I worked for 35 years as a reference librarian with the Madison Public Library and I just got interested in Madison’s history through my reference work. My husband and I coll… Read more
Remembered in America today as the “Roaring Twenties,” the decade began with the enactment of Prohibition in 1920 and ended with the Stock Market Crash of 1929. Free from the terrors of World War I, the “war to end all wars,” Americans and others spent most of the 1920s celebrating peace, stability, and postwar prosperity.
Women finally gained the right to vote with the passage of the Twentieth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in August of 1920. Along with the recent establishment of the League of Nations in Paris, not to mention the economic boom of many nations after the war, 1920 seemed to promise a bright future.
It was, however, also a time of buried tension. While the decade saw the formation of the League of Nations, it also witnessed the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan and the rise of both Hitler and Mussolini. America had recently helped win a world war, but national sentiment now turned isolationist and even xenophobic—the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924 enacted low immigration limits and prohibited Asians from immigrating entirely under the Asian Exclusion Act.
With the spread of Henry Ford’s assembly line, America and the industrialized world were entering an age of mass culture—mass production, mass consumption, and mass advertising. At the same time, the period also saw a blossoming of literature and music, with the Lost Generation producing classic works of poetry and fiction, and African-American musicians changing the course of American music with a genre that also lent its name to the time—the Jazz Age.
What better place to start, then, than with music? In the 1920s, music was in the air—quite literally. The first radio broadcasts had begun in the 1910s, and the arrival of World War I made radio’s potential military applications tantalizingly obvious. These events prompted intense research into a whole new field of technology.
The first commercial radio station to be licensed under federal regulations enacted in 1920 was KDKA in Pittsburgh. In November, KDKA and New Jersey station WJZ made history by broadcasting the results of the Warren G. Harding-James M. Cox presidential elections. From these humble beginnings, radio quickly took off.
The first national radio networks appeared in 1923, starting with AT&T. At first, radio was so exciting that pretty much everyone and anyone was willing to go on the air for free just for the publicity, if not the thrill. But as radios became more commonplace in the middle of the decade, musicians and others were more hesitant to lend their services without pay, which caused stations to look for ways to increase their funds. Thus, advertising began to play an important role in what was becoming a big business.
In 1925, the government attempted to regulate advertising with mixed success—while ads were still allowed, “direct advertising” was forbidden. In 1927, the Federal Radio Commission was established to help regulate the increasingly crowded airwaves.
At the same time, stations were starting to air regular programs like “Amos ’n Andy” and the Grand Ole Opry. The Opry started in Nashville on WSM in 1925, although it did not get its famous name until 1927. It has aired weekly broadcasts of country music performances ever since. Decades before it became a source of controversy and racial debate, “Amos ’n Andy” started in 1926 as “Sam ’n Henry” and debuted under its more familiar name in 1928 on WMAQ, followed by its jump to NBC in 1929.
While the radio had entered the decade as a rare, expensive luxury item, by 1929 it was increasingly common and affordable, the way of the future in the realm of communication and entertainment. For the first time, families could listen to music (or the news, sports, or almost anything else) on their Atwater Kent, Crosley, Emerson, or Stromberg radios, without leaving their living rooms. Even when compared to the other technological developments of the time, the radio seemed like magic.
Off the airwaves, a new sensation was taking the United States—and, soon enough, the world—by storm: jazz. Growing out of ragtime, stride, Dixieland brass bands, and other influences, jazz evolved in the early 1920s. Unlike most other forms of popular music of the time, jazz emphasized improvisation—solos by individual musicians over a background of chords. The interest in improv was born of necessity, since most jazz musicians were musically illiterate and jazz groups rarely played from written sheet music.
Although white musicians and bandleaders like Paul Whiteman soon crafted their own versions of the genre, jazz began as an African-American form of music, which did little for its reputation. Many white Americans protested jazz as crass and lewd. Once record labels realized its profit potential, though, they marketed jazz records as “race” music and, for the first half of the 1920s, emphasized its comic elements in recordings like “Barnyard Blues” and “Livery Stable Blues.” While these pieces had less-than-flattering racial implications for their black musicians, the records sold well and allowed jazz to gain a foothold in the market. These recordings were all pressed on shellac 78 rpm records, the predecessor to vinyl records.
In the latter years of the decade, labels produced increasingly sophisticated jazz recordings by artists like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Jelly Roll Morton, and King Oliver. Blues women shared the spotlight, too, with singers like Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey defining a sound that would reverberate in the American consciousness for decades to come, influencing thinkers like Ralph Ellison.
Aside from recordings, live jazz grew popular in bustling cities like Chicago and New York, whose Cotton Club in Harlem became one of the premier venues for jazz. Open to blacks and whites alike, the club was one of the few public places where the two races could mingle—and dance together—freely. Clubs like this one helped the Charleston become the dance of the decade. Meanwhile, in Kalamazoo, Michigan, Gibson engineer Lloyd Loar was perfecting the sound and design of the mandolin.
Although “the Jazz Age” has stuck as a way to refer to the decade, it was a writer who coined the phrase—F. Scott Fitzgerald. Indeed, the 1920s saw the emergence of many authors who challenged literary conventions and produced lasting masterpieces.
For his part, Fitzgerald published one of his most famous and celebrated novels, “The Great Gatsby,” in 1925. Along with Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Henry Miller, and others, Fitzgerald identified himself as part of the Lost Generation, a group of writers who had grown disillusioned with America but still managed to shape its literary history. Hemingway also published one of his most influential novels—“The Sun Also Rises”—in 1926.
At the same time, Eugene O’Neill reinvented the American drama, shaping it for the first time into an internationally recognized art form. Poet e. e. cummings challenged conventions of punctuation and language in his quintessentially modern works, while novelist William Faulkner published “The Sound and the Fury” in 1929.
The 1920s also saw an explosion of literary talent in Harlem, which became home to a new generation of African-American writers. The Harlem Renaissance, as it came to be known, nurtured writers like Langston Hughes, Alaine Locke, and Zora Neale Hurston. These writers crafted new visions of African-American literature and identity, though many at the time (and still today) debated the role of white “patrons” in their careers.
Other notable writers of the period included Sinclair Lewis, Edith Wharton, T. S. Elliot, Virginia Woolf, Franz Kafka, James Joyce, and Agatha Christie.
In the 1920s, music and literature found a new companion in the arts—the movies. From black-and-white silent films to Technicolor talkies, the 1920s saw the coming of the age of film. The decade began in 1920 on a note of innovation when Lee de Forest invented “Phonofilm,” the first system for syncing sound with a movie.
Despite their lack of sound, many films from the early 1920s are remembered today as masterpieces, as well as for the stars they introduced to the world, from Buster Keaton to Lon Chaney to Harold Lloyd. Co-starring with child star Jackie Coogan, Charlie Chaplin released his first feature-length film, “The Kid,” in 1921. Four years later, Chaplin directed and starred in what many critics consider his best film, “The Gold Rush.” The same year, MGM distributed “Ben Hur” after spending $4 million on its production. The era of big-budget Hollywood blockbusters was not so far away.
Indeed, the age of the superstar had already begun. After debuting in 1921 as a relatively unknown actor in “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” Rudolph Valentino became one of the first Hollywood heartthrobs, starring in “Blood and Sand,” “The Son of the Sheik,” and other silent films before his untimely death at the age of 31.
As the decade drew to a close, Louis B. Mayer instigated the founding of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; Fritz Lang released “Metropolis,” widely considered the first science-fiction film; and Warner Bros. offered up “The Jazz Singer,” starring Al Jolson, as the first feature film with songs and spoken dialogue synchronized with the picture. (“Don Juan,” released the year before, was the first feature-length film with a score, singing, and sound effects all synchronized, but it did not have dialogue.)
“Lights of New York” in 1928 one-upped “The Jazz Singer” by being the first “talking picture”—a film with dialogue throughout the entire movie. Both films were quite successful, which redirected the course of Hollywood toward talkies, even in animation. That same year saw the debut of Mickey Mouse in Walt Disney’s “Plane Crazy.” Mickey spoke in his first lines in “Steamboat Willie” later that year.
In 1929, the Academy hosted the first Academy Awards, handing out 13 prizes. The award for “Outstanding Picture” went to “Wings,” a 1927 film dealing with military aviation.
Unlike today’s multiplexes, movie theaters of the 1920s generally only had one screen and showed only one film at a time. To help promote their products, studios printed paper advertisements such as movie posters and lobby cards to entice audience members with tantalizing stills from the film. Those that survive are some of the earliest pieces of film memorabilia.
After the entrance of women into the labor force during World War I, women’s fashion changed markedly in the 1920s. While their mothers wore Edwardian corsets and tight-fitting dresses, the young women of the 1920s began to wear looser, more comfortable clothes, topped by a simple cloche hat. Ideals of beauty shifted away from rounded figures to something approaching masculinity and boyishness.
By 1926, the flapper had emerged. The ideal flapper had short hair and a flat chest, with a short dress that (shockingly, to many) revealed the knee. She was healthy, slim, and fit, able to dance all night long in the jazz clubs. Dresses emphasized straight lines rather than curves, so the corset was out. Unlike the elaborate cuts of Edwardian dresses, flapper clothes were also accessible to the middle classes, since they were fairly easy to sew by hand at home.
Young women also began wearing make-up more frequently, even applying it in public. This display became a rite in and of itself, and it popularized the engraved compact and fueled the cosmetics industry. Compacts surviving from the 1920s are highly sought by collectors.
Designers like Coco Chanel, Madeleine Chéruit, and Madeleine Vionnet dominated this new scene. Coco Chanel, in particular, helped define and promote the flapper look, with comfortable, easy-to-wear, simple clothes in neutral tones. Chanel also introduced the world to the LBD (that “little black dress”), a style that would resurface again and again throughout the century.
Men’s fashions changed as well, but not as drastically. Suits were simpler and produced in brighter colors, belts replaced suspenders. Some men wore baggy trousers (“Oxford bags,” as they were called), often with a prominent front crease, while devoted jazz club dancers sometimes opted for long jackets with skinny trousers instead.
In fact, the 1920s marked the start of a period when young people started to use clothes to express themselves. In a world of modernity, of struggles for individuality alongside mass production, fashion followed suit.
Thanks to the advances of Henry Ford in the previous decade, mass production was in full swing during the 1920s, churning out goods for a prosperous nation that was ready to consume, including Ford’s own Model T and Model A. By the end of the 1920s, the United States produced more than one third of the world’s goods.
America also led the way in many inventions and discoveries. Not one but two life-saving compounds were discovered in the 1920s—insulin and penicillin, in 1922 and 1928, respectively (though penicillin would not become useful on a large scale until a few decades later). Some inventions changed lives in less profound but equally pervasive ways. Bubble gum and pre-sliced bread both bowed in 1928, an innovation that prompted the eternally unanswerable question, “What’s the best thing since sliced bread?”
Some would answer that question with one word—television. Though not used commercially in the 1920s, television got its start in 1924 when Scottish inventor John Logie Baird built a mechanical television that could capture the outlines of objects. From 1925 to 1926, his invention had progressed from human faces to objects in motion—in 1928, he added color. While the TVs of the following decades would be electronic rather than mechanical, Baird’s efforts across the Atlantic were a sneak peek of coming attractions.
Speaking of the Atlantic Ocean, the 1920s also saw the first solo transatlantic flight by Charles Lindbergh in 1927, one year after Robert Goddard successfully launched his first rocket.
Sometimes remembered as a sort of “Golden Age” in sports, the 1920s spawned a dazzling panoply of stars: Knute Rockne and Red Grange in football, Jack Dempsey in boxing, and Johnny Weissmuller in swimming. Babe Ruth set a record that would be broken but never forgotten when he hit 60 home runs for the New York Yankees during the 1927 season.
Those 1927 Yankees are remembered today as perhaps the best baseball team in history, with Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Miller Huggins, Tony Lazzeri, and Bob Meusel. Aside from their legendary talent, Yankee players in the ’20s made an important contribution to the sport when they started to wear their spot in the line-up as a number on the back of their jerseys—jersey numbers are ubiquitous in sports today.
For football fans, the decade began on a note of forward progress—in 1920, the American Professional Football Association was founded with 11 teams. It changed its name in 1922 to the National Football League, which, of course, has grown quite a bit since then.
Finally, in 1921, the International Olympic Committee sanctioned a “Winter Sports Week,” which was held in 1924 in Chamonix, France. The successful event was retroactively renamed the Winter Olympics, and a new sports tradition was born. Four years later, the 1928 Olympic Games allowed women to compete for the first time in gymnastics and athletics, a change which prompted the number of female participants to double just two years after Gertrude Ederle became the first woman to swim the English Channel.
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