It saw the birth of Jazz, Prohibition, and a surging economy fueled by mass consumerism. It also redefined arts and culture with the Harlem Renaissance and helped to lay the foundation for the further expansion of women’s rights. But the overconfidence of the American people in their bustling and busy economy in the ’20s would also lead to inflated stocks, banks offering loans to people with little or no financial history, and the worst financial disaster in recorded history.
The ’20s were a fascinating decade, the first truly modern one, seeing the rampant development of technology and industry.
From speakeasies to dancing flappers, here are 10 incredible facts about the Roaring ’20s.
In 1919, the states ratified the 18th amendment to the US Constitution, the Volstead Act, banning the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcohol throughout the union. This period is known as “Prohibition,” and it was notoriously difficult to enforce. Throughout the 1920s, the illegal production of alcohol thrived with organized crime, gangs, and the famous speakeasies you’ve likely seen portrayed in films and television—secret establishments where men and women drank and smoked and partied, hidden from the prying eyes of the police.
Prohibition resulted from a wave of religious revivalism which swept through the US, calling on Americans to abstain from the consumption of alcohol, as it was linked to violence in families, marriages, and saloons were seen as “ungodly” and corrupt. Supporters of Prohibition (or “drys”) presented their causes as a war for public morals and the health of the nation.
But not everyone supported this amendment, some forward-thinking spectators of the situation suggested that “the noble experiment” would not go so well. The Volstead Act was not the first attempt to make alcohol illegal, however, and in nearly every instance, instead of inspiring their citizens to practice temperance and improving public morals, states and cities which made alcohol illegal saw resentment from their working-class and Irish citizens.
It’s thought that Franklin D. Roosevelt celebrated the repeal of Prohibition by having a dirty martini.
9. Rise of the Mafia
Before the 1920s and Prohibition, the term organized crime didn’t exist; but the passing of the Volstead Act left bar owners and liquor manufacturers out of work, and to the keen observer in the 1920s with a mind for business, left a wanting consumer base. Before the Roaring ’20s, gangs were disorganized, small bands of disenfranchised people lashing out at the system. Organizations like the Sicilian Mafia saw an opportunity in Prohibition and found gangs of men who previously had no business experience but knew how to brandish a gun and intimidate their competition, employing them as muscle for their growing illicit operations.
Profits from the illegal sale of alcohol were so enormous that it inspired gangs to hire accountants, lawyers, brewmasters, truck drivers, boat masters, warehouse workers, and paid off police and government officials to look the other way.
Thanks to this new model for trafficking illegal alcohol, ethnic groups like the Italians, Irish, Jewish, and Polish found themselves working together, but strings of bombings, killings, and shootings would set the tone for mob violence in the ’20s and ’30s. More than 1,000 people were killed as a result of gang infighting.
8. The Birth of Jazz
The 1920s are sometimes referred to as “the Jazz Age” in music history. It refers to cultural change brought on by new styles of music and dance. Jazz was invented by African Americans, who throughout the 1910s sought a musical style all to their own, desiring to move away from the spirituals due to their association with slavery. Though the first Jazz record is thought to have been performed by a white band in 1917, lawsuits would rage on as to the actual ownership of the songs played on the Dixie Jass Band’s first record.
Before the 1920s, styles of music were segregated between what African Americans preferred and what white Americans preferred, but during the Age of Jazz, this changed. Jazz found its way into the homes of white Americans, and onto the stages of speakeasies and illegal nightclubs.
African American Jazz found its way onto urban radio stations more often than suburban broadcasts and inspired a host of young African Americans to rebel against traditional culture, meshing well with the flappers and new radio concerts of the decade.
But because of the inherent racism harbored by most radio stations, white jazz artists received the majority of airtime compared to their black counterparts. What was originally an African American style slowly became a white cultural scene.
7. The Harlem Renaissance
Generally considered to be the golden age for the development of African American owned arts, the Harlem Renaissance centered around the development of Harlem as a prominent neighborhood in New York City.
In the 1880s, what became known as Harlem was originally intended to be an upscale white neighborhood, but once developed it largely went unoccupied, leaving landlords desperate to fill the space. In the early 1900s, middle-class black families from a neighborhood referred to as “Black Bohemia migrated to Harlem. Some white residents fought to keep African Americans out of Harlem, but eventually failed and fled the area, and from the 1910s to the 1920s Harlem saw a population explosion of black Americans migrating from the South to the North.
This boom in population led to the Black Pride movement and prominent black voices fought to ensure that black Americans got the credit they deserved. This resulted in the explosion of African American literature, but creative arts, music, and theatrical efforts were also significant in changing negative stereotypes created by white Americans. The movement also saw the abandonment of traditionally Victorian values, allowing for a rich diversity of schools of thought and intense debate.
6. The Rise of Hollywood
Throughout most of film history leading up to the 1920s most films were made in New York City, New Jersey, and Chicago, but beginning in the early 1900s a growing number of filmmakers flocked to Southern California thanks to its cheap land values, labor, and a climate which favored year-round filming.
Hollywood was the film capital of the world by the early 1920s, producing almost all films shown in the US and receiving 80 percent of revenue from those shown in foreign markets. Hollywood ensured its continued dominance by recruiting some of Europe’s most talented actors and directors. Actresses like Greta Garbo and Hedy Lamar became household names, as well as directors like Ernst Lubitsch and Josef von Sternberg. By the end of the Roaring ’20s, Hollywood boasted that it was the largest industry in the United States, accounting for an impressive 83 cents out of every dollar Americans spent on entertainment.
It was during this time that Hollywood came to embody “the new morality,” boasting extravagant lifestyles, hedonism, and of course, fun. Movie attendance during the 1920s skyrocketed to such a degree, that by the middle of the decade at least 50 million Americans went out each week to their local cinema. This was equivalent to half of the population at the time.
Known as the first generation of independent American women, “flappers” in the 1920s were women who embraced a lifestyle free of the outdated restrictions of Victorian-style morality. Many of these women were known for their spirited and rebellious embrace of their freedom and were viewed by their more conservative counterparts as outrageous, immoral, or even dangerous.
Flappers went hand-in-hand with the rebellion of young African Americans, inspired by their favorite jazz musicians, and managed to push the boundaries of sexual liberation as well as political and economic freedoms that women in the US would come to enjoy decades later.
One reason for this explosion of rebellious thought was the rise of the American working woman in World War I. Women received much higher wages than they would otherwise have been given if the war had not been in full swing, and in August of 1920, the 19th amendment gave women the right to vote.
4. The Scopes Monkey Trial
Today, the theory of evolution is an undisputed scientific fact. But this was not always so, and in 1925 John Scopes was brought up on charges for teaching evolution in the classroom. A recent bill in Tennessee had made teaching the theory of evolution in public schools illegal after a concerted anti-evolutionist campaign. The American Civil Liberties Union (or the ACLU) immediately offered to challenge the Butler Act (named after John W. Butler), which made the act a misdemeanor.
This trial featured two of the most well-known orators of the time, William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow, who opposed one another during the trial. Scopes’s lawyer, Clarence Darrow, saw the trial as a grand opportunity to expose the unconstitutionality of the bill and to advocate in the public for the scientific legitimacy of Darwin’s theory of evolution and the American Civil Liberties Union saw its profile enhanced by the trial by a significant amount.
It is thought that the fiasco was dubbed “the Scopes Monkey Trial” as a publicity stunt meant to bring more attention to Dayton, Tennessee. A local businessman even met with the school superintendent to discuss using the ACLU offer so that newspapers would have to write about their town. They got their wish, but journalists denounced the trial as frivolous.
Orators Darrow and Bryan had a history of butting heads, especially on the subject of evolution, and Darrow was determined to debunk the literalist interpretation of the Bible and discredit fundamentalist Christianity. This was the only time the famous orator would offer his services free of charge, and Darrow would shock the jury by calling Bryan to the stand, where he would proceed to interrogate him on his literal interpretations of the Bible. This undermined Bryan’s earlier speeches and forced him to admit his lack of scientific knowledge and that the Bible didn’t provide any answers. The judge attempted to rule Bryan’s testimony as invalid, but Darrow suggested the court save his client time and render a guilty verdict.
The jury found Scopes guilty, and he was fined in the amount of 100 dollars.
3. The Great Gatsby
F. Scott Fitzgerald started his writing career as a jazz chronicler. Fitzgerald‘s focus on his writing caused him to struggle at Princeton, prompting him to drop out and joint he Army. His first novel, “This Side of Paradise,” was published in 1920 and catapulted Fitzgerald to celebrity status. “The Great Gatsby” is still thought of as one of the greatest novels ever written.
Because of his upbringing in St. Paul, Minnesota, at the hands of an alcoholic failure of a father and an intensely ambitious mother, Fitzgerald was firmly conscious of wealth and privilege and how his family was excluded from the social elite. His novels seemed to come at the perfect time when speakeasies were serving bathtub gin and playing jazz. With his charming, good looks, and witty personality, Fitzgerald seemed to speak for the soul of the 20s.
The price of literary fame, however, would be heavy for the Fitzgeralds’ and would see Scott descend into alcoholism while his wife, Zelda, would collapse into madness.
Fitzgerald’s third novel would be regarded as a disappointment and he would die from a heart attack while attempting to finish his final novel in 1941, “The Last Tycoon.”
2. Booming Industry
The explosion of industry during the 1920s is the prime reason why the period gets its namesake (the Roaring ’20s). While the US had vast natural resources prior to the Roaring ’20s, the advancement of technology and the mass production of what were previously luxury items are largely credited with this unprecedented prosperity.
It is seen as the first truly modern decade, where the average working-class American family could afford to buy automobiles and radios on credit. With the introduction of long-distance telecommunications systems, radio stations and commercial radio station networks began the gradual process of fracturing urban isolation. Entire industries that we know and love today sprang up thanks to this economic boom, enterprises such as movie theaters, travel agencies, and even professional sports found their inception in the ’20s.
This period of economic prosperity also saw its power tested, moving the United States into a much more dominant position in global trade and business.
1. The Stock Market Crash
The Roaring ’20s might have been an unprecedented period of economic growth for the United States, but in 1929 it all would come crashing down in one of the worst financial disasters the world has ever seen.
Number one: The economic boom in the Roaring ’20s allowed working-class people to invest in the stock market. That might sound all well and good, except many of these working-class individuals were paying a 10th of the value for their stock while borrowing the rest from a bank. These loans were offered to individuals who had no prior financial history.
Number two: The American people were overconfident in the strength of their economy, leading to overpriced stocks. Financial advisors of the time were keenly aware that a crash was imminent, but people simply weren’t listening.
And finally, number three: The Federal Reserve raised interest rates from 5 to 6 percent in 1929, which some financial annalists suggest led to giving investors cold feet.
The crash left people out of work and scrambling to pull their money from their banks and many who had invested their money in stocks were unable to do so because it was tied up in the stock market.
Whatever the real cause for the crash of 29 is, one thing is for certain, it marked the end of the Roaring ’20s.