25 ways American life dramatically changed during the Roaring ‘20s
The 1920s in the United States are remembered as a decade of excess, freedom, prosperity, and progress. On a social and cultural level, women were liberated in ways they never had been in American life before. The idea that women should be covered, chaste, and traditionally feminine at all times was rapidly discarded in favor of shorter hemlines, cropped hair, and the freedom to dance the Charleston by themselves rather than wait for a partner to waltz with. That freedom extended to politics, as women gained the right to vote at the beginning of the decade—equality in one realm translating into equality in another.
Art had once been seen as the domain of a privileged few, but with the introduction of “talking pictures” (film), radio, and jazz, art was accessible to more people than ever, and was created by more people than ever, with women, African Americans, and immigrants making significant contributions, or, in the case of jazz, leading the vanguard.
But America wasn’t all freedom and fun in the 1920s. The decade opened with the introduction of an amendment to the U.S. Constitution outlawing alcohol (repealed in a subsequent amendment) and although this did not stop many Americans from drinking, it did serve to set the tone from the federal government. Commerce began to play an ever-creeping role in the lives of Americans, with companies reforming their wages, benefits, and working conditions to entice workers to leave unions and choose to trust them instead. At the same time, mass advertising and the introduction of credit and layaway convinced more Americans than ever to part with their cash, creating a consumer society that continues to this day.
Indeed, many of the changes that swept through American life in the 1920s have endured, from car ownership to nightclubs. Stacker took a look at 25 of the most significant ways in which American life changed during the Roaring ‘20s, before the decade’s optimism and prosperity came a sobering halt with a cataclysmic financial crash in 1929—the beginning of the Great Depression.
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Americans leave farms in favor of cities
Thomas Jefferson wrote that the United States was a nation of “yeoman farmers,” but by the 1920s, more Americans lived in cities than on farms for the first time. The reason for the shift was an industrial boom, responsible for a rapid rise in manufacturing and factories, along with recent waves of immigration to cities from various parts of Europe. The preponderance of Americans living in cities has never reverted back to farms.
Indoor plumbing and sewer systems became common
Before the 1920s, most Americans were resigned to heading to the outhouse or to using a chamber pot, and washing weekly in a tub filled manually with water. But in the 1920s, most new home construction included at least one bathroom and indoor plumbing.
The loosening of the corset
After centuries of confining their waists in tight corsets to give the appearance of a small silhouette, American women began finally ditching their corsets in the 1920s. The shift was because of a number of factors, including the influx of women into the workforce in the post-World War I years, and dramatically new silhouettes, including the famously straight and loose flapper dresses, and the relaxed and boxy designs of Coco Chanel.
The electrification of America
At the beginning of the 1920s, only 35% of American households had electricity. By the end of the decade, that figure would reach a whopping 68%; 85% of Americans living on farms were counted out of the tally. The influx of electricity into American life changed it forever, shifting hours later as people were able to work into the night more easily, and slashing the number of fires from kerosene lamps and candles.
Appliances make housework easier
Cleaning a rug was a complicated affair before the 1920s. Rugs would have to be taken outside and beaten—a job requiring considerable time, and often more than one person—or taken to a professional. But in 1924, a Swedish inventor introduced the vacuum cleaner to America, transforming the way people cleaned rugs and floors.
Women’s win the right to vote
Before the 1920s, only American men could vote. The face of U.S. politics changed forever on Aug. 18, 1920, when the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, giving American women the right to vote. In November that year, more than 8 million American women voted for the first time in national elections. Mississippi was the last state to ratify the 19th Amendment, which it finally did in 1984.
Americans take to car ownership
In the 1920s, cars became affordable enough for the average family to consider owning one, and American life was forever transformed. Before the 1920s, cars were so expensive that only the wealthy—or devoted hobbyists—could own them. But in the 1920s, manufacturers figured out how to produce cars more cheaply, and suddenly, cars became a mass consumer good. The flooding of cars into the market did more than make it quicker for people to get from point A to point B. It also led to the paving of roads, the construction of bridges and tunnels, and the sprouting of gas stations on the corner.
Bernice (and others) bob their hair
The bob—a short, straight, boyish haircut—became the indisputably most fashionable hairstyle for women in the 1920s. Before the decade began, most women had long hair, which could be quite time-consuming to pin up, wash, and style. Chopping their hair off into a bob made it almost maintenance-free, which gave women back time and freedom. The haircut was such a symbol of the decade that one of its most famous writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald, commemorated it in one of his short stories, “Bernice Bobs Her Hair.”
For American housewives before the 1920s, entire Mondays had long been devoted to washing the family laundry—by hand. But with the popularization of the washing machine and its spread into many homes in the 1920s, American women found themselves freed from the need to spend so much time on this chore, and had time for other pursuits.
The radio connects America to the world
The radio became the media channel of choice for many Americans during the 1920s, threatening the dominance of the daily newspaper as a main source of news. When the radio was introduced to the mass market in 1920, demand for it surged, overwhelming manufacturers. Between 1923 and 1930, 60% of American households purchased radios, enthralled by the ability to hear the voices of politicians, public figures they might have only read about before, and to hear live music.2018 All rights reserved.