Chapter One The Roaring Twenties - Morally Abandoned
1.1. Economic Progress
1.2. The Culture of the Twenties
Chapter Two Prohibition and Ku Klux Klan – the Diseases of America
2.1. Politics behind the Prohibition
2.2 Mr. Al Capone
2.3 Ku Klux Klan and Anti-Catholicism
Chapter Three The Great Depression and the Presidents of Hard Times
3.1 The Great Depression
3.2 Herbert Clark Hoover (1874-1964)
3.3. Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882 – 1945)
3.4. The 1936 Elections
3.5. New Deal and Foreign Policy
3.6. The American Preparations for World War II
3.7. Franklin Delano Roosevelt and His Presidency in Retrospect
The 1920s was a time of prosperity, but also a time of many downfalls. It was an era of change a time when people began to do what they wanted to do instead of following social norms. The United States of America prospered as Henry Ford developed the automobile assembly line, as the nation had its first ever TV broadcast in New York, and as mail was delivered via airplanes. Women fought for the right to vote and changed the rules of fashion. Prohibition made it illegal to drink alcohol, creating organized crime with Al Capone leading the way. Charles Lindbergh got the name Lucky Lindy and became a national hero.
The title of my project: America between Wars allowed me to present the most powerful country of the world from a different perspective. The decision behind choosing such topic was dictated by the previous interests which emerged as a result of my earlier contacts with the American culture. If the number of happenings during America between wars could be sufficient to make the reader interested in the topic, the above mentioned would be sufficient. Even though the number of the aspects of the history which I have included in my thesis was shortened to the reasonable limits, there is still some space left for the reader to say – “I would have chosen something else”. And he or she would be right. The American history of this particular period is so drastically changing and has so many twists and turns that there is no way to chose the best of the best.
In the aftermath of World War I, the “Great War,” the nations of the world tended to retreat inside themselves, to lick their wounds and reorganize their economic and social structures. The United States, relatively untouched by the first world war, at least in comparison with the losses suffered by the European nations, also turned inward.
In America, the Roaring Twenties were a time of great excitement - bathtub gin, speakeasies, new dress styles, a revolution in manners and morals, the Harlem Renaissance, a golden age of sports, radios, movies, and a booming stock market. There were bad things too, the lawlessness generated by prohibition, the reactivation of the Ku Klux Klan, animosity between country and city, and a resurgence xenophobia that saw the United States slam its doors to most foreign immigration.
Toward the end of the decade came the great stock market crash which, although it was not the cause of the Depression, helped trigger a series of events that led to the worst economic slump in American history. Unemployment sky-jumped, production broke down, banks failed, farmers discovered that it cost more to produce food then they could sell it for, and suicides rose alarmingly.
Into such milieu came Franklin Delano Roosevelt, fifth cousin of progressive President Theodore Roosevelt, and a man who had suffered a serious personal tragedy when he contracted polio. He overcame his disease and was elected twice as governor of New York and came to Washington in 1933 ready to do battle with the forces of depression. Roosevelt’s New Deal was a huge experiment in government intervention in the economy, and although they did not end the Depression, Roosevelt’s policies gave hope to many and changed the relationship between the government and the people forever.
As the country struggled to pull itself out of the Depression, storm Clouds gathered, as missed militarists in Japan and fascist dictators in Germany and Mussolini once again set the world on a collision course with bloody war. Breaking out in 1937 in China in 1939 in Poland, the war eventually drag the United States and as the democracies struggled to maintain a free world. Victorious in the second world war, the United States emerged as the world’s superpower, its first atomic power, and a nation of unprecedented economic might.
In order to gain an insight in the above mentioned aspects that can be associated with the history of America between wars, I have decided for the following division within my project.:
The first chapter – The Roaring Twenties – Morally Abandoned, will answer the general question – what was the idea of the Roaring Twenties? What Americans did in order to earn such nickname to the decade of their history? The sub-chapters shall deal with the economy of the United States at the times as well as with its culture.
Chapter two, titled Prohibition and Ku Klux Klan – the Diseases of America will present two painful problems of the most famous melting pot of the world. The obvious failed noble experiment of complete ban on alcohol with it s famous faces such as Al Capone, and in addition much more frightening phenomenon – of xenophobia and anger towards those who created the American multi-culture – the immigrants.
Chapter three is going to be devoted to the times of Great Depression and the people behind the steers of politics of the times. I have also decided to include the aspect of the World War II effects on American economy.
During the process of my thesis writing, I have been using not only literary sources, library resources and the magazines’ extracts; I have also decided to explore the Internet where I have found amazing entries – some more valuable, some less, but all of them helpful.
I sincerely hope that my project will be as helpful as all of the sources I have came across during my work.
The Roaring Twenties - Morally Abandoned
The decade of the 1920s is often characterized as a period of American prosperity and optimism. It was the Roaring Twenties, which genesis of the name shall be explained in the further part of this project. It was also the decade of bath tub gin, the model T, the $5 work day, the first transatlantic flight, and the movie. It is often seen as a period of great advance as the nation became urban and commercial, for example Calvin Coolidge declared that America’s business was a business.
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The decade is also seen as a period of rising intolerance and isolation: chastened by the first world war, historians often point out that Americans retreated into a provincialism evidenced by the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, the anti radical hysteria of the Palmer raids, restrictive immigration laws, and prohibition. David A. Shannon in his Between the Wars: America, 1919-1941, states that:
To judge from some accounts, Americans did little else from 1920 until 1929 but make millions in the stock market, dance the Charleston and the Black Bottom, dodge gangster bullets, wear raccoon coats, and carry hip flasks. "Flapper," "saxophone," "bathtub gin," and "speakeasy" are the key words in this special genre of popular historical writing, and the interpretation of the era, usually only implied, is that America went on a hedonistic binge for approximately a decade.2
Overall, the decade is often seen as a period of great contradiction: of rising optimism and suppressing cynicism, of hopeful increasing and bitter decreasing faith, of great hope and great despair. All in all, the historians usually perceive the 1920s as a decade of serious cultural conflicts. Therefore, in order to gather a more condensed and simplified picture of the times, we need to segregate them into several facts; the fact that the twenties saw America become prosperous; the fact that economical changes influenced society changes and shaped it into something completely new and unseen in the world; and finally – that the prosperity went side by side with such phenomena as the return of religious and racial xenophobia, which revealed itself with the Ku Klux Klan reactivation.
However, the first fact regarding the twenties is that it were the times of the prosperity and economic progress and as such, the next sub-chapter shall discuss the changes in the market of American twenties.
1.1. Economic Progress
What is significant about the economy of the twenties in America is the fact that this decade was called by its contemporaries, The New Era; it was nothing else but a borrowed prosperity and a new opportunity created in the aftermath of World War I. The war began in Europe in 1914, and the United States entered the fights in 1917. A significant reason for United States involvement in the war was the nation’s economic links to the Allied Powers, especially Great Britain. Wall Street financial institutions such as the House of Morgan had given loans to Great Britain for over 2.3 billion dollars.
Before 1917, American public opinion about the war was generally divided along ethnic lines. The Americans of Anglo-Saxon heritage were on the side of Britain and France. Americans of German heritage wished the United States to remain neutral. Many Americans with ties to Eastern Europe, such as Russian and Polish Jews, also supported Germany, which, up to that time, had been more tolerant of religious minorities than either tsarist Russia or the nations of Western Europe.
The United States, still officially neutral, mostly ignored British search and seizure of American ships for two simple reasons: German market was not as important as either the French or the British markets and mostly due to the fact that sales to Britain and France reached billions in 1916.
By 1915, President Wilson, while preaching peace, had begun to gear up for warfare, expanding the United States army and navy. Because of increased German submarine attacks on American ships, America entered the war on the side of the Allies in 1917, and almost immediately tipped the balance in their favor. In full retreat, Germany asked for an armistice, which was granted on 11th November 1918. The effect of the war on Germany, France, Great Britain, and Russia was devastating, both to their economies and in the loss of human life. America, on the other hand, came out of the war relatively unscathed. American soldiers returned home in May 1919, welcomed by joyful parades and the promise of a prosperous decade.
Of course, there were problems as well. The transition from a war-time to a peace-time economy caused economic dislocation for industrial workers, loss of income for farmers, and renewed racism against African-Americans and foreign immigrants. Many Americans, however, reveled in the new culture of consumerism. And step by step, the market began going up and recovering.
The 1920s were marked by rapid economic and urban growth, inspiring tensions as rural America resisted the ensuing changes. The 1920s marked the beginning of modern times in America. It was then that the assembly line, the city, and the automobile became dominant features of everyday life. In this project, I will try to focus on some of the topics above and research it in throughout a library as well as the Internet sources.
During my work three positions were of great help to me, three fascinating books which served as the interesting resources and hints of what should I look for on Internet.: David A. Shannon’s Between the Wars: America, 1919-1941, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States 1492 till Present, and finally Longman History of the United States of America by Hugh Brogan.
That is why I shall begin this sub-chapter with a quote from one of the above mentioned positions, from David Shannon’s book; the author, describing the economic situation of the twenties in America, used the following words:
Prosperity was a basic fact of the 1920's, one that shaped and conditioned many aspects of life outside the economic realm. A generally expanding economy underlay a generally expansive view about fife, as happened again in the generation after World War II.3
Similarly, the other historians picture the twenties as the prosperous times of the boom in the market, with various changes and inventions. Howard Zinn agrees that Americans of the times were in a quite good social position.:
There was some truth to die standard picture of the twenties as a time of prosperity and fun—the Jazz Age, the Roaring Twenties. Unemployment was down, from 4,270,000 in 1921 to a little over 2 million in 1927. The general level of wages for workers rose. Some farmers made a lot of money. The 40 percent of all families who made over $2,000 a year could buy new gadgets: autos, radios, refrigerators. Millions of people were not doing badly—and they could shut out of the picture the others—the tenant farmers, black and white, the immigrant families in the big cities either without work or not making enough to get the basic necessities.4
However, almost instantly he admits that the true prosperity was actually at the top. According to the further data quoted in his People’s History, while between 1922 and 1927 the simple industrial worker wage rose up only 1.4 percent per year, the stock holders of common stocks actually gained 16.4 percent per year. Moreover, the earnings of the typical family were also not the most promising, not even achieving the amount of 1,000 dollars a year. And such situation referred to over forty percent of the total American households.5
But again, this decade cannot be forgotten for many reasons; Hugh Brogan in his Longman History of the United States of America outlines it is the following words:
This was the decade of the triumphant skyscrapers, the decade which launched the Empire State Building (1,248 feet) and Rockefeller Center - for which the unlucky thirties had to pay. New York had conquered: the symbol of American life was no longer to be a log cabin or a family farm, it was to be a gigantic cigar. In 1925 Harold Ross from Colorado launched the greatest of all American magazines, inevitably named the New Yorker, with the express mission of startling the staid, such as 'the old lady from Dubuque'.6
The branches of the industries did not share the prosperity, however; at least not all of them. After the hard year 1921, with nearly five million unemployed and the reduction of the national income by twenty-eight percent, the coming year 1922 allowed many companies to recover and come into light buzzing and in a good condition. Shannon explains that some economic activities were not able to follow the market’s standards. Here we could include the agriculture which has never recovered from the depression caused by the war.7 The other industry branch seriously affected by the passing years was the textile industry. The reason for the textile market break down was a trivial aspect of fashion – with its change, the materials needed to make a proper dress in 1928 were much fewer than those needed ten years earlier. Moreover, the other problem touched this branch – it was introduction of new materials – synthetic, called Rayon.8
Another industry in depression was coal – the stock destroyed by the modern times – to make things more pathetic… however, the truth was very close to the above mentioned, while simple change from the rail to the car as well as shift in the types of heating sources, made coal gradually displaced and unneeded.
Looking back into the bibliographical sources, one cannot avoid the feeling that the opinion regarding the prosperity and actual lack of prosperity or rather apparent prosperity are different and vary drastically from one historian to another.
While Shannon is optimistic and sees other industrial activities as the one in progress, Zinn sees a darker sides of America at twenties. To compare the excerpt from A People’s History of the United States.:
There were enough well-off people to push the others into the background. And with the rich controlling the means of dispensing information, who would tell?9
with Between the Wars.:
But despite cyclical downswings and generally depressed conditions in agriculture, textiles, and coal, prosperity- was strong. One has only to look at the statistics. Real per-capita income increased almost one third from 1919 to 1929. (Real per-capita income is total national income divided by population and adjusted for price changes.) The mythical average person—not worker, but all people, men, women, and children—received $716 in 1929. In 1919 he had received just $543, measured in 1929 dollars. Manufacturing industries increased their output by almost two thirds, but because of a tremendous increase in labor productivity due to technological advances there were actually fewer people engaged in manufacturing in 1929 than there had been in 1919. A large number of these displaced production workers went into service industries, where many of the jobs were "white collar."10
Therefore, one should admit that the actual level of living had improved in a postwar decade. Shannon even points out that an ordinary American family could enjoy such durable consumer goods as washing machines, radios or even cars. And at this point, referring to the above quotation, one shall realize the aspect which allowed this significant development of standard of living – an introduction of completely new industries and means of production – so called mass production.
In America skilled workers were exceedingly scarce, and it seemed worthwhile to follow production strategies that used skilled workers as little as possible. Some of this was finding new and more productive ways of doing things: ways that would have been profitable for British, or other manufacturers, even facing lower costs for skilled labor, to adopt. Mass production, as it was developed in the United States in the early years of the twentieth century, was the carrying of the American system on to its logical extreme.
Unskilled workers could be substituted for skilled labor. The task of management was made much simpler: the assembly line forced the pace of the slower workers and made it obvious where bottlenecks were occurring. Fixed overhead costs were spread out over larger and larger volumes of production, thus lower and lower prices became possible.
In the labor history literature, the adoption of the American system is often called deskilling. Knowledge of how to run the factory and the production process is taken out of the hands of skilled craftsmen and put into the hands of the managers and the machine makers. Jobs become more boring and more alienating. And wages fall. Historians’ accounts of American industrialization often see the coming of mass production as a fight between the process of deskilling, and tending to lower wages;
Ford became a celebrity, and a symbol. This man was using the extraordinary productivity of modern manufacturing not to make a fortune for himself, but to instantly raise his unskilled employees into the comfort of the middle class. Mass production, as some nameless publicist began to call it, offered the prospect of a ride to utopia via technology alone.
On the whole, the United States economy experienced steady growth and expansion during the 1920s. Three factors fueled this economic growth: machines, factories and the process of standardized mass production. The self-perpetuating cycle of this phenomena was created by several factors, such as: standardized mass production led to better machinery in factories, which allowed higher production and higher wages, which led to bigger demand for consumer goods and eventually led back to more standardized mass production.
According to historians, there were several major sources of the 1920s economic boom which span upward spiral until 1929 and here we could include: Effect of WWI on technology, scientific management through so-called Taylorism, also rapid increase in worker productivity, psychology of consumption which I shall discuss broader in a further part of my project and finally - relations between the federal government and big business.
Coming back to the complex aspect of workers’ productivity, we must explain the forces behind such a turn. As scientific management and new technology increased workers’ productivity, workers earned higher wages and became better consumers. And then, a new innovation appeared: the installment plan, which encouraged Americans to build up debt in order to buy consumer goods.
1.1.1 Model T and Its Results
“Americans can have any kind of car they want, and any color they want, as long as it's a Ford, and as long as it's black.”11
It was a famous dictum by Henry Ford - the chief figure in this expanding industry. Ford did not invent the automobile, but he did the most to promote the car by developing more efficient and cheaper means of production. He built his first car in his garage in 1896. If we were to find Ford in an above mentioned aspect of mass production, we would need to check at the top. Henry Ford planned large scale production of his Model N in 1905 to reduce expensive skilled work to as small as part of production as possible. Moreover, in moving the work to the men by means of the assembly line, Ford engineers found a method to speed up the slow men and slow down the fast men. In 1915, soon after Ford developed Model T, the auto-frenzy spread all over the country. Nowhere was the psychology of consumption more evident than in the automobile industry. Annual automobile production rose from 2 million during the 1920s to 5.5 million in 1929. By the late 1920s, there was one automobile for every five Americans, allowing, theoretically, for every person in the United States to be on the road at the same time.
The historians agree that the most spectacular new industry were the motor vehicles. Shannon admits that auto industry’s statistics were impressive, especially the fact that it employed roughly one tenth of nonagricultural labor force.12 Two factors led to the rising popularity of cars and those were: first of all, the price of automobiles declined steadily until the mid-1920s so that many well-paid working families could now afford to purchase a car. The Model T Ford, for example, cost just $290 in 1926. Secondly, in 1925, Americans made 75% of all automobile purchases on the installment plan – such method of payment was so convenient that nobody thought about painful future obligations and necessity of paying the loan down.
The obvious result of such mass production and auto-frenzy was perfectly portrayed by Brogan in his History of the United States of America:
The mass market for cars pushed the auto-makers into the front line of American businesses. […] US Steel, the pre-war giant of the corporations, was hopelessly dwarfed by the Big Three. The demand for petroleum products made the oil companies ever larger, more profitable and more powerful. Demand for the materials which went to the making of automobiles - steel, glass, rubber, paint, for instance -soared, stimulating these industries too, and stimulating rapid technological innovation, for the car itself was changing yearly. It needed good roads to drive on: road-builders and the producers of concrete profited.
A whole new profession, that of car-dealer (whether of used or new vehicles), sprang up. And still the sales rose.13
There were also social results fitted to the expansion of the automotive industry. As Brogan presents, the car was the spark needed to break the division between the country and the town. He explains that the literal movement was probably began amongst the middle class urban dwellers who were longing to see the rest of their beloved country.14 Eventually, due to this constant trips and journeys along and across the country America covered itself with motels and restaurants offering refreshing drinks, tasty hot meals and obviously – Howard Johnson’s ice creams.15
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One cannot forget about one more reason for which we owe the cars. The impact of the cars on daily life of an average American was tremendous. People were travelling to relax, they were not restricted by the bus or a tram – now they were free to go. The common place for spending a free time was in an open space, somewhere out of the crowded town. Brogan summarizes this in the following words:
Even more important, perhaps, was the impact of the car on daily life. It came into use for all sorts of short trips - to work or to the shops - which had previously been made by trolley-car or urban railway, It made a whole new pattern of living possible: vast suburbs began to spread over the land, to the great profit of the building industry. No longer did you have to live in comparatively cramped quarters near the railroad station. Nor did you have to take your annual holiday at one of the traditional, crowded resorts near home. Instead you could speed over the hills and far away, where planners like Robert Moses of New York state had prepared parks and beaches for you: a new function for government.17
On the other hand, Shannon reveals the other branch of industry which gained on importance in American twenties. But this industry was a product and the reason behind a new symptom within the society – a mass consumption.
1.1.2 The Effects of Mass Consumption and Affluence
The man who builds a factory, builds a temple. The man who works there, worships there.18
In a variety of ways, Americans wanted to get rich, affluence spoke to them and they sought the ways to be there, to be able to change their life and lives of their children. The symbol of well-do home was an electricity.
The electric appliance industry become more and more important while most of America’s families started having their homes wired – connected to the electric lines. According to Shannon, by 1927 almost two thirds of them had electric power and even two years before that, households used electric irons, vacuum cleaners and washing machines19.
And here, for the first time, the world observed the women in a completely new role. Women became America’s greatest consumers, purchasing appliances and other items that would have been considered a luxury just a generation before.
There were yet other ways in which industry tempted Americans for new necessities. Shannon tells us that the gadget connected with the electric industry was radio.
Radio sets manufactured in the early 1920's […]were operated by storage batteries, big things that weighed over twenty-five pounds and were nothing like the dry cells that power today's transistor radios. The home radio industry was altogether new.20
Further, we read that the first commercial radio station was KDKA and it went on the air in the 1920s in Pittsburgh, while the first public radio station opened on the campus of the University of Wisconsin. By 1922, 3 million American households had radios, and purchases of receivers had increased by 2,500%, giving the industry annual sales of $850 million by 1929.
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Commercial stations such as KDKA were funded by sales of radio receivers that were necessary for listening to their programs. The new marketing strategy became very popular in nineteen twenties. The main goal of these companies was the sale of equipment; broadcasting was simply a way to promote sales. But, as radio technology was becoming more popular, sales of radio sets were being affected by radio amateurs that assembled receivers from parts. Radio companies were slowly realizing that the sales of radio receivers would not support their industry for long. A hit idea from AT&T, a partner of RCA, was to sell air time to businesses willing to advertise on the radio. The idea of advertisement on the radio was strongly opposed by the public.
As it was already mentioned above, Americans changed due to progress in their country. Their needs were covered by mass production, they satisfied those needs throughout mass consumption; but the question arises – to what extent did those factors influenced them?
One of the effects connected with the affluence has been broadly explained above – it was the aspect of automobile. It was assumed that cars had impact on social level of life, while people began travelling and this was connected with the development of completely new service industry – motels and railroad restaurants, with developed highways as means of comfortable travels.
The second, was a radio and at this point Shannon explains that this invention helped to blur the distinction between the urban and rural life. Once more, similar far-reaching influence of the durable goods, exactly the same as it was with the car.
The farmer went to town for his entertainment (usually the movies) and listened to the same radio programs as the city dweller. His children attended schools like those in urban centers. He read a city newspaper. The farmer frequently even took a job in the city, at least for part of the year, and continued to live on the land.23
The changes, however, went even further, this time they happened in the mentality of the people;
Affluence changed the education of the city youngster just as it and the automobile had changed rural schooling. The greatest change was in the number of students in high school.24
Historian explains that the main reason for which young people decided to continue education was due to their parents’ financial stability; for the first time people could afford to go on without help and support from their children’s wages.
Education was indeed another important force behind the social changes of the nineteen-twenties. More and more Americans were getting a good education. The number of students attending high school doubled between nineteen twenty and nineteen thirty. Many of the schools now offered new kinds of classes to prepare students for useful jobs. Attendance at colleges and universities also increased greatly. And colleges offered more classes in such useful subjects as teacher training, engineering, and business administration. The school were changing the society – young people, often called pompously the future of the nation. As it appears, those people were also the motion power behind the changes of the educational system.:
The greatest increase in college enrollments came in the vocational fields, teacher preparation, engineering, and business administration. Undergraduate schools of business were something new in higher education, but it was not surprising that in the business civilization of the 1920's hundreds of young men studied such vocational subjects as salesmanship and advertising.25
America was preparing the society’s offspring for the new era and they willingly agreed to it. And so the world around them was steadily changing to fit their needs to satisfy their demands. And what they actually wanted was a freedom – widely understood.
1.2. The Culture of the Twenties
There was one stream of culture […] that merited the admiration of intelligent and well-educated people and that broke new ground in the development of art forms.26
The nineteen twenties brought a feeling of freedom and independence to millions of Americans, especially young Americans. Young soldiers returned from the world war with new ideas. They had seen a different world in Europe. They had faced death and learned to enjoy the pleasures that each day offered. Many of these young soldiers were not willing to quietly accept the old traditions of their families and villages when they returned home. Instead, they wanted to try new ways of living.
Many young Americans, both men and women, began to challenge some of the traditions of their parents and grandparents. For example, some young women began to experiment with new kinds of clothes. They no longer wore dresses that hid the shape of their bodies. Instead, they wore thinner dresses that uncovered part of their legs. Many young women began to smoke cigarettes, too. Cigarette production in the United States more than doubled in the ten years between nineteen eighteen and nineteen twenty-eight. Many women also began to drink alcohol with men in public for the first time. And they listened together to a popular new kind of music: jazz.
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Young people danced the Fox Trot, the Charleston, and other new dances. They held one another tightly on the dance floor, instead of dancing far apart.
It was a revolution in social values, at least among some Americans. People openly discussed subjects that their parents and grandparents had kept private. There were popular books and shows about unmarried mothers and about homosexuality. The growing film industry made films about all-night parties between unmarried men and women. And people discussed the new ideas about sex formed by Sigmund Freud and other new thinkers.
An important force behind these changes was the growing independence of American women. In nineteen twenty, the nation passed the Nineteenth Amendment to the constitution, which gave women the right to vote.28
Women had finally, after long agitation, won the right to vote in 1920 with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, but voting was still a middle-class and upper-class activity. Eleanor Flexner, recounting the history of the movement, says the effect of female suffrage was that "women have shown the same tendency to divide along orthodox party lines as male voters."29
Of equal importance, many women took jobs during the war and continued working after the troops returned home. Also, new machines freed many of them from spending long hours of work in the home washing clothes, preparing food, and doing other jobs. Between 1910 and 1930 the proportion of women in the labor force remained at about 20 percent. However, there was a notable change in the kinds of work that some women did. The number of female cooks, dress makers, household servants, and farmhands dropped. The number of women doctors, bankers, lawyers, police and probation officer, social workers, and hairdressers rose.
1.1.3 Flappers and the Jazz Age
The spirit of the Roaring Twenties was marked by a general feeling of discontinuity associated with modernity, and a break with traditions. A new and different era was felt to be coming up. Technologies, like trains, cars and mass communication by radio and telephone, 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.
Jazz became associated with all things modern, sophisticated, and also decadent. Some of the most popular bands of the decade included those of: Paul Whiteman, Ben Bernie, Rudy Vallee, Ted Lewis, and Fred Waring. Amongst popular vocalists we might have found: Gene Austin, Eddie Cantor, Maurice Chevalier and Cliff Edwards. Men tended to sing in a high pitches voice, typified by Harold Scrappy Lambert who was one of the most popular recording artists of the decade.
One cannot forget that the music that people consider today as jazz tended to be played by minorities. In the twenties, the majority of people listened to what we would call today sweet music and was categorized as hot music or race music. Louis Armstrong marked the time with improvisations and endless variations on a single melody. Armstrong contributed largely to making so-called scat singing popular.
And in this colorful times, in the deafening jazz music of the 1920s, a new woman was born. She smoked, drank, danced, and voted. She cut her hair, wore make-up, and went to petting parties. She was giddy and took risks. She was a flapper. An entry from the Merriam Webster Dictionary online gives us the following definition of the word “flapper”:
[…] a young woman; specifically : a young woman of the period of World War I and the following decade who showed freedom from conventions (as in conduct)30.
The term flapper first appeared in Great Britain after World War I. It was there used to describe young girls, still somewhat awkward in movement who had not yet entered womanhood. Authors such F. Scott Fitzgerald and artists such as John Held Jr. first used the term half reflecting and half creating the image and style of the flapper.
Fitzgerald described the ideal flapper as: “lovely, expensive, and about nineteen.”31 Held accentuated the flapper image by drawing young girls wearing unbuckled galoshes that would make a “flapping noise when walking”.32
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Many have tried to define flappers. In William and Mary Morris' Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, they state, “In America, a flapper has always been a giddy, attractive and slightly unconventional young thing who, in Mencken’s words, ‘was a somewhat foolish girl, full of wild surmises and inclined to revolt against the precepts and admonitions of her elders’.”33 Flappers had both an image and an attitude.
1 The decade was called the "Roaring '20s." Hollywood movies and television make it look like one big dance party with a few gangsters thrown in for dramatic purposes. Historians, journalists, and novelists are fascinated with the 1920s as the beginning of modern America - a decade that helped set the tone for the rest of the century. Here Driver’s side view of 1920 Chandler, downloaded from: http://www.learner.org/biographyofamerica/prog20/feature/index.html
2 David A. Shannon in his Between the Wars: America, 1919-1941, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1965, p. 84
3 David A. Shannon in his Between the Wars: America, 1919-1941, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1965, p. 85
4 Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States 1492 till Present, Harper Collins Publishers, New York, 1999, p. 382
6 Hugh Brogan, Longman History of the United States of America, Penguin Group, London, 1990, p. 505
7 David A. Shannon in his Between the Wars: America, 1919-1941, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1965, p. 86
9 Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States 1492 till Present, Harper Collins Publishers, New York, 1999, p. 383
10 David A. Shannon in his Between the Wars: America, 1919-1941, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1965, p. 86
11 Hugh Brogan, Longman History of the United States of America, Penguin Group, London, 1990, p. 505
12 Based on David A. Shannon in his Between the Wars: America, 1919-1941, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1965, p. 86
13 Hugh Brogan, Longman History of the United States of America, Penguin Group, London, 1990, p. 505
14 Ibid, p. 509
16 The Howard Johnson name has been famous for value and quality since 1924. The ice-cream of this brand were offered in over twenty flavors; http://www.hojomarkham.com/pictures/view.nhtml?profile=pictures&UID=10092
17 Hugh Brogan, Longman History of the United States of America, Penguin Group, London, 1990, p. 510
18 Calvin Coolidge’s quote, 30th President of the United States, between 1923-1929
19 David A. Shannon in his Between the Wars: America, 1919-1941, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1965, p. 88
20 David A. Shannon in his Between the Wars: America, 1919-1941, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1965, p. 88
21 Radio recipes; the popularity of the medium spread all over the country rapidly and by 1929 over two fifths of the families of America owned one.
22 Powel Crosley Jr. from Cincinnati, Ohio pictured with the wireless, crystal radio set that he perfected and manufactured, 1938. The stuffed toy dog on his lap was a company mascot known as the 'Crosley Pup'. http://www.ohiohistorycentral.org/entry.php?rec=1536
23 David A. Shannon in his Between the Wars: America, 1919-1941, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1965, p. 93
25 Ibid., p. 94
26 Ibid., p. 95
27 The image shows Rep. T.S. McMillan of Charleston, S.C. with flappers, Miss Ruth Bennett and Miss Sylvia Clavins, who are doing the Charleston on railing, with U.S. Capitol in background. © 2006-2007 www.old-picture.com
28 Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States 1492 till Present, Harper Collins Publishers, New York, 1999, p. 384
30 Merriam Webster Online Dictionary, http://www.m-w.com/cgi-bin/dictionary?va=flappers
31 As quoted in Jackie Hatton, Flappers, St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, 2000
32 Hall, and Ralph K. Andrist, ed., The American Heritage: History of the 20's & 30's, New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., Inc., 1970, p. 130
33 William and Mary Morris, Morris' Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins Collins; 2 Sub edition, 1988, p. 348
- Quote paper
- Marta Zapała-Kraj (Author), 2018, America Between the Wars. The Various Faces of the Power, Entertainment and Depression, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/470999