UNITED STATES HISTORY
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
*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
*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
*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
*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
*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,
*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
*In 1933, the XXI Amendment repealed the XVIII Amendment, ending
This page last updated 17 August, 2020.