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The Roaring Twenties: Understanding Social Life. Mr. Phipps U.S. History. California State Standards. 11.5.4. Analyze the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment and the changing role of women in society.

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california state standards
California State Standards

11.5.4. Analyze the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment and the changing role of women in society.

11.5.5. Describe the Harlem Renaissance and new trends in literature, music, and art, with special attention to the work of writers (e.g., Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes).

11.5.6. Trace the growth and effects of radio and movies and their role in the worldwide diffusion of popular culture.

11.5.7. Discuss the rise of mass production techniques, the growth of cities, the impact of new technologies (e.g., the automobile, electricity), and the resulting prosperity and effect on the American landscape.

social background
Social Background

Before the Great War…

  • People hitched their horse outside the general store
  • Women scrubbed their clothes on a washboard
  • If they could read (about 25%) people read by flickering gaslight
  • Most houses contained only two books: The Holy Bible and Shakespeare
  • Women-folk stayed at home to have kids

After the Great War…

  • People got gasoline from a pump for their automobile
  • Women washed their clothes in an electric washing machine
  • People read their “pulp fiction” by electric light bulb
  • Women voted, wore short skirts, and partied at clubs

Political Changes for Women

  • Most white women, prior to 1920, did not work;
  • Women got jobs in factories during WWI due to labor shortage (over 23,000)
  • Considered more equal because of work, demanded equal rights under 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments
  • 19th Amendment (1920): gave women suffrage (140 years after Bill of Rights)
  • First election: women voted for Warren G. Harding (who won) because he was the more handsome candidate

Water-dancing and posing, a popular fad, symbolizes the new freedom for women during the 1920s. Notice that these women are wearing bathing suits, not bathing dresses.


Outside National Suffrage Party Headquarters. This, obviously, is a staged picture promoting the popularity of the suffrage movement.

equal women
Equal Women

Changing attitudes

  • Increased employment resulted in greater independence and spending money
  • Margaret Sanger advocated “looser” sexual behavior, recommending birth control for women
  • Marriage postponed until later

The cosmetics industry, which began in the 1880s, became very popular in 1920s with the advent of Hollywood. The movie industry, which promoted beauty also sold a new image for women: sexy, attractive, fashionable.

women and fashion
Women and Fashion

The Flapper and the Vamp

  • Research indicated that:
    • In 1919, 10% of a woman’s body was uncovered
    • By 1927, over 25% of a woman’s body was uncovered
  • Hemlines got shorter (above the knees), hair was cut short (bobbed), corsets were not worn (changed to bras)
  • The Flapper: a rebellious young girl who wanted independence, to be sexy, to smoke in public, to “park” their car, and “pet” in their auto

Women’s fashion in the early 1920s still emphasized modesty. Note, the casual-wear on the left suggest the shape of the woman. On the right, the fashion, again emphasizes the height of the woman, her grace. Included: feathers, hats, clingy fabric, plunging necklines, low waistlines.


On the left, a fashion plate from 1924. On the right, a plate from 1925. Note that the hemlines are moving closer to the knee.


On the left, fashions from 1926 indicate the increasing liberalism of the decade: higher hemlines, lower necklines, clingier fabric. This, and the fashions from 1927 (at right), symbolize the trend-setting fashions of the rich, that dresses were meant to party in, and women were meant to be pretty.

the new negro
The New Negro

Background to the “Harlem Renaissance”

  • Millions of African-Americans migrated to northern cities for war jobs
  • Most stayed within self-segregated neighborhoods
  • “Rebirth” of culture flourished in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood
    • High concentration of authors, poets, artists, and entertainers

Artists, during the Harlem Renaissance, borrowed from the Modernist style of art, emphasizing heavy angular lines and primary colors. The focus was on form and movement, rather than on a realistic illustration. African-Americans, in particular, sought to incorporate traditional African themes, colors, patterns, and stories into their art.

defining the new generation
Defining the New Generation
  • Focus of the Harlem movement was on creation, productivity, civil rights, expression, and PRIDE
  • Grew out of the early African-American civil rights leaders:
    • William DuBois (who advocated racial equality)
    • Booker T. Washington (who advocated racial separation and accomplishment)
    • Marcus Garvey (Black Pride and “Back to Africa”)

Langston Hughes, painted here by artist Winhold Reiss, epitomized the New Negro: talented, well-educated, an outstanding author who wrote about subjects dealing with the African-American experience, and handsome.

music the birth of jazz
Music: The Birth of Jazz

A New American Music

  • Jazz originated from New Orleans fusion of Creole, French, African, and slave music
    • Moved to Chicago approx. 1910
    • Moved to NYC/Harlem approx 1919
    • First called “jass” in music reviews
  • Combined African rhythms with European instruments
  • Jazz intended to be improvised and danced to

Duke Ellington composed, arranged, and played jazz in Harlem. Known as a ruthless businessman and a genius, most jazz musicians got their start in Ellington’s band

  • Jazz musicians including Bessie Smith (vocalist), Joe Oliver (drums), “Jelly Roll” Morton (piano), and Louis Armstrong (trumpet) toured most local speakeasies
  • Musical style became so popular by 1925 that white musicians were forming their own bands
    • By the 1930s, Harlem jazz had degenerated (whitie-fied) into “Big Bands” and “Swing”

By the late 1920s, musicians often played more than 3 sets: one for the rich white party-goers, one for the African-Americans, and one to work on “chops”, practice sessions which would last until daylight.


Louis Armstrong (left) redefined the trumpet as an instrument. His improvisational phrasing became the basis for all jazz trumpeting, copied and adapted by all subsequent musicians. The Cotton Club (above) was one of the most popular nightclubs in Harlem. Critics of jazz accused musicians of drug use (Armstrong had mafia ties and a drug record for marijuana possession) and clubs as a haven for drug use, prostitution, and immoral activity. They were, more often than not, correct.

sports fever
Sports Fever

Why Sports?

  • Decreased working hours, increased leisure time, and more spending money
  • American public wanted entertainment and heroes
  • Developed activities which were uniquely American, not European
  • People reveled in individual accomplishment

Red Grange, the “Galloping Ghost was the first millionaire football player

the babe
The Babe

George Herman Ruth: “The Babe”

  • An unlikely sports hero:
    • Ate excessively
    • Drank even more excessively
    • Terrible womanizer and abuser
    • Swore and cursed everyone

Ruth, as a slugger, earned the homerun record of 60 long balls in a single season. It would take 30 years for Roger Maris to beat this record, and another 30 for Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds to beat all…with some help.

the curse of the bambino
The “Curse of the Bambino”

Boston and “The Babe”

  • Started his career as a pitcher in Boston, for the Red Sox
  • Earned recognition as a hitter
  • Boston sold contract to New York Yankees (1920) to help finance a Broadway play

The “House that Babe/Ruth Built”

  • Moved to the outfield and played every day (not on pitching rotation)
  • Doubled homerun record with 54 home runs and earned 60 homeruns in 1927

With Ruth on the mound, Boston won 5 of the first 15 World Series. After The Babe was sold to the NYY, Boston would have to wait until 2004 when the they finally won a World Series. In the 84 years since the Yanks acquired Ruth, they won the World Series 26 times. The Red Sox only made it to the World Series 4 times, losing every time.


Boxing: Another All-American Past-time

  • An opportunity for individual accomplishment abased on training, cunning, brute force, strength, and endurance--American values
  • Jack Dempsey v. Gene Tunney, 2nd Challenge (1927)
    • Dempsey lost first fight in 1920
    • Rematch in 1927: 40 million listened to the fight on the radio
    • Fight profits exceeded $2.6 million
    • Dempsey won in the final round

Dempsey’s title was surrounded in scandal. During the seventh round, Tunney was knocked down, but the referee made a “long count” during which Dempsey was supposed to (not officially) to go to a neutral corner. Instead, Dempsey chased Tunney. Tunney spent the rest of the match dodging punches.

other sports
Other Sports

Harold Grange, “the Galloping Ghost” (left), became the first football millionaire, after making 4 consecutive TD for a total of 263 yards in the first 12 minutes of a game against a top ranked Michigan team. Gertrude Ederle (above) challenged gender stereotypes, world records, the environment, and strong oceanic currents when she was the first female to swim across the English Channel. Her time, 14 hours 31 minutes, was almost 2 hours faster than the men’s record.

public spending
Public Spending

Prosperity Becomes Evident

  • Availability of consumer credit
  • Cheaply made, mass produced goods
  • Widespread availability of electricity creates demand
  • Population boom creates demand

How long could it last? Credit expenses, particularly for the lower and middle classes (who were the primary targets for ads) often matched their incoming cash flow. A worker in Indiana, who only earned $35/wk spent $35/month on the family car. A worker in Chicago, making $60/wk, spent $27.50 on home furnishings and his wife’s new coat.

some evidence of growth
Some Evidence of Growth
  • Annual income 1850 was $95
  • Annual income 1918 was $586
  • In 1920, only 50% of income needed to be spent on necessities (down 20% from 1900)--life was getting cheaper
  • Gross National Product increased 34%
  • Life expectancy for men and women increased 7 years since 1900

Two of the most popular home purchases was the radio and the phonograph. Both items provided home entertainment. This revolutionary technology, however, completely changed the home environment. Rather than playing musical instruments, families listened passively. Instead of playing together, they listened separately. Instead of creating, they passively listened to mass produced radio shows and music. Many considered these items “mechanisms of the devil” which eroded family values.

buyer psychology
Buyer Psychology
  • Advertisement focused on selling product units
  • Used sex, frustration (Listerine will end loneliness of bad breath), anxiety, need to sell products, pseudo-science (45,512 unnamed doctors recommend Listerine)
  • Allowed for installment plans
    • Phonograph $43.50 (5 down, 5 a month)
    • Piano $445 (15 down, 12 a month)

Foreshadowing our own modern times, ads showed a new body image which people struggled to attain. The desire to look like the rich and beautiful caused many people to overspend their limits, and sometimes, to commit suicide.


Unlike our modern commercials, ads in the 1920s were designed to tell a story and provide substantive reasons why people should buy their product. Some of the evidence was even accurate. Above, is a General Electric ad for a kitchen product. At right, is an ad for Imperial Records, a company which continued to produce “hot acts” well into the 1950s.


Sheer, sexy, and hole proof, hosiery was a luxury for all women. Note the peacock: part of the American fascination with the mysterious Orient.

the movie palace
The Movie Palace

Popularity of movies were due to

  • Increased leisure time
  • More “disposable” money
  • Desire to see glamour
  • Interested in seeing the news
  • Provided several hours of entertainment
  • Cost of a ticket $.10-$.75 per picture

Most every major city had at least one 100 seat theatre

  • San Francisco, Hollywood, and New York (Zeigfield’s Theatre) boasted red carpets, velvet curtains, gilded ceilings, and crystal chandeliers

Grauman’s Theatre, in Hollywood, was the center for all movie premiers. It was here, as it still is now, where average Americans caught a glimpse of their favorite star, and the paparazzi scratched for gossip.

rising popularity
Rising Popularity
  • By 1920, 35 million Americans attended movies at least once a week
  • Large movie theatres could hold 5,000 attendees
  • 1926: First western genre film--Great Train Robbery
  • 1927: First “talkie” movie, with sound--The Jazz Singer
  • 1927: First gangster, cop, and swashbuckling film (Robin Hood and Zorro the Gay Blade)

“The Jazz Singer”, released in 1927, was the first movie to incorporate a soundtrack, rather than have a separate accompanying band (or piano). Al Jolson, the principal actor, portrayed an African-American by using the common technique of applying “black-face” makeup.


Charlie Chaplin, right, had his heyday during the silent movie era. As “the Tramp”, Chaplin represented the downtrodden every-man. He, along with Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, opened the first movie-production studio outside Fremont, CA.

Douglas Fairbanks, above, was type-casted as the masculine swashbuckler, modeled as a hero of the downtrodden, with plots taken from dime-store pulp fiction.

Greta Garbo, left, was typically cast as the brash, assertive sex-pot.


Rudoph Valentino, here as the Sheik, captivated women’s hearts and inspired men to be like him. When he died suddenly at the age of 31, mourners lined up for a mile to watch his casket pass.

the radio
The Radio
  • Pioneered new form of popular entertainment
  • Availability of mass-produced radios made them cheaper for consumers
  • First radio station KDKA in Pittsburgh, which broadcasted the 1920s election results
  • By 1922
    • 3 million American houses had radio
    • 508 competing radio stations

By 1929, radio had become one of the leading industries of the American entertainment industry. The National Broadcasting Company, NBC, was making $150 million a year.


Comedies like “Amos and Andy” and serialized drama mysteries like “The Shadow” became a part of people’s everyday lives. Orson Wells, the voice of the Shadow, became a fixture in Hollywood with his famous radio show “The War of the Worlds.” Churches also used the radio to evangelize


Dance offs (above) and Lindy-hopping (right) were popular past-times which drew spectators and cash rewards, similar to the breakdancing competitions of the 1980s and the karaoke competitions of the 1990s.

the guinness book
The Guinness Book

Pole sitting and ping pong were also favorite past-times, but notice the bravado in these endeavors. The ping pong competition is atop an airplane’s wings.

henry ford s iron horse
Henry Ford’s Iron Horse

Impact of the Automobile

  • Fundamentally changed the way people lived and traveled
  • Subsidized the expansion of related industries: oil, gasoline, rubber, glass, and steel
  • Cost of automobile cheap enough so that the average person could afford it
  • By 1918, 7 million cars were registered
  • By 1929, 23 million cars were registered
on the line
On the Line

Scientific Management to boost worker efficiency

  • Based assembly line on specialization of labor
  • Reduced amount of time it took to produce a Model T from 14 hours to 93 minutes
  • A finished Model T was rolled off the line every 10 seconds
  • Lowered price from $700 in 1919 to $260 (1925) to $180 (1929)
the road system
The Road System

Federal Highway Act (1921) supported automobile industry

  • Constructed over 10,000 miles of road
  • Spread population westward
  • Expanded small business
    • Hot dog stands, drive-in restaurants, motor hotels, billboard advertising, and campgrounds
    • Supported American tourist industry: roadside plaques, battlefield sites, largest ball of yarn, etc
a changing lifestyle
A Changing Lifestyle
  • Automobile provided sense of freedom and independence
  • Automobile stimulated the growth of suburban neighborhoods

In the 1920s. 98% of all cars were open to the weather.

air flight
Air Flight
  • Charles Lindbergh
    • First to fly across the Atlantic Ocean