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The US to the CRASH of 1929 (8 of 10)

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Prosperity and the Coolidge Years

Harding's Presidency Ends

Jesse Smith, the housekeeper and confidante of Harding's Attorney General, Harry Daugherty, was making extra money running a place that was part speakeasy and part brothel. Other friends of Daugherty were running with opportunity and selling government appointments, selling immunity from prosecution and selling pardons to criminals. On May 23 1923, Jesse Smith committed suicide. Then came inside information about corruption in the Veterans' Bureau. Its director, Colonel Forbes, was taking money from the sale of medical supplies that should have been going to veterans' hospitals. None of this made the newspapers, but Harding felt betrayed by the corruption. Meanwhile, his weight had increased to 240 pounds. His blood pressure sometimes rose to 175. He suffered a heart attack in a hotel room in San Francisco, followed by pneumonia. On August 2, 1923, after a blood clot reached his brain, he died.

Vice President Coolidge was elevated to the presidency. And, in the months that followed, the corruption that had existed during the Harding administration became public knowledge. At the urging of Senator Robert LaFollette, a Senate committee investigated and found that Secretary of Interior Albert Fall had engaged in a swindle involving oil reserves for the US Navy – a scandal to be known as Teapot Dome. Fall became the first cabinet member in US history to go to jail. Also forced to resign from the president's cabinet was Attorney General Daugherty.

It also became public knowledge that the late President Harding had had an extramarital affair with a woman named Nan Britton. She claimed that Harding had been the father of her daughter. Doubt remains concerning Britton's claims, but a collection of Harding's love letters to a Mrs Carrie Phillips while he was a senator was to surface.

Coolidge and Progress

In the Christmas season of 1923, Coolidge emulated Harding and released thirty-one more Americans imprisoned for their opposition to US involvement in World War I. The following year, Coolidge ran as the Republican nominee for the presidency. The Democrats ran John W. Davis, a corporation lawyer and Wilson's former solicitor general and former ambassador to Great Britain. As a progressive alternative and a third party candidate, Senator LaFollette joined the race. Backed by organized labor and socialists he appealed to farm and factory workers but rejected support from Communists. During the campaign, Coolidge's running mate, Charles Dawes, did most of the speechmaking for the Republican ticket, and he made Communism a campaign issue, accusing LaFollette of being a Bolshevik agent. LaFollette carried only his home state, Wisconsin, and he won 17 percent of the popular vote. Davis carried only the South, winning 136 electoral votes and 28 percent of the popular vote. And Coolidge won the election with 382 electoral votes and 54 percent of the popular vote.

During the Coolidge presidency vaccines were invented in France, and Vitamins A, B, C, D and E were discovered. In the US the treatment of vitamin-deficient diseases improved. Recognition of the need of good nutrition was on the rise. In the United States, the average young intern was emerging from medical school better trained than those of previous generations – most of them having acquired a college degree before entering medical school. Health care was lagging behind in rural areas, but generally nursing was improving. Effective tests for pregnancy had been developed, along with detection of uterine cancer. Trained nurses as midwives were improving child delivery. The rate of infant mortality was declining, as was the rate of women dying from childbirth. Scarlet fever was being brought under control. The incidence of tuberculosis was declining. And a change in attitudes had helped Margaret Sanger establish the first American birth control clinic, in New York City in 1923 -- to be renamed Planned Parenthood a couple of decades later.

Education was improving – for blacks as well as whites. More blacks were attending those universities that were open to all races. From 1917 to 1927, the number of higher education institutions for blacks more than doubled, and enrollment in these all-black institutions increased more than six fold. Employment opportunities for blacks remained far behind those for whites, but the spread of education among blacks was making better jobs available to them.

The number of blacks employed by the federal government would be at an all time high in 1928, at 51,882, up from 22,540 in 1910. And prosperity was creating more demand for all kinds of labor. Competitive bidding for labor was raising wages. In the South, many blacks were moving to those areas where manufacturing was growing. Again, recruiters from the North went to the South in search of labor, again alarming some white Southerners. Southern newspaper editors denounced northern recruiters and again wrote of the need to keep blacks in the South and for whites to treat black folks with respect.

In the South, lynching was in decline. From 1914 to 1923 the number of lynchings averaged fifty-seven a year. In 1922, the US House of Representatives passed a bill that would have given federal courts jurisdiction in cases of mob violence. The Senate failed to pass the bill, but the move in Congress stirred a greater effort in some southern states toward a more orderly law enforcement, and in 1924 lynchings fell to sixteen. In 1925, when Klan activity was at its high, seventeen lynchings were reported. But then the number of lynchings began to drop. And in the first four months of 1928 not a single lynching was reported.

An Economic Boom

During 1925 the economy boomed, and it continued through 1926. Coolidge was pursuing frugality, keeping government spending down and reducing taxes. Much of the economic boom involved the manufacture and sales of automobiles and its accessories. In 1925, a Ford motorcar was rolling off the assembly line every ten seconds, and Ford's Model T was selling for only $260, down from $950 in 1909. The United States had the most cars per capita than any other nation – one car for every five persons compared to one car for every 43 persons in Britain and one car for every 325 persons in Italy. Ford and General Motors established branch plants in Europe and were buying into European auto companies. The increase in cars in the United States was accompanied by jobs building roads and highways, paid for by the states and supported by a ten-percent subsidy by the federal government.

Other items fueling the prosperity were tractors and electrical appliances, which were selling briskly. Employment in the construction office buildings was rising, and new high-rise buildings were changing skylines in major cities. Trade and commerce were aided by improvements in the transport of freight. Also it now took only 56 hours by train between New York to Los Angeles – to impact Hollywood.

The interior of many homes, especially those of the middle and upper classes, was changing, with carpets and linoleum covering the softwood floors familiar to the previous generation. Accompanying the mechanization of farm equipment were improvements to the interiors of farmhouses of the more successful farmers. These were farmers caught up in the optimism of the times and mortgaging their farms to buy new machinery, and they were also acquiring furnaces, water heaters, modern bathrooms and telephones – about one in ten farming families having electricity and hot water. In the cities, hot and cold running water was available in most homes. By 1930, 84.8 percent of all city homes would be wired for electricity, up from 47.4 percent in 1920. And the new gas stoves that the middle and upper-class families were buying left their homes cooler in the summer and free of coal dust and kerosene fumes.

In 1926, Henry Ford started a five-day workweek. International Harvester began giving its employees a two-week annual vacation. Standard Oil gave the eight-hour workday to its field workers. Some other businesses were seeing self-interest in a healthy and happy workforce and were extending benefits to their workers. In 1926, half of the largest 1,500 companies had comprehensive benefits for their workers, and eighty percent had at least some benefits, such as treatment by company doctors. Meanwhile, corporate profits and dividends were rising. And union membership continued to decline. From 5.1 million members in 1920, union membership would be at 3.6 million in 1929.

The cheer of these times was expressed in the celebration of Lindbergh's flight across the Atlantic to Paris. Lindbergh had been a pilot for the Roberson Aircraft Corporation, flying mail between St. Louis and Chicago. His flight to Paris began in New York in May 1927 and took 33.5 hours. Millions cheered him in Paris, and, when he returned to the United States, millions cheered him in a ticker tape parade.

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