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
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Politics in the 1920s
During the Progressive Era (roughly 1900–14), many U.S. leaders and citizens believed that the government should take an active role in protecting individuals, especially children, workers, and consumers. They wanted the government to be free to make laws that would, for example, limit the size of companies so that smaller businesses could compete or stop employers from hiring children to work in their factories. In fact, U.S. involvement in World War I (1914–18; the United States entered the war in 1917) could be seen as a large-scale application of this belief, because it was supposed to make the whole world "safe for democracy" (a common saying of the period).
But that extremely bloody, destructive war took a terrible toll on humanity. When it was over, many people in the United States began to call for an isolationist stance, meaning that the nation should stay out of other countries' affairs and look after its own concerns. At the same time, they adopted a different outlook on the role that government should play in day-to-day life.
The leader of the United States during the war and for much of the Progressive Era that preceded it had been the
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The Business of America: The Economy in the 1920s
The story of the 1920s is in large part a story about money. After a few slow years at the start of the decade, money began to flow through many, though not all, people's hands. The flow continued right up until those fateful few days near the end of 1929, when it suddenly stopped. After the seemingly endless prosperity of the previous years, the stock market crash and the onset of the Great Depression (the period of economic downturn and hardship that would last until the beginning of World War II; 1939–45) came as a great surprise to almost everybody. A few sharp observers had predicted that the good times of the Roaring Twenties were too good to last, that certain practices and attitudes popular during the decade could lead to disaster. But while the money flowed, few paid attention to the warning signs.
Ordinary people were only following the lead, after all, of the nation's most powerful figures. The federal government was now dominated by men who considered business the lifeblood of the United States. One of the most famous remarks of the 1920s was made by President Calvin Coolidge (1872–1933; served 1923–29), who declared in a
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Technology Changes Daily Life
A wide range of exciting discoveries, developments, and advancements whose seeds had been planted in earlier years blossomed during the 1920s. What had once been the dreams and visions of farsighted scientists, researchers, and inventors became, to varying degrees, normal parts of many people's daily lives.
Perhaps the leading example is the automobile. This vehicle was already in existence at the beginning of the twentieth century, but it was not a common sight on the roads of the nation until the 1920s, when car ownership rates skyrocketed. It was during this decade that Henry Ford (1863–1947) and other automobile manufacturers made cars that almost anybody could afford to buy. In 1919 there had been 6.9 million passenger cars in the United States, but by 1929 there were 23 million.
A similar story is told in the development of the airplane. The first manned flight had taken place in 1903, when an airplane designed by Orville (1871–1948) and Wilbur Wright (1867–1912) lifted off the sands of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Something of a gap in aviation progress then occurred,
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A Changing Society
In a book written just a few years after the end of the 1920s titled Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s, Frederick Lewis Allen noted that this decade had involved a "revolution in manners and morals." Indeed, many changes in ways of thinking and behaving, most of them actually rooted in the years leading up to the 1920s, were unleashed by this decade's special circumstances and atmosphere.
These changes were influenced by such factors as the impact of World War I (1914–18) and a falling birth rate, as well by the new work patterns, cultural diversity, and general prosperity that marked this period. They involved different roles for women, who entered the workforce and attended college in greater numbers, were more likely to use birth control, and interacted in society more freely. Families were smaller and were now more focused on emotional attachment and the nurturing of children. Young people were not as pressured to enter adulthood as they had been in previous years, and they spent more time in school. The 1920s saw the development of a distinct, lively youth culture and of a society that was much more youth-oriented than ever before.
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The Dark Side of the 1920s
The years between 1920 and 1929 are called the Roaring Twenties, a term that calls up images of happy people dancing the Charleston (a popular dance of the period), listening to jazz in Harlem nightclubs, or piling into Model Ts (an inexpensive car made by the Ford Motor Company) for rides through the city streets. In many ways this was a decade dominated by optimism, as people enjoyed the conveniences that technology brought into their lives, advances in medicine, and an economy that was generally prosperous. Yet the 1920s were also marked by some troubling trends and events, and not everybody enjoyed the era.
Prohibition, the popular name for the constitutional ban on alcoholic beverages that went into effect in early 1920, is often cited as a source of conflict in the United States. Designed by social reformers as a "noble experiment" that would bring more order and morality to society, Prohibition seemed to have the opposite effect. The heavy traffic in illegal liquor brought about an increase in criminal activity, with organized crime figures (groups of criminals who worked together and often fought each other for control of particular areas or cities)
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Surging Creativity: The Literary, Visual, and Performing Arts of the 1920s
For the people of the United States as well as much of the rest of the world, the 1920s were in many ways a decade of change. Technological advances brought both conveniences and worries, while shifts in population and in values made some people feel freer and others more threatened. The field of arts—whether they were of the written, visual, or performing variety—was no different. Major changes came as writers, artists, and musicians explored new forms and made new kinds of statements. Their efforts created the huge surge of creativity that marks this period.
Some important themes of the 1920s stand out, including the development of modernism (a movement that broke with traditional methods and ideas); the work of the expatriates, who often explored U.S. society and themes even as they lived abroad; and the Harlem Renaissance, the cultural explosion centered in New York City's African American community. Popular music was transformed when jazz and blues, born in the southern United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, emerged as unique art forms. Modern dancers like Martha Graham (1893–1991) explored new, nontraditional kinds of movement, while painters influenced by European trends—such as Cubism, which features the use of simple geometric shapes and interlocking planes to represent all kinds of objects, including the human form—portrayed distinctly local scenes...
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"Ain't We Got Fun?!"
The title of one of the hit songs of 1921, "Ain't We Got Fun?!," puts into words the mood that dominated much of the decade called the Roaring Twenties. Although some citizens of the United States did not share in the good times, most benefited from the country's general economic prosperity. By and large, people had at least a little extra money in their pockets, and they also had a little more time to relax. These two factors combined to allow for an energetic pursuit of leisure that had never been seen before in the United States.
For the first two centuries of the nation's existence, the majority of people had to work very hard at the backbreaking, time-consuming tasks involved in building a new country. Hard work was, in fact, one of the core values of this white Protestant society, along with religion, restraint, and frugality (not spending much money). With the twentieth century came both different kinds of work and different attitudes about work. Mass production had resulted in consumerism: people wanted very much to buy a variety of things that in earlier days they might have done without. They bought
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The Crash … and Beyond
It is common to think of the Roaring Twenties as a distinct period in history, bounded on one end by World War I (1914–18) and on the other by the stock market crash and 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. The special nature of the 1920s, with its colorful characters, exciting developments and events, and entertaining fads and trends, makes it tempting to frame the decade in that way. It is more accurate, however, to recognize that many of the changes and circumstances of the 1920s were rooted in previous decades. Similarly, the shift to the grim days of the Depression was neither as unexpected, nor as sudden as it may seem. However few people saw the change coming and of those who did, most ignored it.
Even as enthusiastic investors were trading stocks at unprecedented rates, and a majority of the population assumed that the good times would go on forever, there were warning signs that this was not the case. Examples include the out-of-control speculation on the stock market, overproduction of goods, and
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