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The Roaring 20s

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The Roaring 20s

Americans' fascination with music, movies, fashion, sports, and celebrities can be traced back to the 1920s. Known as the "Roaring 20s", this decade was a time of excitement, new prosperity, technological change, and social advancement. Despite the exciting changes, there were obstacles to success for some and new economic practices that would contribute to the eventual Great Depression.

In this article, we will examine the experience of women, including new rights gained, and the legendary "flappers". We will also review key characteristics of this time period, the role of new technology, and important people and celebrities.

Characteristics of the Roaring 20s

After the Great War (the First World War) ended in 1918, Americans faced not only the casualties of war but the worst influenza pandemic in history. The Spanish Flu ravaged the country and the world in 1918 and 1919, resulting in tens of millions of deaths. Not surprisingly, people were looking for new opportunities and to escape their sadness.

This was the perfect climate for new fads and exciting alternatives to mainstream culture. Millions moved to cities to work in growing factories and other businesses. A population shift occurred. During the 1920s more Americans lived in cities than in the rural areas of the nation. The option to purchase consumer goods on credit led many to acquire new items popularized in advertisements.

Women experienced new legal and social opportunities. An entertainment revolution centered around cinema, radio, and jazz clubs boomed. During this decade, the Eighteenth Amendment ushered in a period known as Prohibition, during which alcohol sales, manufacture, and transport were illegal.

The period of Prohibition lasted from 1920 to 1933 and criminalized the actions of many citizens. While alcohol could technically be legally consumed if possessed, it was illegal to produce, transport, or sell –making purchasing it illegal. The Eighteenth Amendment ushered in Prohibition, a failed national experiment that was repealed through the Twenty-first Amendment.

The Prohibition of alcohol directly led to an increase in criminal activity and organized crime. Mafia bosses such as Al Capone profited from the illegal production and sale of alcoholic beverages. Many Americans became criminalized as consumption continued despite the illegality of transport, manufacture, and sale. Rates of imprisonment, violent crime, and disorderly conduct rose dramatically.

Culture in the Roaring 20s

The Roaring 20s is also known as the Jazz Age. The popularity of jazz music and new dances, such as the Charleston and Lindy Hop, set the tempo for the time period. Played in the jazz clubs, ''speakeasies" (illegal bars), and on the radio stations, this new African-American-inspired music spread from the South to northern cities.

Even though 12 million households had a radio by the end of the decade, people also flocked to other institutions for entertainment. Americans became fascinated with cinema as moviegoing became part of the national culture. It is estimated that 75% of Americans went to the movies each week during this time. As a result, film stars became national celebrities, as did other entertainers and artists that catered to the new pursuit of leisure and recreation. Dance marathons blended the dance crazes, music choices, and thrill-seeking pursuits of the period.

The Harlem Renaissance was a revival or "rebirth" of African-American culture. Poetry, music, literature, and of course jazz were shared with the nation. Poets such as Langston Hughes captured the experiences of many black Americans and jazz musicians, inspiring the whole country to dance or at least spectate with curiosity.

Women's Rights in the Roaring 20s

The long road to national voting rights for women was achieved in 1920. Since Wyoming granted women the right to vote in 1869, many were determined to make the right a guaranteed national law. The Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution was passed on June 4, 1919, and sent to the states. It says:

The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.

Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

According to the Constitution, three-fourths of the state legislatures would have to ratify the proposed amendment. It was not until August 25, 1920, when Tennessee, the 36 state, ratified the Nineteenth Amendment. The result was that all female citizens, 21 and older were eligible to vote according to federal authority.

Roaring 20s, Governor Boyle ratifying 19th amendment, Women right to vote, StudySmarterNevada Governor finalizing state ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, Wikimedia Commons.

Important People of the Roaring 20s

The 1920s was known for hundreds of famous people. Here are some of the well-known celebrities of the Roaring 20s:

CelebrityKnown For
Margaret GormanFirst Miss America
Coco ChanelFashion designer
Alvin "Shipwreck" Kelly Pole-sitting celebrity
"Sultan of Swat" Babe RuthNY Yankees baseball legend
"Iron Horse" Lou GehrigNY Yankees baseball legend
Clara BowMovie star
Louise BrooksMovie star
Gloria SwansonMovie star
Langston HughesHarlem Renaissance poet
Al JolsonMovie star
Amelia EarhartAviator
Charles LindberghAviator
Zelda SayreFlapper
F. Scott FitzgeraldAuthor of The Great Gatsby
Al CaponeGangster
Charlie ChaplinActor
Bessie SmithJazz singer
Joe ThorpeAthlete

Fads were a 1920s creation in America. Pole-sitting was the most memorable for its strange curiosity. Flagpole-sitting wonder Alvin "Shipwreck" Kelly created a fad by perching on top of a platform for 13 hours. The movement became popular and Kelly later achieved a soon to be broken 49-day record in Atlantic City in 1929. Other notable fads were dance marathons, beauty pageants, crossword puzzles, and playing mahjong.

The Roaring 1920s, photo of jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong, StudySmarterLouis Armstrong, a Jazz Age icon, Wikimedia Commons.

Flappers and the Roaring 20s

The image of a young woman dancing is the most typical depiction of the Roaring 20s. Many women entered the workforce in great numbers and independently sought housing, jobs, and opportunities other than the traditional path of marriage. With the right to vote solidified nationally and an abundance of jobs in a booming economy, the 1920s was clearly a decade in which women changed the norm.

Many teenage girls and women in their 20s and 30s embraced the "flapper" look. The style consisted of short, "bobbed" hair, short skirts (knee-length was considered short), and Cloche hats with ribbons to convey their relationship status (see image below). Accompanying behavior may have included smoking cigarettes, consuming alcohol, and sexual liberation. Visiting nightclubs and bars that illegally sold alcohol and dancing to jazz music rounded out the picture. Many older adults were shocked and upset with the look and behavior of flappers.

The Roaring 1920s, the boom of a new female identity in the Jazz Age, Study SmarterPhoto of a typical 1920s flapper, Wikimedia Commons.

New Technology in the Roaring 20s

The Roaring 20s saw the emergence of new technology. There was a rapid expansion of the assembly line popularized by Henry Ford. He created affordable automobiles (e.g. Model T Ford) for more citizens than ever before. As wages increased 25% from 1900, the opportunity to purchase items previously-owned only by the rich arose. From radios to washing machines, refrigerators, freezers, vacuum cleaners, and cars, American households filled their homes with machines that made life easier and resulted in more leisure time.

1911 catalog image of the Ford Model T, another symbol of the Roaring 20s, Wikimedia Commons.

An aircraft revolution that began in 1903 expanded significantly in the 1920s with longer-range planes popularized by Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart, the first man and woman to fly solo across the Atlantic in 1927 and 1932, respectively. By the end of the decade, two-thirds of all homes were electrified and there was a Model T on the road for every five Americans.

The Ford Model T cost as low as $265 in 1923, its record sales year. The base model was 20 horsepower with a flat-four 177 cubic inch engine with a manual start. Designed to cruise at 25-35 miles per hour, these affordable, practical vehicles soon replaced the horse and carriage as 15 million were sold. They were known as "horseless carriages". Efficiency and cost were driving forces until widespread competition from other automakers resulted in more options. Ford replaced the Model T with a Model A in 1927.

The purchasing and spending boom of the Roaring 20s was largely fueled by increased production and the availability of credit. Higher wages and credit options allowed consumers, and even investors, to purchase goods using loans. Installment buying allowed consumers to make payments over time and stock investors often purchased stocks on margin, purchasing additional stock shares using loans from stockbrokers. These financial practices were contributing factors to the Great Depression that impacted America in 1929.

The Roaring 20s - Key takeaways

  • The Roaring 20s was a time of widespread prosperity and new cultural trends.
  • Women especially benefitted from national suffrage –the right to vote was guaranteed by the Nineteenth Amendment in 1919.
  • Culturally, jazz music highlighted the mood of the decade. This novel genre sprouted from America's African roots.
  • New dances, fads, contests, and activities were exciting, high-energy and a break from previous national struggles.
  • Wages and job opportunities increased leading to more consumer spending as well as the use of credit for bigger purchases.
  • New technologies included mass-produced automobiles and household appliances.

Frequently Asked Questions about The Roaring 20s

The decade was marked by jazz music, dancing, higher wages, and stock prices.  There were new fashions, fads, and opportunities for many. 

Economic practices such as purchasing consumer goods and even stocks on credit as well as overproduction in factories and farms in part led to the Great Depression that began in 1929. 

The Roaring 20s happened as prosperity and exciting changes swept across America as people looked for happier times after World War One and the Spanish Flu pandemic. 

In the Roaring 20s, a lot of people moved to cities and purchased automobiles and appliances as new technologies became widespread. They tried new foods, fashions, and fads. Movies, radio, and jazz were popular. The purchase and sale of alcohol were illegal during Prohibition.

The Roaring 20s started in 1920, after World War I. 

Final The Roaring 20s Quiz

Question

What subjects did Georgia O’Keeffe like to paint?

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Answer

Flowers and landscapes

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Who was Alfred Stieglitz?

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Photographer

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What was Georgia O’Keeffe’s favorite state in the United States?


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New Mexico

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Why has Georgia O’Keeffe’s work been a subject of debate?


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Georgia O’Keeffe’s work has been a subject of debate because some theorists reduced it to gender and sexuality.

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What foreign country’s art served as an inspiration for O’Keeffe?


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Japan

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What medium did O’Keeffe primarily use?


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Oil paint

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Why did O’Keeffe fail to become a professional painter at first?


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O’Keeffe was worried that she could not pursue realism. So, for a time, she opted to be a commercial artist instead. 

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What was O’Keeffe’s main residence in New Mexico called?


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Ghost Ranch

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Why are O’Keeffe’s cityscapes, such as Radiator Building—Night, New York, important?


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These paintings are important because they represented the fast-paced, modern, urban lifestyle of the time.

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What subjects did Georgia O’Keeffe like to paint?

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Answer

Flowers and landscapes

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What style of art did O’Keeffe use?


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Modernism

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Where did the term “Art Deco” come from?

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International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris (1925)

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Which type of Art Deco was used by the projects constructed during the New Deal era?

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PWA Moderne

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Which architect designed the Empire State Building?

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William F. Lamb

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Which international style did Art Deco replace?


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Art Nouveau

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What was the tallest building in the world between 1931-1970?


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Empire State Building

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What is Greco Deco?


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Greco Deco is a variant of Art Deco that featured architectural elements inspired by Graeco-Roman art.

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What is the status of many Art Deco buildings today?


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These buildings are considered historic landmarks. 

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Who designed the Kansas City Power and Light Building?


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Holt, Price & Barnes

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What is the style of the San Francisco Maritime Museum?

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Streamline

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Which President helped develop PWA Moderne?


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Franklin D. Roosevelt

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Young women who dressed in short skirts listened to jazz, and challenged conventions were called. 

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bobbers

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Many Americans embraced the fun side of the 1920s because the last decade included....

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World War One

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Record numbers of Americans moved to these areas creating a national population shift?

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suburbs

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Which of the following was not popular in the 1920s?

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pole-sitting

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Which Amendment guaranteed the right to vote to women?

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16th

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Which Amendment made the sale of alcohol illegal?

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16th

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Where might a flapper have listened to jazz while purchasing illegal made alcohol?

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the radio

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What was the name for the revival of African-American culture?

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Jazz Age

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What were some new technological inventions of the decade?

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During the 1920s mass-produced automobiles, radios, vacuums, refrigerators, freezers, and washing machines were common.  Airplanes became more advanced as well.

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Who was the famed flagpole-sitter of the 20s?

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Alvin "Shipwreck" Kelly

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What type of car was mass-produced and affordable in the 1920s?

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The Ford Model T (12 million sold as cheap as $260)

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Who was a famous aviator in the 1920s?

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Charlie Chaplin

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Which of the following was not true about the 1920s?

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 By the end of the decade, two-thirds of all homes were electrified.

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The 1920s is often called 

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The Jazz Age

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Due to cultural and economic excitement, this decade is called the ______ ________.

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Roaring 20s

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What was the name of the first commercially successful type of photography in the 19th century?

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Daguerreotype

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Which American photographer collaborated with Marcel Duchamp?

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Man Ray

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Who introduced photographic film to the American market?


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George Eastman (Eastman Kodak)

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What is a pinhole camera?


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A pinhole camera is a small box that creates an inverted image by using light. These cameras have existed for hundreds of years.

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Who invented the calotype?


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William Henry Fox Talbot

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What is photomontage?


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Photomontage (montage) is a method of putting together pieces of photographs to create new artwork.

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Which painter did Alfred Stieglitz promote for much of his life?


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Georgia O’Keeffe

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Which photographer created rayographs?


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Man Ray

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Which famous commercial photographer worked at the Museum of Modern Art in New York?


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Edward Steichen

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Who was known as the "Father of the Harlem Renaissance"?

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Alain Locke

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Who founded the NAACP?

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W. E. B. Du Bois

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What is treating someone unjustly for a length of time?


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Oppression

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What was the event called where many African Americans migrated from the South to the North?

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The Great Migration

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What kind of artist was James Van Der Zee?

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A photographer 

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