The Roaring Twenties

Quinn Johnson-1P

The 1920s

A time period defined by wild drinking, jazz, and extravagant parties thrown by those who wanted to distance themselves from the status quo and lead a life of excess and enjoyment. It was also known for many social movements that tackled issues ranging from race to evolution.

The Return to Normalcy

Warren G. Harding's campaign promise to return to the pre-World War I way of life.

Return to Normalcy [Speech by Warren G. Harding, 1920]

"America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise; not submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality."

In this speech, Harding calls for a return to the previous point of view. His views of restoration rather than revolution contracted with the view of the youth in the '20s who wanted to move away from the norm. Harding also says that Americans should be peaceful and serene rather than try to "perform surgery" though at the time there was a strong desire to break rules, but also to fix issues in society, such as gender and racial inequality.

Welfare Capitalism

A system of labor relations that emphasized the manager's responsibility for employee well-being.

Safety Last! [Silent Film Directed by Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor, 1923]

In the film, Harold Lloyd (played by Harold Lloyd) finds himself dangling from a clock at the top of a 12-story building, a shot that ahs become iconic to characterize unsafe work conditions. The title itself emphasizes this too, showing that businesses put safety off, rather than making it a priority. These workplace situations were what ultimately lead to workers demanding that managers ensure their well-being.
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Henry Ford

The founder of the Ford Motor Company. He sponsored the development of the assembly line for mass production.

Henry Ford For President [Speech by Will Rogers, 1923]

In this very comical speech, Rogers says that Henry Ford "has made more money than any man in the world by paying the highest wages," an aspect of Ford that made him so popular with workers. He also refers to Ford's automobiles as being nick-nacks rather than necessities of luxuries, because while automobiles were luxury items, Ford was able to produce vehicles that anyone could buy. This lead to Ford automobiles being all over the country, so, Rogers asks, why shouldn't there be a Ford in the White House too?

Model T Ford

An automobile produced by Ford that was regarded as the first affordable (pun intended) automobile and opened the possibility of travel to the middle class.

My Life and Work [Book by Henry Ford, 1922]

“I will build a car for the great multitude. It will be large enough for the family, but small enough for the individual to run and care for. It will be constructed of the best materials, by the best men to be hired, after the simplest designs that modern engineering can devise. But it will be so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one...”

Henry Ford's vision for the Model-T can be seen in this statement. He had a large goal and achieved it. He strove to create a vehicle for everybody, not just the rich upper class. This was one of the reasons that Ford continues to be admired today by business workers as well as common people.

The Hearst Group

A newspaper chain that owned 26 daily newspapers in 18 cities (14% of the nation's total) and produced 1/4 of every Sunday paper in the U.S.

Ad for Hearst Papers [Call for Advertisements by Hearst Publishing, circa 1920]

The Hearst Group has become a huge media dynasty and this made them the go-to place to advertising your products. With over 200,000 people reading Hearst papers every day, companies all wanted to get their ads into those papers, generating even more revenue for Hearst. This shows the importance of media, not only for information and entertainment, but also for business.
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Babe Ruth

A star athlete remembered as one of the greatest baseball players of all time. After a recent scandal by players to throw the 1919 World's Series, Ruth's good nature made him a favorite off the field as well as one. He was one of the most photographed American of the era and was heavily sought after for endorsement.

The Babe and I [Interview with Clair Ruth on the Babe's 1927 record-breaking game, 1959]

"Babe was fighting to break his 59 home-run record. He needed 17 to do it in the last month, or better than one every two days. He did it of course. The 60th was made in Yankee the final game.

The Babe had smashed out two home runs the day before to bring his total to 59 for the season, or the exact equal of his 1921 record. He had only this game to set a new record. Zachary, a left-hander, was by the nature of his delivery a hard man for the Babe to hit. In fact, the Babe got only two homers in all his life against Tom.

Babe came up in the eighth inning and it was quite probable that this would be his very last chance to break his own record. My mother and I were at the game and I can still see that lovely, lovely home run. It was a tremendous poke, deep into the stands. There was never any doubt that it was going over the fence. But the question was, would it be fair? It was fair by only six glorious inches!"

Babe Ruth not only symbolized sportsmanship and morals in and off the field, he also symbolized the American Dream, the greatest player that America's Pasttime ever knew. While the 1919 World's Series Scandal was a shock to the American people, Babe Ruth was a chance at redemption, a shining beacon that even a large man who loved to drink and smoke could be a star athlete if he tried hard enough resonated with the entire nation. He had already set the record for the most home runs in a season, but that wasn't enough. Babe Ruth was out to beat himself. He symbolized the idea of striving not to be the best and to beat others, but simply to improve and do better individually. And he succeeded too, showing Americans that anything was possible with enough dedication.

The Jazz Singer

The first feature-length motion picture with sound. Produced by Warner Brothers in 1927

New York Times [Review of The Jazz Singer by Mordaunt Hall, 1927]

"...not since the first presentation of Vitaphone features, more than a year ago [i.e., Don Juan], has anything like the ovation been heard in a motion-picture theatre.... The Vitaphoned songs and some dialogue have been introduced most adroitly. This in itself is an ambitious move, for in the expression of song the Vitaphone vitalizes the production enormously. The dialogue is not so effective, for it does not always catch the nuances of speech or inflections of the voice so that one is not aware of the mechanical features."

The Jazz Singer was a huge hit amongst critics. Although it wasn't perfect and did have its flaws. Sound in movies was previously thought to only be viable for shorts and a full-length film was thought to be a huge risk.


Music developed around an idea of complex styles and intricate rhythms. It represented freedom to those in the 1920s who sought an escape from the conventional lifestyles of the time.

Tales of the Jazz Age [Collection of Short Stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1922]

“He had angered Providence by resisting too many temptations. There was nothing left but heaven, where he would meet only those who, like him, had wasted earth.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald was the figurehead of what he called the Jazz Age, a time period characterized by ideas such as those found his short stories and novels. He was popular especially amongst the youth for putting in writing the romantic rebellion of the 1920s. This was a time when young people weren't so fond of following the rules and being righteous. Young people were obedient and did their duty during the war and it resulted in millions dead on all sides. The '20s would not be a time of obedience and bloodshed, but instead of the pure enjoyment of life and freedom.


Illegally producing, distributing, and selling illicit goods, most notably liquor.

Sea Runners Held on 2 Liquor Charges [New York Times article about the capture of bootlegger, William McCoy, 1923]

The report to Collector Elting showed that the Tomaka was first boarded by Lieut. Commander Perkins of the Coast Guard cutter Seneca...he sent a shot across the bow of the Tomaka. She returned the fire with a machine gun set up on her forward deck."

Prohibition was prominent during the 1920s though it stopped very few from drinking and bootleggers and rum-runners like Captain William McCoy became notorious. Smuggling imported liquor into the States became such a big deal that many ships were outfitted with machine guns to combat Coast Gaurd ships. This illustrates two of Americans' favorite things at the time, liquor and money, as well as the extent to which they would to get them.


Liquor stores or night clubs that continued to operated, often with other businesses set up as fronts, during prohibition.
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Bottle of bonded medicinal whiskey, "For Medical Purposes Only" [Photograph, circa 1923]

During prohibition, drug stores were still allowed to sell whiskey as a prescription medicine, a loophole that was often exploited by criminals who would open drugs stores as fronts for bootlegging operations where whiskey would be illegally sold, but still obtained and possessed legally. This once again shows the levels American would go to just to get alcohol. It also tied into the rise of organized crime that stemmed from the icon Black Sox scandal of 1919's World's Series, shaping crime from the petty, violent acts of the poor into the careful and calculated endeavors of businessmen.


Icons of the Roaring Twenties, the flappers were young women who were sexually open and enjoyed drinking and partying. They often acted morally in ways that were previously associated with men.

The Flapper [Life Magazine cover by Frank Xavier Leyendecker, 1922]

The flappers were the embodiment of feminine freedom during the Roaring Twenties. They were rebellious and broke free of the Victorian restricts that were set upon women in the 1800s. The butterfly is another common symbol of freedom, as it has broken free from its cocoon and become something entirely distant from the caterpillar it once was. And in this way, the flappers too had given women a new, more beautiful image, one where they could fly away from a time when they were crawling on the ground like bugs because of oppressive gender roles.
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Margaret Sanger

An American birth control activist, sex educator, writer, and nurse. She opened the first birth control clinic in the United States.

The Morality of Birth Control [Speech by Margaret Sanger, 1921]

"We know that every advance that woman has made in the last half century has been made with opposition, all of which has been based upon the grounds of immorality...The church has ever opposed the progress of woman on the ground that her freedom would lead to immorality. We ask the church to have more confidence in women...The church, which aims to keep women moral by keeping them in fear and in ignorance, and to inculcate into them a higher and truer morality based upon knowledge...If we cannot trust woman with the knowledge of her own body, then I claim that two thousand years of Christian teaching has proved to be a failure."

Margaret Sanger continues to be an icon of the feminist movement today, just as she was in her own time. The similar issue of birth control is seen today in the churches harsh opposition of allowing women to make decisions about their own bodies in terms of abortions. Sanger calls for change, to allow women the freedom of decision that is well known to men. Sanger wants to educated women on their bodies, despite the churches fear that it will corrupt them and make them immoral.

The Immigration Act

A bill that established a national quota limiting the number of immigrants allowed to enter the United States.

The Passing of the Great Race [Book by Madison Grant, 1916]

"Race feeling may be called prejudice by those whose careers are cramped by it, but it is a natural antipathy which serves to maintain the purity of type. The unfortunate fact that nearly all species of men interbreed freely leaves us no choice in the matter. Either the races must be kept apart by artificial devices of this sort, or else they ultimately amalgamate, and in the offspring the more generalized or lower type prevails."

Grant held an idea that very common during this time, despite its radical push for freedom: that there was a superior master race that was supposed to be genetically better than all lesser races. This race was, unsurprisingly, the Nordic race. Grant was a supported for eugenics, the artificial "purifying" of genetics in a species. He was also starkly anti-Jewish and wanted to restrict Jewish immigration. Many supported this immigration reform because they thought that foreign workers lowered wages and took jobs away from Americans. It seems ironic that a nation that stood behind Grant's theories in the '20s would a few decades later enter a war to stop the same actions when lead by Adolf Hitler.

The Scopes Trial

A court case fought after biology teacher John T. Scopes opened defied Tennessee's law against teaching evolution so that he could contest it in court. He was found guilty, but the verdict was later overturned. The case was fought between Scopes's lawyer, Clarence Darrow, who was the most famous trial lawyer in America, and William Jennings Byran, who had taken to the antievolutionist cause with full force.

Court Summation [William Jennings Bryan's unread statement at the closing of Scopes Trial,1925]

"Science is a magnificent force, but it is not a teacher of morals. It can perfect machinery, but it adds no moral restraints to protect society from the misuse of the machine. It can also build gigantic intellectual ships, but it constructs no moral rudders for the control of storm-tossed human vessel. It not only fails to supply the spiritual element needed but some of its unproven hypotheses rob the ship of its compass and thus endanger its cargo"

By 1925, William Jennings Byran had become a front runner for what we now know as Creationists. Where once he fought to upheld the rights of common people and acted as an advocate for their betterment, he had become an advocate against the spread of ideas that clashed with his own. He took on a view that many radical Christians hold even to this day: that anything that does not directly support the idea of an almighty and benevolent God is inherently evil and a threat to morals. This captures the same idea that Margaret Sanger was opposed to in her fight to educate women about their bodies, just John T. Scopes wanted to educate students on the origin of the human species.

The Harlem Renaissance

A cultural, social, and artistic movement in Harlem, New York. It was originally called the New Negro Movement and was characterized by artists such as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Bessie Smith who spoke out in their art as well as in person for the rights of black people.

Cross [Poem by Langston Hughes, 1926]

"My old man's a white old man
And my old mother's black.
If ever I cursed my white old man
I take my curses back.
If ever I cursed my black old mother
And wished she were in hell,
I'm sorry for that evil wish
And now I wish her well
My old man died in a fine big house.
My ma died in a shack.
I wonder where I'm going to die,
Being neither white nor black?"

While Hughes himself was not of a mixed family, he certainly captures the idea. He expresses the character telling the story as being "neither white and black" rather than being both because at this time racial inequality made it hard for those of mixed race to embrace their origins. While certainly they could try to be just white as at the time whites were treated far better by society, but this was problematic for multiple reasons. Primarily, it would entail turning one's back on an entire half of their family and conforming to the opressive idea that the white race was inherently better than the black. And to say they were just black would be to turn their back on the other half of their family and to choose a life of opression. Another conflict, which is tackled more in-depth a decade later in William Faulkner's novel, A Light in August, is that to the whites mixed race individuals were considered black, and to the blacks they were considered whites, making it hard to fit into either race even if you were to choose a race.