Culture in the 1920s: Loosening Social
According to one journalist in 1920, Americans were “weary
of being noble” after a decade of intense progressive reform, morality,
and self-righteousness. The 1920s saw a restless culture, spearheaded
by America’s youth rebelling against the moral restrictions of past generations.
The Sexual Revolution
During the 1920s, some Americans—especially young college
students—challenged traditional notions of proper behavior. Buoyed
by the decade’s prosperity, young people threw raucous parties,
drank illegal liquor, and danced new, sexually suggestive steps
at jazz clubs. One of the symbols of this decade was the flapper,
a name given to the fashionable, pleasure-seeking young women of
the time. The archetypal flapper look was tomboyish and flamboyant:
short bobbed hair; knee-length, fringed skirts; long, draping necklaces; and
rolled stockings. Although few women actually fit this image, it
was used widely in journalism and advertising to represent the rebelliousness
of the period. The traditional bastions of American morality lamented
these developments, and especially criticized the new dances and
college students’ proclivity for drinking and smoking. These critics,
however, soon found themselves facing much larger opposition as
the older generations began to adopt some of the socially liberated
practices of their children.
With new social thinking and activities came new social
conventions. Most prominently among the youth of the 1920s, sex
became far less taboo than it had been previously. Sex was more
openly discussed and premarital sex more common. Such activity led
naturally to the promotion of birth control, though it was still
widely illegal. The sexual revolution brought with
it changing ideas about women. Female sexuality was less suppressed, skirt
hems were worn higher, and makeup became more common.
It is important to note that although the Roaring ’20s
and its attendant characters and events came to symbolize the decade,
these stereotypes fit only a small segment of society. Traditional
values, especially outside the cities, were not discarded completely,
or even much changed.
The Eighteenth Amendment, which made it illegal
to manufacture, sell, or transport alcoholic beverages, went into
effect in January 1920. Enforcement of prohibition, however, was
sporadic and underfunded and faced opposition in many states and
cities, especially northern cities, where many prohibition laws
were repealed. Given this lax enforcement, many Americans viewed
prohibition as something of a joke. Bootleggers smuggled
liquor from the West Indies and Canada, while speakeasies in
every city provided alcohol illegally. Organized crime controlled
the distribution of alcohol in major American cities, and gangsters
such as Al Capone made a fortune while law enforcement officials
often looked the other way. Capone’s income in 1927 was reportedly
over $1 million, while the average American’s income was below $2,500.
Prohibition fueled much debate within the United States until its
repeal in 1933.
The Jazz Age and the Harlem Renaissance
The 1920s saw the flowering of African American
culture in the arts. In music, black culture expressed itself through
jazz, an improvisational and spontaneous musical form derived in
part from slave songs and African spirituals. Jazz first emerged
in the early 1900s in New Orleans then spread to Chicago, New York
City, and elsewhere. The 1920s is often called the Jazz Age because
jazz flourished and gained widespread appeal during the decade.
The improvisational character of the music was often associated
with the “loose” morals and relaxed social codes of the time. Among
the famous jazz performers of the period were Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith,
and Duke Ellington.
The flowering of black literature in the Northeast, especially
in Harlem in New York City, was known as the Harlem Renaissance.
Black artists explored the African American perspective through
poetry and novels. One of the most famous authors of the time was the
poet Langston Hughes, who published “The Weary Blues,” in 1926.
Harlem was the site of social activity as well as intellectual activity,
as prominent and wealthy blacks hosted extravagant gatherings for
Harlem Renaissance figures.
The “Lost Generation”
One reason it is difficult to separate stereotypes
about the 1920s from reality is the attention paid to these stereotypes
by American authors and the media. The author who best represented this
trend was F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote extensively
about the rebellious youth of the Jazz Age in stories and novels
such as This Side of Paradise, published in 1920,
and The Great Gatsby, published in 1925. In The
Great Gatsby, his most famous novel, Fitzgerald criticized the
superficiality and material excess of America’s post-war culture,
portraying prosperity gone wrong in wealthy New York society.
Many other literary figures rose alongside Fitzgerald
to dissect American postwar society. Several notables, including
Sinclair Lewis, attacked America’s prevalent Protestant, middle-class,
conformist morality. Lewis’s satirical critique, Babbitt,
was published in 1922. H.L. Mencken was the journalistic
counterpart to the alienated novelists, using political satire in
his magazine, American Mercury, to attack the political
leaders of the day and the American “booboisie,” as he called the
Disgusted with the American life they saw as overly material
and spiritually void, many writers during this period lived in Europe,
including Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and Ernest Hemingway.
Hemingway, the most famous expatriate, wrote The Sun Also
Rises in 1926 and A Farewell to Arms in
1929, both reflecting the horror and futility of World War I. The
self-imposed exile of these writers from America is one reason they
were nicknamed the “lost generation.”
Entertainment and Popular Culture
The 1920s saw the growth of popular recreation, in part
because of higher wages and increased leisure time. Just as automobiles
were mass-produced, so was recreation during the 1920s. Mass-circulations
magazines like Reader’s Digest and Time (established
1923) enjoyed enormous success. Radio also rose to prominence as
a source of news and entertainment during the 1920s: NBC was founded
in 1926 and CBS a year later. Movies were the most popular leisure
attraction of the times, making stars out of Charlie Chaplin, Rudolph
Valentino, Gloria Swanson, and Mary Pickford. In 1927, with The
Jazz Singer, movies began to include sound, and 1928 saw
the first animated sound film, Steamboat Willy.
Professional sports gained a new popularity, as well. Baseball star
Babe Ruth enjoyed massive fame, as did boxers such as Jack Dempsey.
College sports rose to national attention, as demonstrated by the
fame of the Notre Dame football team’s “four horsemen.” The 1920s
also saw the emergence of nonsporting national heroes like Charles
Lindbergh, who made the first solo nonstop flight across the Atlantic
in May 1927.