What life was like in the Roaring Twenties
The 1920s in America really did roar. People revved up their car engines, took off in planes, and, like never before, made their voices heard literally and figuratively.
A decade earlier, war engulfed the globe, and its modernized weapons unleashed unprecedented destruction, bloodshed, and misery. Civilians died of famine and disease. Soldiers who made it home were scarred by trench warfare, wounded from chemical weaponry like mustard gas, and shell-shocked with what we now recognize today as post-traumatic stress disorder.
The 1920s saw America free of war, celebrating but still haunted by its weight. Peacetime prosperity raised the standard of living for millions. People took to the dance floor, shedding their cares doing the Charleston, listening to the latest music on the radio and hearing the first live sportscasts from across the country.
Assembly lines and mass production were technological advances that brought down the prices of consumer goods. The spread of electrical power created a demand for appliances. And newly introduced installment plans allowed people to buy goods on credit.
Millions of women found themselves able to vote for the first time. Enjoying independence, they bobbed their hair, shortened their skirts, and let their new appliances share in the housework.
The cost of owning a car fell within the reach of many households, and America’s love affair with the automobile began. Roads were paved and stores were built to accommodate the newfound passion for driving. In the air, passenger planes flew and stunt pilots entertained.
Behind the carefree images, dark forces were at work. Conservative morality fought against modern science, while white supremacy tapped into Americans’ fear of foreign-bred communism. Organized labor lost gains it had made during the war effort. The ambitions of temperance behind Prohibition resulted in lawlessness and organized crime. Racial tensions brewed.
The decade’s energy and exuberance came to a stunning end when the stock market crashed in 1929. The somber, downhearted Great Depression silenced the roar.
To look at America during the Roaring Twenties, Stacker compiled a list of discoveries, trends, and changes that shaped lives in the 1920s, from news sites, historic research, scientific studies, and government reports.
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The impact of women’s right to vote
Women won the right to vote in the United States with the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1920. That meant more than 26 million new voters could head to the election booth. Candidates and political parties sought women’s support; the impact was seen in legislation and policies that improved working conditions and wages for women, terms of inheritance, and divorce settlements.
Public health and child mortality rates improve
When women started to vote, significant efforts to address public health followed, including funding and local door-to-door campaigns aimed at improving hygiene. Studies show child mortality rates dropped as much as 15% a year—roughly 20,000 fewer deaths nationwide—as better hygiene drove down the spread of deadly infectious diseases like diphtheria and meningitis.
More money spent on public education
Spending on public education jumped in the 1920s, a development linked to the women’s vote. In the South, school spending per student increased by about a third. Among whites in the South, incomes then rose about a third as well, studies show.
Americans tune into the radio
Radio boomed in the 1920s. The first commercial radio broadcast was produced in 1920 out of station KDKA in Pittsburgh. Four years later, there were 600 commercial stations across the country. By the end of the decade, there were radios in more than 12 million U.S. households.
Automobiles are more affordable and comfortable
The popularity of cars soared in the 1920s, thanks in part to assembly line production that brought costs down—a Model T was $260 in 1924, comparable to $4,000 today—and it became more common to buy on credit. New cars had more effective brakes on all four wheels, safety glass that did not shatter, full doors and heaters.
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With more cars, a need for more roads
As more Americans started driving, the number of roads built in the United States increased. The Federal Highway Act of 1921 was passed by Congress to address the need for paved interstates, especially in the West, and provided federal aid to build those highways. But it was not until 1956 that the nation’s interstate system would get funded to completion under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had seen the effectiveness of the autobahn for troops in Germany while he served as the commander of Allied forces in Europe during World War II.
Bootleggers, speakeasies and organized crime
The 18th Amendment to the Constitution, banning the making and sale but not possession or consumption of liquor, formally took effect in 1920, largely with unintended and unwanted consequences. The federal government suffered a loss of $11 billion in tax revenue, and a lack of regulation fueled unfettered consumption. The black market flourished with bootlegging and speakeasies, and organized crime profited handsomely. The 21st Amendment repealed Prohibition in 1933.
Dancing for fun and money
After World War I, Americans hit the dance floor, doing steps like the Charleston and the Black Bottom. At dance marathons, couples competed to see who could dance the longest. But the frivolity and fun wore off after the stock market crash in 1929, when dance marathons became grotesque displays of people desperate for the prize money.
Studio system takes hold in Hollywood
In 1920s Hollywood, the studio system was created in which actors, directors, writers and others were put under contracts, and production and distribution were tightly controlled by the giant industry studios. Independent movie theaters were subject to so-called block booking that required them to rent a package of films and often denied them access to box-office hits. A 1948 U.S. Supreme Court decision brought an end to the monopolistic system, ordering studios to rid themselves of the theaters they owned.
1927 Rose Bowl ushers in radio network programming
Local radio stations formed networks to share programming, and the first nationwide broadcast was produced by the National Broadcasting Company, of the 1927 Rose Bowl football game out of Pasadena, California. The game between Stanford University and the University of Alabama ended in a tie. Popular culture, music and news spread like never before with the advent of nationwide radio networks.
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