Roaring Twenties

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The Roaring Twenties refers to the North American historical period of the 1920s, which has been described as "one of the most colorful decades in American history." The decade encapsulates a fascinating story, beginning with the return of young soldiers from the fronts of the First World War and emergence of a new and confident face of the modern womanhood, and ending with the sad note of the Black Tuesday, harbinger of the Great Depression. The years of the Roaring Twenties are marked by several inventions and discoveries of far reaching consequences; emergence of unprecedented industrial boom and accelerated consumer demand and aspirations, coupled with significant changes in the lifestyle; and a series of events, national as well as the international, which shaped a large part of the history of the 20th century. The Roaring Twenties started in North America and spread to Europe after the aftereffects of the first world war ceased. In Europe, the period after the First World War was marked by a deep recession and many years of rebuilding and coming to terms with the vast human cost of the conflict. Unlike after World War II, the United States did little to try and rebuild Europe, and retreated to an isolationist stance. In Canada, an important economic transformation accelerated as Britain was wholly supplanted as Canada's main economic partner. At the middle of the decade economic development started to soar in Europe and the Roaring Twenties broke out in Germany, England and France, where the second half of this decade was termed "The Golden Twenties". In France and Canada they were also called the "Crazy Years" (années folles).

Flapper Magazine's by-line "Not for old fogies" was a sign of the times.
Flapper Magazine's by-line "Not for old fogies" was a sign of the times.

The spirit of the roaring twenties was marked by a general feeling of discontinuity associated with modernity, and a break with traditions. A new and different era was felt to be coming up. Everything seemed to be feasible through modern technology, the limits ecology and sustainability pose to economic and technological growth were yet unknown. Technologies like trains, cars and mass communication by radio spread the idea of modernity to a large part of the population. Formal decorative frills were shed in favor of practicality, in architecture as well as in daily life. At the same time amusement, fun and lightness were cultivated in jazz and dancing, in defiance of the horrors of the First World War, which were still present in people's minds. The period is often called the "Jazz Age."


Economy of the 1920s

The Roaring Twenties were traditionally viewed as an era of great economic prosperity driven by the introduction of a wide array of new consumer goods. Initially, the North American economy, particularly the economy of the USA, took sometime to convert from a wartime economy to a peacetime economy. After this dull phase, the economy was booming. The decade saw North America becoming the richest region on the earth, with industry aligned to mass production, and a society with a culture of consumerism. In Europe, the economy did not start to flourish until 1924. At the same time the 1920s were setting the stage for the Great Depression that would dominate the 1930s.


At the end of World War I, soldiers returned to the United States and Canada with money in their pockets and a great many new products on the market on which to spend it. At first, the cessation of wartime production caused a brief, but deep recession. Quickly the North American economy rebounded as the returning soldiers entered the labor force and factories were retooled to produce consumer goods.

These soldiers formed a tremendous market force. As they were still very young, in their twenties, all things youthful were now increasingly idealized and highly marketable.

New products and technologies

The Tin Lizzy was the most popular car in the 1920s.
The Tin Lizzy was the most popular car in the 1920s.

During the 1920s, mass production developed which allowed for cheaper prices of technology. Most of the devices that became commonplace in this decade had been developed before the war, but had been unaffordable to the majority. The automobile, movie, radio, and chemical industries skyrocketed during the 1920s. One of the most important of these was the automobile industry; before the war cars were a rare luxury. In the 1920s cheap mass-produced vehicles became common throughout North America. By 1927, Henry Ford had sold 15 million Model T. In all of Canada, there were only about 300,000 vehicles registered in 1918, but by 1929 there were 1.9 million. The automobile had wide effects on the economy and society. The automobile industry rapidly became one of the largest and a number of peripheral companies running gas stations, motels, and providing oil also became important.

During the Roaring Twenties, radio became the media of the masses, the first mass broadcasting medium. Radios were affordable and entertaining. Before the days of Hollywood, radio was the grandstand for mass marketing with a massive listening audience. Its economic importance led to the mass culture that has dominated society since its introduction near the turn of the century. Radio entertainment was as varied as programming in modern day. Without the self-censorship that is in place today, editors were free to entertain an audience in any and every way. This set the stage for the entrance of violent crime into film and popular culture.

Film reels and advertisement reels, showed before cheap showings of early films, augmented the already booming mass market. The golden age of films was to be born from its humble beginnings in short, silent film reels. Like radio, film was a media for the masses. A view of a film was cheap and accessible for factory and other blue-collar workers.

New infrastructure

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.
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.

The new technologies led to an unprecedented need for new infrastructure, mostly built by the government. Crucial to the new vehicles were new roads. Several roads were upgraded to become highways, and a number of expressways were constructed. There emerged a class of Americans with surplus money and a desire to spend the same, spurring the demand for consumer goods, including the automobiles.

Electrification, having slowed during the war, saw huge progress during the 1920s as most of North America was added to the electric grid. Most industries switched from being coal powered to using electricity. At the same time, vast new power plants were constructed. In Canada during this decade electricity production almost quadrupled.

Telephone lines also were now being strung across the continent. Another important technology that went from rare to common in the 1920s was indoor plumbing, and modern sewer systems were installed for the first time in many regions.

These infrastructure programs were mostly left to the local governments in both Canada and the United States. During the 1920s, most local governments went deeply into debt, under the assumption that an investment in such infrastructure would pay off in the future. This would cause major problems in the Great Depression. In both Canada and the United States, the federal governments did the reverse, using the decade to pay down war debts and rollback some of the taxes that had been introduced during the war.


Urbanization was one of the most important trends during the Roaring Twenties. For the first time, more North Americans lived in cities than in small towns or rural areas. Mass transit systems, the first skyscrapers, and the growing importance of industry contributed to this. A growing service sector was also increasingly important, with the finance and insurance industries doubling or tripling in size. The basic pattern of the modern white collar job is often believed to have been established during this period. Many of the clerical jobs went to women, who entered the workforce in unprecedented numbers. In Canada, one in five workers were women by the end of the decade. The fastest growing cities were those in the Midwest and the Great Lakes region, including Chicago and Toronto. These cities prospered due to their vast agricultural hinterlands. Cities on the West Coast saw increasing benefits from the 1914 opening of the Panama Canal.

Culture of the Roaring Twenties

The Lost Generation

Main article: Lost Generation

The Lost Generation were young people who came out of World War I disillusioned and cynical about the world. The term usually refers to American literary notables that lived in Paris at the time. Famous members included Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein.

Social Criticism

As the average American in the 1920s became more self-absorbed in wealth and everyday luxuries, some began satirizing the hypocrisy and greed they observed. Of these social critics, Sinclair Lewis was the most popular. His 1920 novel Main Street was one of the most popular of the time. The story satirized the dull, ignorant lives of those in 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 and H.L. Mencken. Anderson published a collection of short stories titled Winesburg, Ohio, which studied the dynamic within a small town. Mencken criticized the narrow American taste and culture through various essays and articles.

Art Deco

Main article: Art Deco

Art Deco was the style in design and architecture that marked the era. Starting from Europe, it spread to America towards the end of the 1920s, where 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, even though the artists often drew inspiration from nature. In the beginning lines were curved, but later on rectangular designs became more and more popular.

Expressionism and Surrealism

Main article: Surrealism

Painting in North America during the 1920s developed into a different direction than that in 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".


Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer.
Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer.

The bulk of the 1920s cinema was silent. Late in the decade, early—and eventually, more advanced—sound recording technology was developed, leading into the age of what was known at the time as talkies. The first talking movie, Don Juan was made in 1926, also in that same year movies with Technicolor had arrived. Walt Disney produced his first cartoon during the Roaring Twenties. Al Jolson's follow-up film to The Jazz Singer, The Singing Fool [1] in 1928 made the talkies popular with a wider audience. The period also saw emergence of Charlie Chaplin and Valentino as box office draws.

Harlem Renaissance

Main article: Harlem Renaissance

The African American culture developed rapidly during the 1920s under the title of the "Harlem Renaissance". In 1921, the Black Swan Corporation opened. At its height it issued ten recordings a month. All-African-American musicals also started up in 1921. In 1923, the Harlem Renaissance Basketball Club was founded by Robert 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, Chip Woman's Fortune, debuted at Frazee Theatre.1 African American culture has contributed the largest part to the rise of jazz music.

The Jazz Age

This United States Postal Service stamp celebrates the rise of jazz in the 1920s.
This United States Postal Service stamp celebrates the rise of jazz in the 1920s.

The first commercial radio station in the United States, KDKA began broadcasting in Pittsburgh in 1922. Radio stations subsequently proliferated at a remarkable rate, and with them spread the popularity of jazz. Jazz became associated with all things modern, sophisticated, and also decadent. Louis Armstrong marked the time with improvisations and endless variations on a single melody. Armstrong contributed largely to making scat singing popular, an improvisational vocal technique in which nonsensical syllables are sung or otherwise vocalized, often as part of a call-and-response interaction with other musicians onstage. Apart from the clarinet, Sidney Bechet also popularized the saxophone. Dance venues increased the demand for professional musicians and jazz adopted the 4/4 beat of dance music. Tap dancers entertained people in vaudeville theaters, out in the streets or accompanying bands. At the end of the Roaring Twenties, Duke Ellington entered the scene to start the beginning of the big band era.


A USPS stamp from the Celebrate the Century series: Flappers Doing the Charleston.
A USPS stamp from the Celebrate the Century series: Flappers Doing the Charleston.

Starting in the 1920s, ballrooms across the U.S. sponsored 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 Vaudeville hall circuit across the U.S. Electric lighting and air conditioning made evening social entertainment available to much wider audiences, giving rise to an era of dance halls and live music.

Harlem played a key role in the development of dance styles. With a number of entertainment venues, people from all walks of life, all races, and all classes came together. The Cotton Club featured black performers and catered to the rich, glamorous, and white clientele, while the Savoy Ballroom catered to average, working, and mostly black clientele.

From the early to mid-1920s, Breakaway and Charleston dominated the emerging dance scene. Both were based upon African-American musical styles and beats, notably the blues. The Charleston's popularity exploded after being featured in two Broadway shows in 1922. A brief Black Bottom craze, originating from the Apollo Theater, would sweep dance halls from 1926 to 1927, replacing the Charleston in popularity. By 1927, Lindy Hop, a dance based on Breakaway and Charleston, and integrating elements of Tap, would become the dominant social dance. Developed in the Savoy Ballroom, it was set to stride piano ragtime jazz. Lindy Hop would remain popular for over a decade, before evolving into Swing dance.


Main article: Women's Suffrage

At the end of World War I, the State of Tennessee became the last of 36 states needed to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment, in the summer of 1920. Women were thus recognized as equals as men in every state—at least at the polls.

Fashion and the changing role of women

Marlene Dietrich symbolized a new image of women.
Marlene Dietrich symbolized a new image of women.
Main article: Flapper

Due to the dreary economic situation after the First World War, many American and European families needed to replace the incomes of the family fathers lost in the battlefield; women had to accept a job, and move outside the home. This also gave them a new self-confidence. The change in role was also reflected in the media: the garçonne-look, with its most notable exponent actress Marlene Dietrich, portrayed the ideal woman as an androgynous, working woman that had reached equality with men while simultaneously possessing the appeal of the femme fatale. Pantsuits, hats and canes gave women a sleek look without frills and avoiding the fickleness of fashion. The style was named after the novel La garçonne by Victor Margueritte. In Europe, this look featured women with short hair (Bubikopf) for the first time; in the U.S., the bob was introduced by actress Louise Brooks in the late 1920s. As a result of this move towards practical androgyny, corsets went out of style, and some women even bandaged their breasts to make them look flatter. Flappers, as these women were called in the U.S., wore short dresses with a straight loose silhouette. By 1927 seams had risen to just below the knee, so that part of the knee could be seen when dancing Charleston.

Thus, the Roaring Twenties gave a new definition to womanhood—a new woman was born, who smoked and drank in public, danced and exercised her franchise, kept her hair short, wore make-up, dressed differently, and confidently participated in economic activities.

Life During the Roaring Twenties

Immigration laws

The United States, and to a lesser degree Canada, became more isolationist during the Roaring Twenties. The American Immigration Act of 1924 limited immigration from countries where two percent of the total U.S. population, per the 1890 census, were immigrants from that country. Thus the massive influx of Europeans that had come to America during the first two decades of the century slowed to a trickle. Asians and citizens of India were prohibited from immigrating altogether. Alien Land Laws such as California's Webb-Haney Act in 1913 prevented aliens ineligible for citizenship from owning land. Similar laws were passed in 11 other states. In Canada, the Chinese Immigration Act of 1923 prevented almost all immigration from Asia. Other laws curbed immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe.


Main article: Prohibition

In 1920, the manufacture, sale, import and export of alcohol was prohibited by the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in an attempt to alleviate various social problems; this came to be known as "Prohibition". It was enacted through the Volstead Act. America's continued desire for alcohol under prohibition led to the rise of organized crime, having unforeseen economic bonuses for criminal organizations. In Canada, prohibition was never imposed nationally, but the American liquor laws nonetheless had an important effect, as Canada became the main departure point for alcohol illegally entering the United States.

Rise of the speakeasy

Main article: Speakeasy

Speakeasies became popular and numerous as the Prohibition years progressed, and lead to the rise of figures such as Al Capone. They more commonly began to operate with connections to organized crime. While police and United States Federal Government agents raided such establishments and arrested the owners and patrons, the business of running speakeasies was so lucrative that such establishments continued to flourish throughout the nation. In major cities, speakeasies could often be elaborate, offering food, live bands, and floor shows. Police were notoriously bribed by speakeasy operators to either leave them alone or at least give them advance notice of any planned raid.

Literature of the 1920s

The Roaring Twenties was also a period of literary creativity, and works of several authors, including, Sinclair Lewis, Willa Cather, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Carl Sandburg and Ernest Hemingway, appeared during the period. D.H. Lawrence's novel Lady Chatterley's Lover was a scandal at the time because of its explicit descriptions of sex.

See 1920s books

Key figures

  • Al Capone was the most notorius American gangster from the 1920s in Brooklyn and later in Chicago.
  • Charles Lindbergh was a pioneering United States aviator famous for piloting the first solo non-stop flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927.
  • Mae West was an American actress and playwright known for confronting what were considered risqué subjects.
  • Will Rogers was an American humorist and entertainer.

American politics during the Roaring Twenties

Warren G. Harding

Warren G. Harding ran on a promise to "Return to Normalcy", a term he coined, which reflected three trends of his time: a renewed isolationism in reaction to World War I, a resurgence of nativism, and a turning away from the government activism of the reform era. Throughout his administration, Harding adopted laissez-faire policies. Harding's "Front Porch Campaign" during the late summer and fall of 1920 captured the imagination of the country. Not only was it the first campaign to be heavily covered by the press, and to receive widespread newsreel coverage, but it was also the first modern campaign to use the power of Hollywood and Broadway stars who traveled to Marion for photo opportunities with Harding and his wife. Al Jolson, Lillian Russell, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford were among the luminaries to make the pilgrimage to central Ohio. Business icons Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone also lent their cachet to the Front Porch Campaign. From the onset of the campaign until the November election, over 600,000 people traveled to Marion to participate. His administration was plagued with scandals with which he was likely not involved. On the scandals he commented, "My God, this is a hell of a job!" and, "I have no trouble with my enemies, but my damn friends, they're the ones that keep me walking the floor nights."

See also: U.S. presidential election, 1920

Calvin Coolidge

Calvin Coolidge was inaugurated as president after the death of President Harding. He was easily elected in 1924 when he ran on a basis of order and prosperity. Coolidge made use of the new medium of radio and made radio history several times while president: his inauguration was the first presidential inauguration broadcast on radio, on 12 February 1924, he became the first President of the United States to deliver a political speech on radio, and only ten days thereafter, on 22 February, he also became the first to deliver such a speech from the White House.

Herbert Hoover

Herbert Hoover stated in 1928, "We in America today are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of any land." He ran in the 1928 election on the platform of wiping out poverty. Ironically, within months of his election, the stock market crashed, and the national economy spiraled downward into what became known as the Great Depression.

Fall of labor unions

Main article: Trade Union

Several labor strikes in 1918 and 1919 marked a turning point in American's view of labor unions. State militias began to be used to break up strikes and state officials started enacting criminal laws against disturbances. Labor union membership died drastically througout the country. Radical unionism (see Industrial Workers of the World) declined as well, in large part due to repression during World War I by means of the Espionage Act and the Sedition Act of 1918. Socialist Eugene V. Debs was imprisoned for 10 years as a result of the latter.

International influence

Canadian politics during the 1920s

In Canada, politics were dominated federally by the Liberal Party of Canada under William Lyon Mackenzie King. The federal government spent most of the decade disengaged from the economy, and focused on paying off the large debts amassed during the war and during the era of railway overexpansion. After the booming wheat economy of the early part of the century, the prairie provinces were troubled by low wheat prices. This played an important role in the development of Canada's first highly successful third party, the Progressive Party of Canada that won the second most seats in the 1921 national election.

End of the Roaring Twenties

Black Tuesday

The Dow Jones Industrial Stock Index had continued its upward move for weeks, and coupled with heightened speculative activities, it gave an illusion that the bull market of 1928 to 1929 would last for ever. On 29 October 1929, also known as the Black Tuesday, stock prices on Wall Street collapsed , setting off a chain reaction of bankruptcies and defaults that quickly spread overseas. The events in the United States were the final shock in a worldwide depression, which put millions of people out of work across the capitalist world throughout the 1930s. Thus, the Roaring Twenties ended on a downbeat note.

See also: The Great Depression and Causes of the Great Depression

Repeal of Prohibition

Main article: Twenty-first Amendment to the United States Constitution

The 21st Amendment, which repealed the 18th Amendment, was ratified on February 20, 1933. The choice to legalize alcohol was now left up to the states, and many states quickly took this opportunity to allow alcohol. As the Roaring Twenties were typified by illegal alcohol, the legalizing of alcohol in many ways symbolized their finish.


See also

Further reading

  • Roaring Twenties by Stuart A. Kallen (Publisher: Greenhaven Press ISBN 0737708859)

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