The Roaring 20's

By: David Wang, Aparna Surya, Manju Warrier, Nathan Bennett

Culture Civil War

Red Scare

During WWI, many immigrants were targeted in a national campaign to destroy any political ideologies they still shared with their native countries. In the late 1910s and 1920s, there was a greater number of socialists and communists than ever before in American history. Though they only represented 0.1% of the American population, many Americans were scared because of recent bombings by anarchists and the fact that communists had overthrown the Russian royal family in 1917 following the Bolshevik Revolution. The fears and unease of the American people culminated in the Palmer Raids, following the murder attempt on the attorney general, Alexander Mitchell Palmer. On New Year’s Day, 1920, over 6000 people were arrested. Many were released eventually; however, only three guns were found. Raids occurred on a larger scale in November, with search and seizures without warrant and cruel punishments in dirty, crowded facilities. Many Americans turned a blind eye to these blatant acts of unconstitutionality because security was paramount and speaking against the government was outlawed by the Sedition Acts.

In 1920, two Italian immigrant-anarchists, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, were arrested following a factory robbery in which two people were killed. Though 61 people claimed that they saw the men commit the murder/robbery, 107 people provided an alibi for the men. A series of appeals were denied by the judge, Webster Thayer, who was noted for hating “Reds”. The two men spent 7 years in prison, while their lawyers argued for their innocence. Famous writers, artists, and academics pleaded for a retrial or for their pardon and protests on their behalf were held in every major city in North America and Europe. In 1927, the two men were sentenced to death and were executed by electric chair, in the midst of public outcry.

Many Americans were divided as to the extent of security necessary and if the government was allowed to suspend rights outlined in the Bill of Rights for the security of citizens, which led to the “Culture of Civil War”. This war on communists became worse in the following decades, and though it decreased in WWII with Russia’s alliance, it came back in full force in the 1950s with the McCarthy trials.

New Women

In the 1920s, the role of women also greatly changed. Women gained suffrage with the passing of the 19th amendment after decades of movement. Additionally, the ideal of the “New Woman” became widespread as many urban women hoped to get an education equal to that given to men, and achieve economic and social independence. Although wages for women remained low, many women found new opportunities for work outside the home in jobs considered too “womanly” for men.The “New Woman” also wanted freedom when it came to marital and sexual partners. This exemplified itself in a “new breed”, the Flappers. Flappers were young women who were infamous for their bobbed hair, short skirts, and apparent disdain for appropriate behavior. They defied social norms by drinking, driving cars, smoking, and engaging in casual sex. Many “traditional women” looked down on flappers for their apparent disregard of morality.

The "New Woman" helped perpetuate a "Cultural Civil War" because it divided "traditional"women and the "new woman". The rights to suffrage for women also divided Congress, because many males believed that women would not. could not, vote responsibly and would be too affected by their feminine mind.

Fads: Dance Marathons

Dance marathons, also known as “walkathons” were a fad during the 1920s where couples would dance non-stop. These marathons lasted for almost months at a time; participants would dance throughout the day and night with only fifteen minutes to rest each hour and only an hour or two of rest at night.

During the late 1920s and the beginning of the Great Depression, the economic rewards from the marathons attracted many desperate marathoners in hopes of winning money. Winning these marathons meant that they had food to eat and a roof over their head.

The growing attraction of the dance marathons also led to increasing economic and social controversy. Marathons led to the economic loss of movie theaters as more people attended the marathons instead of film showings. Churches and women’s groups also objected to the marathons as they believed that the marathons were immoral and inhumane.

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Birth of a Mass Culture

Social and cultural innovations started in metropolitan areas such as Chicago, New York, New orleans, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles. Film and literature in the 20’s shaped and modeled the modern ideals today.

Movie watching became an accessible form of entertainment to most citizens and filmmaking became revolutionized as sound was synchronized with motion pictures. The industry skyrocketed with the introduction of Hollywood and downtown movie theaters. Silent films were replaced with sound and dialogue during this time.

The vision that filmmakers had for the movie industry changed the form of filmmaking into a more modern tone. The ideals that the industry set featured more glamour, sophistication, and sensual appeal. Like the radio, Hollywood reinforced racial stereotypes by denigrating minority groups while modeling and mirroring mass culture.

The “Lost Generation” of writers was a group of writers who came after the World War. The term was coined by Ernest Hemingway and was used as a description of the time right before the Great Depression. The group, containing Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner, and many more, were skeptical of the drawn-out traditions of literature and writing, but were excited about the new forms and potential styles it could take on.

The generation created a sort of breakthrough that shattered the ideal that inherited values were no longer relevant after the war. As these writers took off into different innovative directions, their works lost the distinctive stamp of the post war period.

Economic Status

Economic BOOM

The first World War created a significant increase in factory production. Because Europeans were so entrenched in the war, Americans captured consumers who had previously been supplied by Europe, and were able to retain these customers after the war.

In addition, Republican presidents such as Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover worked to increase taxes on foreign goods. This effort culminated in the Fordney - McCumber Tarriff Act in 1922, which made foreign goods much more expensive than American goods. Tariffs such as these aimed to help American business, and eliminate outside competition.

The 20's were also the beginning of Modern Mass Culture. Examples of mass culture during this time were the radio, the movie, and the beginning of spectator sports. This new mass culture introduced many new industries, and these industries diversified the economy of the United States.

Economic BUST

As the war ended, factories were thrown into chaos as European countries such as France and Britain canceled billions of dollars of contracted products, and as a result many factory workers lost their jobs. New technology was also introduced in both farms and factories which lessened the demand for human workers. This decreased demand also sadly came at a time of increased supply. At the conclusion of World War One, 4 million soldiers returned home looking for jobs.

The technology implemented on the farm created a surplus inventory, and the focus of American economy shifted from being production oriented to consumer oriented. This increase in advertising led to an increase in desire for new products such as cars and in-home appliances. The reluctance of Americans to go into debt softened, and in turn many people purchased things they could not afford, as they attempted to climb the social ladder and enjoy the advances of the decade.

On October 29, 1929, there was a devastating collapse of US stock market prices, which scared many people into selling stocks and staying out of the stock market. Compounded with the need to save money to get out of the debt created in years prior, consumers cut back their spending by 10% in 1930. Businesses did not catch on however, and because of their increased advertising, business expenses increased by 30% in the same year. This sharp decrease in the stability of the American Economy began the Great Depression, which would last for another 10 years in the United States.


After winning the war, everything in this decade was ruled by the youth. The roaring 20’s were a huge symbolism for breaking away from the social boundaries while improvements in technology helped Americans spend more of their time on extraneous activities.

During this time period, self-expression was emphasized with introduction of the automobile. with the help of Henry Ford and his assembly line, the common man was able to afford the transportation and have the personal freedom that many desired before the turn of the century. Children escaped oppressed home life and women escaped home management to have a bigger part in the cultural scene.

The radio also provided a way for americans to convey and receive information and ideas. This invention helped bring the country together and for citizens to communicate and interact. Movies, also, helped spread popular culture throughout the decade. Innovative transportation provided a way for information to be moved easily. The airplane reduced the amount time it took for mail and people the be transported by weeks. At first, only upper-class citizens were able to afford this service, but as time progressed, it reached a point where middle-class people could buy this.

The evolution of technology and transportation during the post-war era helped the citizens of America congregate and connect through the innovative minds of inventors and reformers. As time progressed, the nation went off of the decade to create a modern sense of values and ideals.