The 1920s, also known as the Roaring Twenties or the Jazz Age, were years of change as America recovered from World War I (1914–18) and embraced new ways of behaving and thinking.
The decade is often associated with outrageousness. Women broke free of the traditions and restraints of the Victorian era in favor of short dresses, short hairstyles, and carefree ways. In clubs and on the radio , the new sounds of jazz became the music of the day. As specified by the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (ratified in 1919),Prohibition went into effect in 1920, making the sale, transport, and manufacture of alcoholic drinks illegal. Speakeasies, which sold liquor illegally, became popular hangouts for those who wanted to drink.
The era was also one of increased crime. Societal attitudes began to shift, leading to what many viewed as a decline in moral values. The stock market crash of 1929 brought on the Great Depression (1929–41), bringing hard times to the nation and dampening the Roaring Twenties' free-spiritedness.
Following the two terms of President Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924; served 1913–21), Republican Warren G. Harding (1865–1923; served 1921–23) was victorious in the 1920 election. His efforts to foster cooperation between government and business led directly to increased economic prosperity as industry grew every year of the decade.
Agriculture's future was not nearly as bright. Farmers were producing too many crops, keeping profits low. In addition, they were paying high prices for the materials and equipment required to run their farms. The combination of large debt and low profits made the life of the American farmer one of daily struggle.
Immigration was restricted in the 1920s. Nativism , a policy favoring native-born, white citizens over immigrants, was prevalent at the time. Legal restrictions on immigration upset business owners, who depended on cheap foreign labor to run their factories and shops. One manifestation of nativism was the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), a secret organization advocating the supremacy of whites that reached its peak in the middle of the decade. KKK members engaged in acts of extreme brutality and violence against African Americans and anyone who befriended or supported them.
President Harding died suddenly in 1923 and was replaced by Calvin Coolidge (1827–1933; served 1923–29). Evidence of scandal and corruption in the Harding administration came to light during the first months of Coolidge's term. As vice president, Coolidge had not been involved in the scandal and he won reelection as president easily in 1924. He embraced an economic policy of laissez-faire (a French phrase that means letting people do as they choose), which holds that the role of government is to stay out of the way of business and economic affairs unless people's property rights are threatened. For example, Coolidge did not support efforts to provide government assistance to needy farmers.
Most Americans agreed with this policy, and in fact the American economy prospered under Coolidge's leadership. Unemployment rates fell, and citizens were seized by a get-rich-quick attitude that led to unwise investment practices and stock market speculation. In 1929, this behavior had disastrous effects. The stock market crash plunged the country into the Great Depression.
The crash occurred on October 29, 1929, only eight months into the term of President Herbert Hoover (1874–1964; served 1929–33). The country's prospects had seemed bright when he took office. But within a month of the crash, 700,000 to 3.1 million were unemployed. Millions were left hungry and homeless, and America spent the next decade searching for work and a new sense of identity.
Prohibition and organized crime
Prohibition, which was supported by many religious groups, doctors, and social reformers but opposed by the general public, had the opposite effect of making drinking fashionable and exciting. Illegal bars called speakeasies became all the rage, and bootleggers (makers and suppliers of alcohol) became modern-day heroes. The penalty for selling one alcoholic drink was five years in prison, and soon overcrowding in jails became a major problem.
As a direct result of Prohibition, organized crime increased. Gangsters like Al Capone (1899–1947) made huge profits off the illegal manufacturing and sales of liquor. Urban America—especially Chicago, Illinois —experienced a drastic increase in violence as mobsters took control of the streets.
Prohibition was repealed in December 1933 and remains the only repealed amendment in the history of the U.S. Constitution.
Jazz swept the nation in the 1920s, and the boom in radio broadcasting brought it into American homes. Rebellious youth embraced the Charleston, a dance that originated among African Americans but became a craze among whites. Viewed by some as a “savage” dance, the Charleston craze was followed by other popular dance steps such as the Jitterbug, Cakewalk, and Turkey Trot.
In the speakeasies and on the dance floors, young women called flappers wore their hair in short bobs and their hemlines above the knees; they wore makeup and high heels and smoked and drank with the men. Both their “modern” behavior and their looks were considered scandalous at the time.
Some of the excesses of the Roaring Twenties came about because people had a little extra money to spend and more leisure time than ever before, as technology and industry gave them automobiles and household appliances. Whereas average citizens had once accepted hard work, restraint, and thrift as requirements of a civilized life, they now wanted to buy things to make life easier and give them more free time away from work. Popular women's magazines featured articles on how a woman could raise her family and still have time for herself.
The theories of Sigmund Freud (1859–1939), the Austrian neurologist and founder of psychoanalysis, had gained great popularity around the world during this era. Americans became interested in Freudian ideas about psychology, human behavior, and personality. Self-improvement books became popular, and many put new emphasis on satisfying individual needs.
The movie industry was one of the most prosperous of the Roaring Twenties. By 1926, there were twenty thousand movie theaters in the United States. Silent film stars like Clara Bow (1905–1965) and Louise Brooks (1906–1985) embodied the ultimate flapper and became role models for young women. Men did their best to imitate the style and dress of dashing leading men such as Rudolph Valentino (1895–1926) and Douglas Fairbanks (1883–1939). Profits grew even larger after the first feature-length film with sound, The Jazz Singer, was released in 1927, and many more “talkies” followed. (Previously, the film industry had consisted primarily of silent movies.) Weekly movie attendance increased from fifty-seven million in 1927 to ninety-five million by 1929.
It was a time of fads and crazes as America's youth took to marathons of all kinds, from dancing to flagpole-sitting. Crossword puzzles and a game called mahjongg became new national pastimes.
The spirit of the era was captured by novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896–1940), who coined the term “Jazz Age.” Considered the premiere chronicler of the Roaring Twenties, Fitzgerald is still widely read. His wife, Zelda, was considered the ultimate flapper, and together the couple lived the life of excess and tragedy that has come to represent the era.
Fitzgerald's best-known book is The Great Gatsby , published in 1925. It explores the themes of tradition versus modern culture, the shallow pursuit of wealth, and the disillusion of the American Dream. The book's narrator, Nick Carraway, who befriends the mysteriously wealthy Jay Gatsby, is swept up by the glamour of the age but struggles with the excessive materialism and lack of morality that accompanied it.
Another important American author of the 1920s is novelist and short-story writer Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961). He was part of the Lost Generation, a term used to refer to several American writers, many of them living in Paris and elsewhere in Europe after World War I, who were disillusioned by the violence of the war. Seeking a new literary freedom, they injected their fiction with an unprecedented realism. Many also sought to break free of social conventions.
The increase in leisure time allowed people to enjoy sports both as participants and spectators. Throughout the 1920s, Americans spent about $200 million each year on sporting goods such as tennis rackets and golf clubs.
Baseball had been around for several decades, but it became hugely popular in the Roaring Twenties. Favorite players of the era included Babe Ruth (1895–1948), Shoeless Joe Jackson (1887–1951), and Lou Gehrig (1903–1941). Sports at the time were still segregated, but the formation of the National Negro Baseball League in 1920 made the sport as popular among African Americans as it was among white spectators.
Before World War I, boxing was considered a violent, low-class sport. As rules changed and regulation of the sport increased, boxing gained respectability and was a favorite pastime of people from all social classes. Jack Dempsey (1895–1983) was a favorite boxer of the 1920s. He met rival Gene Tunney (1898–1978) in the ring in 1926 for the “Fight of the Century.” Although Tunney won the match and became the new heavyweight champion, he never matched Dempsey's popularity.
Golf and tennis became popular sports among both men and women. Once a sport relegated to the upper class, golf now became a weekend sport for the middle class. By 1928, eighty-nine cities across the country had public golf courses.
End of innocence
The Roaring Twenties was the response of a nation weary of war and ready to have some fun. It was a decade of optimism, a time when most Americans thought that tomorrow would be better than today. But, culminating in the Depression, it was also the end of innocence.
Roaring Twenties: 1919–29
Roaring Twenties: 1919–29
The ten years between 1919 and 1929 took Europeans and Americans on a social and economic roller-coaster ride. With the end of World War I in 1918, people abandoned their cautious attitudes caused by the uncertainty of war and embraced the freedom and joyousness of peace. Soldiers returned home to open arms, and businesses shifted gears from supplying military needs to making commercial products. At the end of the war the United States was the strongest economy in the world. The country had supplied European and other nations with manufactured goods and agricultural products throughout the war, becoming a rich trader and source of investment dollars for the world. Britain, France, and especially Germany were devastated by the war. While Britain and France gradually recovered by mid-decade, Germany missed out on the prosperity enjoyed by other countries during the 1920s.
After a brief recession following the war, the U.S. economy began to prosper as never before. This success created new opportunities for most people, a larger middle class, and a higher standard of living. The economic boom gave more people money and created a strong demand for consumer products such as automobiles, radios, and household items. Cities swelled with skyscrapers housing new businesses, high-rise apartment buildings filled cities with prosperous people, and suburbs, or residential areas outside of cities, popped up around urban areas. These changes marked the 1920s as a time of optimism for most people. The decade came to be referred to as the Roaring Twenties to describe the newfound freedoms and sense of rebellion that people, who were often dressing in flashy and extravagant fashions, were experiencing.
Women want more
As the world shifted from focusing on the war to recreating normal domestic habits, however, the changes the war brought became very noticeable. Some things, people realized, would never be the same. When men had gone off to war in the 1910s, women had taken their places in factories and businesses. Over the four years of the war, women had become adept at earning a living outside the home. They did not want to leave their jobs when soldiers came back. And with the death of so many men during the war, some women were forced to continue supporting their families without the help of a man. The struggle to decide whether women would return to their old ways of life or to keep on with their newfound independence was another battle in the long campaign for women's rights. In the United States it led directly to women earning the right to vote in 1920.
Throughout the 1920s education became a focus for youth and young adults alike. Increases in government and private funding allowed schools and colleges to offer more people a solid education than ever before. The increase in education also increased the participation in sports such as swimming, tennis, golf, and horseback riding that became part of college sports programs. With the increase in the wealth of the middle class, more young men and women could afford to go to college to train for better jobs. In the United States more than 150,000 college degrees were awarded to graduates by the end of the 1920s. The popularity of a college education during the decade focused attention on youth and new styles emerged on college campuses throughout the United States and Europe.
Other changes altered everyday life in Europe and the United States. With a prospering economy and high employment, more people than ever had money to spend on entertainment. Automobiles were the most attractive luxury item, and anyone who could afford one had one. The Ford Motor Company had around ten thousand dealerships across the United States by 1924. People, especially Americans, hopped in their cars to explore their country, camping alongside the roads or staying in hotels at distant locations. Cars also offered people the opportunity to commute to work in the city from their homes in quiet suburbs or in housing developments surrounding urban areas. Radios gave people the opportunity to hear news about the world and became increasingly popular for entertainment. By 1925 music dominated 70 percent of the radio airwaves and reached more than 2.5 million American radio listeners. Other entertainment included films and music. People rushed to movie theaters to see the latest films; their popularity made movie actors and actresses into stars. A new type of music called jazz developed in the United States, inspiring new wild dance moves. And people could spend their money at newly constructed retail stores. By 1927 there were seventy thousand different retail locations throughout the United States, including A&P grocery stores, J.C. Penney department stores, Walgreen drugstores, and Fanny Farmer candy stores.
The beginning of Prohibition, an amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1919 that made the manufacture, sale, or transportation of alcohol illegal, did not stop the energetic optimism of the decade, nor did it stop people from drinking. Although some Americans were happy to have a "dry," or alcohol-free, nation, many others supported the creation of speakeasies, illegal places selling alcohol and usually offering live music, dancing, and gambling, for late-night entertainment. So many speakeasies popped up around the country that the police could not effectively enforce Prohibition. By 1926 the sale of alcohol in the United States was estimated to be worth $3.6 billion, making many bootleggers, or people involved in the illegal manufacture and trade of alcohol, millionaires.
The relaxed feeling in the economy was fueled by governmental policies that let businesses grow and compete without much regulation. This, coupled with banking procedures that offered good terms to borrowers but little protection for investors, led to risky financial deals and the growth of many new companies. By the end of the decade the optimism that had inspired the creation of new businesses and investments could no longer sustain the economy and many businesses began to fail. With the stock market crash on October 24, 1929, a new era began: the Great Depression of the 1930s.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Hanson, Erica. The 1920s. San Diego, CA: Lucent Books, 1999.
Katz, William Loren. The New Freedom to the New Deal, 1913–1939. Austin, TX: Raintree Steck-Vaughn, 1993.Clothing, 1919–29
Body Decorations, 1919–29
Roar·ing Twen·ties • pl. n. the decade of the 1920s, characterized by the optimism, buoyancy, and extravagance that followed the somber years of World War I.