The Roaring 20's

An examination of social, political, and economic change.


Babe Ruth was a large part of the emergence of baseball as a national pastime in the US. As the MLB went into the live ball era, players like Ruth created enormous popularity for the sport with their penchants for hitting home runs (a feat which was much more rare in the dead ball era). The excess time of the middle and upper classes created more of a market for entertainment, which led to the surge in interest in things like movies and sports. People began using their seemingly unlimited free time to watch sporting events, especially in larger and richer cities. Due to this, Babe Ruth (of the New York Yankees) was able to draw countless New Yorkers to games. He helped to create one of the many outlets for the newfound wealth and time of the ballooning American middle and upper classes.

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Birth of a Mass Culture

The advent of radios and movies in the 1920s contributed to the birth of a mass culture by making the same information accessible to people from all different situations. After the first radio broadcast, a lot of people in the 1920s started to show tons of interest in buying radios. Radio broadcasts featured popular and classical music, sports events, political lectures, stories, and weather reports, etc. Furthermore, since there were so many individual radio broadcasting stations, each of them could broadcast things specialized to a specific group of people. This led to more unity within certain ethnic groups. However, all of these broadcasts created a mass culture by giving the same information to large groups of listeners from a plethora of different situations. Secondly, the spread of movies also contributed to the spread of a mass culture. In the early 1920s, nearly every town in America had its own movie theater, which most people frequented at least once a week. People who were separated economically, ethnically, or geographically, etc. all saw the same movies, knew the same movie stars, and had similar movie-inspired dreams.

Culture Civil War

The Cultural Civil War in the 1920’s was very much so a “battle” between traditional and modern ideals: a sort of fundamentalism versus innovation. Examples of this are the Jazz Age/Harlem Renaissance and the changing role of women in the 20’s. The Jazz Age that started in the 20’s was a totally new art form that was both adored and scorned by the public. Jazz broke many musical and social structures and this did not go well with some of the public in this time. It featured improvisation over structure, performer over composer, and the black American experience over the white. Traditionally minded people experienced a sort of “culture shock” by the influx of new jazz. These people coined the term “the Devil’s Music” to reference it. The Harlem Renaissance was a similar artistic explosion that experienced both support and opposition. This was because it wasn’t just a literary movement, but a social/racial movement as well. It reinforced pride and created the idea of the “New Negro.”

The artistic innovations of the 20’s from both the Jazz Age and the Harlem Renaissance are regarded in modern times as some of the most sophisticated and American innovations in our entire history, but because of how radical they were at the time, they also contributed to the Cultural Civil War of the 20’s. Similar to the racial strides made by the Jazz Age and the Harlem Renaissance, innovations in gender roles brought about by the independence of flappers (similar to the modern day stripper), the granting of women’s suffrage (19th amendment), and the New Woman feminist movement were met with frequent opposition from those who held traditional ideals regarding gender roles. Anti-suffragist movements, along with people who shamed flappers or more casual women, represented the conservative front in this cultural conflict. The advancement of justice and rights for women was not a new idea at this time and some claim that true equality has still not been achieved; however there is no denying the great strides made towards equality during the Roaring 20’s.

Economic Status

The Roaring 20's brought about a lot of economic changes and technological advancements, which greatly affected the culture of America in the 1920’s. Accessibility to affordable vehicles sparked the automobile industry and by 1929, over 1.9 million cars were owned by Americans. The production of cars also led to improved infrastructure and construction of roadways and corner stores. Radio broadcasting also became an influential cultural factor to people living in the 20’s. Although radios were expensive, they quickly became a popular method of mass marketing and a new source of entertainment, much like TV ads are today. Additionally, messages and ideas that contributed to the spread of culture were transmitted all across the country through the radio, and companies made millions of dollars through advertisement. Lastly, movies were the most culturally impacting economic success of the Roaring 20’s. Movies were inexpensive and a lot more accessible, so more people of varying economic statuses were able to watch them. What once was a limited industry spread rapidly across the country and throughout its people, and became a huge cultural influence and innovation of the century. Furthermore, the “white collar” working class emerged, which gave a big chunk of the population employment in average jobs such as banking, accounting, stocks - anything dealing with business and finance.

Many of the positive economic results of the Roaring 20’s also led to its demise. With the overwhelming amount of new innovations that made labor easier, people took advantage of their working power and began to overproduce. While American cities flourished, the overproduction of agricultural produce created national financial chaos among farmers throughout the decade. Also, stockbrokers in the 20’s were not properly educated on stocks, and thought they would rise forever. However, as the brokers had through the roof sales, the cracked foundation of the stock system began to show. Big companies tried to patch up the foundation, but it all crashed on Black Tuesday, when the market lost 11 percent of its value due to very heavy trading. This was seen to be a huge factor that led to the most devastating economic drought America has faced, the Great Depression.

Final Response

During the 1920s, a revolution in communications and transportation technology helped to create a new mass culture and spread modern values despite increasing cultural conflicts resulting from migration, war, and economic distress, by making the same information available to people from all different social, economic, and political situations. In the case of new radio and film technology, both of these helped spread information to the rich and the poor, democrats and republicans, and people of different ethnicities. Since everyone listened to the same radio broadcasts and saw the same movies, their knowledge of society was more or less the same, thus resulting in a widespread mass culture. Cultural advancements in gender roles, the arts, and racial profiling underwent significant change in the 1920’s. The public was often split between those with conservative values and those who valued innovation and modern changes. This became the basis of a new “Cultural Civil War” that raged throughout the roaring 20’s. These technological advances also enabled the spread of a consumer oriented entertainment culture. The radio broadcasting of sporting events as well as of the news enabled the entire nation to hear about events as they occurred. Universal awareness of the state of the nation helped to usher in the start of modern times in the US. Additionally, economic innovations such as affordable automobiles, the accessibility of movies, and the creation of white collar work lead to a boom in economics and change in culture in the 1920’s as these products and jobs became available to a wider variety of people. While there were many benefits to all of these creations, many problems surfaced as well, such as the overproduction of crops and the oversell of stocks. These factors eventually lead to the Great Depression, which was the most devastating economic drought Americans have faced to date.