”A young and reckless world”William Rose Bennett
Hedonism, flamboyancy and debauchery once ran rampant across the USA, as the country hailed in a new era, dubbed by novelist and contemporary screenwriter F Scott Fitzgerald as ”the Jazz Age”. After the tragedy of World War One (1914-1918), which costed 116,700 American soldiers’ lives, the restlessness of the current ‘génération du feu’ was uncontrollable, leading to a new era, which would only come to a crashing halt in 1929. But what exactly made this decade so prolific, that it would become known as ‘the roaring ’20s’?
Part of what made the 1920s a special decade for America was the opening up of opportunity and consumption. ‘The Gilded Age’ from the 1870s to 1900 had seen to the rapid economic growth of the USA, particularly in the Northern states, and coincided with the mass industrialisation of America, creating large disparities in wealth; abject poverty was rife among the poor while the richer class lived in luxurious European influenced mansions. Consequently, the following ‘Progressive’ era was dominated by social reform and the need for radical changes. Progressivism was abruptly halted by America’s entry into World War One (1917), so the pent up energy from the previous age began to burst at the turn of the next decade…
Huge legislative changes sparked the intense vitality that existed in the ’20s. In August, 1920, the 19th Amendment was passed, extending the right to vote to women in America. This opened up a wealth of opportunities for younger women, and many felt newly liberated, allowing them to express themselves in ways they could never before. Women before the ’20s had been expected to be subservient housewives, devoted only to their families, but the 1920s turned this on its head, birthing the image of the ‘Flapper’. The Flapper was commonly seen as a sexually liberated symbol, typified as the unmarried girl who smoked in public and bobbed her hair, fully embracing the freedom that the decade offered. Women now became frequent attendees of riotous parties, dancing the Charleston and engaging in otherwise socially unexpected behaviour. Fitzgerald himself named his wife Zelda ”the first American flapper”, as she seemed to epitomise the role. Known for her dancing on top of tables, riding on the roofs of New York Cabs, and diving naked into fountains, she perfectly showed the testing of societal norms and limits which women undertook from their newfound status. However, not everyone was thrilled about the emergence of such radical behaviour, and various states attempted to prohibit the actions. Utah attempted to pass legislation that would limit the shortness of a women’s dress, while Ohio tried to ban form-fitting outfits. Moreover, previous Progressives, like Charlotte Perkins Gilman, criticised the newfound independence of Flappers, believing that they had pushed the boundaries of American immorality and promiscuity too far.
It wasn’t just women who reaped the benefits that the new decade had to offer. Industries throughout the 1920s were glorified in a sort of art deco exuberance which saw their production boom. The rise of moving parts assembly lines and fairer working wages led to a increase in production of the motor car, and a subsequent lowering of prices. In 1924, it was reported that a Ford Model T car, first pioneered in 1908, now only cost $260, meaning that many more Americans could afford them. New technologies were also on the rise; General Electric produced the first electric fridge in 1927, which was later singled out as the go-to gadget for the modern American woman. Part of what made this possible was the economic system of hire purchase. The theory was that with the rise of mass consumption, the people would need a way to buy basic necessities and still have money left over to enjoy the new innovations of the decade. Therefore, many ‘instalment agreements’ were offered, which allowed average American citizens to own an item while they were still paying it back in instalments. This led to a larger intake of American products in American homes, and allowed the sectors to flourish.
The creative arts blossomed in the 1920s as well. Jazz, first born in New Orleans, had made its way to the big US cities, such as New York and San Francisco, and created the iconic soundtrack to the decade. Famous personalities such as Al Jolson and Mamie Smith were able to make a name for themselves as ‘artists’, showing the career opportunities which had not before been so popularised. Hollywood also bloomed, under its ‘Golden Age’. Not only did world-famous movie stars like Charlie Chaplin and Greta Garbo grace the silver screen with their presence, expanding the traditional Hollywood genre range, but 1927 marked a turning point in cinematic history. Gone were the days of silent cinema, where any music had to be live performed by a pianist in the cinema hall, now were the times that recorded sound could be paralleled with the feature itself. 1927 saw the advent of the ‘talkie’, a film which included music and talking as part of its production and showing, an extremely exciting concept for the contemporary audience.
Overall, while the nine years were also shadowed with its fair share of corruption and inequality, certain moments of the 1920s offered hope for the American future, and made it seem the usually far fetched ‘American Dream’ was in reach. While this would come tumbling down in October, 1929, hailing in instead the Great Depression, it is important to recognise the social advancement from the preceding decade.
- F Scott Fitzgerald, ”Echoes of the Jazz Age”, Scribner’s Magazine, 1931
- Congressional Research Service, ”American War and Military Operations Casualties: Lists and Statistics”, CRS Report, 2019
- Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, ”The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today”, American Publishing Company, 1873
- Walter Nugent, ”Progressivism: A Very Short Introduction”, Oxford University Press, 2010
- History.com Editors, ”Flappers”, History.com, 2019
- Margaret Simpson, ”GE ‘Monitor Top’ refrigerator, 1927-1936”, MAAS Collection, 2015
- Bob Allen, ”Why The Jazz Singer”, AMPS Newsletter, 1997