Calvin Coolidge took the presidential oath of office on August 3, 1923, after the unexpected death in office of President Warren Harding. The new president inherited an administration plagued and discredited by corruption scandals. In the two remaining years of this term, Coolidge, long recognized for his own frugality and moderation, worked to restore the administration’s image and regain the public’s trust. He went on to win the presidential election of 1924 in his own right.
After all, the chief business of the American people is business.
President Calvin Coolidge, address before the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Washington, D.C., January 17, 1925. Foundations of the Republic (1926), 187.
Coolidge believed that government should interfere as little as possible with business and industry. His administration supported tax reductions for U.S. businesses as well as high protective tariffs in support of U.S. goods—which were being produced in greater quantities than ever before. Technological and managerial innovations, improvements in the methods of production, and growing distribution networks made consumer items more generally available. Many Americans purchased cars and radios, vacuum cleaners, and washing machines—taking advantage of increasingly obtainable consumer credit.
Some groups did not participate fully in the emergent consumer economy, notably both African-American and white farmers as well as immigrants. While one-fifth of the American population made their living on the land, rural poverty was widespread. Despite agricultural overproduction and successive attempts in Congress to provide relief, the agricultural economy of the 1920s experienced an ongoing depression. Large surpluses were accompanied by falling prices at a time when American farmers were burdened by heavy debt. Between 1920 and 1932, one in four farms was sold to meet financial obligations and many farmers migrated to urban areas.
Restrictive immigration laws, aided by a resurgence of nativism in America in the 1920s, contributed to an atmosphere hostile to immigrants. The Emergency Quota Act of 1921 discriminated against immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. The National Origins Act of 1924 completely excluded Japanese and other Asian immigrants and further reduced those admitted from southern and eastern Europe.
The economic growth of the 1920s spurred the rise of consumer organizations and campaigns. Some, such as the Truth-in-Advertising Movement, which pursued ethics and self-regulation in advertising, were industry-based. Other campaigns and organizations sought to educate consumers. The Better Homes Movement celebrated home ownership, home maintenance and improvement, and home decoration in towns and cities across the country. The Thrift Movement sought to teach children and citizens how to save and spend wisely. Lastly, there were campaigns such as the Playground Movement which began in response to popular anxieties about material excess, misuse of leisure time, and the loss of traditional values.
- The collection Prosperity and Thrift: The Coolidge Era and the Consumer Economy, 1921-1929 contains a wide variety of materials related to the Coolidge presidency and the decade’s consumer culture.
- A selection of items from the Calvin Coolidge Papers, which are held by the Library’s Manuscript Division, have been digitized and made accessible online.
- Find digitized materials on the Library’s website relating to Coolidge’s life by consulting Calvin Coolidge: A Resource Guide.
- American Leaders Speak: Recordings from World War I includes several speeches Coolidge delivered while governor of Massachusetts which reflect his distinctive political philosophy.
- Find photographs and political cartoons relating to President Coolidge by searching on Calvin Coolidge, in the collections with Photos, Prints, and Drawings.
- Search the Library’s Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers to find newspaper accounts of Coolidge’s early career.