The “Roaring Twenties” was a period of social, artistic, cultural and political dynamism. It was a decade marked by flappers, bobbed haircuts and the women’s suffrage movement as well as one characterized by organized crime, prohibition laws and jazz music. The 1920s in America saw the emergence of color television, Charlie Chaplin, communism, fascism, the Harlem Renaissance and marathon dancing. The pulse of the decade throbbed with anxiousness, a desire to push boundaries, test limits and break through. Men and women each had their own ways of living fast and loose, of driving recklessly through to the end of the decade. The spirit of the Roaring Twenties was marked by a general feeling of discontinuity associated with modernity, a break with traditions. Everything seemed to be feasible through modern technology. New technologies, especially automobiles, movies and radio proliferated ‘modernity’ to a large part of the population.The changing culture of American society in the 1920s can be analyzed through three academic lenses, wherein one can examine how the twenties gave way to what historians refer to as the “Modern Temper.” These three focuses are: equality, entertainment and economics.
Flappers, Fashion and the Freedom to Vote
For women, the decade began on August 18, 1920 when Tennessee became the last of 36 states needed to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment, granting women the right to vote after 72 years of struggle (Mintz, 2007d). This newly gained equality at the polls marks a pivotal movement for women’s rights and is a precedent for the role of women throughout the decade following.
With the Great War over and American families hit badly financially from men lost in the war, many women were forced to accept jobs and move outside their role in the home, to help supplement the lost income. In the media, this shift in the role of the woman was reflected in the garçonne-look, which portrayed a woman as androgynous. With women now having equal rights to vote and working in many of the same careers as men previously did, the garçonne-look idealized the image of a woman to be one of a femme fatale. Pantsuits, hats and canes gave women a sleek look without frills while avoiding the fickleness of fashion, signifying a momentous break with tradition that women underwent during this decade. This androgynous 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 and in the U.S., the bob was popularized by emerging film actresses in the early 1920s.
In other fashions, this shift towards androgyny for women also made the corset go out of style with extreme women even taping their breasts to make them appear smaller and more man-like. The flapper emerged as a rebel against society, challenging traditional values and flouting conventional norms. Flappers were women who wore the fashionable bob haircut “as the badge of flapperhood” (Page, 1922) and short dresses with a straight loose silhouette. “Instead of being fitted at the waist and curvy at the hips and bust, it was straight-up-and-down, as if the wearer’s figure were 20-20-20,”(Szabo, n.d.). By 1927, hemlines had risen to just below the knee and they remained there until 1930 when they dropped back down again. This was a style of dress the wearer could move in with “much greater freedom than had been afforded her by the corsets and crinolines of centuries past,”(Szabo, n.d.).
“Victorian attitudes were thrown aside by youth”(Lussier, 1999) and women in the 1920s indulged in behaviors that intentionally pushed the limits of traditional women’s roles. “Victorian beliefs emphasized the primacy of restraint”(“The Modern Woman”, n.d.). The fashions inspired by the Victorian moral sensibilities “symbolically and literally restricted women’s mobility in both private and public spheres”(Fields, 1999) so clothes that were synonymous with limitiations such as the corset and the petticoat became obselete (Bliven, 1925). In fashion it was all about freedom and the new liberation given to women of this decade. Flappers wore excessive makeup, drove the new automobiles that had just become popular, drank even when Prohibition came in, smoked cigarettes as “torches of freedom” (Mintz, 2007d) and for the first time engaged in casual sex. The American popularity of “the works of Freud prompted an acknowledgment of women’s sexuality and a new birth control movement enabled some women to express that sexuality more freely and safely,”(Kitch, 2001). The flapper “epitomised the spirit of a reckless rebel who danced the nights away in the Jazz Age”(Thomas, n.d.). For women the 1920s was a decade of liberation, of breaking tradition and of breaking past old limitations. It was a time to be a “new woman” who was not limited any longer by living in a man’s world.
The Charleston, Chaplin, Cinema and Scat
Entertainment played a central role in 1920s culture. The introduction of new technologies in radio and motion pictures opened the way for mass broadcasting of information. “Of all the new appliances to enter the nation’s homes during the 1920s, none had a more revolutionary impact than the radio,”(Mintz, 2007c) and the radio became the first mass broadcasting medium that was affordable. By the late 1920s there were “hundreds of broadcasting stations and nearly 10 million privately owned radio sets in the United States,” (“The Roaring Twenties”, 2000). This mode of entertainment proved revolutionary and the twenties became the starting point for the Golden Age of Radio.
Throughout most of the decade, “silent films were the predominant product of the film industry,”(Dirks, n.d.) but the Twenties saw its share of innovation in the cinema industry as color and sound were introduced to the motion picture. At the beginning of the decade, films were silent and colorless but by 1922, the first all-color feature, Toll of the Sea, was released and by 1926, Don Juan became the first feature with sound effects and music. By the end of the decade, motion pictures began to have limited talking sequences, giving way to the “golden age of film” during the 1930s and 1940s. The public went wild for talkies, and movie studios converted to sound almost overnight. In 1928, Warner released Lights of New York, the first all-talking feature film. Like radio, film was a medium for the masses. According to one estimate, “Americans spent 83 cents of every entertainment dollar going to the movies, and three-fourths of the population went to a movie theater every week”(Mintz, 2007c).Watching a film was cheap compared to other forms of entertainment, and it was accessible to factory and other blue-collar workers.
It was during this period of motion pictures that Charlie Chaplin materialized as one of the most recognizable characters on the silver screen: the tramp. Having done several short films as the character of the tramp pre-1920s, Chaplin in the twenties displayed his skill as an entertainer as he gained creative control over his work. During this time Chaplin directed, wrote, scored and appeared in some of his best full-feature films including The Kid (1921), The Pilgrim (1923), A Woman of Paris (1923), The Gold Rush (1925) and his award-winning comedy, The Circus (1928). Chaplin was a cultural icon in the 1920s, and his character of the tramp highlighted many of the sentiments of the decade–those of a general feeling of discontinuity and a need to keep pushing forward despite the setbacks, a need to break laws and redefine modernity.
The Twenties is also referred to as “the Jazz Age” and it was during this decade that jazz music was popularized. “From 1917 to 1930, white America was forced to realize that a new form of music, jazz, rising on radio waves and appearing in clubs worldwide, was here to stay,” (Anderson, 2004). Jazz became associated with all things modern, sophisticated, and also decadent. Men tended to sing in a high pitched voice, typified by Harold Scrappy Lambert and musicians were constantly recreating what jazz music encompassed. Louis Armstrong marked the time with improvisations and endless variations on a single melody, popularizing scat singing, and the proliferation of radio spread the popularity of jazz to a wider audience than other music genres before. Many considered jazz a “sign or cause of the advancing degeneration of society,”(Kettlewell, n.d.) because of its link during this decade with Prohibition and loose social mores. Jazz music came to seem “not merely an annoyance but a threat, one more cause of loosening morals and frightening dislocation,”(“Jazz in Time”). Jazz took on the 4/4 beat of dance music and live jazz musicians became a part of the dance scene as well.
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 circuit across the United States. Electric lighting made evening social entertainment more comfortable, giving rise to an era of dance halls and live music. Despite Prohibition,”the dance hall continued to thrive [and] the nightclub became an urban landmark,”(“The Modern Woman”, n.d.). From the early 1920s, a variety of eccentric dances swept the country(Mintz, 2007a). The first of these were the Breakaway and Charleston. Both were based on African-American musical styles and beats, including the widely popular blues. Named for the city of Charleston, South Carolina, the Charleston’s popularity exploded after its feature in two 1922 Broadway shows. The Charleston is most frequently associated with white flappers and the speakeasy where young women would dance alone or together as a way of mocking the “drys,” or citizens who supported the Prohibition amendment, as Charleston was then considered quite immoral and provocative.
Economics and Electrification
Various policies initiated by the Republican Party had a big impact on the great economic prosperity experienced in America in the Roaring Twenties. “The nation’s total wealth nearly doubled between 1920 and 1929, manufactures rose by 60 percent,” (“Jazz in Time”) resulting in a boom that was driven by the introduction of a wide array of new consumer goods and the transition from a wartime economy to a peacetime economy after World War I. The United States augmented its standing as the richest country in the world, its industry aligned to mass production and its society acculturated into consumerism. In addition, Various policies initiated by the Republican Party, such as laissez faire economics, helped the increase in national wealth by allowing strict free market economics without government interference. The mass consumerism of Americans and the flood of wealth that appeared shortly after such a devastating war plumped the economy exponentially.
This economic wealth opened the way for the automobile industry to flourish in America. “Two automotive titans, Henry Ford and Alfred Sloan, symbolized the profound transformations that took place in American industry during the 1910s and 1920s. In 1913, the 50-year-old Ford had revolutionized American manufacturing by introducing the automated assembly line,”(Mintz, 2007b). The declining production costs allowed Ford to “cut automobile prices–six times between 1921 and 1925. The cost of a new Ford was reduced to just $290,”(Mintz, 2007b) and by 1927, Ford had sold 15 million Model Ts. The cost to own a car in the 1920s was “less than three months wages for an average American worker,”(Mintz, 2007b) and this made cars affordable for the average family. Mass production made automobiles affordable to the middle class and the exponential growth of the automobile industry contributed to other economic pursuits such as gas stations, the oil industry and the creation of a nationwide highway infrastructure.
In America, electricity production almost quadrupled as new power plants were constructed to meet the new electricity needs as large factories switched from coal power to electricity. The electrification of America and the expansion of the electricity grid enabled the widespread use of electricity as the main source for energy. New inventions such as the radio relied on electricity for power and Americans began to become accustomed to the ease of power electricity provided in all areas of their life whether at the cinema, the dance hall or at home.
The Roaring Twenties was a dynamic decade that changed every aspect of American culture and defined much of what it is even today. From the newly gained equality of women and their new role in society to cinema, music and the rise of the automobile, the 1920s is defined on all fronts by a pushing of boundaries and a redefining of limits. These changes in culture gave birth to the “Modern Temper.” It is a shift away from tradition and a search for new ways to come to terms with modernity and the future.