the 1920's

Welcome to the 1920s Homepage.

"The Jazz Age. The Roaring Twenties. The Lawless Decade. The Era of Wonderful Nonsense. The Boom. These labels pasted on the 1920s distort that decade: all such convenient labels are misleading just because they are convenient. For most all Americans the 1920s were not a ten-year debauch fueled by easy money and bootleg booze. Prosperity did not reach coal miners who earned between 75¢ and 85¢ an hour or public-school teachers who averaged between $970 and $1,200 per year.* Farmers never regained their wartime prosperity; farm acreage decreased as four million Americans left farms during the 1920s. Prosperity did not embrace American blacks, 85 percent of whom lived in the segregated South in 1920—mostly in rural locations—and 23 percent of whom were illiterate. They were cut off from opportunity in the land of opportunity.

All was not business as usual. There were marked social changes, especially for women. Not only could women vote, they could smoke, drink, wear comfortable clothes, become educated, show their legs, and participate in a limited amount of sexual freedom. Birth control was openly discussed but not widely available to the working classes. As expressed in "Ain't We Got Fun" (1921)—"The rich get richer, and the poor get children." The term Flaming Youth implied not just an irresponsible, celebratory response to life: it expressed the revolt of the younger generation (that is, the generation after the war generation) against the standards and values of their elders. But youthful ebullience required money—parental money. Like so many of what have come to be regarded as defining qualities of the 1920s, the hedonistic conduct of the flappers and their sheikst was an upper-middle-class phenomenon. Despite the hit song of 1927, the best things in life were not free.

There was a great deal of enduring worth or significance in the 1920s. There was a proliferation of genius, especially in the arts. The best books, music, and paintings of the decade retain their distinction; and their creators have become American cultural icons. The American capacity for hero worship found ready expression in sports, but the stars of the 1920s have proved to be enduring. The era and its heroes matched each other: Babe Ruth was a quintessential 1920s figure—not a celebrity, but a hero who personified the national mood. All the heroes were not artists or athletes. Every line of endeavor produced great figures: Harvey Williams Gushing, Rueben L. Kahn, George and Gladys Dick in medicine; Robert Goddard, Robert Millaken, and Edwin Hubble in science; Raymond Hood and Albert Kahn in architecture; Margaret Mead in anthropology; Margaret Sanger, Grace Abbott, and Maud Wood Park in social reform. These heroes—some of them immigrants who fulfilled the American Dream of success—embodied the key American quality of aspiration. If a label is required for the 1920s, The Era of Aspiration is appropriate. All that genius, talent, energy, confidence, and ambition drove the quest for new, more, bigger, better."