100 years ago this year, the United States entered an extremely prosperous decade, with a booming economy, new technology, and great social change for many Americans! Flappers, Jazz music and the first Ford car are all things we associate with the 1920s in America, and this progressive, modern decade made the United States emerge as a world power.
This post takes you back 100 years to look at some of the events that happened in the 1920s and the characteristics that made the decade so unique in American history. While the Roaring Twenties was a period of rapid change and economic prosperity, unfortunately not everyone benefited from these changes and the society still faced a number of difficulties throughout the decade. You can read about what events made headline news at the start of the decade with an original 1920 newspaper.
- Why the ‘Roaring Twenties’?
- The Impact of World War One
- Rise of Industry and Consumerism
- Republican Politics
- Women’s Rights
- Jazz Music
- Harlem Renaissance
- Immigration and the Red Scare
- The Ku Klux Klan
- The Start of the Great Depression
The 1920s in America is famously known as the Roaring Twenties, due to the decade being a period of economic prosperity and the country experiencing many cultural changes. The era saw the rise of social, artistic and cultural dynamism, as well as a booming economy, new technology and entertainment forms, and new rights for women. Everything seemed to be progressing in marvellous ways after the traumatic First World War – automobiles and appliances were readily available, people had more time and money to watch movies, and women celebrated a new look and voting rights. Take a look below at some of the main 1920s events in America that made the decade so distinct.
The First World War, also known as the ‘Great War’, was the first major global war to occur on such a scale in human history. European countries had been fighting for over four years, with their economies struggling to keep up with the war effort. Many countries, including England, also faced extreme damage to infrastructure as a result of enemy air raids, despite no fighting taking place on English soil. After the war ended, Europe’s economy was in tatters.
On the other side of the Atlantic, America emerged from the war having avoided the level of destruction, both physically and economically, that had damaged Europe. America didn’t enter the war until 1917, meaning it only had to provide resources and troops for the final year of conflict. It was also geographically far from the conflict in Europe, with there being no threat of an enemy air raid that would destroy its cities.
The United States is also rich in natural resources, which it used to trade with European countries to help the war effort. The need for resources was huge, and the country made significant money from trading overseas. This greatly helped manufacturing, production and efficiency in American industry, and the nation emerged as the world’s industrial leader. With efficient industries, more workers needed for factories and the development of new technology, America’s economy really began to boom!
Following the growth of industry during and after the First World War, consumerism in the United States really began to take off. Consumerism describes the idea that citizens should continue to buy products and goods in large numbers, even when they might not actually be necessary.
While industry continued to grow and produce efficiently, the technological advances and innovative ideas made after the war meant exciting new products were becoming readily available to Americans. This included a lot of labour-saving devices, such as washing machines, vacuum cleaners, radios and much more! In turn, these household appliances gave Americans more time to do leisure activities, such as going to the movies, instead of doing housework. This helped the economy even further, with entertainment industries beginning to take off and the public spending more money in their free time.
This rise in consumerism was also tied to a rise in advertising on a much larger scale, continuing to prompt the public to buy items. With many more Americans becoming exposed to the media in the form of newspapers and radio stations, a wider audience could be reached.
The Model T Ford automobile is one of the most characteristic inventions of 1920s America, created by Henry Ford. The automobile was instantly popular among the public, and they were so high in demand that a new car was being turned out every 24 seconds! This efficient industry system was due to Ford’s assembly line technique, in which each worker focuses on a particular part of the car to produce them more quickly and in larger numbers. By 1929, around 27 million cars were on American roads, almost equating to one per household. With factories using new machinery, factories could employ great numbers of unskilled workers, leading to lower prices for goods and less unemployment.
Citizens were also able to purchase their goods more easily with the availability of cheap credit. This meant consumers could pay for goods in instalments at lower interest rates, making the buying of products even more appealing to many. This increased the demand for new goods, since more Americans were able to buy all sorts of appliances. The demand for more goods thus led to more jobs available and more consumers due to more people employed, with the economy continuing to boom.
Model T Ford, c. 1920
Politics at the start of the 1920s was another reason why the decade’s businesses experienced success and made more money! America’s government throughout the 1920s was Republican, with three different Republican presidents – Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover. Each president was pro-business and their policies largely aimed to help the business side of the economy.
By lowering taxes, businesses could invest more money and citizens would be able to spend their money on the new and exciting consumer goods available to them. There were also tariffs put in place on imported goods, which prompted the nation to buy American-produced goods as they were cheaper. Therefore, people were encouraged the boom of American business rather than foreign competitors.
One particular law that prompted the sneaky, party culture we associate with the Roaring Twenties was prohibition. Ironically, when we think about the extravagant parties of the 1920s, such as in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, it’s somewhat hard to believe there was actually a ban on alcohol at the time.
Prohibition was the 18th Amendment to the American Constitution that banned the sale and import of alcohol, although not consumption of alcohol, that took place between 1920 and 1933.
The Temperance Movement, a movement attempting to curb the consumption of alcohol, was beginning to have a large influence on American politics at the start of the 20th century. Prohibition was brought in as a result of its efforts, with the belief that restricting the sale and import of alcohol would limit its consumption and improve society. The movement saw alcohol consumption as a threat to respectability and the Christian morals they were trying to hold onto in the wake of modernity. Unfortunately, the introduction of prohibition would not have the desired effect.
With the law not making it illegal to consume alcohol, many Americans stockpiled personal reserves of alcohol before the law went into effect. People also found other means to get hold of alcohol once the ban took place. Gangsters like Al Capone made fortunes through the illegal distillation and sale of alcohol, a process known as bootlegging. This meant prohibition actually led to more organised crime in society, despite its aim being to rid the country of social ills.
Prohibition also led to the rise of speakeasies – illegal establishments that sold alcohol, whether they were a shop or a club. Speakeasies were hidden from view of the streets and had secret entrances, with people often needing to recite a password to get in. Behind the doors, people would be dancing to jazz music and enjoying alcohol in a confined space. An unregulated party culture began to take over the cities of America.
Orange County Sheriff’s deputies dumping illegal alcohol towards the end of Prohibition in 1932
Image: Wikimedia Commons
After the efforts of the Suffragettes and the work of women during the First World War, the topic of women’s suffrage was becoming important in the United States. Women had been given many more opportunities outside of the home during the war, with their efforts needed to support the war. After the war ended, women didn’t want to lose the independence and freedom they had gained. The war had also led young women to feel disillusioned and led them to question morality and traditional social values. The 1920s was a decade full of possibilities and potential new beginnings for women.
In 1920, women in America gained the right to vote, which was a huge step forward for women’s rights and formed an important part of 1920s history. With the right to vote came a new sense of individualism and autonomy, letting American women move away from the traditional and strict gendered values that had always characterised their lives. From this new freedom came the idea of the ‘new woman’, who embraced new Roaring Twenties fashion and took on roles outside of the home.
The most iconic symbol of this ‘new woman’ was the Flapper. A flapper described a stylish, young party girl who embraced new political, economic and sexual freedom away from traditional Victorian values. They wore shorter dresses, threw away their corsets, cut their hair shorter, and smoke and drank in public. They embraced the ever-growing jazz music culture, became sexually liberated and consistently pushed the barriers of feminine norms. They were seen as lively, dangerous, independent new women who weren’t frightened into conforming. This caused a culture clash in America, with many people still wishing to return to traditional values after the war had ended.
Other changes for women included the process of divorce becoming much easier in the 1920s, as well as the American Birth Control League being founded by Margaret Sanger in 1921, aiming to give women more personal and bodily control.
Flapper girl, 1920s
Another name for the Roaring Twenties was the Jazz Age, since this was the decade in which the genre was massively on the rise. Jazz had a huge impact on American culture in the 1920s, with the music booming and becoming incredibly popular. Jazz emerged from African American communities, spreading to America’s white middle class and becoming a genre enjoyed by almost everybody. While racism still permeated American culture throughout the 1920s, jazz saw no racial barriers. As an explosive form of entertainment, jazz is definitely the most prominent cultural characteristic of 1920s America.
The growth of jazz music also inspired new dance styles and consequently, new fashion styles. The charleston was the most popular dance of the 1920s, which could be danced alone or with a partner. The iconic leg-twisting motion of the dance meant women began changing their styles in order to perform the dance with ease. The shorter dresses worn by flapper women were perfect for dancing in as they were also looser and less restrictive.
Some well-known musicians include Willy “The Lion” Smith, Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Lead Belly among many others!
Jazz orchestra, 1921
Image: Wikimedia Commons
The Roaring Twenties saw the rapid growth of the movie industry. The newfound wealth of citizens fuelled technological innovations, since they would often spend their leisure time on popular entertainment such as movies, radio or sports games. The popularity of “moving pictures” grew in the 1920s, with movie theatres appearing in cities across the country. Going to see a movie quickly became a popular pastime for the people of America.
Big movie studios were founded in the 1920s, such as Warner Bros. and Paramount, which still dominate the film industry today. While silent films were being produced in the late 19th century, the first feature-length motion picture was The Jazz Singer, distributed by Warner Bros. in 1927. This paved the way for a new movie culture and changed the nature of American film. By the end of the Roaring Twenties, movie attendance had increased to 90 million a week.
Movie goers posing for the camera outside the Warners’ Theater before the premier of “Don Juan”, 1926
Image: Wikimedia Commons
The Roaring Twenties was also the decade that the Harlem Renaissance took place. The Harlem neighbourhood in New York City became known as the capital of black America and the renaissance describes the intellectual, social and artistic explosion that took place throughout the 1920s. With black Americans continually being subjects of extreme racism, Harlem was a place where artists, musicians and other creatives could express themselves and is the most influential movement in African American literary history.
The intention of its participants was to change the way black Americans were viewed in society, going against the stereotypes that permeated white America. They also wished to move away from traditional Victorian values and standards of living that often reinforced racist beliefs. The impact of the Harlem Renaissance was huge and changed black consciousness not just in America, but all throughout the world.
With the economy booming and newfound freedom and independence for many, America was a very appealing nation to move to. The country promoted ideals of democracy, liberty and freedom, which attracted many people from war-torn and poorer countries to start a new life. Even the Constitution stated “all men are created equal,” which gave the impression that moving to America could be a hopeful new beginning.
Despite this impression, moving to America as an immigrant was not as free and successful as people had hoped. The 1920s in particular saw a rise in prejudice against those who were not considered ‘true’ Americans as immigration rapidly increased. At the end of the 19th century, America promoted an Open Door policy that encouraged people to immigrate, but restrictions began to be put in place in the 1920s.
Even before the 1920s had begun, more than 40 million people had emigrated to America, creating a very mixed and diverse population. On busy days, around 5,000 people would arrive. Immigrants were subject to medical tests to check they weren’t bringing disease before they were allowed into the country. They were also questioned about work and finance and had to sit a literary test from 1917 onwards to ensure they could work and not burden society.
The 1920s saw a rise in restrictions and harsh treatment of immigrants, especially since they began to be frowned upon as not true Americans. They were expected to fully assimilate into American culture and learn American standards of living, and Americans began to be concerned about the impact they would have on society.
The Emergency Quota Act was introduced in 1921, which restricted the number of immigrants to 357,000 a year and set down a quota. British and Western European immigrants were favoured since many groups of them were already in the United States. The National Origins Act of 1924 limited the number of immigrants per year to 150,000 and completely prohibited immigration from Asia. President Calvin Coolidge famously stated that “America must be kept for the Americans.”
The rise of immigration in the United States also saw the rise of the Red Scare, which was the fear among many Americans of immigrants who embodied a communist, socialist or anarchist ideology. They thought people with these beliefs would threaten America’s democratic ideals and change the nature of society by overthrowing the American government. The Red Scare of the 1920s was also prompted by the First World War and the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. Despite this widespread fear, anarchists represented only 0.1% of the population. This fear of communism in particular remained a part of society right until America and Russia became allies in the Second World War.
Italian immigrants Vanzetti (left) and Sacco (right), who were controversially convicted of crimes in the US, 1923
The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) is the most well-known and oldest American hate group. The KKK was formed at the end of the American Civil War in the 19th century, mobilising to torture and attack formerly enslaved members of society, as well as other citizens who were not white, Anglo-Saxon protestants. Members of the KKK would dress in hooded costumes and commit horrific crimes against black people such as lynching, raping and attacking homes.
The KKK saw a huge revival in the 1920s, largely due to increased immigration which they were greatly opposed to. The group began targeting Jews, Catholics and gays as well as African Americans, broadening their hateful messages. By 1925, the Klan had around 4 million members and staged a march in the capital, Washington D.C. They were a huge threat to immigrant and black communities, terrorising their lives and causing constant fear.
While the Roaring Twenties was a period of enhanced freedom and prosperity for many, immigrants and African Americans were not able to embrace these positive changes.
While the Wall Street Crash of 1929 was the event that sparked the Great Depression, there were also many other reasons why the United States was plunged into a depression after a decade of prosperity. To see how the Great Depression unfolded in the United States throughout the 1930s, take a look at our Great Depression timeline.