The Roaring Twenties

*The decade after World War I was a period of great prosperity for most of America (although for farmers it was a period of bad fortune, as food prices fell shortly after World War I ended), and Americans were able to enjoy that prosperity with more free time than ever before.

*Rising wages, shorter working hours and a shorter work week (the average work week fell from 70 hours in 1850 to 55 hours in 1910 to 45 in 1930), gave people the time and money to enjoy themselves.  Furthermore, after the destruction of the Great War and the Spanish Flu, Americans wanted to cut loose, and the 1920s were known as the Roaring Twenties. 

*Americans had new ways to enjoy themselves.  Movies were new, and much cheaper (only a few cents) than going to a play or concert.  The first movies had no sound (or, at most, came with recorded music that matched up to different scenes, but with no sound effects or talking).  Even silent movies created new world-wide celebrities, like comedian Charlie Chaplin, the handsome sheik Rudolph Valentino, and the ‘It Girl,’ Clara Bow.  In 1927, Al Jolson starred in The Jazz Singer, the first ‘talkie,’ in which sound was synchronised with the pictures.
*Movies were available for anyone who wished to go out, but people could also take part in America’s mass culture at home through the medium of radio.  Not only did this allow people to listen to news, sports, and music, but it let music that was enjoyed regionally to spread across the nation.  Pop music from Tin Pan Alley in New York City, jazz from the Mississippi Valley, and country music from Appalachia spread across the country.

*Among the great successes of early country music was the Carter Family, of Southwest Virginia, first discovered at a talent search in Bristol on the Tennessee-Virginia border.  A.P, Sarah, and Maybelle Carter made songs like ‘Wildwood Flower,’ ‘Keep on the Sunny Side,’ and ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken’ famous and popular nationwide.  Maybelle and her daughters would eventually play for the Grand Ole Opry (which began broadcasting in 1925 on WSM, making it the oldest continually-broadcast radio programme in the US).  So, while Nashville may be Music City, USA today, Bristol is known as the birthplace of country music.

*Although many of the things people had traditionally respected and admired were being viewed a little more cynically, Americans did find new heroes.  Besides film celebrities, sports stars like boxer Jack Dempsey and especially Babe Ruth became nationally famous.  Ruth was especially significant because he helped Americans get over the Black Sox Scandal (in which some members of the Chicago White Sox threw the 1919 World Series, mostly because they were bribed, but partly because they hated the team owner).

*Besides admiring athletes, Americans were also amazed by flying.  Airplanes were still new and dangerous, air shows were popular, and the men who risked their lives to fly airplanes and set records became famous.  Perhaps the most famous and respected American by the end of the 1920s was Charles Lindbergh.  In 1927, he became the first man to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, flying in The Spirit of St Louis from New York to Paris in 33 hours without sleep or instruments (when he passed over Ireland he slowed down, flew low, and shouted out ‘Which way to France’ at people until someone pointed).

*Lindbergh made air travel so popular that commercial air travel grew 3,000% (from 5,782 to 173,405) between 1926 and 1929.

*As traditional attitudes declined (and new technology such as the vacuum cleaner and the electric iron reduced the time needed for housework), women began to gain greater social freedom.  Many smoked, wore shorter skirts, cut their hair into short bobs, danced to modern music, and even drank in illegal speakeasies.  These New Women were called flappers.

*Traditional attitudes even changed about the mind.  Sigmund Freud made psychology popular, and his work asserted that people were mostly driven by subconscious desires rooted in animal instinct or developed during childhood (the id and ego) only barely restrained by reason (superego).  Some saw this as insulting to people’s intelligence, but others saw it as an explanation (or an excuse) for strange behaviour.

*The writers of the Lost Generation criticised the world around them.  Sinclair Lewis wrote about the emptiness of middle-class life in Main Street and Babbitt.  F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about the excesses and emptiness of the Jazz Age in The Great Gatsby (in which Jay Gatsby invents a new life for himself and becomes rich, but never achieves his dreams).  William Faulkner wrote stories about the Deep South that presented a strange, backward, and inbred society.  Ernest Hemmingway wrote about the loss of belief in great causes such as war and even tried to strip language itself to its simplest forms in his writing.

*Despite this disillusionment among many people in the 1920s, Black people were creating new art, music, and literature in what was called the Harlem Renaissance or the New Negro Movement as the blacks who had moved north during the Great Migration developed a new culture from old traditions.

*Jazz music is one of the few forms of music to truly develop in America, and it did so, originally among Black people (although many white people in American and Europe enjoyed it and played it, too) in the early 20th century.  Louis Armstrong was the most famous jazz musician in the country, and the 1920s are also known as the Jazz Age.

*Indeed, as Jazz music became increasingly popular, many more conservative Americans became concerned that a Black style of music was becoming popular among young white Americans, making the rise of jazz very controversial.

*There were many Black writers in the Harlem Renaissance.  One of the most famous was a writer of books, poetry, and plays named Langston Hughes.  He celebrated black culture and heritage, which were just as ancient, deep, and meaningful as white culture.  Zora Neal Hurston was the most prominent female black writer, but they were only two of many writers in the Harlem Renaissance.  Their work helped Blacks develop a new sense of pride. 

*Some Blacks were even African Nationalists.  The most famous of these was Marcus Garvey, who went far beyond what Booker T. Washington or even W.E.B. Du Bois had ever advocated.  Through the 2.5 million-member Universal Negro Improvement Association he tried to found or support Black-run businesses to promote Black wealth and to give Black people somewhere to do business so they could boycott white-owned businesses.  He published a newspaper, Negro World, and had plans to found factories, grocery stores, restaurants, and more:  he began a cruise line, the Black Star Line, in 1919.  With this wealth, he and his followers planned to develop Liberia as a new homeland for Blacks who followed the Back-to-Africa movement.

*All this was seen as dangerous by the US government, and the FBI managed to get spies into his organisation, and eventually charged Garvey with mail fraud.  After serving part of a five year term, he was freed early and left the US for Jamaica. 

*W.E.B. Du Bois felt that Garvey was a genius, but a dangerous one—by trying to do so much so quickly (and with quite a bit of corruption involved) he might frighten the other races with whom the black race had to work (as demonstrated by FBI efforts to undermine Garvey's work).  Garvey also met with the leaders of the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia, because he felt they understood each other:  each wanted their races to be completely separate (besides, Garvey thought every white man was a Klansman inside).

*Although the 1920s were a time of economic prosperity, for many people, they were also a time of cynicism and paranoia.  Some of this was due to the 1917 Revolution in Russia and the brutality of the Communist government in that country (renamed the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in 1922).

*Indeed, the United States and many other Allied countries were so worried about the threat that Communism posed that between 1918 and 1920, forces from the United States, Britain (and her major colonies), France, Italy, Japan, and many other Allied powers sent troops to Russia to aid the anti-Communist forces in the Russian Civil War.  The United States lost 424 lives in this struggle, but it did not defeat the Bolsheviks.

*Many Europeans and Americans were afraid that communism would grow in their countries and overthrow their governments.  As this paranoia grew in the US in the late 1910s and early 1920s, it led to a Red Scare--paranoid persecution of communists.

*This fear was not entirely baseless.  Communists did mail bombs to a number of industrial and political leaders (most of which were discovered before killing or injuring anyone).  The worst bombing was on 16 September, 1920, when a bomb in a horse-drawn wagon was set off on Wall Street at noon, killing 30 people on the spot, and injuring hundreds of others, eight of whom later died as a result.  This was the deadliest act of terrorism in the United States up to that time, surpassing the 1910 bombing of the Los Angeles Times Building by union activists which killed 21 people.

*In response, in 1919 and 1920, Attorney-General Mitchell Palmer ordered arrests of thousands of suspected communists and anarchists—these were known as the Palmer Raids.  Some were legitimate, while others were made on fairly flimsy charges.

*To protect the rights of people accused of crimes that most people would not defend, the American Civil Liberties Union was formed in New York in 1920.  The first famous case they were involved in was the trial of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti in 1920.

*These two men were Italian atheist anarchists (fulfilling almost all America's racial, religions, and political fears).  They were arrested as potential suspects in a recent robbery and murder at a shoe factory.  Sacco did own the gun used in the crime, or at least one much like it, and may well have been guilty.  Vanzetti was only tenuously linked to the case, but, being a left-wing type, was presumed dangerous although he was probably innocent of this crime.

*Most people considered the evidence against them fairly weak, and when they were eventually executed (in 1927), it was generally felt that they were killed more for their ethnicity and politics than for the alleged murder.  This helped turn people against the most obvious anti-communist actions, but even though the Red Scare was most intense between 1917 and 1920, fear and distrust remained long afterwards.

*Fear of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe led to the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and the Immigration Act of 1924, designed to keep immigration from those regions low.  In the 1930s, this prevented many refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe from entering America.

*The most extreme group to oppose Communism and many of the other social changes in the 1920s was the Ku Klux Klan.  Originally created in the 1860s to oppose Reconstruction, it had died away until it was reborn in 1915 following the release of The Birth of a Nation.  However, it did not just hate Blacks any more—it also hated Jews, foreigners, communists, Catholics, atheists, moonshiners, prostitutes, and other unpopular groups, and, in much of the South, operated as a terrorist wing of the Democratic Party. 

*By the mid-1920s, the Klan grew into an Invisible Empire of over 3 million (perhaps up to 4 or 5 million) members, not only in the South, but also in many parts of the North, particularly in cities where immigrants (both from foreign countries and from the Great Migration) competed against local whites for jobs and brought new cultures with them.

*The Klan opposed its enemies through boycotts, political action, and outright violence.  The NAACP and the Jewish Anti-Defamation League worked against it, but in many ways the Klan destroyed itself, as its leaders grew corrupt and began skimming off Klan funds for themselves while promoting their friends to positions of power within the Klan.  Although the Klan declined in the late 1920s and especially in the 1930s, it never completely went away.

*The year 1921 saw the worst instance of racial violence in American history, which took place in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which had a thriving Black community, so wealthy that the Black part of Tulsa was known as Black Wall Street. 

*Trouble began when Dick Rowland, a Black shoeshine boy tripped in an elevator and grabbed the arm of the elevator operator—a young white woman.  She was started and screamed.  A clerk in the store accused Rowland of assault (although the woman never claimed that or pressed charges herself). 

*Rowland fled, but was arrested, and rumours spread that he was going to be lynched.  A white mob that had been inflamed by a newspaper editorial and wanted to break in and lynch Rowland gathered at the courthouse, where Rowland was in a heavily-guarded jail cell on the top floor.  A group of approximately 75 Black men, some of them armed, went to the courthouse to defend it.  The sheriff convinced the Black men that he and his deputies could maintain order and protect his prisoner.  As the Black men began to leave, a white man in the mob tried to disarm a Black man, a shot was fired, and a gun battle broke out, killing 10 white men and 2 black men.

*White mobs then rioted through the Black neighbourhood of Tulsa, killing people and burning and looting stores and homes.  Fires broke out, and Tulsa firemen were turned away at gunpoint.  Some white Tulsans even flew airplanes over the Black part of town, firing their guns and dropping firebombs.  In white neighbourhoods, people who employed Black servants were sometimes ordered to turn them over to the mob—some did so, while those who refused often had their homes and businesses vandalized in turn.

*The riot lasted for sixteen hours, until the Oklahoma National Guard restored order by occupying points throughout the city and imposing martial law.  At least 39 people have been confirmed to have been killed in the riots, although it has been estimated that as many as 300 people may have lost their lives. Over 900 people were injured.  Some of the deaths were doubtless due to the Black hospital having been burned down and most other hospitals being unwilling to treat injured Black people.  10,000 people were left homeless, $2.25 million dollars ($32 million or more in 2019) worth of property was destroyed, and many Blacks fled from Tulsa afterwards.

*Dick Rowland did survive, and the charges were dropped, because the elevator operator did not want to prosecute the case.

*Many people joined (or at least sort of sympathised with) the Klan because their traditional way of life seemed under threat by modernism—new ways of life.  The War and new technologies changed the way people lived, how ideas spread, and what ideas were most powerful.  Many people particularly felt threatened by a decline in religious belief, which was often blamed on scientific theories such as Evolution.  In response, religious fundamentalists wanted a return to traditional values—they even said attacks on religion were Communist (partly because communists in Russia had tried to destroy the Church there, killing many of its leaders and persecuting its followers).

*Most rural people wanted their children to get an education (and education spread a lot in rural areas in the early 20th century) but they wanted a fairly basic education:  reading, writing, and arithmetic.  In Tennessee, Governor Austin Peay focused on funding schools.   More and more Americans were graduating high school and even going to college, though, and were being exposed to new ideas.

*Fundamentalists and other traditionalists responded by trying to control what was taught in schools.  The most famous attempt at this was the Butler Act in Tennessee, which outlawed teaching evolution of humans (although other animals and plants were allowed to evolve).  This act was tested by John Scopes of Dayton at the urging of the ACLU.  Even some local leaders wanted him to challenge the law to draw attention to their town.

*Scopes taught evolution in his high school classroom and was arrested.  The Monkey Trial that followed drew national attention, particularly as William Jennings Bryan came to prosecute the case and famous defence lawyer Clarence Darrow came to defend Scopes. 

*There was no doubt that Scopes had broken the law (he was found guilty and fined the minimum of $100, which Bryan immediately offered to pay, although the conviction was later overturned on a technicality).  Instead, the case was a contest between fundamentalism and modernism.  Many of the national media ridiculed Bryan and Tennessee, and Darrow managed to prove that Bryan was not as great a biblical expert as he claimed, all of which reduced national respect for fundamentalism, while making traditionalists even more suspicious of modernism.

*Modernism and traditionalism (or, perhaps, two different forms of traditionalism) also clashed over prohibition.  The Manufacture and Sale of alcohol was outlawed in 1920 by the XVIII Amendment, and the amendment was enforced by the Volstead Act, beginning Prohibition.

*Many Americans still wanted to drink, though, both young people of the Lost Generation seeking more freedom from tradition and many Americans (particularly immigrants) who were accustomed to drinking as part of their culture.  On the other hand, the fact that young people and immigrants (especially Catholic immigrants) tended to oppose prohibition, simply made some traditionalists support it even more.

*Moonshine was made illegally in stills and sold by bootleggers.  People could drink it in bars known as speakeasies.  A lot of the illegal transport and sale of alcohol was managed by organised crime, and although gangs (and even the mafia, of which Al Capone was the most famous leader) were not new in the 1920s, their involvement in circumventing Prohibition made them more widespread and more powerful.  While the temperance movement had insisted that outlawing liquor would lead to a decrease in crime, in some places (particularly big cities) it made crime more profitable and better organised than ever.

*In 1933, the XXI Amendment repealed the XVIII Amendment, ending Prohibition.

This page last updated 17 August, 2020.
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