The roaring twenties

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The 1920s are often remembered as an era of affluence, conservatism, and cultural frivolity. In reality, however, the decade was a time of significant, even dramatic social, economic, and political change. It was an era in which the American economy not only enjoyed spectacular growth but developed new forms of organization. It was a time in which the American popular culture reshaped itself to reflect the increasingly urban, industrial, consumer-oriented society of the United States. It was also a decade on which American government experimented with new approaches to public policy. That was why contemporaries liked to refer to the 1920s as the “New Era” – an age in which America was becoming a modern nation.
The New Economy
No one could deny the remarkable feats of the American economy in the 1920s. The nation’s manufacturing output rose by more than 60 percent. Per capita income grew by a third. Inflation was negligible. A mild recession in 1923 interrupted the pattern of growth; but when it subsided early in 1924, the economy expanded with even greater vigor.

This phenomenal economic growth was led by the automobile industry. The number of cars on the road almost tripled between 1920 and 1929, stimulating the production of steel, rubber, plate glass, and other materials that went into make an automobile. Henry Ford pioneered the two key developments that made this industry growth possible – standardization and mass production. Standardization meant making every car basically the same. Mass production used standardized parts and division of labor on Ford’s moving assembly line to produce cars quickly and efficiently. These innovations had a dramatic impact on price: a Model T that sold for $850 in 1908 sold for $290 in 1924. Ford also created new management techniques that became known as welfare capitalism. To build worker loyalty and blunt the development of unions, Ford raised his worker’s wages to the highest in the industry and established the 5-day, 40-hour workweek. Other companies followed suit, improving working conditions, setting up company unions, offering health insurance and profit-sharing plans, and developing recreational programs. These tactics, along with yellow dog contracts, worked; union membership dropped by almost two million between 1920 and 1929.

American industry produced thousands of consumer goods in the 1920s, everything from automobiles to washing machines to electric razors. Mass consumption was encouraged through advertising, designed to create demand for a particular product, and installment buying, enabling people to purchase products and pay for them through monthly payments (also called “buying on time”). Advertising in the 1920s was aimed a blurring the distinction between “want” and “need.” The power of advertising even influenced religion. Bruce Barton’s 1925 bestseller, The Man Nobody Knows, portrayed Jesus Christ as a master salesman and linked the spread of Christianity to successful advertising. The opportunity to buy on credit was also a [powerful marketing tool. Businesses went so far as encouraging consumers to put a small amount down and pay off the balance in monthly installments, as opposed to saving money for an item and purchasing it with cash. As a result, Americans’ savings rate dropped sharply in the 1920s, and their personal debt rose.
The New Woman
One of the most enduring images of the 1920s is the flapper, a young woman with short hair, wearing a knee-length dress, rolled-up stockings, and unbuttoned rain boots that flapped (hence the name) when she walked. With a new look came new attitudes and values. Women smoked in public, frequented bars, and adopted a more permissive outlook toward premarital sex. Margaret Sanger, who had first promoted birth control before World War I as a means of sparing poor women from unwanted pregnancies, argued that the diaphragm gave women more sexual freedom. The new woman’s mystique was exemplified by the heroines of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novels This Side of Paradise (1920) and The Great Gatsby (1925), and film stars such as Gloria Swanson.

Taboos about sex discussion were lifted; women talked freely about inhibitions and “sex starvation.” Speech became bolder, and men and women told one another off-color stories. Parental control of sex was greatly lessened; the chaperone vanished at dances. Victorian dance forms like the waltz yielded to the fast-stepping Charleston, the Black Bottom, or slow fox-trots in which there was “maximum of motion in a minimum of space.” In the Jazz Age, young girls no longer consciously modeled themselves on their mothers, whose experience seemed unusable in the 1920s.

But the flapper represented only a small percentage of American women; for most, life changed very little. When World War I ended, most women in the work force lost their jobs. Female employment in the 1920s grew slowly, and only in occupations traditionally identified with women – office and social work, teaching, nursing, and the clothing industry – and the women who performed these jobs were usually single, divorced, or widowed. At home, despite claims of more leisure time due to the myriad of electrical appliances on the market, the amount of housework to be done did not diminish. After the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, women’s political progress was also slowed.
Popular Culture
Commercial radio began in 1920 when Pittsburg station KDKA broadcast the results of the presidential election. As the number of homes with radios rapidly increased – from 60,000 in 1922 to more than 10 million in 1929 – the airwaves became the medium over which Americans got their news and entertainment. The business of radio was simple and supported the growing consumer culture: local radio stations affiliated themselves with national networks, such as NBC (1926) or CBS (1927), which provided programming underwritten by companies who bought air time for their commercials.

Motion pictures also became a major entertainment industry during the 1920s, and the leading stars of the time – Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, and Rudolph Valentino – became popular icons. “Going to the movies” became a social occasion and even greater phenomenon with the release of The Jazz Singer in 1927, the first “talking” motion picture.

The print media also expanded in the 1920s. The exploits of celebrities were splashed across pages of new tabloid newspapers such as New York City’s Daily News and Daily Mirror, or were covered in the weekly magazine Time. The bestseller lists of the 1920s featured novels destined to become classics: Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street (1920), a critique of small town life and society, and Ernest Hemmingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926), the story of expatriate Americans in France and Spain after World War I.

The 1920s also produced a new type of hero: sports figures. Celebrated home run king Babe Ruth (New York Yankees) popularized major league baseball; boxing heavy weight champion Jack Dempsey and college football’s Red Grange also became household names whose athletic accomplishments were followed by millions in newspapers and on the radio. Daring feats could also turn people into instant celebrities, as in the case of Gertude Ederle when she became the first woman to swim the English Channel (1926). Richard Byrd’s 1926 flight over the North Pole earned him the Congressional Medal of Honor. Following his solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean in March 1927, Charles Lindbergh became without question the most famous person in America and perhaps the world.

A Conflict of Cultures
The modern, secular culture of the 1920s did not go unchallenged. It grew up alongside an older, more traditional culture, with which it continually and often bitterly competed.

When prohibition went into effect in January 1920, it had the support of most members of the middle class and those who considered themselves progressives. In less than a year, however, it became clear that the “noble experiment” was not working well as it produced conspicuous and growing violations. With legitimate businessmen barred to a lucrative industry, organized crime took over. Many middle-class progressives soon soured on the experiment, while rural, Protestant Americans continued to vigorously defend it. Some defenders of an older, more provincial, America, saw the continued influx on immigrants as a threat to their values. This provincial nativism helped to instigate the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan as a major force in American society. In Dayton, Tennessee in 1925, religious fundamentalist and modernists clashed in a test case involving John T. Scopes, a local high school biology teacher who, in violation of a recently-enacted state law, had taught Darwin’s theory of evolution to his class.


  1. How important was the automobile industry to the phenomenal economic growth of the 1920s?

  2. How was the “New Woman” of the 1920s different from other women and women of previous generations?

  3. On the whole, which Americans felt most threatened by the modern, secular culture of the 1920s?

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