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Early Twentieth Century U.S. History | America in the Early 1900s

Instructor: Cheryl Roberts

Cheryl Roberts has master's degrees in English and history and taught taught college composition, literature, and history for over 20 years.

Learn about early twentieth-century U.S. history and culture. Discover major events of early 20th-century America, such as WWI and the Great Depression. Updated: 02/06/2023

Early Twentieth-Century America: Overview

Early 20th century America generally refers to the time period in the United States from 1900 to the mid-1930s. During this period, several events occurred, including the US's entry into World War I, the economic boom of the 1920s, the 1929 stock market crash, and the Great Depression of the 1930s. All of these events contributed to changing the country from a primarily rural nation to an urban, industrialized world player.

What Was America Like in the Early Twentieth Century?

By 1900, society was changing rapidly. Increasing industrialization and the rise of big business changed the economy. The automobile transformed travel. Plus, as literacy increased, the national distribution of newspapers and magazines helped create a national identity.

Politics needed to change to reflect this burgeoning reality. With the ascent of 42-year-old Theodore Roosevelt to the presidency in 1901, government involvement in people's lives increased. As business thrived, the need to regulate working conditions and other issues became apparent. In addition, women campaigned successfully for women's suffrage.

With the advent of motion pictures and radio, a major shift in the country's culture occurred. The movies brought people together in a way that had never been possible before, and American culture became popular internationally.

On the international front, the Spanish-American War led to US control of Puerto and the Philippines and strong influence over Cuba. The political and economic capital gained from this increasing US presence on the world stage would carry over to the country's participation in World War I.

With these changes, the mood of Americans in the early 20th century changed also. People began thinking of themselves as a nation rather than as a collection of rural or regional entities. A sense of optimism about the future, both domestically and internationally, permeated the population.

Early 1900s America: The Progressive Movement

The Progressive Movement lasted roughly from 1900 to 1920. It was a reaction to the inequities apparent in society. There was little government regulation of business or politics, which led to widespread corruption. Progressives wanted the government to become more proactive in shaping society for the benefit of all, not just the few. Progressive reforms were carried out in areas such as working conditions, women's suffrage, food safety, and the prevention of trusts.

The Progressives supported America's increasing presence in international affairs. After all, strength at the international level required military strength to back it up. As a result, government investment in military buildup increased.

Major figures in the Progressive Movement included presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. They used the power of the presidency to push reform at the federal level. With two presidents, the Progressive Movement changed the face of America.

United States in the Twentieth Century

Worsening conditions in Europe led to the breakout of war in 1914. The United States' entry into World War I in 1917 marked the emergence of the country as a major world power. However, WWI was a war unlike any seen before, complete with chemical warfare and the deaths of many on foreign soil. Hence, the country that emerged from the war tried to turn its back on international affairs and focus instead on domestic issues.

Progressive reform attempts continued. The temperance movement, which successfully pushed for Prohibition, accompanied by changing notions of acceptable social behavior, resulted in the decade known as the Roaring Twenties. The thriving and largely unrestricted economy of the twenties led to the stock market crash in 1929, plunging the country into the Great Depression. The depression lasted until roughly the entry of the US into World War II in 1941.

The First World War

When World War I broke out between the Allies (France, Great Britain, and Russia) and the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire), the US remained neutral. While sympathy for the Allies was strong, most people thought the US did not need to get directly involved in what was perceived as a European conflict. Unrestricted German submarine warfare and an attempt to provoke Mexico into helping Germany changed attitudes, however, and led to America's entry into the war in 1917.

The Temperance Movement

The movement to enforce abstinence by the government gained steam in the first decades of the 20th century. In 1917 Congress passed the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibited the manufacture, sale, or transportation of alcoholic beverages.

However, prohibition was not successful in eliminating alcoholic beverages. Enforcement of the law was lax, and speakeasies, or illegal bars, flourished. The black market for alcohol rose, and it also led to the rise of organized crime.

Eventually, support for Prohibition declined, and in 1933 the 21st Amendment repealed the 18th Amendment.

The Roaring Twenties

The Roaring Twenties was a decade marked by excess in many aspects of American life. Several factors contributed to the rise of what also came to be called the Jazz Age.

  • The American economy flourished, and a consumer culture emerged as more people had extra money to spend.
  • Women's suffrage, mass electrification of American homes, and new time-saving inventions gave women more free time and new opportunities.
  • Movies and radio fostered a view of a glamorous and desirable new lifestyle.
  • Cars gave people the freedom to travel more easily.
  • The Harlem Renaissance, a New York movement that saw a flourishing of artistic efforts among the Black population, brought a new kind of music to the scene: jazz.

Young people led the excesses of the Roaring Twenties. The spirit of the times was perhaps best expressed in the novel The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The ability to accumulate wealth through bootlegging, the careless live-for-today lifestyle of those who could enjoy the luxuries of life, the resentment felt by the underclasses--all of these can be seen in the novel.

a flapper with her flask of illegal beer in her stocking

black and white photo of a young woman in 1920s dress with a beer flask held in her stocking

Black People's Experience

While the 1920s was a time of economic prosperity and social advances for many Americans, the Black population did not share in many of these positive changes. The so-called Jim Crow laws, prominent in the south, prohibited Black people from attending schools or living with whites. Voting rights were limited. In addition, as Black people attempted to improve their position in society, they were met with increasingly violent backlash. The Ku Klux Klan and public lynchings were very much realities that Black people had to contend with. These injustices would persist during World War II, and would not really be addressed until the 1960s.

The Stock Market Crash

As the economy flourished, investment in stock increased, and more people went into debt. Alas, the huge economic boom could not be sustained. On Black Tuesday, October 29, 1929, the Stock Market Crash occurred. Banks failed, billions of investment dollars were lost, and businesses were forced to close. In a domino effect, the entire economy of the United States collapsed, plunging the country into the Great Depression.

crowds outside New York Stock Exchange after the crash

black and white photo of crowd gathering outside of New York Stock Exchange

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Frequently Asked Questions

What was happening in the early 1900s in America?

In the early 1900s America became an urban, industrialized country. It participated in World War I, becoming a major player on the international stage. An economic boom in the 1920s was followed by the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression of the 1930s.

What major events happened in the early 20th century?

Major events during the early 20th century included the rise of big business, urbanization, and industrialization. The country's participation in World War I was followed by the economic boom of the Roaring Twenties. The stock market crash of 1929 ushered in the Great Depression when millions of people were out of work. The depression basically ended with US entry into World War II in 1941.

What is considered early 20th century?

The early 20th century in America covered roughly the first third of the 20th century. The period began around 1900 and lasted until the mid-1930s.

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