The Roaring Twenties was a period in American history of dramatic social, economic and political change. For the first time, more Americans lived in cities than on farms. The nation’s total wealth more than doubled between 1920 and 1929, and gross national product (GNP) expanded by 40 percent from 1922 to 1929. This economic engine swept many Americans into an affluent “consumer culture” in which people nationwide saw the same advertisements, bought the same goods, listened to the same music and did the same dances. Many Americans, however, were uncomfortable with this racy urban lifestyle, and the decade of Prohibition brought more conflict than celebration. But for some, the Jazz Age of the 1920s roared loud and long, until the excesses of the Roaring Twenties came crashing down as the economy tanked at the decade’s end.
Flappers: The 'New Woman'
Perhaps the most familiar symbol of the “Roaring Twenties” is probably the flapper: a young woman with bobbed hair and short skirts who drank, smoked and said “unladylike” things, in addition to being more sexually “free” than previous generations. In reality, most young women in the 1920s did none of these things (though many did adopt a fashionable flapper wardrobe), but even those women who were not flappers gained some unprecedented freedoms.
They could vote at last: The 19th Amendment to the Constitution had guaranteed that right in 1920, though it would be decades before Black women in the South could fully exercise their right to vote without Jim Crow segregation laws.
Millions of women worked in blue-collar jobs, as well as white-collar jobs (as stenographers, for example) and could afford to participate in the burgeoning consumer economy. The increased availability of birth-control devices such as the diaphragm made it possible for women to have fewer children.
In 1912, an estimated 16 percent of American households had electricity; by the mid-1920s, more than 60 percent did. And with this electrification came new machines and technologies like the washing machine, the freezer and the vacuum cleaner eliminated some of the drudgeries of household work.
Fashion, Fads and Film Stars
During the 1920s, many Americans had extra money to spend—and spend it they did, on movies, fashion and consumer goods such as ready-to-wear clothing and home appliances like electric refrigerators. In particular, they bought radios.
The first commercial radio station in the United States, Pittsburgh’s KDKA, hit the airwaves in 1920. Two years later Warren G. Harding became the first president to address the nation by radio—and three years later there were more than 500 stations in the nation. By the end of the 1920s, there were radios in more than 12 million households.
People also swarmed to see Hollywood movies: Historians estimate that, by the end of the decades, three-quarters of the American population visited a movie theater every week, and actors like Charlie Chaplin, Gloria Swanson, Rudolph Valentino and Tallulah Bankhead became household names.
But the most important consumer product of the 1920s was the automobile. Low prices (the Ford Model T cost just $260 in 1924) and generous credit made cars affordable luxuries at the beginning of the decade; by the end, they were practically necessities.
By 1929 there was one car on the road for every five Americans. Meanwhile, an economy of automobiles was born: Businesses like service stations and motels sprang up to meet drivers’ needs—as did the burgeoning oil industry.
The Jazz Age
Cars also gave young people the freedom to go where they pleased and do what they wanted. (Some pundits called them “bedrooms on wheels.”) What many young people wanted to do was dance: the Charleston, the cake walk, the black bottom and the flea hop were popular dances of the era.
Jazz bands played at venues like the Savoy and the Cotton Club in New York City and the Aragon in Chicago; radio stations and phonograph records (100 million of which were sold in 1927 alone) carried their tunes to listeners across the nation. Some older people objected to jazz music’s “vulgarity” and “depravity” (and the “moral disasters” it supposedly inspired), but many in the younger generation loved the freedom they felt on the dance floor.
The novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald chronicled the hedonism and excitement of the Jazz Age—Fitzgerald once claimed that the 1920s were “the most expensive orgy in history”—while other writers, artists, musicians and designers ushered in a new era of experimental Art Deco and modernist creativity.
During the 1920s, some freedoms were expanded while others were curtailed. The 18th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1919, had banned the manufacture and sale of “intoxicating liquors,” and at 12 a.m. on January 16, 1920, the federal Volstead Act closed every tavern, bar and saloon in the United States. From then on, it was illegal to sell any “intoxication beverages” with more than 0.5 percent alcohol.
This drove the liquor trade underground—now, instead of ordinary bars, people simply went to nominally illegal speakeasies, where liquor was controlled by bootleggers, racketeers and other organized crime figures such as Chicago gangster Al Capone. (Capone reportedly had 1,000 gunmen and half of Chicago’s police force on his payroll.)
To many middle-class white Americans, Prohibition was a way to assert some control over the unruly immigrant masses who crowded the nation’s cities. For instance, to the so-called “Drys,” beer was known as “Kaiser brew.” Drinking was a symbol of all they disliked about the modern city, and eliminating alcohol would, they believed, turn back the clock to an earlier and more comfortable time
Immigration and Racism in the 1920s
Prohibition was not the only source of social tension during the 1920s. An anti-Communist “Red Scare” in 1919 and 1920 encouraged a widespread nativist and anti-immigrant hysteria. This led to the passage of an extremely restrictive immigration law, the National Origins Act of 1924, which set immigration quotas that excluded some people (Eastern Europeans and Asians) in favor of others (Northern Europeans and people from Great Britain, for example).
Immigrants were hardly the only targets in this decade. The Great Migration of Black Americans from the rural South to Northern cities and the increasing visibility of Black culture—jazz and blues music, for example, and the literary movement known as the Harlem Renaissance—discomfited some white Americans. Millions of people, not just in the South but across the country, joined the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s.
By the middle of the decade, the KKK had two million members, many of whom believed the Klan represented a return to all the “values” that the fast-paced, city-slicker Roaring Twenties were trampling. More specifically, the 1920s represented economic and political uplift for Black Americans that threatened the social hierarchy of Jim Crow oppression.
Early Civil Rights Activism
During this decade, Black Americans sought stable employment, better living conditions and political participation. Many who migrated to the North found jobs in the automobile, steel, shipbuilding and meatpacking industries. But with more work came more exploitation.
In 1925, civil rights activist A. Philip Randolph founded the first predominantly Black labor union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, to draw attention to the discriminatory hiring practices and working conditions for Blacks. And as housing demands increased for Black people in the North, so did discriminatory housing practices that led to a rise of urban ghettos, where Black Americans—excluded from white neighborhoods—were relegated to inadequate, overcrowded and unsanitary living conditions.
Black Americans battled for political and civil rights throughout the Roaring Twenties and beyond. The NAACP launched investigations into Black disenfranchisement in the 1920 presidential election, as well as surges of white mob violence, such as the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921.
The NAACP also pushed for the passage of the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill, a law to make lynching a federal crime, but it was defeated by a Senate filibuster in 1922. A political milestone for Black Americans finally occurred when Oscar De Priest, a Chicago Republican, became the first Black congressman since Reconstruction to be elected to the House of Representatives in 1928.
The Roaring Twenties ushered in several demographic shifts, or what one historian called a “cultural Civil War” between city-dwellers and small-town residents, Protestants and Catholics, Blacks and whites, “New Women” and advocates of old-fashioned family values.
But coming immediately after the hardships of World War I and the Spanish flu epidemic, the Roaring Twenties also gave many middle-class Americans an unprecedented taste of freedom, unbridled fun and upward economic mobility unsurpassed in U.S. history.
What Caused the Roaring Twenties? Not the End of a Pandemic (Probably). Smithsonian Magazine.
The Roaring Twenties. The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.
The Roaring 20s. PBS: American Experience.