THE ROARING TWENTIES Americans, in the years following the end of World War I found themselves in an era, where the people simply wished to detach themselves from the troubles of Europeans and the rest of the world. During the years of the Twenties, the economy was prosperous, there was widespread social reform, new aspects of culture were established, and people found better ways to improve their lifestyle and enjoy life.
The 1920’s exemplified the changing attitudes of American’s toward foreign relations, society, and leisure activities. Following the end of World War I, many Americans demanded that the United States stay out of European affairs in the future. The United States Senate even refused to accept the Treaty of Versailles which officially ended World War I and provided for the establishment of the League of Nations. The Senate chose to refuse the Treaty in the fear that it could result in the involvement of the United States in future European wars. Americans simply did not wish to deal with, nor tolerate the problems of Europe and abroad.
There were many problems running rampant throughout the country following the conclusion of the war. One of the greatest problems which arose was the Red Scare which was seen as an international communist conspiracy that was blamed for various protest movements and union activities in 1919 and 1920. The Red Scare was touched off by a national distrust of foreigners. Many Americas also kept a close eye on the increasing activities of the Klu Klux Klan who were terrorizing foreigners, blacks, Jews and Roman Catholics.
Once Americans put the war behind them, they were able to forget the problems of European affairs, and focus on the country, their town, and themselves. Americans found themselves in a period of reform, both socially and culturally. Many feared that morality had crumbled completely. Before World War I, women wore their hair long, had ankle length dresses, and long cotton stockings. In the twenties, they wore short, tight dresses, and rolled their silk stockings down to their knees. They wore flashy lipstick and other cosmetics. Eventually, women were even granted the right to vote with the passing of the 19th Amendment. It was up to this time period that women were not seen as an important aspect in American society. As if rebelling from the previous position of practically non-existence, women changed their clothing, their fashion, and even cut their hair shorter into bobs which were very similar to the style of men. The similarities were no mere coincidence, but an attempt of the women in American society pushing towards equality. Once the women had the right to vote with the passing of the 19th Amendment, they did not just sit back. The women of the 1920’s strived for a position of equality for both men and women in society.
Literature, art, and music also reflected the nations changing values. There were many famous authors, playwrights, musicians and artists which left their mark during the Twenties. Sinclair Lewis authored Main Street (1920), a book which attacked what he considered the dull lives and narrow minded attitudes of people in a small town. Another great author of the time was F. Scott Fitzgerald whose works included The Beautiful and Damned, and Tales of the Jazz Age. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, exemplified the American Dream. The story shows the often misconception of the American Dream being a life of prosperity, parties, happiness, and utopian places. The book uncovers the characters’ pursuit of this dream only to discover the American Dream as the American Tragedy. Many Americans who immigrated to the United States in the 20’s were believing the same misconception, only to later find the hidden truth that the American Dream was not all what it was cracked up to be.
One of the greatest American authors to emerge from the Twenties was Ernest Hemingway. Some of Hemingway’s most noted works in the Twenties included Across the River and into the Trees, and In Our Time. Many of Hemingway’s finest works presented the attitudes and experiences of the era’s so called “last generation.”
Americans had a hunger for news in the Twenties. Every day they would flock to the newsstand for the latest information. They would find the information they needed from various newspapers and periodicals. From the New York Times they got top-notch foreign correspondence. In the New York World they could read Franklin P. Adams, Heywood Broun and other outstandingly witty columnists. In the Twenties the expose of evil-doing in high places became the mark of a good newspaper: The St. Louis Post- Dispatch forced an allegedly corrupt federal judge to resign; the Indianapolis Times exposed Indiana’s Ku Klux Klan leader as a murderer. Newspaper circulation boomed in the Twenties. The total for the nation was about 25 million when the decade started and about 40 million at its close, (Cronon 341). Tabloids and magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post, National Geographic, and the Literary Digest also became very big during the Twenties. One author noted for his work during the Twenties was H.L. Mencken in his witty magazine “The American Mercury” which ridiculed the antics of dim-witted politicians, and prohibitionists.
The artists and composers were inspired by both tradition and changes in American life. Joseph Stella painted soaring lines and precise geometric patterns to represent skyscrapers, his favorite theme. George Gershwin became one of the most popular composers of the 1920’s. Two of his best known orchestral works “Rhapsody in Blue,” and “An American in Paris,” feature many elements of jazz. In the Twenties, Jazz was becoming very popular. Americans sang and danced to all of their favorite songs. Every time the turntable was flipped on, Americans just had to dance. It was a new feeling of pleasure, and enjoyment which came hand in hand with the beginnings of jazz music in America. With jazz becoming big, Americans veered away from traditional song and dance and began exploring other types of music such as jazz. The cheerful, light, easy feeling accompanied with jazz music was just an extension of American feelings during the Twenties; joyous and free spirited.
Americans found many ways to entertain themselves in the 1920’s. They flocked to the theaters to see such stars as Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Rudolph Valentino. Other Americans swarmed to baseball stadiums to watch such top athletes as home run slugger Babe Ruth and boxing champion Jack Dempsey.
Radio also opened the doors for new entertainment such as nightly shows for audiences to listen to. Parents and their children would sit around the radio listening to such nightly comedy shows as “Amos and Andy”. Families across the United States would gather around the radio to get the latest news and information from around the world. The radio gave the news hungry Americans what they wanted and took America closer to a more technologically advanced society.
When the Twenties rolled around, Americans found themselves engulfed in a bolstering economy. In the 1920’s business was an obsession. Economic expansion created booming business profits which in turn raised the standard of living for most Americans. Large businesses were expanding. In 1920, for example, Woolworth had 1,111 stores. In 1929 they expanded to 1,825. J.C. Penney expanded from 312 stores to 1,395, (Time-Life 102). Small business entrepreneurs took advantage of the good times as they began popping up all over the United States. Americans were moving into a period of economic prosperity. Even industrial workers, whose strikes for higher pay had availed them little in previous decades, benefited. From 1922-1929, the national income was up 40% from $60.7 billion to $87.2 billion, (Cronon 341). The use of labor saving machinery in factories and on farms enabled workers to produce more goods faster and less expensively. This led to higher amounts of production. At some points, the American consumer could not buy the goods as fast as they were produced. Since the economy was in such good shape, many Americans could afford to purchase refrigerators, washing machines, and radios. Low income families could afford to buy an inexpensive Model T, which Henry Ford developed in 1908. The number of passenger cars in the United States jumped from fewer then 7 million in 1919 to about 23 million in 1929, (Cronon 341). Traffic jammed the nations highways and created still another need for businesses, roadside restaurants, tire manufacturers and gas stations. Standard Oil gas stations grew from 12 in 1920 to 1,000 by 1929, (Time-Life 102). With all the expansion, and the economy doing well, business became the foundation of society. Calvin Coolidge epitomized the time when he was quoted saying, “The business of America is business,” (Cronon 342).
The Stock-Market became a very important aspect of the economy in the 1920’s. As the economy was flourishing, many Americans found it a practical investment to put money into the Stock Exchange as the return could be quite large. John J. Rascob, the vice-president of General Motors Corporation during the Twenties, declared that anyone that put $15 dollars a month in the stock-market could make $80,000 dollars in twenty years. It was such promises of these that convinced many Americans to buy stocks. Stock prices rose gradually in the early 20’s, but skyrocketed in 1927, and 1928. Average stock prices tripled from 1925 to 1929. The high profits seemed to confirm President Hoover’s pledge of a new era of abundance, during which “poverty will be banished from this nation,” (Cronon 341). The nations illusion of unending prosperity was shattered on October 24, 1929. Worried investors who bought stock on credit began to sell. This led to the development of a panic amongst investors. The panic only worsened things and on October 24, 1929, stockholders sold a record 16,410,030 shares. By mid-November, stock prices had plunged 40%. The crash of the Stock Market led to the Great Depression. The depression was the worst in the history of the United States and proved to be a terrible price to pay for the false sense of prosperity and national well -being of the roaring Twenties. Many Americans felt that they were untouchable in society. The thought of the American Dream cemented in the heads of thousands of Americans overshadowed the real risk of business in the United States. When the American people saw that the economy was flourishing, they felt that they were on a pedestal, protected from the river of uncertainty, economic depression and the failure of the American Dream. Many Americans found a way to improve their lifestyle. Whether it had been through hard work on the job, or even with a struck of luck on the stock market. There were, however, many people who found other ways to make a living. Some of these ways were prohibited. With the passing of the 18th Amendment, it became illegal to manufacture or sell alcoholic beverages. Thousands of Americans began making liquor at home which quickly became known as bathtub rum. Gangsters disregarded the law and found it quite profitable bootlegging liquor from Canada and selling it to illegal bars known as speakeasies. Police were often bribed not to intervene in the activities of smuggling. Bootlegging, although prosperous to the ringleader, was a dangerous activity in which over 500 gangland murders occurred as underworld mobs fought for control of the liquor traffic. (Time Life 166)
The United States in the Twenties was still a young country which had not yet established itself an identity. Was the image of the United States going to be that of the American Dream? The image of a successful entrepreneur whose once insignificant business exploded into a nationwide corporation? The image of the stock holder who hit it big on the market? The image of the local supermarket owner whose business grew to a chain from coast to coast? What about the bootlegging capital of the world? The truth was, there was no image established yet for the nation. During the Twenties, everybody was trying to make it to the top with their own techniques and methods, whether it have been through such positive activities as investing, or negative activities as bootlegging.
There were many famous Americans who left a positive mark on the history of the United States during the Twenties. One of the most famous was Charles A. Lindbergh, an aviator who is noted in his achievement of being the first person to fly solo non-stop across the Atlantic Ocean. Lindbergh’s feat gained him immediate, international fame. Lindbergh and his wife paved the way for future airlines by charting routes for aircraft. While Lindbergh was contributing to aviation, other Americans had some exceptional contributions. One scientist became famous for his work with rockets. In 1926, Scientist Robert H. Goddard fired liquid fueled rockets into the atmosphere. It was he who laid the basis of modern rocketry.
There were many new inventions which were created during the Twenties, as well as new methods and techniques. Department stores began introducing installment payment plans to their customers. The idea of “Buy Now and Pay Later” became very popular. Department stores saw an increase in sales of the radio in the Twenties. The value of radio sales in the United States jumped from $60 million in 1922 to $850 million in 1929, (Time-Life 101). The radio revolutionized the nations economy by giving new ways of advertising products, rather then newspapers and magazines. Department stores profited by the radio through commercials which persuaded listeners to spend a larger portion of their income on their products.
The Twenties began as an era were Americans were feeling good. They had forgotten about the troubles of Europeans and began to better their lifestyles. Americans were finding new ways to earn a better living through an overall period of booming business and higher wages for workers. Many Americans began investing in the stock exchange in the hope of having a prosperous return, while others chose to make their fortune in such illegal activities as bootlegging. As fortunes were earned, and fortunes were lost the reality of the American Dream was sinking in. The dream of coming to the country and making it big came true for some Americans, but to others, it was not as sweet. Many lost all they had while trying to make it. People came to the United States having the idea that no matter what happened, they were going to make it. There dreams were however short-lived as the so called American Dream surrounded them and sucked them into the dark side of reality. Those who were not perceptive enough to see that business was risky, failed. In this era, Americans soon learned that the American Dream was not all it was cracked up to be.
The Twenties showed a revolution in art, literature and music, which greatly reflected the nations changing values. Americans found new ways to entertain themselves, enjoying new dances such as the Charleston, popular for the time, and watching such sporting events as baseball, and boxing. Famous people emerged in the Twenties leaving their mark on history, just as new inventions were created revolutionizing even the simplest of activities for years to come. The Twenties were a fabulous decade outlined by a booming economy, and big business finding new ways to become bigger. New stores were popping up all over the nation and stores that were already around, grew into chains which stretched the length of the United States. All of these outstanding events, people, inventions, and happenings occurred only to be overshadowed by the Stock Market Crash in 1929. The Crash was the worst in the countries history and blanketed its negative effects over the positive happenings of the previous decade. The Crash, which carried the Great Depression into the 1930’s was a nightmarish end to a fairytale era of prosperity and happiness. Many Americans had the privilege to be part of this period, a period known as The Roaring Twenties.