From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Roaring Twenties refers to the 1920s, principally in North America, one of the most colorful decades in history. During the era, there was a turn toward normality in politics, the return of veterans from World War I, the growth of jazz music, the emergence of a new face of modern womanhood (the flapper), and Black Tuesday, the harbinger of the Great Depression. Moreover, the years of the Roaring Twenties were marked by several inventions and discoveries of far-reaching consequences; unprecedented industrial growth and accelerated consumer demand and aspirations, coupled with significant changes in lifestyles; and a series of events, national as well as international, which shaped a large part of the history of the 20th century. The era's affluence, however, did not include all social groups since many sharecroppers and tenant farmers (black and white) in the South continued to live in poverty.
The Roaring Twenties started in North America and spread to Europe as the effects of World War I diminished. In Europe, the years following the First World War (1919-1923) were marked by a deep recession. Europe spent these years in rebuilding and coming to terms with the vast human cost of the conflict. Unlike in the aftermath of World War II, the United States did little to try to rebuild Europe. Instead, it took an increasingly isolationist stance. In Canada, an important economic transformation accelerated as Britain was wholly supplanted by the United States as Canada's main economic partner. By the middle of the decade, economic development started to soar over in Europe, and the Roaring Twenties broke out in Germany, Britain and France, where the second half of this decade was termed the "Golden Twenties". In France and Canada, they were also called the "Crazy Years" (années folles).
The spirit of the Roaring Twenties was marked by a general feeling of discontinuity associated with modernity and a break with traditions. Everything seemed to be feasible through modern technology. New technologies, especially automobiles, movies and radio spread the idea of modernity to a large part of the population. Formal decorative frills were shed in favor of practicality, in architecture as well as in daily life. At the same time, amusement, fun and lightness were cultivated in jazz and dancing, in defiance of the horrors of World War I, which were still present in people's minds. The period is often called the "Jazz Age".
On August 18, 1920, Tennessee became the last of 36 states needed to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment, granting women the right to vote. Equality at the polls marked a pivotal moment in the women's rights movement.
The Lost Generation were young people who came out of World War I disillusioned and cynical about the world. The term usually refers to American literary notables that lived in Paris at the time. Famous members included Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein.
As the average American in the 1920s became more enamored of wealth and everyday luxuries, some began satirizing the hypocrisy and greed they observed. Of these social critics, Sinclair Lewis was the most popular. His popular 1920 novel Main Street satirized the dull and ignorant lives of the residents of a Midwestern town. He followed with Babbitt, about a middle-aged businessman who rebels against his safe life and family, only to realize that the young generation is as hypocritical as his own. Lewis satirized religion with Elmer Gantry, which followed a con man who teams up with an evangelist to sell religion to a small town.
Other social critics included Sherwood Anderson and H.L. Mencken. Anderson published a collection of short stories titled Winesburg, Ohio, which studied the dynamics of a small town. Mencken criticized narrow American tastes and culture in various essays and articles.
Art Deco was the style of design and architecture that marked the era. Starting in France, it spread to the rest of western Europe and North America towards the mid-1920s. In the U.S., one of the most remarkable buildings featuring this style was constructed as the tallest building of the time: the Chrysler Building. The forms of art deco were pure and geometric, even though the artists often drew inspiration from nature. In the beginning, lines were curved, though rectangular designs would later become more and more popular.
Expressionism and Surrealism
Painting in North America during the 1920s developed in a different direction than that of Europe. In Europe, the 1920s were the era of expressionism, and later surrealism. As Man Ray stated in 1920 after the publication of a unique issue of New York Dada: "Dada cannot live in New York".
At the beginning of the decade, films were silent and colorless. In 1922, the first all-color feature, Toll of the Sea, was released. In 1926, Warner Bros. released Don Juan, the first feature with sound effects and music. In 1927, Warner released The Jazz Singer, the first sound feature to include limited talking sequences.
The public went wild for talkies, and movie studios converted to sound almost overnight. In 1928, Warner released Lights of New York, the first all-talking feature film. In the same year, the first sound cartoon, Dinner Time, was released. Warner ended the decade by unveiling, in 1929, the first all-color, all-talking feature film, On with the Show.
African-American literary and artistic culture developed rapidly during the 1920s under the banner of "The Harlem Renaissance". In 1921, the Black Swan Corporation opened. At its height, it issued ten recordings per month. All-African-American musicals also started in 1921. In 1923, the Harlem Renaissance Basketball Club was founded by Bob Douglas. During the later 1920s, and especially in the 1930s, the basketball team became known as the best in the world.
The first issue of Opportunity was published. The African-American playwright, Willis Richardson, debuted his play The Chip Woman's Fortune, at the Frazee Theatre.Template:Ref Notable African-American authors such as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston began to achieve a level of national public recognition during the 1920s. African American culture has contributed the largest part to the rise of jazz.
The first commercial radio station in the United States, KDKA, began broadcasting in Pittsburgh in 1922. Radio stations subsequently proliferated at a remarkable rate, and with them spread the popularity of jazz. Jazz became associated with all things modern, sophisticated, and also decadent. Men tended to sing in a high pitched voice, typified by Harold Scrappy Lambert, one of the popular recording artists of the decade.
The music that people consider today as "jazz" tended to be played by minorities. In the 1920s, the majority of people listened to what we would call today "sweet music", with hardcore jazz categorized as "hot music" or "race music." Louis Armstrong marked the time with improvisations and endless variations on a single melody, popularizing scat singing, an improvisational vocal technique in which nonsensical syllables are sung or otherwise vocalized, often as part of a call-and-response interaction with other musicians on-stage.
Apart from the clarinet, Sidney Bechet also popularized the saxophone. Dance venues increased the demand for professional musicians and jazz adopted the 4/4 beat of dance music. Tap dancers entertained people in Vaudeville theaters, out in the streets or accompanying bands. At the end of the Roaring Twenties, Duke Ellington initiated the big band era.
Starting in the 1920s, ballrooms across the U.S. sponsored dance contests, where dancers invented, tried, and competed with new moves. Professionals began to hone their skills in tap dance and other dances of the era throughout the Vaudeville circuit across the United States. Electric lighting made evening social entertainment more comfortable, giving rise to an era of dance halls and live music. The most popular dances were the fox-trot, waltz and tango, and the Charleston.
Harlem played a key role in the development of dance styles. With several entertainment venues, people from all walks of life, all races, and all classes came together. The Cotton Club featured black performers and catered to a rich, glamorous, and white clientele, while the Savoy Ballroom catered to an average, working-class, and mostly black clientele.
From the early 1920s, a variety of eccentric dances were developed. The first of these were the Breakaway and Charleston. Both were based on African-American musical styles and beats, including the widely popular blues. The Charleston's popularity exploded after its feature in two 1922 Broadway shows. A brief Black Bottom craze, originating from the Apollo Theater, swept dance halls from 1926 to 1927, replacing the Charleston in popularity. By 1927, the Lindy Hop, a dance based on Breakaway and Charleston and integrating elements of tap, became the dominant social dance. Developed in the Savoy Ballroom, it was set to stride piano ragtime jazz. The Lindy Hop remained popular for over a decade, before evolving into Swing dance. These dances, nonetheless, were never mainstreamed, and the overwhelming majority of people continued to dance the fox-trot, waltz and tango throughout the decade.
Fashion and the changing role of women
After World War I, many American and European families needed to replace the incomes of the family fathers lost in battle; women often accepted jobs and moved outside the home. The change was reflected in the media: the garçonne-look portrayed the ideal woman as an androgynous, working woman that had reached equality with men while simultaneously possessing the appeal of the femme fatale. Pantsuits, hats and canes gave women a sleek look without frills while avoiding the fickleness of fashion. The style was named after the novel La garçonne by Victor Margueritte. In Europe, this look featured women with short hair (Bubikopf) for the first time; in the U.S., the bob was popularized by actresses in the early 1920s. As a result of this move towards practical androgyny, corsets went out of style, and some women even bandaged their breasts to make them look flatter. Flappers, as these women were called in the U.S., wore short dresses with a straight loose silhouette. By 1927, hemlines had risen to just below the knee and they remained there until 1930 when they dropped back down again.
Minorities and homosexuals
In urban areas, minorities were treated with more equality than they had been accustomed to previously. This was reflected in some of the films of the decade. Redskin (1929) and Son of the Gods (1929), for instance, deal sympathetically with Native Americans and Asian Americans, openly reviling social bias. On the stage and in movies, black and white players appeared together for the first time. It became possible to go to nightclubs and see whites and minorities dancing and eating together. Even popular songs poked fun at the new social acceptance of homosexuality. One of these songs had the title "Masculine Women, Feminine Men." lyrics:
Masculine women, Feminine men
Which is the rooster, which is the hen?
It's hard to tell 'em apart today! And, say!
Sister is busy learning to shave,
Brother just loves his permanent wave,
It's hard to tell 'em apart today! Hey, hey!
Girls were girls and boys were boys when I was a tot,
Now we don't know who is who, or even what's what!
Knickers and trousers, baggy and wide,
Nobody knows who's walking inside,
Those masculine women and feminine men!
Homosexuals also received a level of acceptance that was not seen again until the 1960s. Until the early 1930s, gay clubs were openly operated, commonly known as "pansy clubs". The relative liberalism of the decade is demonstrated by the fact that the actor William Haines, regularly named in newspapers and magazines as the number-one male box-office draw, openly lived in a gay relationship with his lover, Jimmy Shields. Other popular gay actors/actresses of the decade included Alla Nazimova and Ramon Novarro. In 1927, Mae West wrote a play about homosexuality called The Drag, and alluded to the work of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs. It was a box-office success. West regarded talking about sex as a basic human rights issue, and was also an early advocate of gay rights. With the return of conservatism in the 1930s, the public grew intolerant of homosexuality, and gay actors were forced to choose between retiring or agreeing to hide their sexuality.