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 The decade opened with the introduction of an amendment to the U.S. Constitution outlawing alcohol (repealed in a subsequent amendment) and although this did not stop many Americans from drinking, it did serve to set the tone from the federal government.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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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
The 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed in 1920, prohibiting the sale, manufacture, or consumption of alcohol in the United States. Although the law was unequivocal, this did not stop many Americans from imbibing. To indulge in this suddenly illicit activity, Americans set up speakeasies in place of bars, requiring patrons to pass through storefronts or restaurants selling legal goods to reach the spirits, wine, and beer. Although prohibition was repealed in 1933, the clandestine fun of the speakeasy has made it an enduring model for American bars.
In 1922, trumpet player Louis Armstrong began improvising during his shows, adding musical flourishes and variations that would become the hallmark of the musical style known as jazz. The joy and the mournfulness in jazz were a natural response to the hard times endured by Americans during the World War I, to those who had been lost, and to an appreciation for life of those who lived. Jazz became so popular during the 1920s that the phrase “Jazz Age” has become a metonym for the entire decade.
Before the 1920s, most Americans relied on postal mail service to communicate important news with one another and stay in touch. But over the course of the decade, the telephone would become the main way that Americans made social and professional contacts with one another. For decades, until the advent of email, the telephone was key for Americans to communicate when they could not be face to face.
Although film had been around for years before the 1920s, it wasn’t until the first “talking picture” was released in 1927 that films of the sort we would recognize today were born. Audiences were awed by the film—appropriately titled “The Jazz Singer”—which would change the way Americans consumed entertainment forever. Just a year later, a company called Disney introduced Americans to an onscreen talking mouse who would redefine entertainment for children, as well.
If you had a food staple or a dish you wanted to keep cool before the 1920s, you had better hope you had a cool cellar and a way to reliably freeze ice. But General Electric changed that in 1927 when it introduced the first electric refrigerator for consumer households. Suddenly, grocery shopping didn’t need to happen every day, and families could store perishable items in the cold box to keep them fresh longer, forever transforming cooking and meal time.
Before the 1920s, aviation was thought of as a niche—or military—pursuit. But during the decade, public fascination with airplanes was piqued by American aviators like Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart, who became the first pilot to fly over the Atlantic Ocean (in 1927) and the first pilot to fly from Hawaii to the U.S. mainland (in 1935), respectively. Commercial air travel proceeded apace; in 1926, there were fewer than 6,000 commercial air travelers in the United States, but by 1929, there were roughly 173,000.
It had been decades since the conquest of most Native American land by white settlers and pioneers, but Native Americans themselves had not been granted universal citizenship. Although Native American women married to citizens, those with half-American blood, and veterans (after World War I) were granted citizenship, the classification of all Native Americans as American citizens did not happen until the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act.
Seamstresses and clothes makers before the 1920s largely worked by hand, and later by a large electric sewing machine, making it difficult for most people to make their own clothes. The introduction of the first portable electric sewing machine in the 1920s changed all of this. Now, ordinary American families could have sewing machines in their homes, giving rise to a whole new way for everyday Americans to wear what they liked: If they couldn’t afford it or find it in a store, they could make an article of clothing for themselves.
Before the 1920s, most types of dances required a partner, or for dancers to know elaborate steps. Hot on the heels of the jazz explosion, which was all about improvising, new styles of dance transformed the way Americans let loose. Types of dance such as the Charleston encouraged dancers to be free and loose with their bodies, allowing self-expression to slip in to leisure activities.
The 1920s saw the rise of the nightclub as a forum for entertainment, as the country modernized in the wake of the World War I. Stodgy Victorian dinner parties and drawing rooms manned by servants were giving way to an easier and more exciting form of entertainment at nightclubs, with music, dancing, the chance to meet new people, and in some establishments, illegal alcohol. Nightclubs have been popular ever since.
For decades, those who lived in warm and muggy southern climates had little to do in the hottest summer months but fan themselves as much as possible or rely on rotator fans to try and keep cool. But when General Electric made an electric fan with quiet overlapping blades in the 1920s, people were suddenly able to stay cooler even in the warmest of temperatures.
Along with a change in hair length, skirt and dress length also changed considerably for women in the 1920s. While floor- or ankle-length hems were considered the only acceptable ones before the 1920s, the decade saw the sudden and shocking cropping of hemlines to the knee or above. The liberation of women’s legs reflected the greater freedom they found in their lives, as they kept jobs they had gotten during WWI, won the right to vote, and yes, cut their hair.
A radical new form of corporation took hold in the early 1920s, giving rise to a drop in the number of Americans who participated in unions. Led by Ford Motor Co., some companies decided to voluntarily improve working conditions, pay higher wages, set strict work time limits, and offer health insurance and other benefits. As a result, there were 2 million fewer Americans who were enrolled in a union in 1929 as there were in 1920.
Women weren’t the only ones whose relationship with their hair changed in the 1920s. Men, too, wanted less hair, although the kind they were interested in losing was on their faces. The popularity of beards and moustaches plummeted in the 1920s, thanks to an obsession with health, youth, and cleanliness—giving facial hair a stigma that it must be hiding something, like scars from an old smallpox outbreak. If men did have facial hair, it was more likely to be a thin moustache.
Advertising had been put to the test with great effectiveness in the WWI, helping sell Americans on the idea of the war and then getting them to enlist. In peacetime, advertising executives went to work on the American pocketbook, creating a new religion in the form of consumerism, which was formalized in one of the most scandalous books of the decade, 1925’s “The Man Nobody Knows,” that compared Jesus Christ to an advertising executive.