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The 1920s was a time of conservatism and it was a time of great social change. From the world of fashion to the world of politics, forces clashed to produce the most explosive decade of the century. It was the age of prohibition, it was the age of prosperity, and it was the age of downfall.
Americans knew about Communism because Communists had been at large in the country for years. When the Bolshevik revolution succeeded in Russia, it sent a shock wave in America. Americans have never been sympathetic to radicalism in any form. People that were associated with radicalism, rightly or wrongly, were harassed, lynched, jailed and subject to all sorts of bias. Thousands were arrested in 1920 and often held for long periods without trial. The Red Scare of 1920 was a precursor of McCarthyism (Baughman 200).
The Kellogg-Briand Pact was an agreement to outlaw war and it was signed on August 27, 1928. It was named after the American Secretary of State Frank B. Kellogg and French foreign minister Aristide Briand, who drafted the pact. In the United States, the Senate approved the treaty overwhelmingly by a vote of 85 to 1. The Kellogg-Briand Pact was concluded outside the League of Nations and the Permanent Court of International Justice (Baughman 218).
World War I may not have made the world safe for democracy, but it did help to lay the groundwork for a decade of American economic expansion. The war began in Europe in 1914, and the United States entered the fray in 1917. The 1920s saw the growth of the culture of consumerism. A significant reason for United States involvement in the war was the nation’s economic links to the Allied Powers, and especially to Great Britain. American soldiers returned home in May 1919 with the promise of a prosperous decade (Baughman 197).
The Great Depression was a period in United States history when business was poor and many people were out of work. The beginning of the Great Depression in the United States was associated with the stock market crash on October 29, 1929, known as Black Tuesday. Thousands of investors lost large amounts of money and many were wiped out, lost everything. Banks, stores, and factories were closed and left millions of Americans jobless and homeless (Baughman 82).
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John Thomas Scopes was a high school teacher who went on trial in Dayton, Tennessee, in 1925. He had purposely violated the law by teaching evolution in schools. The trial was broadcast live on radio and attracted worldwide interest. Scopes was found guilty under the Butler Act, which banned teaching evolution in publicly funded state educational institutions, and the judge fined Scopes $100 (Feldmeth).
Prohibition was the period in United States history in which the manufacture, sale, and transportation of intoxicating liquors was outlawed. It was a time characterized by speakeasies, glamour, and gangsters and a period of time in which even the average citizen broke the law. In 1919, the 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which prohibited the sale and manufacture of alcohol, was ratified. It went into effect on January 16, 1920 (Feldmeth).
The struggle between fundamentalists versus modernists took various forms. Fundamentalists opposed any scientific teaching that cast doubt on veracity of Scripture, particularly Genesis. Modernists attempted to adapt religion to the teachings of modern science and a changing world (Baughman 379).
On the whole, the United States economy experienced steady growth and expansion during the 1920s. The World War I stimulated a number of old industries, such as petroleum and steel, and helped create a host of new industries, such as plastic and rayon production. One measure of these accelerated technological changes is the money spent on new machinery for industry. As scientific management and new technology increased worker productivity, workers earned higher wages and became better consumers (Feldmeth).
Being one of the most important inventions of the 1920s, the automobile significantly changed the lives of Americans for the better. It did not only improve transportation, but it also gave the economy the boost that it needed to provide America with the age of prosperity that the twenties is known for. Over the first few years of twenties, the automobile became a hit with everyone, especially young people who wanted freedom and excitement. Every household in America soon owned an automobile, and it quickly became an integrated part of American life. As a result of the automobile, Americans benefitted greatly from the advantages it brought to them (McDonnell 330).
Mass production had made the post-World War I United States the richest society the world had ever seen. The United States tried to pretend that the rest of the world did not really exist. Its people turned inward, and they found that they had plenty to do. For in the 1920s, the United Sates became a modern middle-class economy of radios, consumer appliances, automobiles and suburbs. Nearly thirty million motor vehicles were on the road in 1929, one for every five residents of the country (McDonnell 326).
With the advent of improved technologies such as vacuum tubes and rectifiers, the radio was honed into the interesting little device that made it into such a craze during the 1920s. Once radio signals could be transmitted and received with improved clarity around 1920, the idea of public radio began to take hold in America. The first public radio broadcasting station opened in Pittsburgh, 1922. Radio provided a cheap and convenient way of conveying information and ideas. The first broadcasts consisted of primarily news and world affairs (McDonnell 358).
The Harlem Renaissance was a literary and intellectual movement that promoted a new black cultural identity in the 1920s. Before the Renaissance, thousands of blacks migrated from the South to the Northern industrial cities as more employment opportunities became available during World War I. In addition, the black middle class was increasing and more educational opportunities were available to blacks (McDonnell 392).
The Lost Generation was “the self-exiled expatriates who lived and wrote in Paris between the wars.” The Lost Generation writers all gained prominence in 20th century literature. Their innovations challenged assumptions about writing and expression. Full of youthful idealism, the writers sought the meaning of life, drank excessively, had love affairs and created some of the finest American literature to date. The three best known are F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos (Whitley).
Jazz music, which had originated in New Orleans in the early 1900s, began to spread throughout the country by the late teens. As more employment opportunities opened up in the North, especially in Chicago and the Midwest, both black and white musicians from New Orleans moved to Chicago. Prohibition and the advent of the “speakeasy” created many opportunities for musicians in small cabarets, dance halls and ballrooms (Baughman 40).
During the 1920s, the comedies of Charlie Chaplin were some of the most popular films amongst the movies of the decade. Chaplin was born on April 16, 1889 in Walworth, London. He spent his childhood in extreme poverty. In his early movie career, Chaplin starred in “Making a Living” and other movie made by Keystone Film Company. As his success increased, he moved on to other film companies with better deals. Later in his life, he moved to Switzerland with his life, Oona O’Neil, and their children. He spent his final years writing music for his films and enjoyed his family before he died on Christmas Day in 1977 (McDonnell 356).
Radio broadcasting began in 1920 with the historic broadcast of KDKA. Few people actually heard the voices and music which were produced because of the dearth of radio receivers at that time. The public, however, was overcome by a radio craze after the initial broadcast. Radio became a product of the mass market. Manufacturers were overwhelmed by the demand for receivers, as customers stood in line to complete order forms for radios after dealers had sold out. Between 1923 and 1930, 60 percent of American families purchased radios. Families gathered around their radios for night-time entertainment. As radio ownership increased, so did the number of radio stations. After the opera season ended, the station owners saw the need to diversify their programming. They began broadcasting things like popular music, classical music, sporting events, lectures, fictional stories, newscasts, weather reports, market updates, and political commentary (McDonnell 359).
The young flappers of the 1920s felt no need to conform to the rigid models of feminism that their mothers accepted. During the 1920s, fashion for young women focused less female physical form. The cloche hat became a necessity for daytime wear. Dresses stopped at the knees, the hiplines were lowered, and there was less emphasis on the breasts. The evening dress progressed to display more of the body. Backless dresses were popular throughout the twenties. An important part of the evening gown was the beading. The long straps of the backless dresses featured beaded chiffon fabrics (Langley 56).
Fashion fads for men were often based on the heroes of the moment, such as sports figures. While Americans were worshiping youthful sports heroes, the general dress of Americans was becoming more youthful looking. Men were abandoning the hefty-looking, broad-shouldered suits for skinnier, unpadded, more boyish looking jackets. Suit pants also went through a major change. Creases appeared on the front and the sides while cuffs replaced flat hems. Pants were fastened by buttons or hooks. Belts also started to replace the suspender as the device used to hold up pants (Langley 84).
The decade of 1920 was one of the most significant decades in U.S. history because of the great changes that came about in American society. The Twenties were known by various images and names: the Jazz Age, the age of the Lost Generation, flaming youth, flappers, radio and movies, bathtub gin, the speakeasy, organized crime, confession magazines, Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Lindbergh, Babe Ruth, Bobby Jones, the Great Crash, Sacco and Vanzetti, Al Smith, cosmetics, Freud, the "New" woman, the Harlem Renaissance, consumerism. Reacting perhaps to both the disillusionment from the World War I and against the strictures of Victorian culture, Americans abandoned old ideas with a vengeance and adopted new concepts wholesale.
Baughman, Judith S. American Decades: 1920–1929. Detroit: Gale Research Inc,
Feldmeth, Greg D. Mar. 1998. U.S. History Resources. 4 Mar. 2008.
McDonnell, Janet. America in the 20th Century: 1920–1929. New York: Marshall
Whitley, Peggy. Nov. 2006. Kingwood College Library American Cultural History:
1920–1929. 4 Mar. 2008.
Langley, Sue. Roaring '20s Fashions: Deco. Atglen: Schiffer, 2005.