The Jazz Age and the Roaring Twenties

I’ve read frequently in the past, that professional historians (as opposed to the person writing this article), have often dubbed the decade of the 1920s, to be the decade of the 20th century, the decade which was most interesting, most exciting and the most culturally significant, both in the United States and elsewhere.

What Were the Roaring Twenties?

The 1920s are known to history as the Roaring Twenties (taken from the Roaring 40s, 40 degrees south latitude), and it was a name aptly given for one of the most vibrant and tempestuous decades in world history.

The Roaring Twenties essentially saw the birth of modern society as we know it today. The consumer. The homeowner. The driver. The moviegoer or the nightclub patron. While all these people existed before the 1920s, it was in this decade that they really took off. The 20s saw rapid technological changes and innovations and all kinds of flashy new inventions and new cultural phenomena which would change the world and affect it for the next 80 years.

The postwar boom (that’s the First World War, folks; some people forget that there were two of them!) saw America and other countries (such as the United Kingdom and Australia and various European countries) enter a golden age. The age of radio, crime-sprees, prohibition, jazz-music, the Charleston and a new innovation in filmmaking technology: The Talkie!

All of these things are instantly associated with the 20s, a time when many of our grandparents (or if we’re old enough…parents!, or young enough, great-grandparents!) were growing up. People tend to think that before television, folks did the housework, read, sewed, knitted, chatted, had dinner and then went to bed with the chickens. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Just because the sun went down at seven o’clock was no reason for people to do the same, and this was when people started going to what some people probably think is a brand-new invention…the nightclub.

Music of the 1920s.

Then, as now, nightclubs had loud music, smoke, drinks and well-dressed customers…well perhaps that bit hasn’t lasted the test of time….but the rest has. Nightclubs and restaurants of the 1920s were a bit more formal than what we would recognise today, but it was all still there: the dance-floor, the tables, the partying patrons and the cigarette-smoke. Famous nightclubs in the 1920s and 30s included the Stork Club and the 21 Club in Manhattan and the Empress Club in London. The 21 Club still exists today, although it’s now more of a restaurant rather than the speakeasy nightclub it would’ve been, back in the 1920s.

Jazz was the pop music of the 1920s and it was as popular in its day as rap is today. Neither was considered cultured or polite and both took considerable time to be accepted by the more conservative peoples of the world. Jazz was loud, vibrant, fast and raunchy, thoroughly unlike the more delicate parlour-songs of the early 1900s. It was born out of ragtime piano-music of the turn of the century and gradually evolved into its own, distinct genre by the late 1910s. Many famous songs still widely known today, were published in the 1920s…How about…

The Charleston.
Puttin’ on the Ritz.
Blue Skies.
Ain’t Misbehavin’.
There’ll Be Some Changes Made.
I’m Sittin’ on Top of the World.
The Sheik of Arabay.
It Had to be You.
Let’s Misbehave.

The Charleston is considered the ‘theme song’ of fhe 1920s, much like how ‘In the Mood’ was considered the theme-song of the 1940s. It claimed to be the most popular and instantly-recognisable of all the tunes of the 20s and was synonymous with the popular dance known as the Charleston (named for the city of Charleston in South Carolina). Both the song and its accompanying dance were brought to public attention in the musical play ‘Runnin’ Wild’ which premiered in 1923. They were an instant hit! Like the music, the dance was also considered scandalous and offensive, while others saw it as something fresh, bold and fascinating to watch. Actress Ginger Rogers was considered one of the best Charleston dancers ever.

The 20s saw the rise of commercial radio, where people could sit back, turn on the set and enjoy listening to radio serials, the news or popular music. The first commercial radio-station in the USA went on the air in November, 1920 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. For the first time, people were able to listen to public messages and eletronic entertainment from the comfort of their own homes, without having to go hunting for a newspaper. More information on the Golden Age of Radio can be found here.

Films of the 1920s.

The 1920s saw the rise of the film-industry as we know it today. While film or ‘moving pictures’ had existed since the 1890s, it wasn’t until the 1920s that it really started taking off. Early films were short and the actors remained anonymous. By the 1920s, the idea that the people in the films should *gasp!* be recognised for their talent!…had taken hold, and film-credits were introduced, to tell the viewers who played which part, who had produced the film, who had directed it, and so-on. The era of the movie-star had been born!

Famous early movie stars included such notables as…

Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin.
Mary Pickford.
Rudolph Valentino.
Clark Gable.
Buster Keaton.
Harold Lloyd.

Some were successes, some were failures, some made the successful transition to talkies in the 1930s (such as Gable and Chaplin), some were sad failures. Valentino didn’t even make it to talkies, he died in 1926!

A Changing World.

The 1920s saw incredible changes, not just technologically, but also culturally. People started taking to the road in their flivvers, Stutzes, Mercers, Stanleys, Pierces, Maxwells and…dozens of other motor-cars whose brands you probably also have never heard of. The Road Trip became the new craze, and families packed up their picnic baskets and went for long adventures around the country, visiting seaside resorts or quaint villages or going fishing and hunting. The availability of the automobile to the common man (and later, woman) allowed people a new kind of freedom which they had not previously known. No-longer restrained by horses, timetables and trains, they could hop into their cars and drive off whenever they liked.

Looks kinda cute, doesn’t it? This is a 1920 Stanley Steamer. All cars manufactured by Stanley were steam-cars, meaning they worked like locomotives: You boiled the water, the water made the steam, the steam-pressure drove the car. They took forever to get going, but cars like these lasted from the dawn of motoring until the late 1920s. Steam cars were the fastest cars in their day, capable of reaching upwards of 100mph when most gasoline cars struggled to make 60.

Women changed a lot in the 1920s, they wore shorter, more revealing skirts, they started smoking cigarettes, they started drinking, hanging out in nightclubs and even driving motor-cars. Men didn’t believe that women were able to handle such technologically advanced machines such as cars, so this was quite a change.

A new kind of superhero was invented in the 20s as well: Pilots. People could now see that airplanes were here to stay, and that they could serve a practical purpose in the civilian world, delivering mail and packages and helping people fly from A to B. Aerial stunt-pilots and the stuntmen (and women!) who worked with them…colloquially known as ‘barnstormers’ were popular fixtures at fairs and carnivals, where people would come to watch daring aerobatics. Barnstorming was a fad or a phenomenon which is almost fixed in the 1920s, unfortunately. Though it proved very popular, both to participate in as well as to observe, safety regulators put all kinds of rules and guidelines on pilots and barnstormers in the late 1920s to prevent them from hurting themselves. In the end, barnstormers had had enough and stopped performing altogether, because they couldn’t do their tricks AND satisfy the safety-requirements at the same time.

Two men playing tennis on top of a biplane in this 1920s barnstorming photograph. Note the lack of almost all safety equipment.

The End of the Roaring Twenties.

The celebrated, much-loved and sorely-missed 1920s came to an abrupt end in October of 1929. The Wall Street Crash left millions out of work worldwide and the lack of money meant that the postwar extravagance of the 1920s was, to many at least, soon nothing but a distant memory of what life once was.