1920s: The Roaring Twenties

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1920s: The Roaring Twenties

Popular histories of the 1920s are filled with dramatic stories of this vibrant decade. According to legend, bold bootleggers made fortunes off the thirsty habits of a nation rebelling against the prohibition against alcohol. High-rolling stock market speculators rode an optimistic wave in American business when money seemed to come easily to those who already had it. Women shortened their hair and hemlines to dance the Charleston in smoke-filled speakeasies (illegal bars). These stories of easy money, frivolous excesses, and general naughtiness carried a kernel of truth and gave the decade such nicknames as "The Jazz Age," "The Lawless Decade," and "The Era of Wonderful Nonsense." To be sure, "The Roaring Twenties" was truly one of the more interesting decades in an interesting century.

Business growth in America fueled the optimistic mood of the time. Before World War I (1914–18), American trade with the rest of the world had been limited. During the war, the United States geared up its economy to supply its allies in Europe with solid American steel, agricultural goods, and all sorts of raw materials. With federal funding, the automobile, aircraft, and radio industries developed significantly, making America one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world. Rather than harming American business with a dramatic drop in orders, the end of the war left America in a dominant position in world trade, a position it would nurture for years to come. Presidents Warren G. Harding (1865–1923) and Calvin Coolidge (1872–1933) were probusiness. Herbert Hoover (1874–1964), the secretary of commerce under Coolidge, ran for—and won—the presidency in 1928 as a champion of business, especially business related to the development of aviation and radio.

But the booming decade did leave some behind: those living in rural America. Business success was most readily available to urban, upper-middle-class Americans. Even though the economic indexes rose every year during the decade and politicians pronounced the end of poverty, most Americans lived a very different life from the "shebas" and "sheiks" (fashionable young women and men) who spent money without care and drank like fish. At the beginning of the decade, the census recorded the total population at 105,273,049; by the end of the decade, the number had risen to 122,288,177. Along with the population, big business grew at a dizzying pace, nearly 7 percent each year between 1922 and 1927. Jobs in the ever more crowded cities abounded. But workers in rural areas suffered; farmers actually lost business, with four million of them quitting to move to the city during the 1920s. For the first time in American history, more people lived in urban areas than in rural areas. Technology was transforming the lives of those living in cities, with public utilities providing electricity, natural gas, and running water. But rural areas were left out of these advances; only 10 percent of American farms had electricity and only 33 percent had running water by the end of the decade. New paved roads between cities left small towns isolated from the advances of the decade and effectively killed many of them.

In addition, as jobs in factories demanded new skills, colleges opened in urban areas. But rural people were cut off from such educational opportunities. To make matters worse, 23 percent of blacks, most of whom lived in the rural South, were illiterate in 1920. But even with these inequalities, the average person did lead a healthier life, as shown by the dramatic decline in infant deaths and incidences of epidemic disease.

There were several aspects of popular culture that almost everyone could enjoy. Jazz, the musical form created by black musicians, swept the nation and eventually the world. The boom in radio technology and broadcasting—from no radios produced in the United States in 1921 to more than four million in 1929, with more than ten million households owning a radio—brought jazz music into homes across the nation. Although radio broadcasts and recording studios favored white jazz musicians at first, especially "Jazz King" Paul Whiteman (1890–1967) and George Gershwin (1898–1937), African American musicians such as Jelly Roll Morton (1890–1941), Duke Ellington (1899–1974), and Louis Armstrong (1901–1971) soon became truly successful, playing to audiences of all races.

The movie industry, one of the wealthiest businesses in the decade, hired writers, composers, designers, and painters for unprecedented sums to create "talkies" that anyone could see and hear on the big screen for a handful of change. Kodak introduced the first color motion pictures in 1928. Movie attendance rose from fifty-seven million weekly in 1927 to ninety-five million weekly by 1929. Broadway musicals soon were made into elaborate movie spectaculars that toured the country.

Magazines and newspapers of the time carried the writings of syndicated columnists. Mass circulation ensured that magazines and newspapers could pay writers decent sums for their work. More and more Americans were reading the same stories and news. Readers thrilled to stories by such writers as Sinclair Lewis (1885–1951), F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896–1940), and Willa Cather (1873–1947), who became some of the most respected American writers of all time. The Western novels of Zane Grey (1875–1939) were top sellers. Raymond Chandler (1888–1959) and Dashiell Hammett (1894–1961) pioneered the American "hard-boiled" (tough-guy) detective story with stories for the Black Mask and other pulp magazines.

As F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in his essay "Echoes of the Jazz Age," "It was an age of miracles." The 1920s produced more enduring figures than any other since, more people who changed their fields and captured the interest and imagination of the nation than in any other time in American history. Along with advances in medicine, science, and social work, the decade nurtured talents in the arts, literature, and sports. Charles A. Lindbergh (1902–1974) flew across the Atlantic in thirty-three and a half hours. Eugene O'Neill (1888–1953) became one of America's greatest playwrights, winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1920, 1922, and 1928. Babe Ruth (1895–1948) won the hearts of baseball fans when he hit his "Ruthian" blasts out of the park and led the New York Yankees to win their first World Series in 1923. The sheer number of advances during the era are a testament to the energy of the 1920s, a time when most Americans thought each day would be better than the last.

The decade of such optimism was capped by Black Tuesday, the biggest stock market crash in American history, which occurred on October 29, 1929. Less than a month after the crash, unemployment had risen from 700,000 to 3.1 million. News stories remained optimistic about the future and movie theaters played upbeat shows to boost people's spirits, but the country would not recover for nearly another decade as the Great Depression (1929–41) took hold.

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1920s: The Roaring Twenties

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1920s: The Roaring Twenties