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GALLERY THREE: The Roaring Twenties

American life during the 1920s.

This gallery depicts some of the enormous changes that took place in sports, literature, technology, communications, and other areas of American life during the 1920s.

A Decade of Change

The Twenties were the cradle of modern America, beginning with the 1920 census, the first ever to report a majority of Americans living in urban areas. Daylight Savings Time was a spinoff of the war. So were jazz, Wall Street speculation and women's suffrage.

An explosion of new inventions and technological breakthroughs transformed popular lifestyles. Rayon stockings eliminated artificial distinctions between shopgirls and ladies of leisure. Shorter work weeks and increased wages led to a revolution in communications, transportation and recreation. Radio tied the nation together, and Hollywood gave it a common culture by cranking out 2,000 films a year. Charlie Chaplin and Babe Ruth became as famous as Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh.

Even the universe itself was being redefined, thanks to the pioneering work of scientists like Albert Einstein. As Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover rejoiced in the scientific and technological ingenuity of the age. "There are continents of human welfare of which we have only penetrated the coastal plane," he enthused.

The Dry--And Deadly--Decade

On January 16, 1920, the Eighteenth Amendment banning the sale, manufacture or transportation of "intoxicating liquor" took effect. Thirsty Americans defied the law by drinking "coco-whiskey" aged three weeks in a coconut shell, or bathtub gin that was one-third alcohol and two-thirds water, with a trace of glycerin added for smoothness. At New York's Club El Fay, watered scotch went for $1.50 a drink and "Texas" Guinan summarized an era with her bawdy greeting to customers: "Hello, suckers." In the atmosphere of general lawlessness bred by Prohibition, bootleggers and gamblers thrived. Urban gangsters moved in to secure a share of the lucrative business and corrupt politicians looked the other way as mobsters like Al Capone terrorized whole cities.
President Hoover and Amelia Earhart walk the White House grounds. 1931-76B
1931-76B: Following the presentation of an aviation medal, President Hoover and Amelia Earhart walk the White House grounds, January 2, 1932.
(United Press)

A Time for Heroes

Mass communications made instant heroes and fostered the cult of celebrity. Feats of derring-do like Charles Lindbergh's solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927 or Admiral Richard Byrd's polar explorations inspired popular adulation. When Amelia Earhart soared above the landscape, she too captured the imagination of millions. Meanwhile, earthbound capitalists such as Henry Ford were lionized for innovations like the five dollar workday and mass production techniques that lowered prices and democratized travel.

 

Fads

With the rise of modern communications, even rural Americans were suddenly exposed to the latest fads from Park Avenue to Main Street. The Twenties are still recalled as a time of outlandish exploits--flagpole sitters, Ouija boards, Charleston dances at round the clock marathons, "twenty-three skiddy", Florida real estate, and the more sedate obsession of the crossword puzzle--all chronicles in new publications like "Time" and the "Reader's Digest."

Mary Pickford and President Hoover. 1931-25A
1931-25A: Mary Pickford gives President Hoover a ticket for a film industry benefit for the unemployed, November 12, 1931. (unknown copyright)

Hollywood

America got a new cultural capital in the 1920s--a dusty California crossroads called Hollywood. Each week up to 100,000,000 people, nearly eighty percent of the country's total population, went to the movies. Here working men and women could escape their humdrum existences and laugh with Charlie Chaplin's "Little Tramp," swoon over Rudolph Valentino, or leer at the undraped female flesh displayed by Mack Sennett's bathing beauties. After 1927 the movies found their voice, and millions of star-struck Americans could agree with Al Jolson: "You ain't heard nothing yet."
BAbe Ruth and President Hoover at a Stanford game. 1933-59A
1933-59A: Babe Ruth, University of Southern California President Rufus von Kleinsmid, and Hoover pose at a Stanford - U.S.C. game, November 11, 1933. (United Press International)

 

Sports

Americans went crazy for sports in the Twenties. Athletes like Bobby Jones and Gene Tunney became celebrities, while ordinary duffers with leisure time and disposable income discovered the joys of organized competition. Hoover's countrymen bought 300,000 tennis balls a month; two million Americans took to golf. And everyone, it seemed, enjoyed the heroics--and antics--of Babe Ruth. One scorching day President Harding attended a Yankee game and the Babe was on hand to greet him, irreverent as ever. "Hot as hell, ain't it Prez?" he asked.

 

Monkeys and Missionaries

Amid the psychological and cultural rubble of World War I, many Americans questioned the old faiths. Liberal Protestants preached a Social Gospel and made the first tentative gestures toward modern ecumenism. At the other extreme, Fundamentalism (the term was coined in 1921) swept much of the South and Midwest. Revivalist preachers led by the controversial Aimee Semple McPherson drew overflow crowds and huge radio audiences.

Another, very different figure at the center of a religious storm was John Scopes, a young Tennessee biology teacher whose challenge to that state's law prohibiting classroom instruction in the theory of evolution set off a celebrated 1925 courtroom encounter between Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan. "You believe in the age of rocks," said Bryan, "I believe in the rock of ages." Scopes lost the case but won the war; Bryan, humiliated, died a week after the trial ended. On his tombstone were carved the words, "He kept the Faith."

The Ku Klux Klan

In the wake of the Civil War, unreconstructed Southerners joined the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan to terrorize African-Americans. Half a century later, a virulent revival of the old hatreds targeted immigrants, Catholics and Jews as well as blacks for their supposed threat to American purity. To some, the kleagles, dragons and wizards were a joke-- but not to the politicians. With four million members or more, the Klan became a major power, especially in the Democratic Party, helping to deny the 1924 presidential nominations to New York's Governor Alfred E. Smith, a Roman Catholic.

The Shock of the New

From the non-representational art of Picasso to the subversive rhythms of jazz, Americans in the Twenties were submerged in wave after wave of cultural radicalism. American women in alarming numbers smoked cigarettes and cursed. College-age youth divided themselves into sheiks and shebas, the former distinguished by argyle socks and hip flasks, their female counterparts identified by short skirts and shingled hair. With one-fifth of the nation's work force female and the divorce rate reaching one marriage in six, many believed the traditional family to be endangered.

In 1921 New York police broke up the inaugural meeting of the American Birth Control League, whose founder, Margaret Sanger, saw contraception as the scientific alternative to poverty, crime and urban squalor. By 1923 the National Women's Party appeared on the scene, sworn to enact an Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

From Gopher Prairie to Greenwich Village

In 1920 Sinclair Lewis electrified the nation with "Main Street," his scathing portrayal of small-town meanness and cultural deprivation in the mythical village of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota. Lewis followed his triumph with "Babbit," an equally damning satire on Twenties-style boosterism. Other writers, from Sherwood Anderson to Willa Cather, displayed their own love-hate relationship with the American heartland. Cather, for example, wrote lyrically of rural Nebraska while residing in New York's bohemian Greenwich Village, where free verse vied with free love and psychoanalysis was all the rage. Whatever the source, the Twenties produced the century's richest literature, rooted in an alienation strong enough to send some of the country's best writers (like Fitzgerald and Hemingway) fleeing to Paris.

Everyday Life in the Modern Age

The Twenties were much more than immodest flappers and unscrupulous financiers. Life expectancy rose by five years (from 55 to 60), the largest gain for any decade in American history. The percentage of Americans with a high school diploma doubled. Daily eating habits were changing too: the average American ate seventy-five pounds a year less than in 1910. Thin was in, and with more time to read, the recently formed Book-of-the-Month Club helped promote the decades's biggest literary success: "Diet and Health" topped the best seller list for two and a half years.

The Consumer Revolution

Americans took to the road in the 1920's as the number of automobiles soared from six million to twenty-seven million. Helping to spur sales was yet another innovation, the two week summer vacation. Meanwhile, Hoover's passion for standardized goods did not stop at the auto assembly plant. Corner shops gave way to chain stores, like Woolworth's and the Piggly Wiggly Supermarkets, which supplied identical goods at identical prices. At home millions of women took advantage of new machines to lighten household drudgery. Home sewing, once a staple of rural life, all but disappeared, thanks to mass produced clothing with a fashionable twist-- and the Sears and Roebuck catalogue.


Gallery Index | 1:Years of Adventure | 2:The Humanitarian Years | 3:The Roaring Twenties | 4:The Wonder Boy | 5:The Logical Candidate | 6:The Great Depression | 7:From Hero to Scapegoat | 8:An Uncommon Woman | 9:Counselor to the Republic


Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum
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