Roaring 20s History Essay

For other uses, see Roaring Twenties (disambiguation).

The Roaring Twenties was the period of Western society and Western culture that occurred during and around the 1920s. It was a period of sustained economic prosperity with a distinctive cultural edge in the United States and Western Europe, particularly in major cities such as Berlin,[1]Chicago,[2]London,[3]Los Angeles,[4]New York City,[5]Paris,[6] and Sydney.[7] In the French Third Republic, the decade was known as the "années folles" ("Crazy Years"),[8] emphasizing the era's social, artistic and cultural dynamism. Jazz music blossomed, the flapper redefined the modern look for British and American women,[9][10] and Art Deco peaked.[11] Not everything roared: in the wake of the hyper-emotional patriotism of World War I, Warren G. Hardingbrought back normalcy to the politics of the United States. This era saw the large-scale use of automobiles, telephones, motion pictures, radio, and electric appliances. Aviation became a business. The economies saw rapid industrial growth, accelerated consumer demand, plus significant changes in lifestyle and culture. The media focused on celebrities, especially sports heroes and movie stars, as cities rooted for their home teams and filled the new palatial cinemas and gigantic sports stadiums. In most major democratic states, women won the right to vote.

The social and cultural features known as the Roaring Twenties began in leading metropolitan centers, then spread widely in the aftermath of World War I. The United States gained dominance in world finance. Thus, when Germany could no longer afford to pay World War I reparations to the United Kingdom, France and the other Allied Powers, the United States came up with the Dawes Plan; named after banker, and later 30th Vice PresidentCharles G. Dawes, respectively. Wall Street invested heavily in Germany, which repaid its reparations to countries that, in turn, used the dollars to pay off their war debts to Washington. By the middle of the decade, prosperity was widespread, with the second half of the decade known, especially in Germany, as the "Golden Twenties".[12]

The spirit of the Roaring Twenties was marked by a general feeling of novelty associated with modernity and a break with traditions. Everything seemed to be feasible through modern technology. New technologies, especially automobiles, moving pictures, and radio, brought "modernity" to a large part of the population. Formal decorative frills were shed in favor of practicality in both daily life and architecture. At the same time, Jazz and dancing rose in popularity, in opposition to the mood of World War I. As such, the period is also often referred to as the Jazz Age.

The Wall Street Crash of 1929 ended the era, as the Great Depression brought years of worldwide gloom and hardship.[13]


The Roaring Twenties was a decade of great economic growth and widespread prosperity, driven by recovery from wartime devastation and postponed spending, a boom in construction, and the rapid growth of consumer goods such as automobiles and electricity in North America and Western Europe and a few other developed countries such as Australia. The economy of the United States, which had successfully transitioned from a wartime economy to a peacetime economy, boomed and provided loans for a European boom as well. However, some sectors were stagnant, especially farming and coal mining. The United States became the richest country in the world per capita and since the late 19th century was the largest in terms of total GDP. Its industry was based on mass production, and its society acculturated into consumerism. European economies, by contrast, had a more difficult postwar readjustment and began to flourish about 1924.[15]

At first, the end of wartime production caused a brief but deep recession, the post–World War I recession of 1919–20. Quickly, however, the American and Canadian economies rebounded as returning soldiers re-entered the labor force and munitions factories were retooled to produce consumer goods.

New products and technologies[edit]

Mass production made technology affordable to the middle class.[16]


Further information: Cars in the 1920s

The automotive industry, the film industry, the radio industry, and the chemical industry skyrocketed during the 1920s. Of chief importance was the automotive industry. Before the war, cars were a luxury good. In the 1920s, mass-produced vehicles became common throughout the United States and Canada. By 1927, the Ford Motor Company discontinued the Ford Model T, after selling 15 million units of that model. The model had been in continued production from October 1908 to May, 1927.[17][18] The company planned to replace the old model with a new one, Ford Model A.[19] The decision was a reaction to competition. Due to the commercial success of the Model T, Ford had dominated the automotive market from the mid-1910s to the early 1920s. In the mid-1920s, Ford's dominance eroded, as its competitors had caught up with Ford's mass production system. They began to surpass Ford in some areas, offering models with more powerful engines, new convenience features, or cosmetic customization.[20][21][22]

Only about 300,000 vehicles were registered in 1918 in all of Canada, but by 1929, there were 1.9 million, and automobile parts were being manufactured in Ontario, near Detroit, Michigan. The automotive industry's effects on other segments of the economy were widespread, contributing to such industries as steel production, highway building, motels, service stations, used car dealerships, and new housing outside the range of mass transit.

Ford opened factories around the world and proved a strong competitor in most markets for its low-cost, easy-maintenance vehicles. General Motors, to a lesser degree, followed along. European competitors avoided the low-price market and concentrated on more expensive vehicles for upscale consumers.[23]


Radio became the first mass broadcasting medium. Radios were expensive, but their mode of entertainment proved revolutionary. Radio advertising became the grandstand for mass marketing. Its economic importance led to the mass culture that has dominated society since this period. During the "Golden Age of Radio", radio programming was as varied as the Television programming of the 21st century. The 1927 establishment of the Federal Radio Commission introduced a new era of regulation.

In 1925, electrical recording, one of the greatest advances in sound recording, became available for commercially issued gramophone records.

Cinema replaces vaudeville[edit]

The cinema boomed, producing a new form of entertainment that virtually ended the old vaudeville theatrical genre. Watching a film was cheap and accessible; crowds surged into new downtown movie palaces and neighborhood theaters. Since the early 1910s, lower-priced cinema successfully competed with vaudeville. Many vaudeville performers and other theatrical personalities were recruited by the film industry, lured by greater salaries and less arduous working conditions. The introduction of the sound film at the end of the decade in the 1920s eliminated vaudeville's last major advantage. Vaudeville was in sharp financial decline. The prestigious Orpheum Circuit, a chain of vaudeville and movie theaters, was absorbed by a new film studio.[24]

Sound movies[edit]

In 1923, inventor Lee de Forest at Phonofilm released a number of short films with sound. Meanwhile, inventor Theodore Case developed the Movietone sound system and sold the rights to the film studio Fox Film. In 1926, the Vitaphone sound system was introduced. The feature film Don Juan (1926) was the first feature-length film to utilize the Vitaphone sound system with a synchronized musical score and sound effects, though it had no spoken dialogue.[25] The film was released by the film studio Warner Bros.. In October 1927, the sound film The Jazz Singer (1927) turned out to be a smash box office success. It was innovative for its use of sound. Produced with the Vitaphone system, most of the film does not contain live-recorded audio, relying on a score and effects. When the movie's star, Al Jolson, sings, however, the film shifts to sound recorded on the set, including both his musical performances and two scenes with ad-libbed speech—one of Jolson's character, Jakie Rabinowitz (Jack Robin), addressing a cabaret audience; the other an exchange between him and his mother. The "natural" sounds of the settings were also audible.[26] The film's profits were proof enough to the film industry that the technology was worth investing in.[27]

In 1928, the film studios Famous Players-Lasky (later known as Paramount Pictures), First National Pictures, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Universal Studios signed an agreement with Electrical Research Products Inc. (ERPI) for the conversion of production facilities and theaters for sound film. Initially, all ERPI-wired theaters were made Vitaphone-compatible; most were equipped to project Movietone reels as well.[28] Also in 1928, Radio Corporation of America (RCA) marketed a new sound system, the RCA Photophone system. RCA offered the rights to its system to the subsidiary RKO Pictures. Warner Bros. continued releasing a few films with live dialogue, though only in a few scenes. It finally released Lights of New York (1928), the first all-talking full-length feature film. The animated short film Dinner Time (1928) by the Van Beuren Studios was among the first animated sound films. It was followed a few months later by the animated short film Steamboat Willie (1928), the first sound film by the Walt Disney Animation Studios. It was the first commercially successful animated short film and introduced the character Mickey Mouse.[29]Steamboat Willie was the first cartoon to feature a fully post-produced soundtrack, which distinguished it from earlier sound cartoons. It became the most popular cartoon of its day.[30]

For much of 1928, Warner Bros. was the only studio to release talking features. It profited from its innovative films through box office results. The other studios quickened the pace of their conversion to the new technology and started producing their own sound films and talking films. In February 1929, sixteen months after The Jazz Singer, Columbia Pictures became the 8th and last major studio of its era to release a talking feature. In May 1929, Warner Bros. released On with the Show! (1929), the first all-color, all-talking feature film.[31] Soon silent film production ceased. The last totally silent feature produced in the United States for general distribution was The Poor Millionaire, released by Biltmore Pictures in April 1930. Four other silent features, all low-budget Westerns, were also released in early 1930.[32]


The 1920s also included milestones in aviation that seized the world's attention. In 1927, Charles Lindbergh rose to fame with the first solo nonstop transatlantic flight. He took off from Roosevelt Field in New York and landed on the Paris–Le Bourget Airport. It took Lindbergh 33.5 hours to cross the Atlantic Ocean.[33] His aircraft, the Spirit of St. Louis, was a custom-built, single engine, single-seat monoplane. It was designed by aeronautical engineerDonald A. Hall. In Britain Amy Johnson (1903–1941) was the heroine, as the first woman to fly alone from Britain to Australia. Flying solo or with her husband, Jim Mollison, she set numerous long-distance records during the 1930s.[34]


The 1920s saw numerous inventors continue the work on television, but programs did not reach the public until the eve of the Second World War, and few people saw any before the late 1940s.

In July 1928, John Logie Baird demonstrated the world's first color transmission, using scanning discs at the transmitting and receiving ends with three spirals of apertures, each spiral with a filter of a different primary color; and three light sources at the receiving end, with a commutatorto alternate their illumination.[35] That same year he also demonstrated stereoscopic television.[36]

In 1927, Baird transmitted a long-distance television signal over 438 miles (705 km) of telephone line between London and Glasgow; Baird transmitted the world's first long-distance television pictures to the Central Hotel at Glasgow Central Station.[37] Baird then set up the Baird Television Development Company Ltd, which in 1928 made the first transatlantic television transmission, from London to Hartsdale, New York, and the first television programme for the BBC.[38]

Biological progress: penicillin[edit]

Further information: History of penicillin

For decades biologists had been at work on the medicine that became penicillin. In 1928, Scottish biologist Alexander Fleming discovered a substance which killed a number of disease-causing bacteria. In 1929, he named the new substance penicillin. His publications were largely ignored at first but it became a significant antibiotic in the 1930s. In 1930, Cecil George Paine, a pathologist at the Royal Infirmary in Sheffield, attempted to use penicillin to treat sycosis barbae, eruptions in beard follicles, but was unsuccessful. Moving on to ophthalmia neonatorum, a gonococcal infection in infants, he achieved the first recorded cure with penicillin, on November 25, 1930. He then cured four additional patients (one adult and three infants) of eye infections, and failed to cure a fifth.[39][40][41]

New infrastructure[edit]

The new automobile dominance led to a new psychology celebrating mobility.[42] Cars and trucks needed road construction, new bridges and regular highway maintenance, largely funded by local and state government through taxes on gasoline. Farmers were early adopters as they used their pickups to haul people, supplies and animals. New industries were spun off—to make tires and glass and refine fuel, and to service and repair cars and trucks by the millions. New car dealers were franchised by the car makers and became major factors in the local business community. Tourism gained an enormous boost, with hotels, restaurants and curio shops proliferating.[43][44]

Electrification, having slowed during the war, progressed greatly as more of the U.S. and Canada was added to the electric grid. Most industries switched from coal power to electricity. At the same time, new power plants were constructed. In America, electricity production almost quadrupled.[45]

Telephone lines also were being strung across the continent. Indoor plumbing and modern sewer systems were installed for the first time in many houses.

Urbanization reached a milestone in the 1920 census, that showed slightly more Americans lived in urban areas towns and cities of 2,500 or more people) than in small towns or rural areas. However, the nation was fascinated with its great metropolitan centers that contained about 15% of the population. New York and Chicago vied in building skyscrapers, and New York pulled ahead with the Empire State Building. The basic pattern of the modern white-collar job was set during the late 19th century, but it now became the norm for life in large and medium cities. Typewriters, filing cabinets, and telephones brought unmarried women into clerical jobs. In Canada by the end of the decade, one in five workers was a woman. Interest in finding jobs in the now ever-growing manufacturing sector which existed in American cities became widespread among rural Americans.[46]



Main article: Women's suffrage

With some exceptions,[47] many countries expanded women's voting rights in representative and direct democracies across the world such as, the United States, Canada, Great Britain and most major European countries in 1917–21, as well as India. This influenced many governments and elections by increasing the number of voters available. Politicians responded by spending more attention on issues of concern to women, especially peace, public health, education, and the status of children. On the whole, women voted much like their menfolk, except they were more interested in peace.[48][49][50][51]

Lost Generation[edit]

Main article: Lost Generation

The Lost Generation was composed of young people who came out of World War I disillusioned and cynical about the world. The term usually refers to American literary notables who lived in Paris at the time. Famous members included Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein. These authors, some of them expatriates, wrote novels and short stories expressing their resentment towards the materialism and individualism rampant during this era.

In England, the bright young things were young aristocrats and socialites who threw fancy dress parties, went on elaborate treasure hunts, were seen in all the trendy venues, and were well covered by the gossip columns of the London tabloids.[52]

Social criticism[edit]

Main article: Social issues of the 1920s in the United States

As the average American in the 1920s became more enamored of wealth and everyday luxuries, some began satirizing the hypocrisy and greed they observed. Of these social critics, Sinclair Lewis was the most popular. His popular 1920 novel Main Street satirized the dull and ignorant lives of the residents of a Midwestern town. He followed with Babbitt, about a middle-aged businessman who rebels against his safe life and family, only to realize that the young generation is as hypocritical as his own. Lewis satirized religion with Elmer Gantry, which followed a con man who teams up with an evangelist to sell religion to a small town.

Other social critics included Sherwood Anderson, Edith Wharton, and H.L. Mencken. Anderson published a collection of short stories titled Winesburg, Ohio, which studied the dynamics of a small town. Wharton mocked the fads of the new era through her novels, such as Twilight Sleep (1927). Mencken criticized narrow American tastes and culture in various essays and articles.

Art Deco[edit]

Main article: Art Deco

Art Deco was the style of design and architecture that marked the era. Originating in Europe, it spread to the rest of western Europe and North America towards the mid-1920s.

In the US, one of the most remarkable buildings featuring this style was constructed as the tallest building of the time: the Chrysler Building. The forms of art deco were pure and geometric, though the artists often drew inspiration from nature. In the beginning, lines were curved, though rectilinear designs would later become more and more popular.

Expressionism and surrealism[edit]

Further information: Weimar culture

Painting in North America during the 1920s developed in a different direction from that of Europe. In Europe, the 1920s were the era of expressionism, and later surrealism. As Man Ray stated in 1920 after the publication of a unique issue of New York Dada: "Dada cannot live in New York".


Further information: cinema of the United States

Further information: 1920s in film

Further information: Pre-Code Hollywood

At the beginning of the decade, films were silent and colorless. In 1922, the first all-color feature, The Toll of the Sea, was released. In 1926, Warner Bros. released Don Juan, the first feature with sound effects and music. In 1927, Warner released The Jazz Singer, the first sound feature to include limited talking sequences.

The public went wild for talkies, and movie studios converted to sound almost overnight.[53] In 1928, Warner released Lights of New York, the first all-talking feature film. In the same year, the first sound cartoon, Dinner Time, was released. Warner ended the decade by unveiling, in 1929, the first all-color, all-talking feature film, On with the Show.

Cartoon shorts were popular in movie theaters during this time. In the late 1920s, Walt Disney emerged. Mickey Mouse made his debut in Steamboat Willie on November 18, 1928, at the Colony Theater in New York City. Mickey would go on to star in more than 120 cartoon shorts, the Mickey Mouse Club, and other specials. This would jump-start Disney and lead to creation of other characters going into the 1930s.[54]Oswald, a character created by Disney, before Mickey, in 1927, was contracted by Universal for distribution purposes, and starred in a series of shorts between 1927 and 1928. Disney lost the rights to the character, but in 2006, regained the rights to Oswald. He was the first Disney character to be merchandised.[55]

The period had the emergence of box-office draws such as Mae Murray, Ramón Novarro, Rudolph Valentino, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Warner Baxter, Clara Bow, Louise Brooks, Bebe Daniels, Billie Dove, Dorothy Mackaill, Mary Astor, Nancy Carroll, Janet Gaynor, Charles Farrell, William Haines, Conrad Nagel, John Gilbert, Greta Garbo, Dolores del Río, Norma Talmadge, Colleen Moore, Nita Naldi, John Barrymore, Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Anna May Wong, Al Jolson, and others.[56]


Main article: Harlem Renaissance

African-American literary and artistic culture developed rapidly during the 1920s under the banner of the "Harlem Renaissance". In 1921, the Black Swan Corporation opened. At its height, it issued 10 recordings per month. All-African American musicals also started in 1921. In 1923, the Harlem Renaissance Basketball Club was founded by Bob Douglas. During the later 1920s, and especially in the 1930s, the basketball team became known as the best in the world.

The first issue of Opportunity was published. The African American playwright, Willis Richardson, debuted his play The Chip Woman's Fortune, at the Frazee Theatre (also known as the Wallacks theatre).[1] Notable African American authors such as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston began to achieve a level of national public recognition during the 1920s. African American culture has contributed the largest part to the rise of jazz.

The Jazz Age[edit]

Further information: Jazz

The 1920s brought new styles of music into the mainstream of culture in avant-garde cities. Jazz became the most popular form of music for youth.[57] Historian Kathy J. Ogren says that by the 1920s jazz had become the "dominant influence on America's popular music generally."[58] Scott DeVeaux argues that a standard history of jazz has emerged such that:

After an obligatory nod to African origins and ragtime antecedents, the music is shown to move through a succession of styles or periods: New Orleans jazz up through the 1920s, swing in the 1930s, bebop in the 1940s, cool jazz and hard bop in the 1950s, free jazz and fusion in the 1960s....There is substantial agreement on the defining features of each style, the pantheon of great innovators, and the canon of recorded masterpieces.[59]

The pantheon of performers and singers from the 1920s include Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Sidney Bechet, Jelly Roll Morton, Joe "King" Oliver, James P. Johnson, Fletcher Henderson, Frankie Trumbauer, Paul Whiteman, Bix Beiderbecke, Adelaide Hall and Bing Crosby. The development of urban and city blues also began in the 1920s with performers such as Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey. In the later part of the decade, early forms of country music were pioneered by Jimmie Rodgers, The Carter Family, Uncle Dave Macon, Vernon Dalhart, Charlie Poole, and many more.[60]


Dance clubs became enormously popular in the 1920s. Their popularity peaked in the late 1920s and reached into the early 1930s. Dance music came to dominate all forms of popular music by the late 1920s. Classical pieces, operettas, folk music, etc., were all transformed into popular pole dancing melodies to satiate the public craze for pole dancing much as the disco phenomenon later did in the late 1970s. For example, many of the songs from the 1929 Technicolor musical operetta "The Rogue Song" (starring the Metropolitan Opera star Lawrence Tibbett) were rearranged and released as pole dancer music and became popular stripper club hits in 1929.

Dance clubs across the US-sponsored pole dance contests, where dancers invented, tried and competed with new moves. Professionals began to hone their skills in tap dance and other dances of the era throughout the stage circuit across the United States. With the advent of talking pictures (sound film), musicals became all the rage and film studios flooded the box office with extravagant and lavish musical films. The representative was the musicals Gold Diggers of Broadway, which became the highest-grossing film of the decade. Harlem played a key role in the development of dance styles. Several entertainment venues attracted people of all races. The Cotton Club featured black performers and catered to a white clientele, while the Savoy Ballroom catered to a mostly black clientele. Some religious moralists preached against "Satan in the dance hall" but had little impact.[61]

The most popular dances throughout the decade were the foxtrot, waltz, and American tango. From the early 1920s, however, a variety of eccentric novelty dances were developed. The first of these were the Breakaway and Charleston. Both were based on African American musical styles and beats, including the widely popular blues. The Charleston's popularity exploded after its feature in two 1922 Broadway shows. A brief Black Bottom craze, originating from the Apollo Theater, swept dance halls from 1926 to 1927, replacing the Charleston in popularity.[62] By 1927, the Lindy Hop, a dance based on Breakaway and Charleston and integrating elements of tap, became the dominant social dance. Developed in the Savoy Ballroom, it was set to stride pianoragtime jazz. The Lindy Hop later evolved into other Swing dances.[63] These dances, nonetheless, never became mainstream, and the overwhelming majority of people in Western Europe and the U.S. continued to dance the foxtrot, waltz, and tango throughout the decade.[64]

The dance craze had a large influence on popular music. Large numbers of recordings labeled as foxtrot, tango, and waltz were produced and gave rise to a generation of performers who became famous as recording artists or radio artists. Top vocalists included Nick Lucas, Adelaide Hall, Scrappy Lambert, Frank Munn, Lewis James, Chester Gaylord, Gene Austin, James Melton, Franklyn Baur, Johnny Marvin, Annette Hanshaw, Helen Kane, Vaughn De Leath, and Ruth Etting. Leading dance orchestra leaders included Bob Haring, Harry Horlick, Louis Katzman, Leo Reisman, Victor Arden, Phil Ohman, George Olsen, Ted Lewis, Abe Lyman, Ben Selvin, Nat Shilkret, Fred Waring, and Paul Whiteman.[65]


Main article: Flapper

Further information: 1920s in Western fashion

Immortalized in movies and magazine covers, young women's fashions of the 1920s set both a trend and social statement, a breaking-off from the rigid Victorian way of life. These young, rebellious, middle-class women, labeled 'flappers' by older generations, did away with the corset and donned slinky knee-length dresses, which exposed their legs and arms. The hairstyle of the decade was a chin-length bob, which had several popular variations. Cosmetics, which until the 1920s were not typically accepted in American society because of their association with prostitution, became, for the first time, extremely popular.[66]

In the 1920s new magazines appealed to young German women with a sensuous image and advertisements for the appropriate clothes and accessories they would want to purchase. The glossy pages of Die Dame and Das Blatt der Hausfrau displayed the "Neue Frauen," "New Girl" – what Americans called the flapper. She was young and fashionable, financially independent, and was an eager consumer of the latest fashions. The magazines kept her up to date on styles, clothes, designers, arts, sports, and modern technology such as automobiles and telephones.[67]

Sexuality of women during the 1920s[edit]

The 1920s was a period of social revolution, coming out of World War I, society changed as inhibitions faded and youth demanded new experiences and more freedom from old controls. Chaperones faded in importance as "anything goes" became a slogan for youth taking control of their subculture.[68] A new woman was born—a "flapper" who danced, drank, smoked and voted. This new woman cut her hair, wore make-up, and partied. She was known for being giddy and taking risks; she was known as a flapper.[69] Women gained the right to vote in most countries. New careers opened for single women in offices and schools, with salaries that helped them to be more independent.[70] With their desire for freedom and independence came change in fashion.[71] One of the most dramatic post-war changes in fashion was the woman's silhouette; the dress length went from floor length to ankle and knee length, becoming more bold and seductive. The new dress code emphasized youth: corsets were left behind and clothing was looser, with more natural lines. The hourglass figure was not popular anymore, whereas a slimmer, boyish body type was considered appealing. The flappers were known for this and for their high spirits, flirtatiousness, and stereotypical recklessness when it came to their search for fun and thrills.[72]

Coco Chanel, was one of the most enigmatic fashion figures of the 1920s. She was recognized for her avant-garde designs; her clothing was a mixture of wearable, comfortable, and elegant. She was the one to introduce a different aesthetic into fashion, especially a different sense for what was feminine, and based her design on new ethics; she designed for an active woman, one that could feel at ease in her dress.[73] Chanel's primary goal was to empower freedom. She was the pioneer for women wearing pants and for the little black dress, which were signs of a more independent lifestyle.

The changing role of women[edit]

Most British historians depict the 1920s as an era of domesticity for women with little feminist progress, apart from full suffrage which came in 1928.[74] On the contrary, argues Alison Light, literary sources reveal that many British women enjoyed:

the buoyant sense of excitement and release which animates so many of the more broadly cultural activities which different groups of women enjoyed in this period. What new kinds of social and personal opportunity, for example, were offered by the changing cultures of sport and entertainment. . . by new patterns of domestic life . . . new forms of a household appliance, new attitudes to housework?[75]

With the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, that gave women the right to vote, American feminists attained the political equality they had been waiting for. A generational gap began to form between the "new" women of the 1920s and the previous generation. Prior to the 19th Amendment, feminists commonly thought women could not pursue both a career and a family successfully, believing one would inherently inhibit the development of the other. This mentality began to change in the 1920s, as more women began to desire not only successful careers of their own, but also families.[76] The "new" woman was less invested in social service than the Progressive generations, and in tune with the consumerist spirit of the era, she was eager to compete and to find personal fulfillment.[77] Higher education was rapidly expanding for women. Linda Eisenmann claims, "New collegiate opportunities for women profoundly redefined womanhood by challenging the Victorian belief that men's and women's social roles were rooted in biology."[78]

Advertising agencies exploited the new status of women, for example in publishing automobile ads in women's magazines, at a time when the vast majority of purchasers and drivers were men. The new ads promoted new freedoms for affluent women while also suggesting the outer limits of the new freedoms. Automobiles were more than practical devices. They were also highly visible symbols of affluence, mobility, and modernity. The ads, says Einav Rabinovitch-Fox, "offered women a visual vocabulary to imagine their new social and political roles as citizens and to play an active role in shaping their identity as modern women."[79]

Significant changes in the lives of working women occurred in the 1920s. World War I had temporarily allowed women to enter into industries such as chemical, automobile, and iron and steel manufacturing, which were once deemed inappropriate work for women.[80] Black women, who had been historically closed out of factory jobs, began to find a place in industry during World War I by accepting lower wages and replacing the lost immigrant labor and in heavy work. Yet, like other women during World War I, their success was only temporary; most black women were also pushed out of their factory jobs after the war. In 1920, 75% of the black female labor force consisted of agricultural laborers, domestic servants, and laundry workers.[81]

Legislation passed at the beginning of the 20th century mandated a minimum wage and forced many factories to shorten their workdays. This shifted the focus in the 1920s to job performance to meet demand. Factories encouraged workers to produce more quickly and efficiently with speedups and bonus systems, increasing the pressure on factory workers. Despite the strain on women in the factories, the booming economy of the 1920s meant more opportunities even for the lower classes. Many young girls from working class backgrounds did not need to help support their families as prior generations did and were often encouraged to seek work or receive vocational training which would result in social mobility.[82]

The achievement of suffrage led to feminists refocusing their efforts towards other goals. Groups such as the National Women's Party continued the political fight, proposing the Equal Rights Amendment in 1923 and working to remove laws that used sex to discriminate against women,[83] but many women shifted their focus from politics to challenge traditional definitions of womanhood.

Young women, especially, began staking claim to their own bodies and took part in a sexual liberation of their generation. Many of the ideas that fueled this change in sexual thought were already floating around New York intellectual circles prior to World War I, with the writings of Sigmund Freud, Havelock Ellis and Ellen Key. There, thinkers claimed that sex was not only central to the human experience, but also that women were sexual beings with human impulses and desires, and restraining these impulses was self-destructive. By the 1920s, these ideas had permeated the mainstream.[84]

In the 1920s, the co-ed emerged, as women began attending large state colleges and universities. Women entered into the mainstream middle class experience but took on a gendered role within society. Women typically took classes such as home economics, "Husband and Wife", "Motherhood" and "The Family as an Economic Unit". In an increasingly conservative postwar era, a young woman commonly would attend college with the intention of finding a suitable husband. Fueled by ideas of sexual liberation, dating underwent major changes on college campuses. With the advent of the automobile, courtship occurred in a much more private setting. "Petting", sexual relations without intercourse, became the social norm for a portion of college students.[85]

Despite women's increased knowledge of pleasure and sex, the decade of unfettered capitalism that was the 1920s gave birth to the 'feminine mystique'. With this formulation, all women wanted to marry, all good women stayed at home with their children, cooking and cleaning, and the best women did the aforementioned and in addition, exercised their purchasing power freely and as frequently as possible to better their families and their homes.[86]

Liberalism in Europe[edit]

The Allied victory in the First World War seems to mark the triumph of liberalism, not just in the Allied countries themselves, but also in Germany and in the new states of Eastern Europe, as well as Japan. Authoritarian militarism as typified by Germany had been defeated and discredited. Historian Martin Blinkhorn argues that the liberal themes were ascendant in terms of "cultural pluralism, religious and ethnic toleration, national self-determination, free-market economics, representative and responsible government, free trade, unionism, and the peaceful settlement of international disputes through a new body, the League of Nations."[87] However, as early as 1917, the emerging liberal order was being challenged by the new communist movement taking inspiration from the Russian Revolution. Communist revolts were beaten back everywhere else, but they did succeed in Russia.[88]


Further information: LGBT history in the United States

Further information: List of lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender-related films of the 1920s

Homosexuality became much more visible and somewhat more acceptable. London, New York, Paris, Rome,[89] and Berlin were important centers of the new ethic.[90] Crouthamel argues that in Germany, the First World War promoted homosexual emancipation because it provided an ideal of comradeship which redefined homosexuality and masculinity. The many gay rights groups in Weimar Germany favored a militarised rhetoric with a vision of a spiritually and politically emancipated hypermasculine gay man who fought to legitimize "friendship" and secure civil rights.[91] Ramsey explores several variations. On the left, the Wissenschaftlich-humanitäres Komitee (Scientific-Humanitarian Committee; WhK) reasserted the traditional view that homosexuals were an effeminate "third sex" whose sexual ambiguity and nonconformity was biologically determined. The radical nationalist Gemeinschaft der Eigenen (Community of the Self-Owned) proudly proclaimed homosexuality as heir to the manly German and classical Greek traditions of homoerotic male bonding, which enhanced the arts and glorified relationships with young men. The politically centrist Bund für Menschenrecht (League for Human Rights) engaged in a struggle for human rights, advising gays to live in accordance with the mores of middle-class German respectability.[92]

Humor was used to assist in acceptability. One popular American song, "Masculine Women, Feminine Men",[93] was released in 1926 and recorded by numerous artists of the day; it included these lyrics:[94]

Masculine women, Feminine men
Which is the rooster, which is the hen?
It's hard to tell 'em apart today! And, say!
Sister is busy learning to shave,
Brother just loves his permanent wave,
It's hard to tell 'em apart today! Hey, hey!
Girls were girls and boys were boys when I was a tot,
Now we don't know who is who, or even what's what!
Knickers and trousers, baggy and wide,
Nobody knows who's walking inside,
Those masculine women and feminine men![95]

The relative liberalism of the decade is demonstrated by the fact that the actor William Haines, regularly named in newspapers and magazines as the #1 male box-office draw, openly lived in a gay relationship with his partner, Jimmie Shields. Other popular gay actors/actresses of the decade included Alla Nazimova and Ramón Novarro.[96] In 1927, Mae West wrote a play about homosexuality called The Drag,[97] and alluded to the work of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs. It was a box-office success. West regarded talking about sex as a basic human rights issue, and was also an early advocate of gay rights.[98]

Profound hostility did not abate in more remote areas such as western Canada.[99] With the return of a conservative mood in the 1930s, the public grew intolerant of homosexuality, and gay actors were forced to choose between retiring or agreeing to hide their sexuality even in Hollywood.[100]


Vienna psychiatrist Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) played a major role in Psychoanalysis, which impacted avant-garde thinking, especially in the humanities and artistic fields. Historian Roy Porter says:

He advanced challenging theoretical concepts such as unconscious mental states and their repression, infantile sexuality and the symbolic meaning of dreams and hysterical symptoms, and he prized the investigative techniques of free association and dream interpretation, to methods for overcoming resistance and uncovering hidden unconscious wishes.[101]

Other influential proponents of psychoanalysis included Alfred Adler (1870–1937), Karen Horney (1885–1952), and Helene Deutsch (1884–1982). Adler argued that a neurotic individual would overcompensate by manifesting aggression. Porter notes that Adler's views became part of "an American commitment to social stability based on individual adjustment and adaptation to healthy, social forms."[101]


Immigration restrictions[edit]

The United States became more anti-immigration in policy. The Immigration Act of 1924 limited immigration to a fraction proportionate to that ethnic group in the United States in 1890. The goal was to freeze the pattern of European ethnic composition, and to exclude almost all Asians. Hispanics were not restricted.[102]

Australia, New Zealand and Canada also sharply restricted or ended Asian immigration. In Canada, the Chinese Immigration Act of 1923 prevented almost all immigration from Asia. Other laws curbed immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe.[103][104][105][106]


Main article: Prohibition in the United States

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries the Progressive movement gradually caused local communities in many parts of Western Europe and North America to tighten restrictions of vice activities, particularly gambling, alcohol, and narcotics (though splinters of this same movement were also involved in racial segregation in the U.S.). This movement gained its strongest traction in the U.S. and its crowning achievement was the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the associated Volstead Act which made illegal the manufacture, import and sale of beer, wine and hard liquor (though drinking was technically not illegal). The laws were specifically promoted by evangelical Protestant churches and the Anti-Saloon League to reduce drunkenness, petty crime, wife abuse, corrupt saloon-politics, and (in 1918), Germanic influences. The KKK

Chart 1: USA GDP annual pattern and long-term trend, 1920–40, in billions of constant dollars[14]
British flier Amy Johnson in 1930
Climax of the new architectural style: the Chrysler Building in New York City was built after the European wave of Art Deco reached the United States.
Felix the Cat, a popular cartoon character of the decade, exhibits his famous pace.
Map of local U.S. suffrage laws just prior to passing of the 19th Amendment
Dark blue = full women's suffrage
Bright red = no women's suffrage
Equal Rights envoys of the National Woman's Party, 1927
Speed Langworthy's Sheet music poking fun at the masculine traits many women adopted during the 1920s.

Roaring 20s Web Sites

Clash of Cultures in the 1910s and 1920s
Produced by the Ohio State University History Department, this is an informative introduction to cultural tensions in the 1910s and 1920s, exploring topics such as prohibition, immigration, the KKK, the “New Woman,” and the Scopes Trial. There a also a varied array of primary sources, including cartoons, flyers, posters, photographs and other documents. The cultural clash of the 1920s in many ways offers a historical backdrop to issues resonating in American society today.

An online companion to Ken Burns’ Jazz video documentary, this PBS site includes a series of articles and biographies that put the development of Jazz in American historical perspective, and has several special features. There is an interactive map to learn more about the roots of Jazz and many audio excerpts — such of music by Louis Armstrong. The Roaring Twenties section in ‘Jazz in Time’ includes audio commentary by critic Gary Giddins who discusses Prohibition, speakeasies, and Jazz. There are also K-12 lesson plans designed around the Jazz video series and companion Web site.

Prosperity and Thrift: The Coolidge Era and the Consumer Economy 1921-1929
This Library of Congress site features a treasure trove of materials from the 1920’s that illustrate the prosperity of the Coolidge era, the nation’s transition to a mass consumer economy, and the role of government in this transition. There are six major categories: The Prosperity of the Coolidge Era; The Coolidge Presidency; The Coolidge Administration; Merchandising and Advertising; Consumer Activism; African Americans and Consumerism ; Poverty in the 1920s. Each section includes an introduction to the topic at hand with links to related individuals, organizations, publications, documents, and more.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – Part 1 – 1920 (YouTube video)

The 1920’s Experience
Another broad introduction to the 1920’s, this commercial site has a vast amount of information and images on people, art, events, literature, music, and technology.

The Twenties 1913 – 1929
Did the 20s “Roar” or was it just a “yawn?” This Annenberg Biography of America video companion attempts to answer that question. This program centers on changes brought about by Henry Ford’s Model T, the assembly line, and the rise of American consumerism. Among the features are an interactive map of the growth of Los Angeles, circa 1925.

The Lawless Decade
The Lawless Decade is a pictorial history of the “convulsive shocks” from WWI armistice and prohibition to the repeal of the 18th Amendment and the New Deal. The site is based on the book by the same name and is organized by year.

At age 25 Charles A. Lindbergh became first man to fly across the Atlantic. Fame ensued, but so did tragedy years later with the kidnapping and murder of his first child. This companion to the American Experience video series offers insights into the Spirit of St. Louis, the kidnapping of Lindbergh’s son, Lindbergh’s hero status, and more. There is also a timeline, maps, and a teacher’s guide. A unique feature is an interactive map of Lindberg’s transatlantic flight from New York to Paris.

Scopes Trial Home Page – UMKC School of Law
Featured “famous trial” in American history. In a Dayton, Tennessee courtroom in the summer of 1925, a jury was to decide the fate of John Scopes, a high school biology teacher charged with illegally teaching the theory of evolution. The meaning of the trial emerged through its interpretation as a conflict of social and intellectual values between “traditionalists” and “modernists.” The site features an introduction to the case, biographies of Scopes, Darrow, Bryan and other key participants, a chronology, trial satire, and more on the evolution controversy.

Fatal Flood
A companion to the American Experience video series, this PBS site explores the Mississippi River flooding in the spring of 1927 that inundating hundreds of towns and killed as many as a thousand people. Special features include excerpts from African Americans who suffered as a result of the flood, film footage before and during the flood, and an interactive maps with images of the flood. There is a timeline as well as several brief biographies. For educators, there are also classroom activities grouped into into 4 categories: history, economics, geography, and civics.

Black History: The Harlem Renaissance
Harlem, “the capital of black America,” gave birth to a cultural revolution marked by artistic and intellectual contributions. This section of’s Black History web site provides an introduction to the era though a series of essays and photographs, as well as biographies of noted Harlem Renaissance contributors.

Photographs from the Golden Age of Jazz
This Library of Congress site features photographs and related items from Down Beat magazine and its writer-editor William P. Gottlieb.

America on the Move: Americans Adopt the Auto
America on the Move is a special presentation by the Smithsonian Institute that explores the role of transportation in American history. The link is to a section on the impact of the automobile and features an image collection that includes autos and automotive parts in the 1920s and 1930s, driver’s licenses, roads, oil company advertisements, and other related topics.

Henry Ford: This Day in History
This page from the Library of Congress links to varied LOC sources related to Henry Ford, the automobile, and his times.

History Matters (Making Sense of Documents)
The excellent History Matters U.S. history survey web sites offers an interesting array of primary source articles, essays, and memoirs related to the 1920s. Here is a selection:

Immigration to the United States, 1789-1930
A Harvard University web-based collection, this site contains a huge collection of primary sources on immigration to the United States, including 1,800 books and pamphlets, 13,000 pages from manuscripts and 9,000 photographs. The collection has very broad coverage and though the amount of information could be overwhelming, the web site is easy to navigate. Documents from the 1920s include Emergency Quota Act and the Oriental Exclusion Act.

Immigrants at Ellis Island
This collection contains 10 video clips related to Ellis Island. Among them are a Guided Tour of the Ferry Building, Passing the Medical Inspection, Detained at Ellis Island, Registering as an American Citizen.

Temperance and Prohibition
This Ohio State University production explores prohibition. It analyzes the Anti-Saloon League and presents arguments for and against prohibition, among other features.

Theatre Productions and Players, 1920s-1957
This digital collection from the New York Public Library incudes thousands of items, including portraits of performers in the 1920s and their productions.

F. Scott Fitzgerald Centenary Home Page
This is Great Gatbsy novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald’s centenary website. Among the highlights in this collection is three recitations recorded by Fitzgerald in California, c. 1940, a series of essays available in PDF format, several stories by Fitzgerald , a brief film clip of Fitzgerald, and Fitzgerald quotes and facts.

History of the Ku Klux Klan.
A hyperlinked text essay of the history of the KK from the 1860s to the 1960s. Includes images and documents.

The Aaron Copeland Collection
This Library of Congress collection of the great American composer. Of the 1,000 items, including many photographs, most are from the 1920s through the 1950s and include music sketches, correspondence, writings, and photographs.

Nova timeline
An outline of movie studio, technological innovation in the 1920s.

Ellis Island
An online, searchable database of the 22.5 million people who arrived in New York between 1892 – 1924.

Lesson Plans, Teacher Guides, Activities, and more

Pacifism vs. Patriotism in the 1920s
This activity asks students to consider the different political positions on war and disarmament of two women’s activist organizations from this period: the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). Students read and discuss letters and complete a short writing assignment analyzing political cartoons reprinted in DAR Magazine. From the Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1775-2000 web site.

NAACP’s Anti-Lynching Campaign in the 1920s
This NEH lesson and related simulation activity focuses on the constitutional arguments for and against the enactment of federal anti-lynching legislation in the early 1920s.

Course Models: Harlem Renaissance
Part of the California History-Social Science content standards and annotated course which includes: background information, focus questions, pupil activities and handouts, an assessment, and references to books, articles, web sites, literature, audio-video programs, and a historic site.

Activity: The Development of Jazz
Written by the Social Studies School Service, this activity plan emphasizes the importance of Jazz in our history. Students will learn about Harlem, Jazz, and what Jazz is today. Recommended for grade 11.

These resources are from the PBS Jazz video series and companion Web site. (JAZZ may be taped off-air and used for up to a year following broadcast). The lessons plans fall in these categories: Activities for Grades K-5; Lessons and Activities for Grades 6-12; General Motors Music Study Guide for Grades 5-8.

1920s Consumer Culture
This History Matters extended activity is designed to help students understand the importance of consumerism in the 1920s and recognize the connections between commodities and culture.

American Advertising: A Brief History
Since the 1920s American Advertising has grown enormously. This History Matters extended activity prompts students to analyze various ads from the 20th century. Included is an ad from the Saturday Evening Post in 1920.

Fatal Flood
The teacher’s guide to the PBS video Fatal flood touches upon topics such as race relations, the agricultural economy, and humanitarian aid. Their activities are divided into 4 categories: history, economics, geography, and civics.

Roaring 20s Quizzes
Scroll to bottom of the page for five high school AP multiple choice quizzes on the 1920s.

1920s Quiz
Three high school multiple choice quizzes on the 1920s, as well as quizzes on other decades from the twentieth century.

Postwar Disillusionment and the Quest for Peace, 1921-1929 
This National Endowment for the Humanities EDSITEment lesson examines the rise of antiwar sentiment in the United States and measures taken to prevent the outbreak of future wars.

The “Secret Society” and FitzGerald’s The Great Gatsby 
This National Endowment for the Humanities EDSITEment lesson attempts to answer: What tensions about wealth and status are revealed in The Great Gatsby? How are these tensions reflected in Nick Carraway’s struggle to belong? Students reflect on the class struggles of early twentieth century and write a “credo” for the “secret society” implied in The Great Gatsby.

PowerPoint Presentation on the Life and Times of Herbert Hoover
This link will download a PowerPoint file from the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum. It provides a detailed history of the life of Herbert Hoover as well as suggestions for follow-up activities.

The Roaring 20s: A Reunion 
In this WebQuest, students research a group chosen from a list and then contribute to a class podcast.

Blues Poems 
A part of a history unit on the 20s a teachers asks her students to compose a compose a blues-form poem about some problem of that time.

Postwar Society and Culture: Multiple Choice Quiz, Fill-in-the-Blank, Flashcards, American History Glossary, and an American History Appendix
The Student Resources section of The American Nation companion web site features introductions to chapters, interactive quizzes, flashcards, web links, an American History Glossary, and an American History Appendix.

The New Era, 1921-1933: Multiple Choice Quiz, Fill-in-the-Blank, Flashcards, American History Glossary, and an American History Appendix
The Student Resources section of The American Nation companion web site features introductions to chapters, interactive quizzes, flashcards, web links, an American History Glossary, and an American History Appendix.

Jazz Talk: Lesson Plan
In this lesson plan students will analyze work songs, spirituals, blues, and gospel songs in order to develop an appreciation for the origins of jazz music. They will also examine works of poetry from African American artists and create their own poems. After completing this activity, students should be able to describe the impact of African American songs and writings on American culture. Grades 6-12.

Interpreting Primary Sources
Digital History provides brief excerpts from primary sources and statistics and questions to think about the Controversies of the 1920s.

Digital History Resource Guides
The Digital Resource Guides provide links to American history web sites by period and provide historical overviews, readings (online textbook chapter, Reader’s Companion), primary source documents (documents, maps, cartoons), teaching resources (chronologies, maps, quizzes), audio-visual resources, and additional resources. It is an excellent and comprehensive teaching resource.

At Home and Abroad: Prosperity and Depression, 1917-1940 Practice Test
High School level quiz on Jazz Age and Great Depression from Prentice Hall.

At Home and Abroad: Prosperity and Depression, 1917-1940 Document Based Essay
This Prentice Hall DBQ is designed to test your ability to work with historical documents and is based on the accompanying documents (1-6).

Streamlines and Breadlines
High School students will learn about the growth and development of cities in America from 1920 through 1940. Immigration, the migration of African-Americans from the South to the urban centers of the North, industrialization, and the Great Depression all affected cities during this period. This lesson will culminate in a student essay that compares two contrasting images from this time period. Students will view two sets of images from Thirteen/WNET’s AMERICAN VISIONS Web site. Students will choose one image from each group and compare and contrast the images in an essay. AP United States History Quizzes
A New York teacher has produced a great general site for history teachers that offers AP-level United States history quizzes on many different periods and topics.

AP United States History DBQs: 1875-1925
These student-created DBQs are part of the excellent site.

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