The 1920s were an age of drastic change both politically and socially especially for the Americans. The period is referred to as Roaring Twenties due to the profound change that characterized it (Welky 18). During this period, most of the people opted to live in the cities rather than on farms. In addition, there was an economic boom in where the nation’s wealth more than doubled between the year 1920 and 1929. Consequently, most of the Americans were swept by the economic boom into a consumer society which was affluent. This was particularly unfamiliar to the people during this period. Also, there was nationwide advertising as a well as a spread of chain stores which was critical to the movement of goods and people from coast to coast. (Welky 19) As a dynamic decade, the period between 1920 and 1929 was characterized by entertainment, consumerism, a shift towards modern values and technological advancements. Among the influences of this period was the end of World War I in 1918. Therefore, most people were eager to return to their normal lives following warring years. The following paper explores the impact that the Roaring Twenties had on America both positive and negative.
The period was characterized by a massive movement of people from the farms to large cities such as Chicago and New York. Consequently, this led to the development a new way of life. The city life was completely different from what people were used to, and it became the hallmark of this decade. As people from various regions moved to the cities, the listened to the same music used a similar slang and even did the same dance (Welky 26). Although most people were impressed with these changes, some were uncomfortable with the new urban which brought about the mass culture that was at times racy and characterized by conflicts and sometimes celebrations.
The Roaring Twenties led to the emergence of a new American woman. As people migrated to the cities and engaged in consumerism, a flapper woman with bobbed hair, short skirts who engaged in activities such as smoking and drinking emerged. In addition, the women were relatively sexually free compared to the previous generations. The new American woman who emerged during this roaring 20s was opposite of the traditional woman as perceived by the communities they came from. Although most young women in the 1920s never engaged in these activities, most of them adopted a more fashionable and flapper wardrobe and had unprecedented freedoms. In addition, women were also involved in activities such as voting. In 1920, the passing of the 19th Amendment guaranteed women the right to vote. Also, women were also participating in burgeoning consumer economy. With technological advances during this period, birth control devices were also made available for the women and therefore most opted to have fewer children. Besides the use of washing machines which were available at the time also eliminated the drudgery household work which was primarily a woman’s job.
Another impact of the roaring twenties was the birth of the mass culture in America. Since the economy was doing very well, most of the people, especially in the cities, had extra money to spend. Therefore, most spend the money on consumer goods such as electric appliances and clothes. During this period, Pittsburgh’s KDKA was the first commercial radio station with more than 12 million households owning radios by the end of the 1920s. In addition, there were also theaters during this period, and most people went to the movie occasionally. In additional, automobiles also became among the most important consumer products in the 1920s. The automobile companies provided credit and also provided the automobiles at low cost. However, although automobiles were luxuries at the beginning of the decade, they became necessities towards the end with approximately one care for every five people in America.
With the birth of the mass culture, there were also negative outcomes as many cultures came together in the cities. An example is the emergence of cultural civil war (Welky 24). Factors such as prohibition led to social tension during the 1920s. Most African Americans migrated from the Southern countryside into the Northern cities. As a result, there was an increase in black culture in the Northern cities such as blues and jazz music. Also, the Harlem Renaissance which was a movement for the African Americans was also created. However, this did not go well with some white Americans and therefore most of the whites in Illinois and Indians joined the Ku Klux Klan during the same decade. These movements aimed at restoring the values were being trampled on in during the Roaring Twenties (Welky 24). In addition, the “red scare” from the anti-communists in 1920 led to the introduction of restrictive immigration laws through the National Origins Act (Welky 18). The immigration laws restricted the movement of some communities such as the Asians and Eastern Europeans and the same time favoring others such as North Europeans. Most of the cultural civil wars were between the small-town residents and the city dwellers.
Apart from the new immigration laws, the Roaring Twenties led to the introduction of other prohibitions which existed initially. As other forms of freedoms were expanded, others were curtailed in order to preserve the social order. For instance, the Constitutional amendment of 1919 banned both the manufacturing and the sale of intoxicating liquor. As a result, the federal Volstead Act which came into effect in 1920 led to the closure of all saloon, bars and all taverns in America. The liquor business went underground as intoxicated beverages with more than 0.5% alcohol were illegalized. Illegal speakeasies replaced the normal bars where bootleggers and racketeers controlled the trade. Other organized-crime figures such as Al Capone who had over a thousand gunmen and police officers in his payroll took control of the alcohol trade during this decade.
With urbanization and innovation taking center-stage during this decade, the population in urban centers rose from 5% in 1800 to more than 50% in 1920. Consequently, white collar jobs became available as industrialization and business activities increased. In addition, other blue collar jobs such as farming and mining also many despite being replaced by white collar jobs in areas such as law enforcement, private businesses and public service.
The Roaring Twenties also revolutionized the entertainment industry and particularly music in America. Since moving pictures represented a relatively new concept for the people, more people were attending movies occasionally. As a result, film stars such as Charlie Chaplin, Joan Crawford, Clara Bow among others became popular as they rose to national celebrities. In addition, sports such as athletics and basketball became a national pastime in the 1920s. Also known as the Jazz Age, Jazz music was taken seriously at the time as most people especially in the urban areas enjoyed it. Jazz had a form of improvisation in its rhythm and most city dweller identified with it as it was considered to be more modern. As a result, popular jazz performers such as Duke Ellington and Armstrong rose to national fame as a result. Also, new methods of dancing such as flea hop, cake walk and black bottom emerged. Despite the city dwellers and revellers identifying with the genre, it was downright threatening to the traditionalists on the other hand. The emergence of Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s as an intellectual and artistic movement was also a in important aspect of entertainment as African Americans used it to showcase their culture through poetry and music. In addition, art deco replaced ornate which was a traditional art and architecture. The new style was modern, minimalists and bold. People also engaged in other forms of recreation such as attending the beach.
The Roaring Twenties can also be attributed to the re-shaping of the American politics. As more African Americans migrated from the rural south to the urban areas in the North continent, their population grew significantly. Consequently, political and cultural developments took place among the African American community. During the period, Marcus Garvey founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) which mainly advocated for black pride and supported the popular “Back to Africa” movement. Also, the political movement was key in addressing socio-economic issues faced by the African-Americans such as economic cooperation and the establishment of black-owned business ventures.
Another impact of the Roaring Twenties in America was on the revolutionization of education. Education was considered an important social change in the 1920s. During this period, most Americans were getting a good education. In addition, the number of students who were attending high schools doubled between 1920 and 1929. This was important in preparing students for useful jobs. In addition, the number of students attending college and the university also increased during the Roaring Twenties. The commonly offered subjects at the time included engineering, teacher training and business administration.
America’s feeling of independence and freedom was born in the 1920s. Millions of Americans especially the young soldiers returning from war enjoyed this period having faced death in Europe during World War I. On return, the soldier had learnt about new experiences in Europe and therefore most of them were not willing to return to the traditional way of life. The need to have a different way of living prompted the massive migration into the urban areas. As young sought to be more independent from the control of their families and traditions, they also took more risks in discoveries. For instance, Charles Lindbergh became the first man in history to fly across the Atlantic Ocean in his plane in 1927 from New York to France. His record-breaking innovation and bravery attracted wild celebrations in the United States and further helped to improve the aerospace industry in the United States. Also, as more national heroes and celebrities emerged, the print media developed during the 1920s in order to splash their exploit in new tabloid newspapers.
Welky, David. America Between the Wars, 1919-1941: A Documentary Reader. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.