The Roaring Twenties is a term used to describe Western society in the 1920s. Sometimes known as the Jazz Age, it was characterized by new freedoms in social, economic and cultural aspects of life. It is often synonymous with pleasure seeking and people having a good time after the devastation of the First World War. In America especially, the economy boomed, with mass consumerism arriving for the first time. For the first time in history, ordinary workers were able to purchase goods, such as motor cars and radios. The Roaring Twenties also saw a loosening of social morality, though in America, prohibition saw alcohol outlawed and the subsequent growth of criminal bootlegging.
Facts about the Roaring Twenties
- Bright Young Things was a term given to a group of bohemian young people, who enjoyed partying in 1920s London. These were predominately aristocrats and the ‘idle rich’
- P.G. Wodehouse in his humorous novels, e.g. Jeeves and Wooster lampooned the habits of these ‘bright young things’ and idle rich.
- During the 1920s, millions of African-Americans migrated from the south to north – to escape segregation and racism. It was termed the Great Migration.
- The new black communities, helped to forge a new black identity, especially in major cities, like New York. The Harlem Renaissance was considered the flowering of a new negro identity and culture.
- The 1920s also saw a re-emergence of the Klu Klux Klan, with membership peaking at over 4 million people during the 1920s.
- Despite growing wealth and conspicuous consumption – during the 1920s, more than 60 per cent of Americans lived just below the poverty line – especially black-Americans and those living in rural areas.
- In 1920, all women were given the right to vote in the US. (19th Amendment)
- In 1921, Margaret Sanger founded the American Birth Control League, which later became the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. The greater availability of contraception, helped to liberate women, enabling a greater sexual promiscuity without risk of pregnancy
- In the 1920s, divorce was made easier and the number of divorces doubled.
- In the 1920s, more Americans lived in cities than in rural communities for the first time.
- The 1920s saw the explosion of numerous dance crazes, including the Charleston and the Breakaway.
- The Cotton Club was the most famous jazz club, played by Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and other masters of jazz.
- In 1927, ‘The Jazz Singer’ starring Al Jolson was the first major ‘talking’ movie. This led to the decline of the silent movie, but growth in cinema attendance.
- The 1920s, saw an explosion in ownership of the radio. By the end of the 1920s, there were over 100 million radios in circulation.
- Flappers was a term used to describe young women, who wore short skirts, listened to jazz music and took rebellious attitudes to old standards of morality.
- In the 1920s, many banks, including the Federal Reserve had an ‘anti-flapper code’ – prohibiting women dressing too attractively.
- Due to prohibition, speakeasies – illegal salons selling alcohol – became popular and numerous as the Prohibition years progressed.
- In 1927, Charles Lindbergh was the first pilot to fly solo,non-stop across the Atlantic – in the “Spirit of Saint Louis”.
- The economic boom of the 1920s was not equally felt across the country. Agriculture suffered from low prices and entered recession, even before the Stock Market Crash of 1929.
- Art deco was a new style of architecture, which was based on pure, geometric shapes. The Empire State building was designed in the late 1920s and built in 1930-31.
- Buying on the margin. The stock market boom caused many investors to buy shares on the margin – a way of increasing profits by taking more risk. This led to the creation of many new ‘paper millionaires.’
- In the 1920s, there was a credit and share price bubble. The S&P 500 Share price index saw a rise in earnings per share from 20 (1922) to 100 in 1929. (What caused Wall Street Crash?)
- The Roaring Twenties came to a shuddering halt on 29 October 1929 (Black Tuesday. Share prices fell by $40 billion in a single day. By 1930 the value of shares had fallen by 90%.
Iconic people of the Roaring Twenties
Calvin Coolidge (1872 – 1933) US president (1923–29) Coolidge presided over a booming economy. He adopted a laissez-faire approach – cutting taxes and reducing regulation. Some criticise him for the unsustainable boom which preceded the Great Depression. He spoke up for civil rights and sought to eradicate lynching. Coolidge articulated the aspirations of many middle class Americans who sought to benefit from the economic growth of the 1920s.
Warren Harding (1865 – 1923) US President for just two years, 1921-23, Harding presided over a dramatic economic recovery, after the slump at the end of the First World War. He cut tax rates, and authorised federal money to be spent on building new roads. He announced America was now living in the age of the motor car.
Andrew Mellon (1855 – 1937) US secretary of the Treasury 1921-31. Mellon was a key figure in the US economy during the 1920s. He reformed the tax system, cutting income and corporation tax and seeking to reduce federal debt. Mellon’s tax cuts helped to boost investment in new multi-ethnic neighbourhoods. Mellon became unpopular after ineffective measures to halt the Great Depression. F.D. Roosevelt hated Mellon for embodying ‘everything wrong with the 1920s’.
Woodrow Wilson (1856 – 1924) US president (1913-1921). Wilson was a Democrat and leading progressive. Under his presidency he passed many progressive bills, including a graduated income tax, Federal Reserve Act, anti-trust legislation and federal support for agriculture and the beginnings of a welfare state. In international affairs, Wilson was an idealist, who sought to create a League of Nations after the end of the First World War. During his presidency, laws on prohibition were passed.
Thomas Edison (1847 – 1931) Pioneer of the mass use and distribution of electricity. Edison was one of the most prolific inventors, who developed commercially available electric light bulbs. Edison was at the cutting edge of the modernisation of American society, which dramatically changed people’s lives in the 1920s.
Henry Ford (1864-1947) Founder of Ford motor company. Ford pioneered the use of the assembly line for making cars, helping to reduce the price and make cars affordable for the average American consumer. Ford’s Model T car was an ubiquitous sight in the 1920s.
John Maynard Keynes (1883 – 1946) one of the most influential economists of the Twentieth Century. In the 1920s, he was highly critical of the Versailles Peace Treaty and Britain’s decision to return to the gold standard (causing boom in US, depression in UK). Keynes was also an influential cultural figure and member of the Bloomsbury Group of intellectuals.
Ernest Hemingway (1899 – 1961) Ground breaking modernist American writer. Famous works included For Whom The Bell Tolls (1940) and A Farewell to Arms (1929). A Farewell to Arms was a devastating account of his experience in the First World War.
F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896 – 1940) American author. Iconic writer of the ‘jazz age’. Notable works include The Great Gatsby (1925), and Tender Is the Night (1934) – Iconic and cautionary tales about the ‘Jazz decade’ and the American Dream based on pleasure and materialism.
Langston Hughes (1902 – 1967) Poet, author and social activist. Hughes was considered the leader of the Harlem Renaissance. This was a celebration of African-American culture and music. Hughes also was associated with the civil rights movement, having his poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” in “Crisis” – the journal of the NAACP.
D H Lawrence (1885 – 1930) English poet, novelist and writer. One of his best known works included: Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928) – which was banned for its sexual promiscuity and intermingling of social classes – an illustration of the new age clashing against the old.
Virginia Woolf (1882 – 1941) English modernist writer, member of the Bloomsbury group. Famous novels include: Mrs Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927) and Orlando (1928).
James Joyce (1882 – 1941) Irish writer from Dublin. Joyce was one of most influential modernist avant-garde writers of the Twentieth Century. His novel Ulysses (1922), was ground-breaking for its stream of consciousness style.
Louis Armstrong (1901 – 1971) Jazz musician. During the 1920s, Armstrong helped to popularise jazz music among both black and white Americans. Armstrong’s gregarious and non-political nature helped him become one of the few black Americans accepted by white America.
Emily Murphy (1868–1933) The first woman magistrate in the British Empire. In 1927 she joined forces with four other Canadian women who sought to challenge an old Canadian law that said, “women should not be counted as persons.”
Pablo Picasso (1881 – 1973) Spanish, modern ‘cubist’ painter. Picasso was a leading pioneer of modern art, which redrew boundaries and styles of art
Coco Chanel (1883–1971) French fashion designer. One of the most innovative fashion designers, Coco Chanel was instrumental in defining feminine style and dress during the 20th Century. She made clothes which were both stylish and more comfortable and practical. The 1920s, saw a revolution in female dress style as the corset and other Victorian relics fell out of fashion.
Margaret Sanger (1879-1966) – Sanger was a leading pioneer of offering contraception and health care services to women. Controversial at the time, Sanger is credited with playing a leading role in the acceptance of contraception. She founded the American Birth Control League.
Walt Disney (1901 – 1966) American film producer
and creator of cartoon characters such as Mickey Mouse. Walt Disney pioneered the successful film portrayal of classic fairy tales, such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Al Capone (1899-1947) American gangster who rose to fame during the prohibition era. He was an uncompromising boss of the Chicago Outfit – behind the St Valentine’s Day Massacre. Eventually convicted of income tax evasion. Capone is an iconic representative of the mafia mobster and the dark side of the ‘Roaring Twenties’.
Babe Ruth (1895 – 1948) Iconic baseball player. Babe Ruth was one of the greatest baseball players whose popularity transcended sport and epitomised the Roaring Twenties for his laid back style. In 1927 in 1927 Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs
Amelia Earhart (1897– 1937) – Female aviator. She broke several records and became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic in 1932. She epitomised both the new age of exploration and setting new ideas for what it was possible for women to do.
Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. “The Roaring Twenties”, Oxford, www.biographyonline.net, 11th Jan, 2017
A History of the Roaring Twenties
Anything Goes: A Biography of the Roaring Twenties at Amazon.com
The Progressive Era (1890-1920) A period of increased federal intervention to tackle the abuse of the Gilded Age. The Progressive Era also saw women gain the vote, and increased efforts to tackle corruption.
People of the First World War (1914 to 1918) The principle figures involved in the First World War from Germany, Britain, US and the rest of the world.
Famous Americans – Great Americans from the Founding Fathers to modern civil rights activists. Including presidents, authors, musicians, entrepreneurs and businessmen.
Inter-war era (1918 to 1939) A period of peace in between the two world wars. Characterised by economic boom and bust, and the growth of polarising ideologies.