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A Guide to the Roaring '20s

By: Molly Schwichtenberg

World War I (1914-18) was supposed to be the war to end all wars. It was the first time American soldiers participated in a global conflict, and more than 100,000 of them died. After years of risk and shortages, Americans, especially young Americans, were ready to cut ties to the past. As a result, the Roaring '20s was a decade marked by huge changes in popular culture. Young people embraced change in practically every facet of life, even a particular kind of law-breaking.

The Roaring Economy

The 1920s economy expanded due to more mass production of new products. People were able to borrow money from banks, which gave them money to buy more things, and this further fueled the growing economy. They were also able to use credit to buy stock, shares in companies, through a margin account. The average consumer could pay just part of the share price and get credit from the trading house for the balance. As long as the price went up (and most share prices did), the buyer's account was in good standing.

The New Woman

American women had demanded the right to vote, known as suffrage, since 1848. After 1900, demonstrations for women's suffrage became more passionate, but although other western countries were adopting universal suffrage, the United States resisted. World War I changed that.

The scale of World War I required women as well as men to work outside of the home, increasing their visible role in public life. In the wake of the war, Congress voted to add the 19th Amendment to the Constitution to give women the right to vote in 1919. The necessary number of states ratified (approved) the amendment in 1920.

As the 1920s began, women were ready to embrace a life that allowed them more freedom by getting rid of time-consuming hairstyles and fashions. Instead of ornate updo hairstyles, many women cut their hair to just below the ear. Worn straight or curly, the bob hairstyle gave women a new freedom of movement. Dress styles changed, too. Instead of the fussy corsets, bustles, and ankle-length skirts of the past, the new fashion featured a straight line without a defined waist. Many 1920s costumes de-emphasized women's curves, and hemlines rose. Women sporting the new look were called flappers. Famous flappers known for their flapper costumes included movie stars Clara Bow and Louise Brooks and dancer Josephine Baker.

Archaeologist Howard Carter's discovery in 1922 of King Tut's tomb in Egypt also influenced fashion. Women chose hairstyles and dresses in search of the popular Cleopatra look. Fabric and jewelry designers copied Egyptian patterns.

Prohibition

At around the same time the federal government was expanding voting rights, it was restricting people's right to drink. The 18th Amendment to the Constitution outlawed the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcoholic drinks. It was ratified by the states in 1919 and went into effect one year later. Congress passed the Volstead Act to enforce the amendment, and the era of Prohibition was born.

A huge number of Americans were having none of it: They wanted to go out, party, and drink. Speakeasies arose to meet the demand. Would-be patrons had to be discreet to get into one of these illegal bars, often quietly uttering a password to be admitted inside.

America had crime before 1920, but now, criminals organized as businesses. The term "bootleg" originally referred to the trick of hiding a flask of liquor in the leg of a high boot. Bootleggers of the 1920s were bringing shiploads of booze into the U.S., and gangsters earned big profits importing and distributing liquor to the speakeasies. One of the biggest gangster-businessmen was Al Capone. His organization earned him an estimated $60 million a year.

The Great Migration and Cultural Change

During the Great Migration, millions of African-Americans moved out of the southern states in search of better job opportunities and to get away from racism and racist violence. After Reconstruction ended in 1877, states passed Jim Crow laws to deny African-Americans their rights. The Ku Klux Klan was a violent hate group based in the South that had largely died out after Reconstruction, but it re-emerged in the 1920s. The Klan's philosophy was in favor of Prohibition and against immigrants, Catholics, Jews, and especially African-Americans.

Segregation continued throughout America in many forms. African-Americans were largely restricted to living in separate neighborhoods, and perhaps the most well-known of these one was Harlem in New York City. The critical mass of African-American migrants there spurred a wave of creativity in the 1920s known as the Harlem Renaissance. For example, author Langston Hughes created a new form of literature, jazz poetry, and award-winning artist Aaron Douglas said he strove "to paint the very soul of our people."

The Jazz Age

Jazz may be the most notable art form to have emerged from the Harlem Renaissance. Jazz music has a strong rhythm, and band members sometimes take turns improvising rather than playing composed music. Famous jazz musicians include Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. During the Harlem Renaissance, no matter their color, people flocked to the area's night clubs to hear the newly popular sound. New developments in sound recording allowed people to hear the music at home, too.

Author F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote a collection of short stories entitled Tales of The Jazz Age published in 1922. But Fitzgerald's most famous novel is The Great Gatsby, published in 1925. His works showed the lack of restraint in the 1920s, including the worship of wealth, alcohol-fueled parties, and romantic relationships outside of marriage. Great Gatsby costumes are typical of what would be worn at the title character's decadent parties, featuring free-flowing alcohol and jazz music.

Fitzgerald was part of a group of writers known as the Lost Generation. They were young adults during World War I and went on to create works that reflected their disenchantment with traditional values.

The Jazz Age also inspired new movements in visual arts, such as Dada, Surrealism, Expressionism, and Art Deco. Artists abandoned old styles and themes in favor of new ones, both realistic and abstract, which reflected the new age.

The Bubble Bursts

Between 1920 and 1929, investors continued to bid up stock prices, assuming that they would never go down. In October 1929, they learned otherwise. The stock market crashed, wiping out wealth equal to billions of dollars in today's money.

The crash ended Americans' confidence in their economy and was a factor leading to the Great Depression. At its worst, more than one in four Americans could not get a job, and the value of goods and services produced in the U.S. declined 40%. The party was over.