1920s: At a Glance
1920s: At a Glance
What We Said:
Blind date: This type of date was between two people who have never met before and usually had been arranged by mutual friends.
Cat's meow or Bee's knees: Some of the most popular slang expressions of the 1920s, these terms referred to a cute or great person or thing. "She's the cat's meow" means, "She's cute."
"For crying out loud!": A phrase used to express frustration or anger.
Giggle water: Even though Prohibition was vigorously enforced during the decade, alcohol was available. Flappers called it giggle water, while men preferred the more macho name "hooch."
"Go fly a kite!": "Get away from me."
Hick: Even though the word hick had been used for centuries to refer to a rural person, the word became very popular in the 1920s as more people moved to urban areas and rejected rural lifestyles. No hip flapper or sheik would want to be associated with a "hick from the sticks" (a naive person from the country).
"Hot diggity dog!": An expression of happiness or of haste.
It: Sex appeal was flaunted in the 1920s; to have sex appeal was to have "It." Clara Bow had "It"; she was even dubbed the "It Girl." Rudolph Valentino had "It," too.
Lounge lizard: Flappers, young women in the 1920s, had a language all their own. One of many terms they created was lounge lizard, a phrase used to mean a ladies' man. The term has been used in almost every following decade.
Park: As more people bought cars, they thought of more ways to use them. One favorite pastime of young lovers was to park, or to stop their car in a secluded area to kiss each other.
Rumrunner: Smugglers of alcohol into the United States. The demand for alcohol during Prohibition offered an opportunity for rumrunners to earn huge profits.
Speakeasy: Illegal bars. Prohibition did not stop people's thirst for alcohol; it forced the start up of speakeasies.
Swanky: A term used to describe something that is high class, quality, cool.
What We Read:
The Man of the Forest: Started as a serial in Country Gentleman magazine in 1917, Zane Grey's Western became a best-seller in 1920.
The Sheik (1920): Edith M. Hull's romantic novel about a sheik who abducts and later falls in love with an English girl. The story became a movie that made Rudolph Valentino a popular romantic hero.
The Outline of History (1920): H. G. Wells' non-fiction book that traces human history and attempts to show that education is the savior of society, not revolution.
Main Street (1921): Sinclair Lewis's first major novel. Main Street satirizes life in the American Middle West, criticizing Americans' frivolous purchasing habits and desires to conform.
Black Oxen (1923): Gertrude Atherton's novel about female sexuality.
Etiquette (1923): Emily Post's nonfiction manual that describes proper behavior for many traditional occasions and social situations.
When We Were Very Young (1925): A. A. Milne's children's book about Winnie-the-Pooh and his friends became a best-seller in the United States.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1926): Anita Loos' comic novel about a young blonde flapper who charms men into giving her expensive gifts.
The Plutocrat (1927): Booth Tarkington's novel about the adventures of a wealthy razor blade "king."
What We Watched:
Pollyanna (1920): This silent film stars twenty-eight-year-old Mary Pickford as a young orphaned girl who moves to New England to live with her grumpy spinster aunt. Pollyanna finds joy in every activity as she plays her "glad game" and eventually transforms the attitudes of her aunt and the entire community. Based on a novel by Eleanor H. Porter, the film has been remade several times for cinema and television.
The Mark of Zorro (1920): A silent film, starring Douglas Fairbanks as Zorro, about the oppression of the Spanish government in colonial California and how the masked Zorro heroically and humorously protects common people. Zorro has proven to be a favorite movie hero, and his story has been remade into several different movies over the years.
The Three Musketeers (1921): Douglas Fairbanks stars as the young Gascon d'Artagnan who travels to Paris to become one of the French king's musketeers in this silent film. He is apprenticed by three of the king's best musketeers and soon becomes involved in their effort to save France from the evil Cardinal Richelieu. The film has been remade for cinema and television more than thirty times.
Orphans of the Storm (1921): Lillian and Dorothy Gish star in this silent film directed by D. W. Griffith about two girls (one an orphan) raised as sisters who travel to Paris and become separated as the French Revolution erupts and overthrows the aristocracy.
The Ten Commandments (1923) : Starring Richard Dix and Rod LaRoque and directed by Cecil B. DeMille, this silent film tells the ancient story of Moses leading the Jews from Egypt and receiving the tablets and, in a second part, illustrates the benefits of the commandments in a story about two brothers fighting over the love of one woman in modern day San Francisco. DeMille remade this movie again in 1956.
The Pilgrim (1923): A short comedic silent film starring Charlie Chaplin who plays an escaped prisoner who dresses as a preacher and becomes the minister for a small town.
The Phantom of the Opera (1925): Promoted as the "Greatest Horror Film of Modern Cinema," this silent film stars Lon Chaney as the disfigured "phantom" who haunts a Paris Opera house and tries to advance the career of his beloved Christine. Gaston Leroux's novel has been retold in eleven different movies and in the theater.
Ben-Hur (1925): With a cast of 125,000 (an unprecedented number), this silent film offered viewers a stunning depiction of the conflict between a Roman officer, Messala (played by Francis X. Bushman), and his former childhood friend, the conquered Israelite, Judah Ben-Hur (played by Ramon Novarro). The film was remade in 1959 to great success.
The Son of the Sheik (1926): Movie star Rudolph Valentino's last film, and some say his best. The silent film depicts the story of the young son of a sheik falling in love with a dancing girl.
The Jazz Singer (1927): Starring Al Jolson, this was the first "talkie" film. Jolson plays a young man who gives up his dream of becoming a Broadway singer to replace his father as cantor at a synagogue after his father's death.
First televised news broadcast (1928): This event featured the Democratic nomination of Al Smith for president and aired on WGY in Schenectady, New York.
Steamboat Willie (1929): Produced by Walt Disney, this was the first animated film with synchronized sound and the first film to feature the now-beloved character, Mickey Mouse.
What We Listened To:
First radio sports broadcast (1921): The boxing match between Johnny Ray and Johnny Dundee aired over KDKA in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
First World Series broadcast (1921): The fall classic between the New York Yankees and the New York Giants was broadcast on WJZ in Newark, New Jersey.
First radio broadcast of a full-length play (1922): WGY in Schenectady, New York, broadcast The Wolf, a two-and-a-half-hour play by Eugene Walter.
First football game broadcast (1922): The game between Princeton and the University of Chicago aired over WEAF in New York using long distance telephone lines from Chicago.
First presidential political convention broadcasts (1924): The conventions that led to the nominations of Republican Calvin Coolidge and Democrat John W. Davis were the first of their kind to air on radio.
WSM Barn Dance: Later renamed the Grand Ole Opry, this favorite began broadcasting from Nashville, Tennessee, in 1925.
Sam 'n' Henry: Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, two white actors, created this "colored comedy" about two black men from Alabama who moved to Chicago in search of their fortunes. It first aired on WGN in Chicago, Illinois, in 1926. Sam 'n' Henry was later renamed Amos 'n' Andy; in 1929, it became the first comedy series in history to be broadcast nationwide when it aired over the NBC network.
Car radios: Listening to music and other programming in one's automobile became possible in 1927.
Rose Bowl: Coverage of the classic, annual football game-this time between Stanford and Alabama—was the first coast-to-coast broadcast in 1927.
Who We Knew:
Charles Atlas (1894–1972): Dubbed "America's Most Perfectly Developed Man" in a body-building contest held at Madison Square Garden in 1922.
Al Capone (1899–1947): Nicknamed "Scarface Al," he became a wealthy, powerful bootlegger in Chicago after the leader of the Five Points Gang, Johnny Torrio, became permanently disabled in 1925. Although there were other gangs running illegal liquor rackets, Capone led the most successful and became the most notorious criminal of the time.
Coco (Gabrielle) Chanel (1883–1971): French fashion designer who provided a personal example to women around the world of the "new woman": independent, business-savvy, and free. Her designs and fragrances continue to be fashionable.
Clarence Darrow (1857–1938): A powerful and eloquent defense lawyer who represented John T. Scopes in the highly publicized Scopes "Monkey" Trial of 1925. Although he technically lost the trial about teaching evolution in Tennessee to the prosecution, later rulings about evolution indicate that the eloquent Darrow had swayed public opinion in his favor. He also became known as a defender of civil rights from his representation of the Sweets family in 1925–26 for their efforts to defend themselves against a white mob that tried to drive them off their own property in a white neighborhood in Detroit, Michigan.
Jack Dempsey (1895–1983): Heavyweight boxing champion who symbolized the 1920s pursuit of success by winning the first million-dollar boxing prize and four more throughout the decade.
Harry Houdini (1874–1926): Magician well known in the 1920s for his elaborate tricks and his crusade to denounce believers in the occult. In 1926, he successfully completed his most dangerous trick when he escaped after ninety minutes from a submerged coffin. He died later that year from complications of appendicitis.
Hans von Kaltenborn (1878–1965): Became the first radio news commentator in 1922 when his analysis of a coal strike was broadcast. His comments were regularly broadcast nationally on the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) in the 1930s.
Charles Lindbergh (1902–1974): Aviator Lindbergh captivated the world with his solo cross-Atlantic flight in 1927. He flew his Spirit of St. Louis monoplane 33.5 hours from New York to Paris.
Babe Ruth (1894–1948): Home run hitter who thrilled crowds in his games with the New York Yankees, making baseball a tremendously profitable venture. When he hit a home run on the opening day of Yankee Stadium in 1923, the place was dubbed "The House That Ruth Built."
David C. Stephenson (?–1966): Ku Klux Klan leader convicted of second-degree murder in the 1920s. Upon his conviction, evidence of corruption in the Klan was publicized. The group had reformed after World War I to guard against not only blacks but Jews, Catholics, socialists, and communists as well. In the 1920s, the group hired a public relations firm to recruit members and by 1925 membership swelled to four million and had elected several members to political positions in Texas, Oklahoma, Indiana, Oregon, and Maine.
Billy Sunday (1862–1935): The most well-known evangelist in the country since 1917. He found his quest for a "totally dry America" difficult as the decade wore on and Americans began questioning the Eighteenth Amendment and its supporters.
Walter Winchell (1897–1972): The most well-known "gossip" columnist and perhaps the first. His columns and radio broadcasts were read or listened to by between twenty-five and fifty million people at the height of his popularity during this decade.