Culturally and socially, the Roaring Twenties were a heady time of rapid change, artistic innovation, and high-society antics. Popular culture roared to life as the economy boomed. New technologies, soaring business profits, and higher wages allowed more and more Americans to purchase a wide range of consumer goods. Prosperity also provided Americans with more leisure time, and as play soon became the national pastime, literature, film, and music caught up to document the times.
Much of the impetus for this modernization came from America’s so-called second Industrial Revolution, which had begun around the turn of the century. During this era, electricity and more advanced machinery made factories nearly twice as efficient as they had been under steam power in the 1800s.
Perhaps the greatest increase in efficiency came when Henry Ford perfected the assembly-line production method, which enabled factories to churn out large quantities of a variety of new technological wonders, such as radios, telephones, refrigerators, washing machines, and cars. The increasing availability of such consumer goods pushed modernization forward, and the U.S. economy began to shift away from heavy industry toward the production of these commodities.
The automobile quickly became the symbol of the new America. Although Americans did not invent the car, they certainly perfected it. Much of the credit for this feat went to Ford and his assembly-line method, which transformed the car from a luxury item into a necessity for modern living. By the mid-1920s, even many working-class families could afford a brand-new Model T Ford, priced at just over $250. Increasing demand for the automobile in turn trickled down to many other industries. The demand for oil, for example, boomed, and oil prospectors set up new wells in Texas and the Southwest practically overnight. Newer and smoother roads were constructed across America, dotted with new service stations. Change came so rapidly that by 1930, almost one in three Americans owned cars.
Its effect on the U.S. economy aside, the automobile also changed American life immeasurably. Cars most directly affected the way that Americans moved around, but this change also affected the way that Americans lived and spent their free time. Trucks provided faster modes of transport for crops and perishable foods and therefore improved the quality and freshness of purchasable food. Perhaps most important, the automobile allowed people to leave the inner city and live elsewhere without changing jobs. During the 1920s, more people purchased houses in new residential communities within an easy drive of the metropolitan centers. After a decade, these suburbs had grown exponentially, making the car more of a necessity than ever.
American cities changed drastically during the 1920s because of factors above and beyond those related to the automobile. First, the decade saw millions of people flock to the cities from country farmlands; in particular, African Americans fled the South for northern cities in the post–World War I black migration. Immigrants, especially eastern Europeans, also flooded the cities. As a result of these changes, the number of American city dwellers—those who lived in towns with a population greater than 2,500 people—came to outnumber those who lived in rural areas for the first time in U.S. history.
At the same time, new architectural techniques allowed builders to construct taller buildings. The first skyscrapers began dotting city skylines in the 1920s, and by 1930, several hundred buildings over twenty stories tall existed in U.S. cities.
Aviation developed quickly after the Wright brothers’ first sustained powered flight in 1903, and by the 1920s, airplanes were becoming a significant part of American life. Several passenger airline companies, subsidized by U.S. Mail contracts, sprang to life, allowing wealthier citizens to travel across the country in a matter of hours rather than days or weeks. In 1927, stunt flyer Charles Lindbergh soared to international fame when he made the first solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean (from New York to Paris) in his single-engine plane, the Spirit of St. Louis. His achievement gave an enormous boost to the growing aviation industry.
Another influential innovation of the time was the radio, which entertained and brought Americans together like nothing else had before. Electricity became more readily available throughout the decade, and by 1930, most American households had radio receivers. The advertising industry blossomed as companies began to deliver their sales pitches via the airwaves to thousands of American families who gathered together nightly to listen to popular comedy programs, news, speeches, sporting events, and music.
In particular, jazz music became incredibly popular. Originating in black communities in New Orleans around the turn of the century, jazz slowly moved its way north and became a national phenomenon thanks to the radio. Along with new music came “scandalous” new dances such as the Charleston and the jitterbug.
The Hollywood motion picture industry also emerged during the 1920s. Although movies were nothing new to Americans, as silent films had enjoyed widespread popularity during the previous decade, the first “talkies” brought actors’ voices into theaters and kicked the moviemaking business into high gear. Glamorous actors and actresses soon enjoyed the status of royalty and came to dominate American pop culture.
While pop culture burgeoned, a new generation of postwar American authors penned a flurry of new poems, plays, and novels. In 1920, F. Scott Fitzgerald gained almost instant fame when he glamorized the new youth culture in This Side of Paradise. Five years later, he followed up his first success with the critically acclaimed novel The Great Gatsby. William Faulkner became the new voice of the South with novels such as The Sound and the Fury (1929). World War I veteran Ernest Hemingway published the antiwar novels The Sun Also Rises (1926) and A Farewell to Arms (1929).
Other notable writers and poets of the era included T. S. Eliot, Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis, and playwright Eugene O’Neill. Together, these writers, disillusioned with war and society, became known as the Lost Generation. Black culture in the North also flourished throughout the years of the Harlem Renaissance, during which writers such as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston created a new tradition in African-American poetry, fiction, and scholarship.
The booming twenties also brought more rights and freedoms for women. In 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment granted American women the right to vote. Just as important, more women gained financial independence as the number of women in the workforce skyrocketed. Approximately 15 percent of women were employed by 1930. Although they were generally confined to “traditional” women’s jobs such as secretarial work and teaching, the new financial freedom that these jobs afforded opened the doors to increased social mobility for women.
As women’s rights increased, so too did social freedoms. A new symbol of the Jazz Age emerged: the image of the short-haired, short-skirted, independent-minded, and sexually liberated “flapper” woman who lived life in the fast lane. Soon, the flapper came to represent everything modern in 1920s America. With this new image of women, a sexual revolution followed as attitudes toward sex changed and birth control became widely accepted and available.