, and photographs that comprise Prosperity and Thrift provide engaging starting points for historical thinking and for sharpening the basic skills required to analyze and evaluate documents in a historical context. Emphasis is placed on advertising, legislation, and social surveys.
Chronological Thinking: Photographic Timelines
Create a photographic timeline chronicling the Coolidge presidency from August 1923 to March 1929. The timeline can focus on historic events such as Warren Harding’s funeral in 1923, and President Coolidge’s signing of a bill granting Native Americans full rights of citizenship in 1924 (commemorated by Coolidge's being made an honorary member of the Smoki tribe in Arizona). Other events and issues can be represented by items such as presidential campaign photos with the likes of labor activist Mother Mary Jones and actor Al Jolson, as well as through portraits of public figures such as Mrs. Coolidge with Helen Keller. Use the Subject Index and Title Index or search on photograph to identify helpful materials.
Historical Comprehension: McNary-Haugen Bill
Readers can examine Coolidge's speech before the National Grange Convention on November 16, 1928, to ascertain the President's stance on the McNary-Haugen Bill. They can then enhance their understanding with information on the history of the bill available by searching on McNary-Haugen. Prosperity and Thrift also contains letters, reports, articles, and editorials from newspapers and farm magazines regarding this legislation from Oregon Republican Senator Charles McNary and Iowa Republican Congressman Gilbert N. Haugen. The bill existed in various forms from 1924 to 1929 as it was debated, revised, vetoed twice by Coolidge, and ultimately signed into law by President Herbert Hoover as the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1929.
- How does the President regard the Granger Movement?
- What defense does he give of the administration’s agricultural policy?
- How persuasive is the President in defending his farm policies?
A search on farm can also provide additional information on farming life such as E.L. Kirkpatrick’s The Farmer’s Standard of Living. This socio-economic study surveyed almost 3,000 white farming families in eleven states. Kirkpatrick’s assessment might provide another dimension to the debate surrounding the proposed legislation.
One can perform similar examinations of other speeches and topics chosen from fifty-nine of Coolidge's formal addresses as preserved by one of his private secretaries, Everett Sanders. Search on Sanders Papers to locate these addresses.
Historical Analysis and Interpretation: Bruce Barton, Advertising, and the 1924 Presidential Campaign
In 1920, ad man Bruce Barton wrote an article entitled, "The Silent Man on Beacon Hill: An Appreciation of Calvin Coolidge." After declaring that Coolidge is a breath of fresh air on the political landscape, Barton emphasizes Coolidge’s frugality, modesty, and unpretentiousness. He claims that such “old-fashioned characteristics . . . are exceedingly refreshing in these ultra-modern days” as he invokes George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln. Barton also quotes Coolidge as saying: “The man who builds a factory builds a temple; the man who works there worships there, and to each is due, not scorn and blame, but reverence and praise.”
During the 1924 presidential election, Bruce Barton headed up Calvin Coolidge’s ad campaign. Coolidge not only ran against Democratic nominee John Davis and Progressive candidate Robert LaFollette, but also the specter of Warren Harding’s scandalous presidency.
The two-part Pathe News film Visitin’ ‘Round Coolidge Corners also emphasized Coolidge’s character, containing statements such as: “Through New England meeting-houses like these, Pilgrims and Puritans taught the whole nation ideals, courage, honor, and devotion. They stand today for all that is finest in American character north, south, east and west.”
Compare this film and other election-year ad campaigns with Bruce Barton’s article, using the questions at the end of this section. Bring another dimension to this exercise by considering Sinclair Lewis’ “Publicity Gone Mad” in which the author claims:
the immemorial human desire for expressing one’s self is shown . . . in advertising and publicity. The man whose hat, religion, job, pay-check, house, and soul are completely standardized gains the ancient privilege of being different by reading of Chief Officer Manning’s ecstatic passion for Lucky Strikes [Cigarettes and] the lovely Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt’s adoration of Pond’s Cream. . . .
Lewis later writes: “For this is perhaps our greatest improvement over Europe . . . our changing of the ancient right of privacy so that the most secret and perhaps agonized thoughts of any human being are the property now of any swine who cares to read about them.”
- What does Lewis's statement mean in terms of Calvin Coolidge’s campaign?
- How do the articles and film emphasize Coolidge’s character? What is the importance of establishing such credibility?
- How does the depiction of Coolidge as “old-fashioned” relate to the quote, “The man who builds a factory builds a temple; the man who works there worships there, and to each is due, not scorn and blame, but reverence and praise.”?
- How does Coolidge’s quote compare to Lewis’ claim that the man’s “hat, religion, job, pay-check, house, and soul are completely standardized gains”?
- In 1925, Bruce Barton wrote the best-selling book, The Man Nobody Knows, an interpretation of Jesus Christ as a modern businessman and of Christianity as the basis for the modern business ethic. How does this interpretation relate to both Coolidge’s and Lewis’ statements?
Historical Issue-Analysis and Decision-Making
This collection provides a number of opportunities to identify issues and evaluate alternative courses of action. For example, a search on Stuart Chase Papers reveals an exchange between Chase and author Theodore Dreiser prompted by a critical review of Dreiser's Tragic America in which the consumer advocate questions the economic facts and figures in the book. Using data from the late 1920s, Chase deferentially debates the accuracy of Dreiser's statistics on unemployment and unchecked wealth, and takes issue with Dreiser's claim that "the [fluctuation of the business] cycle is deliberately fostered by bankers and great corporations, who welcome depressions because they find opportunity to cut wages and thus increase bank reserves and stockholders' profits."
Evaluate the two men's positions based on your understanding of the era and decide which position seems more accurate. You can also examine the more general economic concerns of the 1920s. A search on Anna Kelton Wiley Papers offers an overview of consumer issues including home economics, scientific management of the household, and thrift. A search of Recent Social Trends in the United States, a study commissioned by President Hoover and published in 1933, offers a number of possibilities. For example, users can read and discuss one section from the second volume of the study on the condition of labor in the 1920s:
So far as the essentials of life are concerned, the majority of workingmen are now farther removed from what may be regarded as the sources of their supplies and from their immediate power to secure them.
Use the following questions to examine these materials and to evaluate the economic issues and decisions of the 1920s:
- What were the underlying factors contributing to the high unemployment rate during the Great Depression?
- What course of action could have been taken during the Harding-Coolidge years that might have alleviated the high rate of unemployment?
- Considering the prevailing political and economic philosophy of the 1920s, how plausible would it have been to promote a policy more favorable to organized labor?
Historical Research Capabilities
Prosperity and Thrift provides readers an opportunity to acquire information regarding shifts in gender and racial identities. A search on women yields surveys such as The Buying Habits of Small-Town Women, Thrift for Women; books on the changing role of women in the consumer economy such as Christine Frederick’s Selling Mrs. Consumer, and Frances Donovan’s The Saleslady, and more elaborate studies such as Sophonisba P. Breckenridge’s Women in the Twentieth Century.
The collection also contains discussions of the African-American experience including Booker T. Washington’s opening address to the Cotton States and International Exposition on September 18, 1895. Searches on National Negro Business League and African-American Economic Issues allow readers to compare Washington’s so-called “Atlanta Compromise” speech of 1895 with documents in the collection relating to economic issues raised by African Americans in the 1920s. You may also examine Alain Locke’s summary of race relations from the 1928 National Interracial Conference and studies such as Fisk University’s The Southern Urban Negro as a Consumer.
In addition, readers can use the Guide to People, Organizations, and Topics in Prosperity and Thrift, with its concise descriptions and links to the collection, as a resource for understanding familiar references from traditional history books and textbooks. You can use the index to examine the collection for information on topics such as:
- Prominent individuals (e.g., Herbert Hoover, Andrew Mellon, A. Philip Randolph, Frederick Taylor, Mary Church Terrell)
- Organizations (e.g., American Federation of Labor, Federal Trade Commission, National Urban League, Universal Negro Improvement Association),
- Congressional legislation (e.g., Agricultural Credits Act, McNary-Haugen Bill),
- Industrial theories such as Time and Motion Studies (search on Taylorisms) and the Bedeaux Efficiency System.
Or, review the Guide to People, Organizations, and Topics in Prosperity and Thrift for unusual references such as Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and The Playground Movement.
Arts & Humanities
One can use Prosperity and Thrift to enhance one's understanding of literature by drawing connections between the collection and major literary works and social commentaries of the 1920s. The collection also affords users the opportunity to examine techniques of writing and oration, and selections from the collection may be used as a springboard for writing activities.
Studying Prosperity and Thrift in conjunction with literature and social commentaries about the 1920s will bring the age of flappers and Fords to life. This context will help you to better understand the meaning and relevance of these works. Literature that may be enhanced by the study of this collection includes Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt (1922), F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), and Theodore Dreiser’s Tragic America (1931). Pertinent social commentaries include H.L. Mencken’s critical appraisal of political leaders and economic policies in The American Mercury, and Richard Wright’s The Ethics of Jim Crow: An Autobiographical Sketch. Consider the following questions as you compare the literature with the collection:
- How does the work reflect the economic and social policies of the 1920s?
- What areas of society doesn't the work address? Why?
Language and Technique
The dual format of Coolidge's speeches, presented as both audio recordings and transcriptions, affords the opportunity to evaluate techniques of speech-writing and oration.
Search Coolidge Speeches, Recordings, or one of the following speeches by name: Law and Order (Audio) (Text), Duty of Government (Audio) (Text), Equal Rights (Audio) (Text), or America and the War (Audio Only). Select one or more of the President’s addresses, listen to the audio recording as you read the transcript, and evaluate the speech by asking:
- How effective is his presentation?
- To whom does the speech appeal?
- What imagery is used in the speech?
- To what extent is the speech illustrative of Coolidge’s character?
- Are there any lines from the speech that would resonate today?
Calvin Coolidge had a reputation for being somber and reserved. Search Photographs for a variety of pictures of the President and select images of the President that show him in a somewhat different light. Write an essay on how photographs may be used to create or change a public image, incorporating selected photographs to illustrate your perspective.
Students can also search for other photographs (such as the one on the left) and discuss how images may be used to influence public opinions. What message would this image have communicated?
You can practice persuasive writing by taking a position on one of several issues illustrated in the collection. For example, throughout Calvin Coolidge’s presidency, his likeness and comments were used to sell a variety of products without his permission. A search on Advertisement Exploitation locates correspondence regarding ads that irritated the president and examples of several questionable advertisements. Defend or reject the notion that since Calvin Coolidge was a public figure, it was acceptable for his name to have been used in advertising.
In an article by Jason Joy entitled "Nation-Wide Saturday Morning Movies,” Will Hays, the head of the Motion Picture Distributors of America, guaranteed that children going to movie theaters on Saturday morning would enjoy wholesome entertainment.
The very best sort of movies will be displayed for the youngsters. . . . Parents and guardians may send their children to these performances with complete confidence that what they see will be altogether wholesome and beneficial. Ever since motion pictures became a familiar public service institution, there has been talk of a so-called problem, ‘What of the Child and the Movie?’ This arrangement, the Saturday morning movie, is the complete answer to the situation.
An article from the September 1924 issue of The Playground entitled, "Should Children Go to the Movies?" estimates that 90 percent of school children between ages seven and fourteen go to films on a regular basis. Questions of content take a backseat to the negative health effects of the movie-going experience:
Motion pictures may exert a bad effect on the immature nervous system of the child. The brain in young children is very immature, and it and the nerves should be very carefully protected. Children who night after night gaze open-mouthed at exciting episodes and thrilling escapes become peevish and irritable. They have restless nights and nightmares.
Choose one of these quotes (either a critique of content or the movie-going experience itself) and defend or reject the validity of the statement as either a parent or a child of the era.
The following two points appear in Claude Hopkins’ Scientific Advertising:
[C]uriosity is one of the strongest human incentives. We employ it wherever we can. Puffed Wheat and Puffed Rice were made successful largely through curiosity. “Grains puffed to 8 times normal size.” “Foods shot from guns.” “125 million steam explosions caused in every kernel.” These foods were failures before that factor was discovered.
Toasted Corn Flakes and Malted Milk are examples of unfortunate names. In each of those cases an advertiser created a new demand. When the demand was created, others shared it because they could use the name. The originators depended only on a brand. It is interesting to speculate on how much more profitable a coined name might have been.
Use these passages as a focal point for a discussion on advertising and its techniques. Demonstrate your understanding while practicing writing skills by choosing a real or imaginary product and creating an effective advertisement based on these two guidelines.