How diverse was American Society on the eve of the boom?40 million people immigrated to the states between 1850 and 1914. In 1020, The United States was as mixed a multitude as it had ever been before, composing of more colours; religions and speaking more languages than had ever been the case before. Hence the term ‘melting pot’ was ascribed to explain the mixed society. In order to examine the diversity of America on the eve of the boom wealth and generation are examples of factors that will be considered.
The Old immigrants were the first European settlers, descending from Britain, Germany and Scandinavia. Nicknamed the White Anglo Saxon Protestants or WASPS, they tended to hold the best jobs and grasp of political power. Their beliefs tended to be rigid and old fashioned. To them the new industrial cities swarming with immigrants was viewed as sordid and ungodly. It would appear that the notion of the immigrations losing their identity and becoming ‘Americans’ would almost be deemed as laughable.
From Eastern Europe, particularly Russia, Poland and Italy came immigrants in the late 19th century, several being Jews and Catholics. These were mainly the people who challenged the Protestants. They may have been pushed to immigrate to America but their reasons varied. People from Poland and Russia face persecution particularly the Jews at the end of the 19th century. In addition of that there was only an increasing intolerance towards Socialists and Anarchists and many chose to leave under the political nightmares. Italians chose to leave their homeland when the wine market collapsed and outbreak of cholera lead to huge numbers of Italians in the states.
Native American Indians lived across the whole of the continent; many of them were farmers. Between 1850 and 1890 most of them were forced off their lands and lived on reservations, leaving them in a dangerous state. The land they lived on was so poor that even with government assistance, they would not have been able to make a decent living on it.
Black Americans provided the other part of the United States ethnic jigsaw. Initially bought to USA as slaves in the 18th and 19th century, there were 11 million of them by 1920. Most of them lived in the south, which was without doubt the poorest part of the country. The living conditions for a country of America’s stature were appalling. Richard Wright described how hunger would lead him to “grow dizzy” and leave his eyesight to “dim.
Up until the 1870s half of the people employed were engaged in agriculture with manufacturing a distant second. By 1920 manufacturing had now overtaken agriculture to be the nations largest industry. One of the reasons for this change was that more people were living in towns after World War I. However many immigrants didn’t move to the cities and continued their farming lifestyles in the American west. In 1920, 1,000 foreign born or non white inhabitants were part of the 3,000 or so American counties population.
In terms of wealth, America was a country of extremes where the very rich and the very poor lived. The top 1 % earned almost 15 % of all incomes in 1920 and in 1924, 4.6 % of all stockholders owned 76.9% of all stock. The poor on the end didn’t earn as much. In a study by the Lynds, they found that of their sample of 100 working class families in Middletown, in 1924 were earning less than the $1,920 deemed to be the minimal yearly cost of living for a standard family of five people in that year by the Bureau of Labour.
While the rich managed through the gross fortunes, made and inherited especially in the big cities, the poor needed their jobs to keep them going financially. On interviewing 165 working class families in Middletown, the Lynds discovered that 43% lost a month or more and 19% lost less than a month through unemployment. The Middletown workers chance of gaining promotion increased but they were still less likely to maintain a good job and come home with a massive wage. For an economically advanced nation the figures would almost surely deterred any more from immigrating to the United States had they known they whole story.
American society also faced the problem of dealing with the growing generation gap. Some of the American youths thought similarly to their British counterparts that this would be the war to end all war. The survivors after encountering first-hand experience of the horrors of the war felt they were forced to participate and laid the blame on their parents generation. Nevertheless, the youths remained optimistic about their futures. Many moved out of their small midwestern towns into big cities like Chicago or more often New York. Changing lifestyles meant the representative symbol of the age was the ‘flapper’ young women who had bobbed hair and wore short skirts, often drinking and smoking.
The 1920’s saw the United States under a host of changes and consumer growth on the up. 35 % of the population now had electricity in their homes; that figure rising to 50% and more by 1924. There was one telephone for 14 1/2 people in 1910 and by 1920 there was one for every 8 1/2 people. Fewer than half a million passenger cars registered but by 1920 in excess of 8 million cars registered.
Although the figures sound impressive, it doesn’t tell the whole story. The latest scientific innovations, the automobiles, the telephones, the radios, the refrigerators were all largely on offer to the upper and middle class Americans who were increasing during the 1920s.As wages were low and employment not frequent, many potential customers simply weren’t at the stage to join in the spending spree. Prices may have fallen but this was largely due to the many American companies recruiting cheap labour from abroad. These workers would work for a fixed price.
After examining the various factors, it would appear that USA was a very diverse nation. It almost surely would have drawn envy from its European rivals and even force them to consider to try and compete with the States. However for many positives, there were also many negatives and therefore, it struggled to keep up with the demands of a fast growing nation.