Picturing the Century

The Great War and the New Era

In April 1917 the United States entered World War I against Germany and Austria-Hungary. The Federal Government immediately began to mobilize American society to meet the demands of "total war." Millions volunteered for or were drafted into military service. Government worked with business, labor, and agriculture to increase weapon and food production. War also quickened the pace of social change. Black Americans migrated to Northern industrial cities to work in war industries and served in the Armed Forces in unprecedented numbers. Mobilization placed women in jobs previously closed to them and their contribution to the war effort helped win women the right to vote.

Victory on the battlefields of France, it was hoped, would be followed by what some called an affluent "New Era." And in many ways the 1920s were truly "new." For the first time, more people lived in cities than on farms. Prosperity, technological innovation, and advertising created the world's first mass-consumption economy. Consumer goods such as radios, automobiles, washing machines, and refrigerators became affordable; sports and movies became big business; businessmen and inventors became celebrities. The 1920s were also a time of profound social tensions between traditionally minded, rural, old-stock Americans and newer, immigrant, city dwellers. Issues such as prohibition, immigration restriction, and the growth of the Ku Klux Klan epitomized these strains.

During World War I, photography was one medium through which Federal agencies mobilized public opinion. Images, many taken by Government photographers, some collected from private sources, were used to convince Americans that the war was just, stir patriotic fervor, and record for history the actions of the military and other war-time agencies. Interestingly, for a nation that was now predominately urban, during the 1920s, Government photographers seemed to have concentrated many of their efforts on recording rural life. Many of the images of 1920s urban America in the National Archives come from the courts or are culled from newspaper or commercial sources.

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