The Roaring Twenties
Written by Steve Byas
From the print edition of The New American:
Crossword puzzles. Speakeasies. Jazz music. The Charleston. Massive increase in wealth. Babe Ruth. Jack Dempsey. Charles Lindbergh. Flappers.
This was the Roaring Twenties, now 100 years ago, when American life changed dramatically in a very short period of time. It was a decade in which government largely got out of the way, and the economy boomed, leading to innovations we benefit from — and, in some cases, suffer from — yet today.
In analyzing a “decade,” certain events tend to “bookend,” if you will, the beginning and the end of that period of time. For example, the culture of the “Fifties,” another decade known for its rapid lifestyle changes and economic prosperity, largely begins with the end of the Korean War and ends with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963.
Similarly, we can bookend the 1920s with the depression that President Warren Harding faced upon taking office in 1921 and with the stock market crash in October of 1929, which marked the beginning (although not the cause) of the Great Depression. Before Harding and Calvin Coolidge, two conservative presidents who largely held to a limited government perspective, was the “progressive” President Woodrow Wilson, and after them another Progressive, President Herbert Hoover.
The Progressive Era of American politics was largely rejected by the American electorate in the congressional elections of 1918 and the presidential election of 1920. With the end of the First World War, Americans suffered from a global pandemic — the infamous Spanish Flu — and a raging rise in price levels brought on by the inflationary spending to finance the war.
A dozen eggs, priced at about 34 cents before the war, now cost 62 cents. Prices for milk, steak, butter, and rents (for which most tenants blamed their landlords, not government-caused inflation, which devalued the dollar) had similar price increases. Between 1914 and 1920, prices rose at a compound rate of about 14 percent per year. This inflation was followed by a rather severe economic contraction — in which unemployment reached 12 percent.
Harding opted to let the market make the necessary adjustments, and within a matter of months, the economy took off. Fortunately, because Harding did not intervene, this is often dubbed “the forgotten depression.” Unfortunately, the lesson that could be derived from Harding’s wise inaction was not learned at the end of the decade by President Herbert Hoover, whose actions contributed to turning the contraction of 1929 into the Great Depression.
The Great Prosperity of the 1920s
Real gross domestic product (GDP) increased almost 50 percent from 1921-1929. By 1926, unemployment had dipped to less than two percent. And there was an explosion in the supply of items for consumers, as real wages — what a person’s income will actually buy — increased. In May 1919, there were fewer than seven million automobiles in America. By 1929, there were 23 million. Not only was there a quantitative improvement in cars, but a qualitative improvement, as well, as “closed cars” — with a roof and windows — replaced the less practical “open cars” of the early years of the industry. As Frederick Lewis Allen wrote in his famous book on the decade, Only Yesterday, the percentage of closed cars was less than 10 in 1919. By 1927, it was nearly 83 percent.
While Americans were spending increasing amounts of time driving, they also enjoyed at home an invention that exploded in popularity in the decade — the radio. There was no radio broadcasting at all in the fall of 1920, but less than two years later, radio sales and accessories had reached $60 million. By the end of the decade, it was approaching a billion-dollar business. By 1927, there were more than 700 radio stations in the country. From 1913-1927, there was an increase of 465 percent in the number of American homes that had electricity, but even homes without it could still listen to battery-powered radios. By the end of the decade, radios were even being placed in the ever-increasing number of cars.
The radio brought entertainment into even the most modest of homes, with music ranging from classical to jazz and country (then often called “hillbilly”). One person who benefited greatly from this explosion of the number of phonograph record machines and radios was a railroad worker from Meridian, Mississippi, Jimmie Rodgers. Rodgers is considered the father of country music, and was the first professional musician to make most of his income off the sale of phonograph records, which were also played widely on the radio, in place of live appearances.
Rodgers was able to relate to the average American with his music, including his own struggle with tuberculosis, then an incurable disease, by writing a song about it, the “T.B. Blues” in 1931.
Whether performed on the radio or in person, music entertained Americans blessed with increased leisure time, which came from the rising prosperity of the dec-ade. Jazz music, which came from the improvisations of both black and white bands centered in New Orleans and Memphis, produced stars such as trumpeter Louis Armstrong. George Gershwin even adapted jazz music to the symphony.
When not driving or listening to the radio, more and more Americans could talk to friends and family without leaving home, via the telephone. The number of households owning a phone increased by 35 percent in the 1920s. The decade saw other consumer items making their way into American homes, such as electric washing machines, vacuum sweepers, and the electric iron.
Although some newspapers had featured crossword puzzles (originally known as word-cross puzzles) a few years earlier, it was in 1924 that an entire book was published, featuring nothing but these puzzles. Soon, practically every newspaper in America found that they were an important feature that had to be included to sell papers. They proved so popular that one man was jailed for refusing to leave a restaurant — he had been struggling for four hours to complete a puzzle.
Those who were more inclined to physical activity became enthralled with a new dance, the Charleston, which was unlike the tamer ballroom and square dancing of previous eras. Even members of Congress got caught up in the new dance.
The Impact of Willis Carrier’s Air Conditioning
Perhaps the most underrated invention that became widespread in the decade was air conditioning, developed by Willis Carrier. Before Carrier, even with radios, crossword puzzles, and telephones, remaining inside a house in the summertime, suffering from the heat and humidity, was often intolerable, particularly in the Southern states. His invention, however, made much of modern life possible, including shopping malls, transatlantic flight, computers, and servers that power the Internet. Eventually, air conditioning would transform Southern housing architecture, with its large porches that had often encircled the house (so its inhabitants could move with the shade and the breeze). Today, porches are less and less of a feature in Southern homes.
Before the 1920s, the Southern economy had lagged behind the North for several decades after the Civil War. Over time, as air conditioning tamed the excessive heat and humidity associated with the Deep South, more and more industry saw the region as a place to locate.
Along with many other factors, air-conditioning no doubt contributed to increasing the life expectancy of Americans (53.6 years for men and 54.6 for women in 1920). It certainly can be credited with improving the quality of life.
Carrier Corporation was formed in 1915, but its greatest impact was in the following decade, in the cooling of commercial buildings, not private homes. It was first developed to cool printing presses, which experienced much trouble with humidity. Another industry that benefited greatly in the decade from air conditioning was the growing motion picture-theater industry. Americans already loved the movies, which were silent movies for most of the decade, but in the summertime Americans flocked to the theaters to beat the heat, as air-conditioned theaters were a huge draw.
Movie stars such as Rudolph Valentino, Tom Mix, and Will Rogers became “heroes” to many Americans, as politicians and industrialists became less interesting. The first full-length “talkie” movie was The Jazz Singer, with Al Jolson, near the end of the decade. Before that, actors emphasized body motion and facial expressions, with words appearing on the screen periodically. The “sound” was usually provided by an in-house piano or some other musical instruments, using musical compositions provided by the movie studios.
Valentino was one of those actors who was unable to make the transition from silent movies to talking pictures. Known as a screen “heartthrob,” his high-pitched voice damaged this romantic image in talkies. Like some other actors, he had trouble learning his lines, so important in the talkies.
Other Americans enjoyed marathon dancing sessions, while some gained notoriety for breaking records for time spent sitting on flagpoles.
College students often created their own “entertainment.” Parties sometimes featured necking (hugging and kissing, brought about by the increase in the number of young women on the campus), the eating of goldfish, and seeing how many individuals could cram inside a phone booth or an automobile. Even with Prohibition, one would suspect that there might be some alcohol involved.
Much has been written about the bootleggers and the violent crime associated with national prohibition of alcohol in the decade, which spawned gangs such as that led by Chicago’s Al Capone. It is estimated that Capone pulled in an astounding $60 million per year (between $850 and $900 million in today’s inflated dollars) during his reign as the premier mob boss in the Windy City. While overall liquor consumption did decline with Prohibition (more in the early years than in the later), it still continued in illegal establishments, known as speakeasies, where women joined men in drinking spirits.
Women were employed outside the home in larger numbers during the dec-ade, partly because their increased employment during World War I simply continued, and partly because, to many women, it indicated their increased independence. It was the “Flapper Era,” a time when women cut their hair short and wore shorter dresses, even exposing their knees. Some dresses were even sleeveless.
Before the 1920s, smoking was largely a man’s pastime, and usually involved cigar and pipe smoking. But during the war, American soldiers were given cigarettes in their rations. By the end of the war, many were hooked on cigarette smoking, and the habit quickly supplanted other forms of tobacco consumption in popularity, with cigarette sales more than doubling. Women increasingly joined men in the practice. As art follows life, then life follows art, the motion pictures, which featured almost incessant smoking by actors — and actresses — no doubt added to the consumption of cigarettes by both sexes.
In 1920, before this wider use of cigarettes, there were fewer than a thousand lung cancer deaths in the United States.
The Rise of Spectator Sports
In addition to driving cars, smoking cigarettes, and listening to the radio, many Americans, with rising incomes and more leisure time, turned their attention to sports. Although professional football had been played as early as 1892, it was in 1920 that the American Professional Football Association (later renamed the National Football League) was formed. But pro football’s years of glory were still in the future in the 1920s, as the college game was more prominent at the time. It was in the 1920s that Knute Rockne made Notre Dame a national power in college football.
This article appears in the May 18, 2020, issue of The New American. To download the issue and continue reading this story, or to subscribe, click here.
Courtesy of The New American