The 1920s were a period of rapid industrial growth, economic prosperity, and cultural change. Due mainly to the automobile industry, building and road construction, the development of the radio and advertising industries, and the emergence of "the new woman," the 1920s are often seen as the first "modern" decade in which the major characteristics of the twentieth century first emerged. Tensions between ideas of modernity and accepted traditional values characterize the popular culture of the twenties.
Following American involvement in the First World War, the 1920s witnessed an emphasis on domestic concerns such as the economy and the cultural values of American society. The economic boom of the 1920s, best illustrated by Henry Ford's dominance of the automobile industry through the use of interchangeable parts in automobile production, led to a high standard of living for many Americans as wages increased while working hours decreased. This was possible mainly through the increased mechanization of industry and production on a massive scale. Ford's River Rouge plant in Michigan, in which raw materials were processed, parts fabricated and assembled all under Ford's control, illustrates the strengths of the 1920s economy. Ford produced an automobile which required little in highly paid skilled labor and could be sold at a relatively cheap price. The automobile industry, in turn, fueled growth in related industries such as construction, glass, rubber, oil, and tourism. This boom created an American economy in which industrial production, for the first time, outpaced consumer demand. In order to accommodate this increase in production, corporations turned to advertising as a way to increase demand. It was during the 1920s that businesses began advertising directly to consumers and not retailers. The purpose of the advertisements became less about the presentation of information about a product and more about creating a positive image for a corporation or product by implying various benefits resulting from the product's purchase. Employing popularized ideas about the expression of desires taken from Sigmund Freud's theories of sexual repression leading to neurosis, advertisers sought to exploit the desires of the consuming public by emphasizing the benefits of consumption.
The emphasis on expression over repression went beyond the realm of advertising and can be seen in the popular culture of the 1920s. From novels such as F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (1925) and Sinclair Lewis' Babbitt (1922) to the increasingly frenetic sound of jazz music and new dances such as the Lindy Hop (named after famous flyer Charles Lindbergh), American popular culture reflected a modern sense of ethics and values focused on individual pleasure and expression. Even all-American celebrities, such as Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, were challenged by more sexually expressive personalities such as Rudolph Valentino and Greta Garbo. This more modern approach to popular culture was reinforced by modern media, such as the radio, phonographs, and sound film. Both the form and content of 1920s popular culture demonstrated a sense of modernity.
In literature, the 1920s were characterized by the writings of what Gertrude Stein called "the lost generation." Writers such as Fitzgerald, Lewis, Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, e. e. cummings, and Sherwood Anderson critiqued American society, especially the traditions and values of rural life, or in their words, "the village." These writers were disillusioned by their involvement in the First World War and this disillusionment is reflected in their writings. It was a lost generation, according to Malcolm Cowley in Exile's Return: A Literary Odyssey of the 1920s "because it was uprooted, schooled away, and almost wrenched away from its attachment to any region or tradition." But the "lost generation" writers were not the only significant writers during the 1920s. Women like Edna St. Vincent Millay attempted to capitalize on the less repressive atmosphere of the 1920s by flaunting sexual expression in their poetry and life, and African American writers such as poets Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen, novelists Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, Jessie Faust, and Zora Neale Hurston joined artists such as Aaron Douglas and Augusta Savage in leading the "Harlem Renaissance."
This greater mainstream acceptance of African-American culture is also reflected in the growing influence of jazz music on American popular music. The First World War was instrumental in the spread of jazz music. The military's forced closure of New Orleans' red light district, Storyville, forced many jazz musicians employed there out of Louisiana northward in search of other opportunities, and war mobilization provided greater contact between races at military installations and wartime manufacturing plants. These two factors led black musicians to adapt black blues and jazz to the expectations of a white audience. Jazz spread first among younger audiences, mainly due to its spontaneous nature and its association with chaotic dancing, and critics denounced it as unmusical, intoxicating, and immoral. Despite these objections, jazz became the most popular form of music during the 1920s, dominating the radio airwaves, record sales, and even influencing movies such as The Jazz Singer (1927). As jazz music became more popular, it also became more standardized, organized, and arranged. What had once been music that emphasized improvisation throughout a piece became a highly structured, formulaic genre in which improvisation was limited to specific breaks in the arrangement of jazz "riffs." What had been "hot" jazz, by musicians such as Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five, became "sweet" jazz at the hands of band leaders like Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians, or "symphonic" jazz in the words of Paul Whiteman. Whiteman's orchestra debuted George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," in 1924, subtitled "for jazz band and piano." The work was primarily symphonic with jazz motifs. These orchestras and large bands developed what would become Big Band swing music in the 1930s and 1940s.
Like jazz music, motion pictures also gained greater acceptance during the 1920s as they moved out of working-class storefront nickelodeons into grand movie palaces attracting a middle-class and middle-brow audience. In the various conflicts between traditional values and modernity, movies challenged accepted middle-class values. According to Robert Sklar, in his book Movie-Made America: A Cultural History of American Movies, "movies came to be seen as offering values distinctly different from those of middle-class culture, and providing greater opportunities for ethnic minorities than other economic sectors." Not only was the movie industry dominated by recent immigrants, the films themselves (being silent in the early 1920s) were easily adapted to a variety of immigrant cultures and easily understood by immigrant audiences, and as the audience for movies grew, so did the respectability of movies as an art form and acceptable leisure activity. The movie industry portrayed a changing America not only through the opportunities it created for a more heterogeneous population, or the attractions it held for a mass audience, but the movies themselves presented the values of modern America at the same time as it reinforced traditional middle-class values. Two of the most popular male stars illustrate this point. Rudolph Valentino, in his short career before his sudden death in 1926, embodied the modern, passionate, and sexually expressive male of the 1920s in such films as The Sheik (1921) and Blood and Sand (1922), while Douglas Fairbanks, in The Mark of Zorro (1920), Robin Hood (1922), and The Thief of Bagdad (1925), embodied the traditional, robust, athletic, all-American male. Both men became celebrities and helped to cultivate the studio star system in which performers became the major commodity used in selling a movie to the public.
The 1920s witnessed the consolidation of the power of the studios, especially Paramount Studios under Adolph Zukor, which was the largest of the silent film producers. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was created by theater owner Marcus Loew, who bought and combined Metro Picture Company with Samuel Goldwyn's Picture Company under the direction of Louis B. Mayer. Chafing under the influence of powerful producers and studio executives, director D. W. Griffith, and actors Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, and Mary Pickford formed the United Artists Corporation in 1919 to distribute individually produced films, and thereby avoid the formal structure of a studio. Each of these companies controlled several aspects of film production, distribution, and exhibition, yet the greatest change in Hollywood film occurred at the fledgling Warner Brothers Studio when they purchased and began producing films with the Vitaphone (sound-on-disc) technology in 1926. Within a few years, sound film production outpaced silent film. With the premiere of The Jazz Singer in 1927, the silent era ended.
In many ways, the silent era in popular culture ended earlier with the spread of radio technology in the 1920s. From amateurs broadcasting in basements and garages to fully formed and regulated networks after the Radio Act of 1927, the radio industry developed into Americans' most utilized and trusted source of news, information, and entertainment. The 1920s were a decade of growth for the radio industry, not only in its technical aspects, but in regards to programming as well. Radio stations learned what worked well on radio and what did not. The most attractive aspect of radio for the audience was its immediacy. Broadcasts of sporting events, from boxing matches and baseball games, political conventions and election returns, live remote broadcasts from big-city ballrooms, and news reporting all became mainstays of the radio industry. Radio also found itself the new home of variety entertainment after the decline of vaudeville. The most popular radio comedy, Amos and Andy, featured white vaudevillians Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll portraying two black southerners whose simple ways and common misunderstandings provided the humor for the show. The pervasive nature of radio reinforced, to a national audience, many regionally held stereotypes, especially of minorities. Many people believed what they heard on the radio, not only because it was capable of presenting news upon its occurrence, but because the radio produced a certain form of intimacy in which the listener identified with the broadcast in ways unlike other forms of media. The presence of a radio set within one's home and the necessity of the listener to create images from the sounds presented resulted in each listener creating a very personal program, unique and individual. This transformation in communications and entertainment, through its immediacy and national appeal, reinforced the feeling that the 1920s were the start of the "modern" era.
This modern shift in social and cultural values did not take place unopposed. Several social movements can be explained as a revolt against the changes occurring in American society; as a revolt against modernity. Nativism, prohibition, and counter-evolution were all attempts to save traditional values in the face of change. Nativism came in three basic forms. All, however, expressed a deep discomfort with the changes occurring in American society and mainly with the changes occurring as a result of immigration. Anti-radicalism was a form of nativism in which people who disagreed with the government were seen as undesirable. The attacks on foreigners during and after WWI, in such notable instances as the Palmer raids and the unfair trial of anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti were all part of this fear of radicals, especially in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917. This fear of radicals spilled over into a fear of non-Protestants, especially against Jews, but even against Catholics. Michigan and Nebraska both passed laws prohibiting parochial schools, and critics of President Woodrow Wilson called him "the puppet of the Pope." This fear of others naturally translated into fierce support of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. In 1921, Madison Grant wrote The Passing of the Great Race in which he described not only the hierarchy of races, with whites being at the top, but he also distinguished between whites by dividing Europeans into three main groups, Mediterraneans, Alpines, and Nordics, with Nordics being the superior group. This belief in the inferiority of Asians, Africans, and southern and eastern Europeans led to the passage of the National Origins Act of 1924 in which immigration quotas were designed to increase the number of nordic immigrants while decreasing all others; this also meant the complete exclusion of Asian immigrants and small quotas for southern and eastern European immigrants. The most dramatic example of nativism during the 1920s can be seen in the revival of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). Unlike the post-Civil War era, when the purpose of the Klan was to intimidate African Americans, the 1920s Klan advocated white supremacy over not only Blacks, but also Jews, Catholics, and any immigrants who were not white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. The Klan also became modern by using expert advertisers to promote themselves and recruit new members. By 1923 over 3 million Americans were members of the Klan, with the strongest Klan organizations in the Midwest and the West.
In January of 1919 the 18th Amendment was passed, prohibiting the manufacturing, selling, or transporting of intoxicating beverages in the United States. The Volstead Act of 1919 defined intoxicating beverages as anything with more than 0.5 percent alcohol. This move towards prohibition of alcohol was yet another attempt to return America to what many perceived as its past. The proliferation of saloons in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was seen by many people as an expression of change, of encroaching foreign influence. Halting this process of change meant reinforcing and retaining traditional values.
Part of the attack on things foreign and things new was the attack on science, and especially in those areas where scientific theory and practice conflicted with deeply held religious beliefs, such as in the case of the theory of evolution and the belief in creationism. In 1925, the state of Tennessee passed a law prohibiting the teaching of evolution in public schools and colleges. In a test case in July of 1925, schoolteacher John T. Scopes was tried under this law in Dayton, Tennessee. The case became a national sensation, with two of the most prominent attorneys representing each side. The American Civil Liberties Union hired the famous trial lawyer Clarence Darrow to argue against the law, while the state got William Jennings Bryan (the populist and Democratic presidential hopeful) to argue its side. The "monkey trial," as it was known, argued over the issue of evolution versus creationism, but in the end the judge ruled that the only thing that mattered was the fact that Scopes did teach evolution and therefore was guilty. He was fined $100, which was suspended by the state supreme court. It was a victory for the anti-modernists, but it would be their last one. A few days after the trial ended, William Jennings Bryan died, and with him died much of the 1920s fundamentalist movement.
Each of these social movements (nativism, prohibition, and anti-evolutionism), seen in conjunction with the rapid spread of automobiles, economic prosperity, and the radio and film industries, illustrates the conflicted state of American culture during the 1920s.
—Charles J. Shindo
Cowley, Malcolm. Exile's Return: A Literary Odyssey of the 1920s. New York, Penguin, 1976.
Dumenil, Lynn. The Modern Temper: America Culture and Society in the 1920s. New York, Hill and Wang, 1995.
Hentoff, Nat, and Albert J. McCarthy, editors. Jazz: New Perspectives on the History of Jazz. New York, DeCapo, 1959.
Nash, Roderick. The Nervous Generation: American Thought, 1917-1930. New York, Ivan R. Dee, 1990.
Sklar, Robert. Movie-Made America: A Cultural History of American Movies. New York, Vintage, 1975.