Prelude to the 1920s

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Prelude to the 1920s

It is tempting to think of the 1920s as a distinct period bordered on one end by World War I (1914–18), the bloody conflict that was supposed to spread democracy across the globe, and on the other by the Great Depression (1929–41), the period of economic downturn and hardship when millions lost their life savings, their jobs, and the sense of security they had once known. Yet the events of the 1920s had their roots in the past, and their influence strayed into the future. The political isolationism (the belief in staying apart from international politics and economics) that dominated the United States in this period, for example, grew out of people's disillusionment with war and desire to keep out of other countries' troubles. On the other hand, the changing role of women that was set in motion during the 1920s would continue to evolve in coming years.

The period often called the Roaring Twenties or the Jazz Age is popularly remembered for the jazz and blues music and colorful characters it spawned—especially the young women called flappers, who dressed and behaved in a carefree, bold, modern way. The 1920s are famous for the speakeasies, where

people drank liquor made illegal by Prohibition (the popular name for the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which banned the manufacture and sale of alcoholic drinks); for the gun-toting gangsters who shot it out on the streets of Chicago; and for the young people leaning exhausted on each other during dance marathons or sitting on top of flagpoles for hours and hours. Although photographs, written records, and the memories of people still alive show that all of these things really did happen, not everybody took part in all of them.

For example, if you were a wealthy young white woman living in a large city, you might indeed have been a flapper. But if you were an Italian-born factory worker in the same large city, or a black sharecropper in the South, or a middle-aged homemaker in a small western town, or a midwestern farmer, your experiences during the 1920s would have been very different. Although it is generally true that the economy was booming during this period, not everybody—especially farmers, African Americans, and recent immigrants—shared in the prosperity. And not everybody embraced the cultural changes that were taking place.

Changes are both exciting and frightening

The 1920s were in many ways an outrageous time. Changes were happening fast and old ways of doing, being, and thinking were questioned. New ways are exciting, but they are also frightening, so it is not surprising that some people welcomed the changes that came during this decade, while others resisted them. These changes, however, could not be slowed down or stopped. They would shape modern life for many years to come.

Unsettling things like suspicion, inequality, and machine gun-toting gangsters gave the 1920s a dark side. Among the most troubling of these darker trends was the hostility toward immigrants from places like southern Europe (e.g., Italy), eastern Europe (e.g., Poland), Asia, and Mexico, who brought traditions different from those of the white Protestant majority of U.S. citizens. The nation's long-standing and complex conflicts over race relations also increased during this period. There were renewed attacks on African Americans, whose differences from the white mainstream were more familiar than those of the new immigrants but just as unwelcomed.

Still, more neutral or even positive changes were also taking place. Women could now vote, and they also had somewhat easier access to education, employment, and birth control. The family was taking on a warmer, more nurturing role, and young people found themselves more respected. Important discoveries and inventions made people healthier and safer and brought unheard-of conveniences to daily life. Many people could afford automobiles and telephones, and almost everybody had a radio. In new magazines like Time and Reader's Digest, people were dazzled by advertisements for products and appliances that promised to improve their lives, and that they could buy on credit.

A lively new culture

The 1920s saw the birth of a lively mass culture: people from very different places and backgrounds could watch the same movies (now enhanced by sound), laugh at the same radio comedy shows, and worship the same sports heroes. Before the decade was over, advances in transportation made it possible to travel by road or air from one far-off region to another. While these kinds of developments gave many people confidence in the future, others worried that traditional values—especially the individualism that U.S. citizens had always treasured—would be lost. Events like the Scopes Monkey Trial (1925), which centered on a debate between biblical beliefs and the scientific theory of evolution, highlighted the doubt and insecurity that many ordinary people felt.

Meanwhile, the writers of the 1920s were busy producing original literature and commenting on the society around them. Some of the best-known works featured the social criticism of novelist Sinclair Lewis (1885–1951); the biting satire of reporter H.L. Mencken (1880–1956); the powerful dramas of playwright Eugene O'Neill (1888–1953); and the racially charged poems, fiction, and essays of the African Americans who made up the Harlem Renaissance (the period of achievement in African American culture that took place during the 1920s). Musicians were creating the new forms of jazz and blues that would astound the world, and dance both modern (like that performed by Martha Graham [1893–1991]) and popular (like the Charleston and the Black Bottom) was thrilling audiences. Painters, sculptors, architects, and clothing designers were all finding new ways to express themselves.

There is no doubt that the decade of the 1920s was exciting enough to justify the adjective "Roaring" that is often attached to it. But it was also a time of confusion and conflict, as new and old ideas, beliefs, and practices collided with each other. As previously mentioned, the roots of the changes that caused so much excitement and so much struggle may be found in the years leading up to the 1920s.

Industry and immigrants

For more than a century after the colonization and founding of the United States in 1776, the nation's people were occupied with expanding across and settling the immense land they inhabited. The vast majority of them were farmers. But as the twentieth century approached, parts of the country, especially the cities in its eastern half, became more and more industrialized as discoveries and developments made it easier, faster, and cheaper to produce things and to get places. At the same time immigrants from other nations, some pulled by the promise of a better life and some pushed by hardships and mistreatment in their own societies, streamed into the United States.

The nation was changing. The cities were growing larger and more crowded, with vast numbers of mostly poor people crammed together. Corruption was also on the rise, as political "machines" (organizations with seemingly unlimited power and influence) came to control city and state governments. Society itself was changing, too, as people from a wider variety of ethnic and religious backgrounds came together in a new mixture that was not always well blended.

For the first two centuries of its existence, the United States had been dominated by the worldview of people whose ancestors came from such northern European countries as England and the Netherlands. They were white and mostly Protestant, and their values were shaped by the Victorian Age (defined by the years 1837 to 1901, the reign of England's Queen Victoria), which emphasized hard work and a strict moral code based on sobriety, restraint, and traditional Christianity. With the dawn of the twentieth century, though, these values were challenged as a new kind of culture took shape. The new society would introduce different views of women and the family and different approaches to both work and leisure.

The Progressive Era

Meanwhile, in the years that fell between the end of the old and the beginning of the new, came a period called the Progressive Era. It lasted from about 1900 to about 1914 and was led by a loose group of leaders from business, agriculture, and labor as well as radical thinkers like Socialists (who believe in shared or government ownership of the means of production and distribution of goods), anarchists (who believe that no form of government is desirable), and feminists (who support equal rights for women). Although each of these groups had its own ideas and aims, all were reformers; that is, they believed that society needed improvement.

Many reform-minded people were worried that the large corporations that had formed near the end of the nineteenth century had too much power. Thus they sought to give government more ability to protect the rights of individuals, especially workers and consumers. This kind of "activist" government, they hoped, could counterbalance the loss of individuality brought about through modern inventions like the assembly line (which made for much faster production but also boredom, by requiring each worker to perform one task over and over) and the scientific management theory (based on more rigidly structured companies).

Some of the reforms introduced during the Progressive Era included public health measures, workmen's compensation, and laws to restrict child labor and the formation of monopolies (companies with exclusive control of one product or industry). This period had strong threads of morality and nativism (favoring native inhabitants over immigrants) running through it, especially in regard to women's right to vote and the temperance movement (which tried to persuade people to stop drinking alcohol). The suffrage movement had been fighting to win the vote for women since the middle of the nineteenth century, but it was not until 1920, with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, that women finally earned this right. Supporters had worked hard to convince the public that, because women were thought to be naturally more pure, more virtuous, and more morally upright than men, they should be allowed to vote so that they could have a good influence on society.

Similarly, many people considered drinking a sinful practice that led to poverty and violence. Groups like the Anti-Saloon League (founded in 1893) argued for a ban on alcohol not only because it would, they believed, improve the lives and productivity of U.S. citizens but also because it would force the new wave of immigrants to behave more like the well-established majority. Whereas the white Protestants of the United States tended to disapprove of alcoholic beverages, these beverages formed an important part of many newcomers' cultures. Thus these immigrants were among those disappointed when the temperance movement managed to push

Amending the Constitution

The Roaring Twenties was a time of major social change and conflict as the values of the earlier centuries were altered or replaced by modern ones. The document at the heart of the U.S. political system, the Constitution, reflected these changes. Two amendments added at the beginning of the decade were both the product of many years of work by reform groups. They sought to improve U.S. society by banning one practice and allowing another.

Nearly a century of efforts by the temperance movement resulted in what was called the "Noble Experiment" of Prohibition. In early 1919 Congress passed the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which made it illegal to manufacture, transport, or sell alcoholic beverages. The amendment was meant to put an end to what reformers felt were the negative consequences of drinking, such as decreased worker productivity and family violence.

Prohibition remained a controversial and divisive issue throughout the 1920s. Society was divided into the "Wets," who thought that people should be free to drink alcohol if they chose, and the "Drys," who believed that Prohibition was necessary. Those who suffered most from the ban were the urban poor. Many were immigrants who came from cultures in which alcoholic beverages were accepted and valued.

As the decade wore on, though, it was the increase in crime that captured the attention of most U.S. citizens. Despite Prohibition, many people still wanted to drink, and bootlegging was hugely profitable. Organized crime was making millions, and law enforcement agencies seemed unwilling or unable to do much about it. The mounting violence and lawlessness shocked ordinary people and made it easier for the Wets to campaign for the repeal, or overturning, of Prohibition.

Led by New York governor and Democratic presidential candidate Alfred E. Smith, the repeal effort resulted in the February 1933 passage of the Twenty-First Amendment, which overturned the Eighteenth Amendment. Prohibition was now seen as a relic of an earlier, more simple time, and something that no longer suited the modern, more sophisticated U.S. society.

Also reflective of social change was the Nineteenth Amendment, which gave women the right to vote and signaled the beginning of a major shift in women's roles. Led by feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the suffrage movement had begun in 1848 at a meeting called the Seneca Falls Convention. Just as Prohibition was intended as a positive social force, supporters of suffrage held that women could exert more of a moral influence on society if they were allowed to vote.

On August 26, 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment was signed into law. Its positive effects were not as immediately obvious as its supporters had expected, though, for the enthusiasm and activism of the Progressive Era receded during the 1920s, and many women chose not to exercise their new right. Nevertheless, winning access to the ballot box was an important step in the evolution of women's rights that took place throughout the course of the twentieth century.

through the Eighteenth Amendment in 1919, which made it illegal to make or sell most alcoholic drinks. Prohibition would play an important role in the mood and practices of the 1920s, but it would eventually prove unenforceable.

African Americans migrate to the North

Another important trend in the years leading up to the 1920s was that of African American migration from the southern states to the northern cities. Beginning in the seventeenth century, black people who had been captured in Africa and transported across the ocean had been forced to work as slaves on the farms and plantations of the South. By the time of the American Civil War (1861–65), there were about four million slaves in the United States.

Although the Civil War had made all African Americans free, they still faced many hardships and injustices. Poor economic conditions, the Jim Crow laws that made discrimination legal, and violent attacks by hostile whites all provided reasons for blacks to leave the South. During the first quarter of the twentieth century, they traveled north in great numbers, hoping to create better lives.

Between 1916 and 1918, for example, five hundred thousand blacks had moved to such large northern cities as Chicago, Illinois; New York City; and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. By the end of the 1920s this number doubled. Crowded into poor and racially separated neighborhoods and still limited to the lowest-paying jobs, African Americans found that many of their dreams were still out of reach. Yet the 1920s would also be a time of racial pride and achievement. The writers, musicians, artists, and thinkers of the Harlem Renaissance, for example, would demonstrate the range and depth of black talent.

Meanwhile, though, racial violence was all too common. In 1917 forty blacks were killed in a racially sparked riot in East St. Louis, Missouri. Race riots also erupted two years later in Chicago, Illinois; Knoxville, Tennessee; and Longview, Texas. Even more troubling was the re-emergence in 1915 of the Ku Klux Klan, the white terrorist group that had carried out a brutally successful campaign against blacks during the Reconstruction Era (the period stretching roughly from the Civil War to the end of the 1870s, when the political and social structure of the defeated South was reorganized). This time the Klan would extend its hatred beyond African Americans to include Jews, Catholics, and immigrants. Playing on the fears and suspicions that many whites felt toward those they perceived as different from themselves, Klan members would claim to be the defenders of tradition and morality.

World War I

While the citizens of the United States struggled with change and division, a conflict between nations was brewing overseas. Beginning in 1914, World War I pitted the Allies—France, Great Britain, and Italy—against Germany, which was seeking to expand its territory. At first the United States seemed determined to stay clear of the conflict. The nation's leader at this time was President Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924; served 1913–21), a Democrat elected in 1912. The son of a Presbyterian minister and the former president of Princeton University, Wilson was an idealistic, reform-minded man. During his first term he presided over several Progressive Era crusades. Through a program he called the New Freedom, he sought to curb the power of business interests by expanding government's influence.

Wilson at first vowed to keep the United States out of the European conflict; in fact, he won re-election in 1916 on the strength of the slogan "He Kept Us Out of War." But then German submarines began attacking merchant ships in the Atlantic Ocean, resulting in the deaths of several U.S. citizens. Finally, in April 1917, the United States declared war on Germany.

The earlier reluctance of U.S. citizens to join the fight now turned to enthusiasm since this effort was intended, as was commonly said, to "make the world safe for democracy." The economy boomed as orders came in from overseas for war materials, equipment, and food. The addition of U.S. troops helped the Allies win the war, but the conflict—waged with new, more effective weapons, airplanes, and trench warfare—was incredibly bloody. More than 15 million people died. The United States, however, suffered a comparatively low 320,000 casualties, including 130,000 killed.

Many people around the world were both horrified by the high cost of war and disillusioned with its results. According to historian Nathan Miller in his book New World Coming: The 1920s and the Making of Modern America, "The universal presumptions of the Victorian Age—progress, order, and culture—were blown to bits. For those who had endured the savagery of the fighting and those who lost husbands, fathers, brothers, lovers, and friends, life would never be the same again."

Within the United States, the war had led to even more suspicion of foreigners, radicals, and even just people who disagreed with the government. Several acts were passed to prevent people from expressing their opinions in public, including the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918. During the war Wilson had also taken steps to put the government in charge of functions previously performed by private businesses and industries (such as the railroads).

Wilson's plan for peace

World War I ended in November 1918 when Germany agreed to an armistice, or peace agreement. Armed with a plan for peace he called the Fourteen Points, Wilson traveled to Europe to negotiate a treaty with the leaders of the other nations involved in the war. Meeting with Wilson in Versailles, France, were French premier Georges Clemenceau (1841–1929), British prime minister David Lloyd George (1863–1945), and Italian premier Vittorio Emanuele Orlando (1860–1952). Greeted as a hero by European crowds, Wilson nevertheless faced a difficult struggle in pushing through his ideas for what he called "peace without victory."

An important part of Wilson's plan involved the establishment of the League of Nations, an organization of countries that would agree to work together to resolve conflicts before declaring war. Although the Treaty of Versailles did finally include the League of Nations, many of Wilson's other ideas were ignored. The treaty laid down very harsh terms for Germany (for example, it had to pay the outrageous sum of $33 billion for losses suffered by the Allies during the war), which many correctly predicted would one day lead to another war.

Back in the United States, Wilson faced opposition to the League of Nations. Some members of Congress wanted to change it in various ways, but Wilson refused to compromise. Although the United States eventually signed a document that officially ended the war, the nation never did join the League of Nations (which would later provide a model for the United Nations, formed in 1945). Bitterly disappointed, Wilson waited out the rest of his term, and in March 1921 he left office. The new president was Warren G. Harding (1865–1923; served 1921–23), who would preside over the first part of a decade marked by optimism and prosperity as well as conflict and doubt.

The war's aftermath

For U.S. citizens, the immediate aftermath of World War I was marked by both a sense of relief and new problems. The end of the war spelled the end of European orders for U.S. products and food, resulting in drastic cuts in production and worker layoffs. This meant that many of those who had been hired to work in factories and other businesses during the war, especially African Americans and women, became unemployed as returning soldiers entered the work force again. Stock market prices fell, and farming entered a depression that would last through the 1920s.

These economic troubles led to major labor unrest in 1919, when more than four million workers (or 22 percent of the work force) went on strike to demand better wages and working hours. They also wanted employers to accept and work with unions (organizations of workers formed to protect their interests), as they had during the war. Major strikes occurred across the country, from Seattle to Pittsburgh to Boston. The strikes generally failed, however, as profits continued to fall, wages were cut, and layoffs continued. The economy would soon improve, but the labor movement would not grow strong again until the 1930s.

The Red Scare

At the beginning of the 1920s, the suspicion of foreigners and foreign ideas had been growing along with the increase in immigration to the United States. This had been deepened by the onset of World War I and resulted in a series of events called the Red Scare. The color red was often associated with Communism, the belief that all property should be distributed between all citizens equally. Communism was one of the ideas that many people in the United States believed was being introduced into their country from the outside. Fear that Communists might take over the nation and destroy its democratic system was inflamed by the Bolshevik Revolution (1917) in Russia, in which Communists overthrew the czar (the traditional ruler of Russia) and established a Communist state called the Soviet Union.

The Communist Party did exist in the United States, and even though it did not have very many members, some U.S. citizens blamed such problems as unemployment, strikes, and even the influenza epidemic on Communists. In early 1919 several well-known public figures, including Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes (1841–1935), were the victims or attempted victims of bomb attacks, some involving bombs sent through the mail. Found near the attack sites were printed materials calling for a worker revolution. One of the victims was Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer (1872–1936), whose home was bombed. Previously, Palmer had been a strong defender of individual rights, but now his views had changed. He became one of the leaders of a movement aimed at promoting what its members called "100 percent Americanism."

Palmer used his power to organize a campaign against Communists and others with radical ideas. The targets of the campaign, however, would include many people who were just suspected of belonging to the wrong group or having the wrong ideas. On January 2, 1920, federal agents in thirty-three cities raided homes and businesses—such as pool halls, restaurants, and community centers—and arrested more than 4,000 suspects. In many cases, the agents did not have the proper warrants needed to make these arrests legal. Among the people rounded up, those who did not have citizenship papers were held for deportation hearings (legal proceedings to determine if they could be forced to leave the country), and 249 of them were eventually sent back to the Soviet Union.

Despite the drastic measures taken during this period, the Red Scare did not last long. By the end of 1920 it was over, as most U.S. citizens realized that the threat posed by Communists and other radicals had been greatly exaggerated. Looking back on what happened during this period, it seems strange that the cherished values of freedom of speech and freedom of the press, which are guaranteed to all citizens of the United States by its Constitution, were actually more threatened by the federal government than by any outside forces.

The influenza epidemic

Also adding to the rather grim tone of the period between the end of World War I and the beginning of the 1920s was a worldwide epidemic of influenza. Overall, this quickly spreading illness killed more people than had died in the war. Influenza broke out first near Boston, Massachusetts, in September 1918, and within nine months it had killed five hundred thousand U.S. citizens (including seven hundred in one day in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) as well as almost twenty-two million people around the globe. Schools were closed and public gatherings were banned. In some places, spitting or coughing in the streets was even forbidden. People walked around wearing gauze masks over their mouths, and coffin makers worked overtime.

Strangely, though, the influenza epidemic did not get much media coverage, as newspapers were filled with news of the war and armistice. After about a year, the disease died out as quickly and as mysteriously as it had appeared. Some have said, however, that the horrible costs of both war and disease contributed to the escapist mood that would characterize the 1920s.

For More Information


Allen, Frederick Lewis. Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s. New York: Perennial, 1964.

Boer, Lawrence, and John D. Walther, eds. Dancing Fools and Weary Blues: The Great Escape of the Twenties. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green University Press, 1990.

Heckscher, August. Woodrow Wilson: A Biography. New York: Scribner, 1991.

Higham, John. Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism. New York: Atheneum, 1965.

Katz, William Loren. The New Freedom to the New Deal 1913–1939. Austin, TX: Raintree Steck-Vaughn, 1993.

Leavell, J. Perry, Jr. Woodrow Wilson. New Haven, CT: Chelsea House, 1987.

Levin, Phyllis Lee. Edith and Woodrow: The Wilson White House. New York: Scribner, 2001.

Miller, Nathan. New World Coming: The 1920s and the Making of Modern America. New York: Scribner, 2003.

Noggle, Burl. Into the Twenties: The United States from Armistice to Normalcy. Urbana: University of Illinois, 1974.

Perret, Geoffrey. America in the Twenties. New York: Touchstone, 1982.

Trani, Eugene P., and David L. Wilson. The Presidency of Warren G. Harding. Lawrence: Regents Press of Kansas, 1977.

Web Sites

"American Cultural History, Decade 1920–1929." Kingwood College Library. Available online at Accessed on June 17, 2005.

Best of History Websites. Available online at Accessed on June 17, 2005.

Clash of Cultures in the 1910s and 1920s. Available online at Accessed on June 17, 2005.

Interpreting Primary Sources. Digital History. Available online at Accessed on June 17, 2005.

"Woodrow Wilson." The White House. Available online at Accessed on June 17, 2005.