When people think of the 1920s, they talk of them as being roaring. The question must be asked “Was it roaring for everyone?”
During this decade, there is an incredible amount of change within the United States, politically socially and economically. Politically, women gain the right to vote. Women are starting to work outside of the home in certain industries that allowed female employees. Some women embraced the image of the flapper – shorter hair, shorter hem lines and socially provocative. Prior to the change in typical dress codes for women, women’s skirts, the typical length was 6 inches off the ground. When the hem lines first went up, it was 9 inches off the ground. Believe it or not, that was seen as the world going to hell in a handbasket. Skin colored stockings were once a no no. During the 1920s, rayon stockings instead of cotton were now the most popular choice. The hem lines kept going up. It would eventually stop at the knee. Corsets were gone and dress material was thin and sometimes even sleeveless. Some state legislatures saw bills being introduced that would legally regulate skirt lengths for woman. You have to understand that this was a drastic change for women. There had been certain moral codes and modesty rules that had been in place in society for women. Now certain traditions were being challenged. The younger generation was different. They had returned from fighting a world war in Europe, they survived a global pandemic. There is this feeling of life is meant to be lived to the fullest.
For women in the early 1900s to the start of this new decade, women typically had long hair. Having short hair was often seen as a sign of being radical in thought and politics. The bob haircut became all the rage. Some women cut off their hair and embraced the new style.
Makeup wasn’t really worn except for women of a certain profession or just a slight bit of rouge on one’s cheeks or lips. In the 1920s, you see mascara, eye shadow, and a bold red lip.
The role of a woman as a wife and mother was the role women were expected to hold. At marriage a woman was handed over from her father to her husband. Under the eyes of the law she was childlike. With the passage of the 19th amendment, women now have the right to vote but she is still very much a second class citizen under the law. Once a woman became a mother, working outside of the home, education become difficult if not impossible. Some businesses had marriage bans and would not hire a woman if she was married. The more children she had to take care of the harder things like higher education and a career came to obtain. Even today, women who are also mothers are expected to work as if they don’t have children and expected to parent as if they don’t work.
Margaret Sanger was an activist who promoted the use of contraception for women. In her writings she argued that a woman should be able to decide when and if she became a mother. That women are better mothers when they want the children they are pregnant with. Her work and writings were controversial. She was forced to flee to Great Britain in 1914 after her work titled “Family Limitation” was published. When things calmed down, she returned to the states. She founded the American Birth Control League in 1921. It would go on to become Planned Parenthood. It is also important for me to discuss that she also supported the Eugenics movement. She believed that individuals in poverty and those with mental illness and disabilities should be given birth control to prevent them from procreating. The idea that we could weed out individuals that were seen at the time as being undesirable. Many groups of people were sterilized without their permission or even put on clinical trials for birth control without their consent. Margaret Sanger played a role in that.
Knowledge of reproductive systems are still relatively new. It’s not until 1875 that scientists discover that a man’s sperm must enter the female’s egg for conception to occur. The thinking was that men alone created life and women were the vessel for the child to grow and develop until it was ready to be born. By the 1870s, there are a wide assortment of birth control devices available in the US -- such as condoms, sponges, douching syringes, diaphragms and cervical caps -- from catalogs, pharmacists, dry-goods stores and even rubber vendors. When these become available, anti-obscenity laws are passed to prevent information on contraception from being given out.
Eugenics is the study of how to arrange reproduction within a human population to increase the occurrence of heritable characteristics regarded as desirable. It also led to the forced sterilization of individuals that weren’t considered desirable. In 1927, a US Supreme Court Case stated that forced sterilization of handicapped individuals was not unconstitutional. Thousands of individuals were sterilized. Eugenics was also used by the Nazis to promote their theory that Jews were inferior as they set out to create their pure Aryan race.
During the 1920s Prohibition was the law.
It’s important to note that it wasn’t illegal to drink alcohol. Just to purchase it and to sell it. As we discussed on our episode on the 18th amendment, prohibition turned law abiding citizens into criminals. Most people stocked up on alcohol before prohibition went into effect. Rum running and bootlegging became incredibly lucrative. Enforcing this law was not easy and there weren’t nearly enough agents to attempt to. You have millions of dollars being paid in bribes for officials to look the other way. You also have about a billion dollars in lost tax revenue.
The automobile has begun to revolutionize society. At the start of the decade you have about 7 million cars on the roads across the United States. By the end of the decade, there are 23 million. Dirt roads and cars can go about 30MPH. By the next decade that will increase significantly. For the first time in the 1920s, more people are living in cities than is living on farms. The automobile helps to make the world a bit smaller. Places that were once 10 miles away from where you lived might as well have been across the country. Now, with an automobile you can travel further. You don’t have to live near a railroad line.
Couples would be invited to tea parties. Prior to the start of prohibition, if there was a bar with alcohol being served, men were patrons, not women. A woman smoking a cigarette would be considered a bold move on her part.
Attending boxing matches and listening to them at home on the radio. Listening to music on the radio gained popularity throughout the 20s. The first beauty pageants are taking place in the 20s as well. The 1-piece bathing suit was born! It was still common place to wear stocking on the beach. If one wanted to push the envelope, all they needed to do was to roll the stocking under the knee!
At the start of the decade, live theater and attending plays were all the rage. Variety shows like the Ziegfeld follies. By the end of the decade, that changes to people attending the movies to see a film.
People went to the movies – stars like Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford were the talk of the town. The movie It – which was about a young sales girl who falls in love with her boss. The actress, whose name was Clara Bow became known as the “IT GIRL”. Perhaps you’ve heard the saying “She’s got it” – whatever IT refers so. That term defined the notion of someone have an indescribable appeal. You may have even heard the term “The new IT girl”. Eventually movies go from being silent films to Talkies. The Jazz Singer was the first talking motion picture. For 25 cents, people would see a double feature and a live show. Hollywood, California while it’s hard to imagine this today, was a small sleepy town in the west. It soon became a booming city filled with movie stars.
The 1920s has its own slang. Some of the terms used then are still in use today. The term Baloney was used to mean nonsense. You still hear people say that’s a bunch of baloney! A Jalopy is a broken down car. If something is the Bees Knees, or you got a beef or a problem. A big shot, the big house referring to jail, chick or babe become used to describe women as does the term dame. My dogs are tired referring to your feet just to name a few examples. People played Mah Jong. Mah Jong became so popular that Chinese manufacturers had difficulty keeping up with the demand.
Music, Jazz is of course the music of the time period! The Charleston which was based off of the movements of African American dancers in Charleston, South Carolina. It was fast-paced and completely different from the calm and ladylike movements of couple-dancing to big band orchestras.
Burial of the unknown soldier in Arlington
Before soldiers had the metal identification tags they wear as necklaces, which is more commonly referred to as Dog Tags, they had aluminum discs with their names on it. The high number of casualties during WWI, especially among British and French soldiers there were many soldiers whose identities were unknown and many soldiers killed in action were buried overseas. To ease the pain of loved ones who sons were killed in the war. They each brought a soldier whose identity was unknown, back home to be buried. The British buried their unknown soldier in Westminster Abbey. The French buried theirs at the base of the Arc de Triumph and in the United States, our unknown soldier is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. The bodies of 4 soldiers were exhumed and reburied in identical caskets. A soldier was selected randomly. The casket was brought back to Washington DC where a state funeral was held on Nov. 11, 1921. crowds gathered in places like Madison Square Garden in order to hear the speeches given at the dedication. On the tomb is written “Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.” The tomb is guarded by military personnel 24 hours a day.
I want to briefly discuss some infamous people and events of the 1920s.
Charles Ponzi was born in Italy. He came to America after hearing stories of other Italian immigrants who had come to the United States and made something big of themselves. He tried his hand at all sorts of jobs. He was either fired or he quit before he could be fired. He was in jail in both Canada and the United States for various crimes. Ponzi bought international reply coupons – which was basically a coupon or voucher of sorts that could be exchanged for postal stamps in another country. You bought the voucher for less money than what a stamp would cost. If you sold them, you could make a profit. In 1920, he founded a company called Securities Exchange Co. He sold stocks advertising 50% interest after 90 days. The money he received from investors was supposed to be used to buy IRCs to redeem in the U.S. Instead, Ponzi used the money from new investors to pay off old investors. It is believed Ponzi amassed 15 million dollars from his scheme. That would be over 200 million dollars today. He was arrested and convicted of mail fraud and was later deported back to Italy. This is where the term Ponzi scheme originated from. Today, Bernie Madoff is known for spearheading the largest Ponzi scheme in history worth about 65 million.
Sacco & Vanzetti Case
Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were two Italian immigrants were arrested for the murder of two men – a guard and a paymaster at a Massachusetts factory. Their background didn’t help their case. Known anarchists who when arrested claimed not to own guns but each had a gun on them that had bullets similar to those found at the crime scene. They had ties to anarchists that were known to the US Government. One of their associates was the ringleader of the infamous wall street bombing the day after their arrest that killed 38 people. If you go to wall street you can still see marks on some of the buildings from the bombing.
The case dragged on for years with multiple appeals, calls for a pardon. The two men were sentenced to death by electrical current. Protests erupted in major cities. Bombs were sent to the Judge’s home and even to some of jurors which thankfully had been intercepted. The sentence was carried out in August of 1927 and the men maintained their innocence until the end.
The Scopes Trial is also sometimes referred to as the monkey trial. John T. Scopes a science teacher in Tennessee was arrested and fined for teaching evolution. The Butler Act made it illegal for any teacher to teach evolution in a state funded school. The ACLU announced it would finance a test case to challenge the constitutionality of the Butler Act. John T. Scopes incriminated himself. Former politician and once Presidential candidate (3 times) William Jennings Bryan who himself was an anti-evolution activist agreed to take on the case for the Prosecution. Clarence Darrow took up the defense for the ACLU. The trial took place in 1925 and it didn’t take jurors long to deliver their Guilty verdict… a whopping 9 minutes. The law was upheld.
When it comes to race relations in the United States during the 1920s, the post WWI era sees race riots throughout the country. Jim Crow and Segregation is the law of the land in the South. The Great Migration, the movement of black Americans from the south to Northern cities. You have Black WWI veterans being lynched in their uniforms. DW Griffith’s birth of a Nation, a film about two families living south of the Mason-Dixon Line. It chronicles the time period of the Civil War, the assassination of Lincoln, Reconstruction and portrays the Antebellum south. During the 1920s we also see the resurgence of the KKK. With rapid changes occurring – things like Industrialization, Immigration, and urbanization – we see an increase in Klan activity. You have local chapters throughout the country not just in the South. Membership grew into the million. In addition to terrorizing black, the new Klan also went after immigrants. Seeing these new additions to American society as posing a threat to the white protestant America they were trying to protect. The Klan was especially hostile and violent to Blacks, Catholics and Jews.
New inventions that changed life in the 1920s. The biggest thing is the increase in the number of homes that had electricity. Gone were the need for blocks of ice for one’s ice box – now you could have a refrigerator. Gone were the days of washing clothes one at a time on wash board, now you could buy a washing machine, an electric toaster, electric iron. We have done whole episodes on the automobile, the radio, telephone and airplane. All of these inventions are making life easier. With the expansion of consumer credit, people who may not have otherwise been able to afford these new inventions now could with paying installments or buying on credit.
When people think of the 1920s, they often think of the image of the flapper and people living the high life. A small faction of people were making BIG Money. Life was hard for farmers in rural America. More and More immigrants were coming into the United States and were not treated well. Different groups being the bigger target at different times. We are seeing significant changes in American Society – Socially, economically and politically. By the end of the decade, the economic prosperity enjoyed by some would come to an end with the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression would be felt by all Americans, some more than others.