Study Guide

The 1920s

The 1920s Introduction

World War I was a downer. It left America disillusioned with its government, with the Progressives, and with the whole hunkering down in trenches thing.

And you know how people are: when they're disillusioned, they look for a brand new illusion. The illusion in the 1920s was of infinite prosperity and opportunity, and the sense that America was entering a new, wonderfully modern era. To a certain extent, they were right.

Industry was booming, thanks to new assembly line production and some very, very pro-business policy-makers. New, affordable goods made luxuries available to the middle class, and radio and cinema were making a whole new entertainment culture.

But, like the Force, the 1920s had a dark side. On that dark side were things like:

  • the resurgence of racist violence, and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan.
  • the fact that most of the new wealth was based on speculation (predictions of future growth) rather than actual growth.
  • people going deep into debt to gamble on the stock market.
  • American farmers facing a panic-inducing crisis as newly peaceful European countries flooded the global market with cheap crops.
  • pro-business policies of the Republicans making American exports really expensive, which irritated our struggling European trade partners and led to a big economic backlash against American goods.

Note to self: what goes around comes around.

Reality brought the Roaring '20s to an ugly end in 1929, when a stock market crash bankrupted investors, evaporated the middle class, and led to a new decade with more conservative values, not to mention some thrifty cooking skills. (Ritz cracker apple pie, anyone?) 

But we won't get into that here. We're all about the good times right now...the illusion of good times, anyway.

What is The 1920s About and Why Should I Care?

"The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." 

That was the opening line of L.P. Hartley's novel The Go-Between. It's also a decent description of how a lot of us feel about many topics in American history. It's not easy for us to understand, for example, exactly why our 19th-century forebears got so worked up over issues like tariff policy or the gold standard.

But the 1920s don't seem so foreign at all: more like a goofy reflection of our own times, viewed through a funhouse mirror.

In both eras, the 1920s and today, we've seen:

  • presidents elected because the voters liked their personalities, while some of those administrations go on to become mired in corruption and scandal.
  • soaring stock markets, providing euphoric investors with incredible financial returns.
  • a widening gulf between the incomes of the rich and the poor and middle-class.
  • a populace enthralled by celebrity, zealously tracking every move of America's sports and entertainment heroes.
  • a showdown between the secular values of the marketplace—in which everything is for sale, and sex sells—and the old-fashioned religious principles of fundamentalist Christianity.
  • powerful movements to restrict immigration amid fears that the arrival of too many newcomers to this nation will undermine American society and culture.

History never simply repeats itself, of course, and there are plenty of differences between the 1920s and our own time, too. Still, the similarities are striking.

It's impossible for us now to look back on the 1920s without being influenced by our knowledge of how the Roaring '20s came to an end—with a Great Crash and Great Depression. The incredible affluence was only a mirage, the decadent culture only an ironic prelude to a decade of hard times ahead.

But history never simply repeats itself. Right?

The 1920s Resources

Books

Frederick Lewis Allen, Only Yesterday (1931)
Allen, a journalist, wrote Only Yesterday in 1931, so its perspective on life in the Roaring '20s is deeply colored by the descent into the Great Depression that immediately succeeded it.

Steve Fraser, Every Man a Speculator: A History of Wall Street in American Life (2005)
Fraser's grand history of Wall Street's image and reality in American culture encompasses much more than the 1920s: the book traces the American stock market's place in our society from 1792 into the 21st century.

David M. Kennedy, Over Here: The First World War and American Society (1980)
Though Over Here focuses mainly on the period just preceding the Roaring '20s—the Great War era—its closing chapters deftly explain how the war unleashed the very illiberal tendencies in American society that ended the Progressive era and doomed Woodrow Wilson's idealistic vision to failure.

Edward J. Larson, Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion (1997)
A Pulitzer Prize winner, Larson's engaging account of the circus-like 1925 "Scopes Monkey Trial"—in which a Tennessee schoolteacher was charged for teaching evolution—provides much useful cultural context for understanding the controversial intersection between religion and science.

Music

Bessie Smith, Empress of the Blues, Vol. 2: 1926–1933 (2008)
The latest release from the Empress of the Blues catalog, this collection of Bessie Smith's later performances is a must-have for anyone wishing to understand the darker side of the Roaring '20s.

Various Artists, The Big Broadcast, Vol. 2: Jazz and Popular Music of the 1920s and 1930s (2007)
New York radio host Rich Conaty has carefully compiled this brilliant collection of pop songs from the 1920s and 1930s. Capturing the sounds of the first golden age of radio, the record features artists like Eva Taylor, the Three Keys, and Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra.

George Gershwin, Essential George Gershwin (2003)
If one composer best represents the tone of the Roaring '20s, it's certainly George Gershwin. This "Best Of" collection features his most beloved compositions performed by the biggest names in jazz and blues, including Ethel Waters, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holliday.

Various Artists, Roaring '20s: When My Baby Smiles at Me (2002)
Truly a "Best Of" collection, Roaring Twenties features the top-selling hits from the decade, including performances by Paul Whiteman, Marion Harris, and Al Jolson, the Jewish singer and comedian famous for his affected blackface routines.

Various Artists, Nipper's Greatest Hits: The '20s (1990)
Listen to the original recordings of top hits from the decade, like Gene Austin's "My Blue Heaven," Helen Kane's "I Wanna Be Loved By You," and Paul Whiteman's production of "Charleston," the song that has become an anthem for the Roaring '20s.

Images

The Melting Pot
Ford's Americanization School Melting Pot Pageant

Apex of the KKK
Ku Klux Klansmen march on Washington

The First Hollywood Blockbuster
Poster for D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation

Debs for President
Eugene Debs "Convict No. 9653" for President Button, 1920

They Called Him Scarface
Chicago underworld kingpin Al Capone, who made a fortune trafficking in booze during Prohibition

Sacco & Vanzetti
Labor activists and Italian-Americans demonstrate in Boston in support of Red Scare victims Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti

The First Great Car
Henry Ford sold 15 million of his Model-T automobiles

Movies & TV

The Untouchables (1987)
How does one take down the big bad mob kingpin Al Capone? Federal agent Elliot Ness, with his small team of unconventional crime fighters, believes he has the answer. 

The Godfather II (1974)
Before we tell you anything about The Godfather part deux, we insist you immediately go watch the first Godfather. Don't worry, we'll wait. Good. Now that you're all caught up on mafia chief Michael Corleone, you're ready for the backstory. This second installment of the Godfather trilogy chronicles the life of Vito Corleone, Michael's father, from his youth in Sicily to his adult life as an Italian immigrant in Prohibition-era New York, where the family business all began.

King of the Roaring '20s: The Story of Arnold Rothstein (1961)
To be "king" in America in the 1920s, you had to cheat, lie, con, and gamble. Or, at least, you might come to that conclusion after watching this film about the Prohibition-era bootlegger Arnold Rothstein.

Splendor in the Grass (1961)
Natalie Wood and a young, strapping Warren Beatty star in this tragic tale of love lost. Deanie and Bud become sweethearts while attending high school in their Kansas hometown in the 1920s, but are torn apart by growing pressures to be physical. 

Some Like It Hot (1959)
After inadvertently witnessing the 1929 St. Valentine's Day Massacre, two young men go incognito as members of a traveling, all-girl band. Dressed in drag and unable to reveal their true identities, one must mask his feelings for a lovely bandmate while the other must fend off an aggressive male suitor. And, in the meantime, the mob is on their tail.

Websites

Public Enemy No. 1
As part of its Freedom of Information Act vault, the FBI has made made Al Capone's entire FBI file available for download. Not for the faint of heart—it's nearly 2,400 pages long, and not very well indexed—but the file provides a fascinating primary-source window into America's most notorious gangster—and the federal agents charged with bringing him to justice.

Silent Film Greats
The website Silent Era, a haven for silent film enthusiasts, offers an intriguing top-100 list of the silent era. Number one? Buster Keaton's The General, a nationwide hit in 1926—just one year before Al Jolson's "talkie," The Jazz Singer, heralded the end of the silent era.

The Great Crash
The New York Times offers a retrospective of its own coverage of the Great Crash of 1929, allowing readers to view the front page and read the key articles chronicling the end of the Roaring '20s. Newspaper readers on "Black Tuesday," October 29th, 1929, were confronted with the headline: "Stock Prices Slump $14,000,000,000 in Nation-Wide Stampede to Unload." The Great Depression was just around the corner.

Historical Documents

Evolution on Trial
The site includes key excerpts from the transcripts of the strange publicity stunt of the Scopes "Monkey" Trial.

Murderers or Martyrs?
A hotly-debated case against two radical immigrants, check out the testimony from Sacco and Vanzetti's trial here.

Eugene Debs' Statement to the Court
After being convicted of violating the Sedition Act at the close of WWI, Eugene Debs tells the court, "Sorry, but not really."