The Beginning of Modern America (1920s) for AP U.S. History (page 3)

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Updated on Mar 4, 2011

Culture in the 1920s

Vast numbers of Americans were attracted to the culture of business that so permeated American life in the 1920s. It was possible, it was felt, that an individual could start with nothing and become a millionaire (a few buying land in Florida and elsewhere did exactly that). It is no surprise that individual heroes were worshipped in the press, on the radio, and on street corners. Sports heroes such as Babe Ruth were perceived as hardly mortal (members of the press had to cover up the excesses found in the personal lives of Ruth and many other heroes). Newspapers delighted in reporting incidents such as those involving Ruth visiting children's hospitals and promising countless home runs for sick children.

Other heroes of the decade included other athletes, such as boxer Jack Dempsey, and movie stars Rudolph Valentino, Charlie Chaplin, Clara Bow, and Mary Pickford. No hero, however, was lionized more than Charles Lindbergh after he became the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927. Incredible numbers of songs and newspaper headlines were devoted to Lindbergh for several years after this historic flight.

The Jazz Age

Many Americans rejected the values of business civilization adopted in the decade. These people, both men and women, decided that pleasure and private expression were more important than the virtues of Taylorism. Those associated with the Jazz Age adopted more open attitudes toward sex, and adopted jazz music as another symbol of their rejection of traditional society. Rural/small-town America (and some in the cities) saw jazz as "the devil's music," as black music, and as music that helped to promote lewd dancing and sexual contact. For many who went to jazz clubs in Harlem in the early 1920s, these were probably the very reasons why they listened to it.

The typical symbol of the Jazz Age was the flapper, a young girl with short hair, a short hemline, a cigarette in her hand, and makeup (all of these things were frowned on in rural/small-town America and in pre–World War I urban America). The number of actual flappers in American cities was always relatively small. Many advertisements of the 1920s portrayed women as sex objects; as a result, in the eyes of many Americans, women lost their respected position as moral leaders of the family.

Statistics do show that both sexual promiscuity and the consumption of alcohol increased among the young during this decade. This revolution was greatly aided by the availability of the automobile, which allowed young people to get away from the prying eyes of parents. Margaret Sanger and others promoted the increased availability and usage of birth control during this period. The behavior of flappers and their male counterparts was looked down on by some urban and by almost all rural observers. It should be noted that this "freer" behavior by young people would be drastically reduced by the massive economic difficulties of the Great Depression and World War II, but would again become pronounced in the 1950s (with critics voicing many of the same concerns as they had in the 1920s). By the 1950s, rock and roll had replaced jazz as the "devil's music."

After the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, which gave women the right to vote, many female leaders thought that women would come to have a pronounced role in American political life. Much to their disappointment, this did not occur in the 1920s. Women did not vote in a block "as women." Yet, the overall position of women did increase in the decade. Divorces increased throughout the decade, showing that more women (and men) were leaving unhealthy married relationships. The number of women working during the decade also increased, although working women were usually single. Restrictions remained, however. Women seldom received the same pay for doing the same work as men, and women were almost never put into management positions. Most women still worked in clerical jobs, as teachers, or as nurses.

The Rise of Radio and Motion Pictures

As stated previously, as more and more people read newspapers, listened to the radio, and watched movies, a truly universal mass culture was being created. Movie attendance rose rapidly during the 1920s; in 1922, about 35 million people a week saw movies. By 1929, this figure was up to 90 million people per week. In 1927, The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson, became the first "talking" motion picture, a trend that would create new movie stars and ruin the careers of others who had been stars in the silent era.

Nothing created a more national mass culture than did the radio. Station KDKA in Pittsburgh was the first station to get a radio station license in 1920. Radio networks began to form (the National Broadcasting Company being the first in 1926) and brought listeners across the country news, variety shows, and (at first) recreated sporting events.

The Lost Generation

Many novels were written during the 1920s that supported the business culture of the decade. The most famous of these was Bruce Barton's 1925 The Man Nobody Knows, which portrayed Christ as a businessman. Most famous novelists of the era, however, wrote of deep feelings of alienation from mainstream American culture. These writers, called by Gertrude Stein members of the "Lost Generation," turned their backs on the business culture and the Republican political culture of the era. Some of these writers ended up in Paris, while others congregated in Greenwich Village in New York City.

The goal of these writers seemed to be to attack the notion of America that they had either physically or spiritually left behind. In novels such as Main Street and Babbit, Sinclair Lewis attacked the materialism and narrow thinking of middle-class business types in small-town America. Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio was another novel of alienation in small-town America.

F. Scott Fitzgerald was both a celebrant of the Jazz Age and a brilliant commentator on it; his novel The Great Gatsby dissects the characters of typical Jazz Age figures. Ernest Hemingway in works such as A Farewell to Arms expresses a deep dissatisfaction with American values, especially concerning war. Perhaps none was more direct in his criticisms of American society than journalist H. L. Mencken, who called the American people an "ignorant mob" and was especially disdainful of the "booboisie," his term for the American middle class.

It should also be remembered that black cultural expression in the 1920s was being celebrated in a cultural movement called the Harlem Renaissance. Writers of this movement, including Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, wrote on the role of blacks in contemporary American society; the theme of blacks "passing" into the white world and the importance of black expression were common among writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Many in the Harlem Renaissance studied African folk art and music and anthropology. The goal of many in the movement was reconciling the notions of being black and being American (and also to reconcile the notions of being black and being intellectual). Jazz was the music of the movement, with Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington playing this "primitive music" in clubs across Harlem.

When Herbert Hoover was inaugurated in early 1929, America looked to the 1930s with eager anticipation. The stock market was at an all-time high, and Hoover had continually promised during the campaign that the Republican goal was to wipe out poverty once and for all. All of this would make the events that would begin to unfold in the fall of 1929 even more cruel and devastating.


To achieve the perfect 5, you should be able to explain the following:

  • A consumer economy was created in the 1920s on a level unprecedented in American history.
  • Advertising, newspapers, radio, and motion pictures provided new forms of entertainment in the 1920s and helped create a uniform national culture.
  • The changes of the 1920s were resisted by many in small-town/rural America, creating many of the cultural conflicts of the decade.
  • Assembly line techniques and the ideas of scientific management of Frederick W. Taylor helped make industrial production in the 1920s quicker and more efficient, ultimately creating cheaper goods.
  • Installment buying helped fuel consumer buying in the 1920s.
  • The Republican party controlled the White House, Congress, and the Supreme Court in the 1920s, generally sponsoring government policies friendly to big business.
  • The scandals of the Harding administration were among the worst in history.
  • Resentment against blacks existed in both the American South and North in the years after World War I, resulting in race riots in the North and lynchings and the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan in the South.
  • The Red Scare of 1919 and 1920 resulted in the suspension of civil liberties and deportation of hundreds of immigrants, the vast majority of whom had committed no crime.
  • Nativist fears also resulted in restrictive quota legislation passed in the early 1920s.
  • Cultural conflicts between urban and rural America also developed over the issues of Prohibition and the teaching of evolution in schools (resulting in the Scopes Trial).
  • During the Jazz Age, many Americans rejected the prominent business values of the decade and turned to jazz, alcohol, and looser sexual mores for personal fulfillment.
  • The flapper was the single most prominent image of the Jazz Age.
  • Writers of the Lost Generation expressed extreme disillusionment with American society of the era; writers of the Harlem Renaissance expressed the opinions of American blacks concerning American culture.

    Time Line

      1917:   Race riots in East St. Louis, Missouri
      1918:   Armistice ending World War I
      1919:   Race riots in Chicago
          Major strikes in Seattle and Boston
          Palmer Raids
      1920:   Warren Harding elected president
          First broadcast of radio station KDKA in Pittsburgh
          Publication of Main Street by Sinclair Lewis
          Arrest of Sacco and Vanzetti
          Prohibition takes effect
      1921:   Immigration Quota Law passed
          Disarmament conference held
      1922:   Fordney-McCumber Tariff enacted
          Publication of Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis
      1923:   Teapot Dome scandal
          Death of Harding; Calvin Coolidge becomes president
          Duke Ellington first performs in New York City
      1924:   Election of Calvin Coolidge
          Immigration Quota Law enacted
          Ku Klux Klan reaches highest membership in history
          Women governors elected in Wyoming and Texas
      1925:   Publication of The Man Nobody Knows by Bruce Barton
          Publication of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
          Scopes Trial held in Dayton, Tennessee
      1926:   Publication of The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
      1927:   The Jazz Singer, first movie with sound, released Charles Lindbergh makes New York to Paris flight Execution of Sacco and Vanzetti
          15 millionth car produced by Ford Motor Company
          $1.5 billion spent on advertising in United States
          Babe Ruth hits 60 home runs
      1928:   Election of Herbert Hoover
      1929:   Nearly 30 million Americans have cars
          Stock market crash

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