Life in the Roaring Twenties

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Is the term "Roaring '20s" an appropriate name for that decade?

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The "Roaring Twenties," also called the Jazz Age, was a decade in which significant social and economic change took place. Those years also saw the production of amazing art, including literary modernism, a movement which grappled with a post-World War I global landscape. Capitalism and consumerism began to surge, women shortened their hemlines (think of the flapper woman) and were granted the right to vote, and the mass production of cars made society more mobile than it had ever been before. Thus, this decade was "roaring" with progressive change.

If you look up the verb "to roar" in the Oxford English Dictionary, you'll find a definition that helps us make sense of the term "Roaring Twenties" in an additional way. The verb without an object and with an adverbial phrase can mean to "move at high speed making a loud prolonged sound." This decade did indeed "move at high speed." Advances in technology, particularly in automobiles and media (the radio and film) made society feel as if it was on the cutting edge of modernity.

Of course, in 1929, the "Roaring Twenties" came to a devastating end when Wall Street crashed and the Great Depression began.

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I would say that the term "Roaring Twenties" is particularly useful for encapsulating the prevailing image and impression of this period that has endured in public perception. When we think about this era in history, we imagine a kind of frenetic energy: a hectic period of jazz, greater social liberation (particularly for women), rampant consumerism, a growing concentration of wealth, and so on. And this impression is certainly true to the historical reality.

However, time periods tend to be far more complex than any one name or image can fully encapsulate, and this certainly applies here. The simple fact that the image of the Roaring Twenties tends to focus so much on urban communities (and thus excludes much of rural life) makes this picture incomplete. It's also worth being aware of some of the deeply unpleasant aspects present in this period in history: the revival of the Ku Klux Klan, the xenophobia of the time period, and the experiments in eugenics, to name a few.

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Overall, the term “Roaring 20s” is a very appropriate term for US society as a whole.  However, it is more apt for Americans living in cities than for those living in smaller towns or rural areas.

The term is partly appropriate for economic reasons.  The 1920s were a boom decade.  People were getting richer and standards of living were rising.  However, this was much truer in cities than in rural areas.  The American agricultural sector was actually in very bad shape in the 1920s.  The decade was not “roaring” for them.

The term is also appropriate for social and societal reasons.  This was a time when American society was “opening up.”  Women were now able to have a lot more freedom than they had had before.  This was the age of the “flappers.”  People had many more options for entertainment open to them.  There were movies and cars, for example.  The coming of jazz music and the somewhat lawless and daring attitude that went with that kind of music, with dances like the Charleston, and with going to speakeasies made American society seem much more exciting.  Again, however, this phenomenon was felt much more strongly in cities than in places like the less-settled areas of the South where religious fundamentalism and traditional values were much more in evidence.  This was also the time when the KKK became strong again as a group that meant to combat the new, urban ways.

So, the 1920s did “roar” but it roared most for people in the cities.

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