America in the 1920s - dummies

By Steve Wiegand

A lot of people think the Roaring Twenties was a decade in which everyone spent a huge amount of time dancing the Charleston and drinking. That, of course, isn’t true. People also went to the movies, listened to the radio, read, and played games.

The decade, in fact, was marked by an explosion of popular culture, pushed by the development of mass media, which was pushed by postwar advances in technology.

Going to the movies

By the mid-1920s, moviemaking was one of the top five industries in the country in terms of capital investment. A former farm community in California called Hollywood recently had become the film capital of the world.

In 1928, America had 20,000 movie theaters, and movie houses that looked like ornate palaces and seated thousands of patrons were built in every major city. Millions of Americans flocked each week to see stars like Charlie Chaplin and Rudolph Valentino on the silent screen.

In 1927, with the release of The Jazz Singer, the screen was no longer silent, and “talkies” made the movies even more popular. Perhaps fittingly, the first words spoken in the first talkie were “Wait a minute! Wait a minute! You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!”

Movies and their stars had a huge impact on the culture of the ’20s. They influenced fashion, hairstyles, speech patterns, and sexual mores — and reinforced cultural and racial stereotypes and prejudices.

Listening to the radio

At the beginning of the 1920s, radio was entirely for amateurs. “Ham” operators listened mostly to messages from ships at sea over homemade sets. But in 1920, the Westinghouse Company in Pittsburgh established the first commercial radio station, KDKA.

Almost overnight, stations sprang up all over the country. By 1924, there were more than 500 stations, and by 1927 the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) had organized a 19-station National Broadcasting Company (NBC).

Radio brought major sporting events and election returns “live” into American homes. It also encouraged the makers of soap, the sellers of life insurance, and the purveyors of cornflakes to reach out to consumers over the airwaves. U.S. business had its first true national medium for advertising, and Americans accepted that the price of “free” radio was commercials. By 1929, more than 12 million American families had radio sets.

Listening to music and writing literature

Radio, along with the increasing popularity of the phonograph, made popular music even more popular. The hottest sound was called jazz, which stressed improvisation and rhythm as well as melody. This sound had its roots deep in the musical traditions of African Americans.

Its stars included Bessie Smith, Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton, and Louis Armstrong, and it was a key part of what became known as the Harlem Renaissance, a confluence of African-American genius in the arts that flourished in the 1920s in New York City. Jazz became wildly popular in other parts of the world as well and was recognized as the first truly unique form of American music.

Literature, on the other hand, was most heavily influenced by writers who were disillusioned with postwar America or who chose to satirize Americans’ seeming penchant for conformity. These writers included novelists F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby, 1925), Sinclair Lewis (Babbitt, 1922), and Ernest Hemingway (A Farewell to Arms, 1929); playwright Eugene O’Neill (Strange Interlude, 1928); and poets E. E. Cummings, Carl Sandburg, and Langston Hughes.

Playing games

When it wasn’t being entertained, America was seemingly entertaining itself in the 1920s, so much so that one contemporary observer called it “the age of play.” Shorter workdays and weeks and more disposable income (or at least what seemed like more disposable income) gave Americans more time and money to enjoy themselves.

Sports like golf and tennis boomed. Public playgrounds for kids became popular. Crossword puzzles and a game called Mah Jong were all the rage.