The Roaring Twenties was the period of Western society that witnessed many Political, Economic and Social changes. It was a period of sustained economic prosperity especially in the United States and Western Europe, particularly in major cities such Chicago, New York City, Los Angeles, London Paris, Sydney, Paris and Berlin. Jazz music blossomed, the flapper redefined the modern look for British and American women, and Art Deco peaked. This era saw the large-scale development and use of motor transport, telephones, motion pictures, radio and electrical appliances. Aviation became a business. Nations saw rapid industrial and economic growth, accelerated consumer demand and significant changes in lifestyle and culture. The media focussed on sporting and film star celebrities. The sports stadiums and cinemas were filled with enthusiastic fans. In most major democratic states women won the right to vote.
These social and cultural features known as the Roaring Twenties began in all the leading metropolitan centres, then spread widely in the aftermath of the Great War. The United States gained dominance in world finance. When Germany could no longer afford to pay the Great War reparations to the United Kingdom, France and the other Allied Powers, the United States came up with the Dawes Plan. Wall Street invested heavily in Germany, which paid its reparations to the relevant countries, who in turn used the dollars to pay off their war debts to Washington. By the middle of the decade, prosperity was widespread, with the second half of the decade known, especially in Germany, as the ”Golden Twenties”. The spirit of the Roaring Twenties was marked by a feeling of novelty associated with modernity and a break with traditions. Everything seemed possible through modern technology which brought “modernity” to a large part of the population.
However, in Britain especially, work was difficult to find for many discharged military personnel. They were dismayed that the country did not provide the “society fit for heroes” as promised. Many of the heroes who volunteered or were conscripted to fight for King and Country found their peacetime reward was unemployment, hunger and despair. It should have been so simple. The country had been able to spend millions of pounds a day to defeat the Germans, but only a fraction of that amount would be needed to fulfil Lloyd George’s promise that his coalition government would make Britain “a land fit for heroes to live in.” However, there was not any money forth-coming to put industry on its feet and many returning servicemen, willing to work, were forced to suffer poverty as no work was available.
The Roaring Twenties can be summed up by breaking down the various areas of “modernity” as follows :-
The Economy
The Roaring Twenties saw great economic growth and widespread prosperity which was driven by the recovery from the wartime devastation. The end of wartime production, at first, caused a brief but deep recession throughout the world. Quickly, however, the American and Canadian economies revived as returning soldiers re-entered the work force. Civilian spending during the war had been virtually non-existent other than for the essential commodities. The American Economy benefitted the most because they successfully made the transition from a wartime to a peacetime economy, which then allowed them to extend loans for a European boom. The United States became the richest nation in the world, its industry was based on mass production which then created a consumer society. The 1919-1920 post Great War ended when munitions factories were retooled to produce consumer goods. However, some sectors of industry remained stagnant, especially farming and coal mining. By contrast, European economies had a more difficult post-war readjustment and only began to flourish about 1924.
New Products and Technologies
Mass production made technology affordable to the middle class, but not necessarily to the working class.
Motor Transport
The automotive industry rapidly grew during the 1920s. Before the war, cars were a luxury affordable only to wealthy people with money. The automobile industry originated in Europe in the late 19th century but the United States completely dominated the world industry for the first half of the 20th century through the development of mass production techniques.
In Europe the main fore-runners of the automobile industry during the Roaring Twenties were Britain and France. In Britain, William R. Morris and his competitor Herbert Austin had resumed production of their low-priced cars which they had been developing before the Great War. The three British firms of Austin, Morris and Singer controlled 75% of the British Market in 1929. André-Gustave Citreon and Louis Renault had resumed production of their vehicles in France.
In America, The Ford Motor Company was one of the first automobile manufacturers to introduce the American innovation of full-scale mass production. The process combined precision, standardisation and interchangeability of components, synchronisation and continuity. The first of the “Big Three” motor manufacturers, the Ford Motor Company inspired rival companies to adopt their manufacturing procedures. General Motors Corporation (GM) was the second of the “Big Three”, who became the world’s largest automobile firm and the largest privately owned manufacturing enterprise in the world. It was founded in 1908 by William C. Durant. The third member of the ”Big Three” automobile manufacturers was created at the same time. When the Maxwell Motoring Company failed in the 1921 depression, Walter P. Chrysler, formally of General Motors, was called in to reorganise the company. In 1925 it became the Chrysler Corporation and grew to major proportions with the acquisition of the Dodge Brothers company in 1928. In America alone after the Wall Street crash, motor vehicle production declined from a peak of more than five million in 1929 to a low of just over one million in 1932. It rose again slowly but had not reached its 1929 figure at the outbreak of the Second World War.
The 1920s saw milestones in aviation that seized the world’s attention. In 1927, Charles Lindbergh rose to fame with the first solo nonstop transatlantic flight. He took off from Roosevelt Field in New York and landed on the Paris-Le Bourget Airport. It took Lindbergh thirty three and a half hours to cross the Atlantic Ocean. His aircraft, the Spirit of St. Louis, was a custom built, single engine, single seat monoplane, and was designed by aeronautical engineer Donald A. Hall. In Britain Amy Johnson was the heroine, as the first women to fly alone from Britain to Australia. Flying solo or with her husband, Jim Mollison, she set numerous long distance records during the 1930s.
Biological Progress-Penicillin
For decades biologists had been at work on the medicine that became penicillin. In 1928, Scottish biologist Alexander Fleming discovered a substance which killed a number of disease-causing bacteria. In 1929, he called the new substance penicillin. His publications were largely ignored at first but it became a significant antibiotic in the 1930s. In 1930 Cecil George Paine, a pathologist at the Royal Infirmary in Sheffield, attempted to use penicillin to treat eruptions in beard follicles but was unsuccessful. Moving on to a gonococcal infection in infants, he achieved the first recorded cure with penicillin on the 25th November 1930. He then cured four additional patients of eye infections but failed to cure a fifth
Radio and Television
The British Broadcasting Company, as the BBC was originally called, was formed on the 18th October 1922, by a leading group of wireless manufacturers including Marconi. Daily broadcasting by the BBC began in Marconi’s London studio in the Strand on the 14th November 1922. John Reith, a 33 year-old Scottish engineer, was appointed General Manager of the BBC at the end of 1922. There were no rules, standards or established guidelines to follow, but with the help of Peter Eckersley, they innovated and experimented and the service began to expand. It wasn’t long before radio could be heard across the nation.
In America, radio became the first broadcasting medium. Radios were expensive, but their mode of entertainment proved revolutionary. Radio advertising became the grandstand for mass marketing. Its economic importance led to the mass culture that has dominated society since this period. During the ”Golden Age of Radio”, radio programming was as varied as the later Television programming.
The 1920s saw numerous inventors continue the work on television, but programmes did not reach the public until the eve of the Second World War, and few saw any before the late 1940s. In July 1927, John Logie Baird transmitted a long-distance television signal over 438 miles (705 km) of telephone line between London and Glasgow. Baird transmitted the world’s first long-distance television pictures to the Central Hotel at Glasgow Central Station. He then set up the Baird Television Development Company Ltd, which in 1928 made the first transatlantic television transmission, from London to Hartsdale, New York, and the first television programme for the BBC.
Cinema Replaces American Vaudeville and British Music Hall
The cinema boomed in the 1920s, producing a new form of entertainment that virtually ended the old vaudeville theatrical shows. Watching a film was cheap and accessible. Since the early 1910s, lower-priced cinema successfully competed with vaudeville. Many vaudeville performers and other theatrical personalities were recruited by the film industry, lured by greater salaries and less arduous working conditions. In October 1927, the sound film The Jazz Singer turned out to be a smash box office success. It was innovative for its use of sound.
In 1928, the animated short film, Dinner Time was among the first animated sound films. It was followed a few months later by the animated short film Steamboat Willie, the first sound film by the Walt Disney Animation Studios. It was the first commercially successful animated short film and introduced the character Mickey Mouse. Steamboat Willie was the first cartoon to feature a fully post-production soundtrack, which distinguished it from earlier sound cartoons. It became the most popular cartoon of its day.
The introduction of the sound film eliminated vaudeville’s last major advantage. Vaudeville was in sharp financial decline and the prestigious Orpheum Circuit, a chain of vaudeville and movie theatres, was absorbed by a new film studio.
British music hall was similar American vaudeville, featuring rousing songs and comic acts. Music hall was a type of British theatrical entertainment that was popular from the early Victorian era beginning around 1850 and lasting until 1960. It involved a mixture of popular songs, comedy, speciality acts and variety entertainment. The term is derived from a type of theatre or venue in which such entertainment took place. While in the United Kingdom the term ”vaudeville” referred to more working-class types of entertainment that would have been termed “burlesque” in America.
New Infrastructure and Society Comprising:-
The new automobile dominance led to greater mobility. Cars and trucks needed road construction, new bridges and regular highway maintenance. New industries were introduced to make tyres, glass for windscreens and windows and refining fuel. Servicing and repair industries abounded for the millions of cars and trucks. Tourism gained an enormous boost with hotels, restaurants and curio shops benefitting.
Electricity, Telephones and Housing Facilities
In America and Europe, most industries switched from coal power to electricity. Most homes, especially in the towns and cities were lit by electricity. Telephone lines were being also being strung across both continents of America and Europe. Indoor plumbing and modern sewage systems were installed for the first time in many houses.
Art Deco
Art Deco was the style of design and architecture that marked the era. Originating in Europe, it spread to the rest of Western Europe and North America towards the mid-1920s. In America, the style of architecture featured strong geometric shapes. The most famous building featuring the Art Deco design was the Chrysler Building in New York. Architecture styles also reflected the age of the steel formed skyscrapers with exterior cladding and complete with lifts and escalators.
With some exceptions, many countries extended women’s voting rights. These democracies included the United States, Canada, Great Britain and most major European countries as well as India. This influenced many governments by increasing the number of voters. Politicians responded by spending more attention on issues of concern to women, especially peace, public health, education and the status of children. On the whole, women voted much like their menfolk, except they were more interested in peace.
Lost Generation
The Lost Generation was composed of young American people who came out of the Great War disillusioned and cynical about the world. Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein were some of the expatriates, living in Paris who wrote novels and short stories expressing their resentment towards the materialism and individualism rampant during this era. In England, the bright young things were young aristocrats and socialites whose actions were well covered by the gossip columns of the London tabloids.
Fashion and Clothing
In America, well dressed men wore well-tailored suits, silk shirts and handkerchiefs, trilby hats, bow ties, black leather patent shoes and spats. Women’s fashion included Fringed Beaded Flapper dresses with pleats and gathers, short fringed skirts with a hemline above the knees. They also included long strands of pearl beads, cigarette holders, feather headbands and boas. Silk, woollen or rayon stockings were held up by garters.

Flappers and Sexuality
Flappers were light-hearted, female nonconformists who were eager to try new styles of dress and challenged the traditional ideas of behaviour by wearing make-up, drinking and smoking in public and acting in an unladylike fashion. Flappers wore short bobbed hair, make-up such as lipstick and rouge, short fringed skirts, bright coloured sweaters and scarves.
Everything changed in the Roaring Twenties where sex was revolutionised on the Silver Screen with the characters acting out their parts using widespread use of the motorcar and performed by steamy actors and actresses. Everyone, it seemed was talking about sex, it was on the minds of young people and the older generation. In the colleges of America, they were full of young women and men who admitted freely that their weekends were full of “petting parties.”
Dance, Music and the Jazz Age
The new type of music called jazz developed in the United States and inspired new crazy moves. New dances evolved in the Roaring Twenties, or the Jazz Age, as it was known, included the Charleston, the Black Bottom, the Shimmy Turkey Trot, Cake Walk, Bunny Hop, the Lindy Hop and the American Tango. The old dances such as the waltz and the foxtrot were also popular. Jazz, ragtime and the music from Broadway musicals dominated the era. Louis Armstrong was one of most popular Jazz musicians of the era and played his famous solos in the nightclubs of Chicago. Louis ”Satchmo” Armstrong is credited with putting Jazz on the musical map. Other famous Jazz musicians and singers include Dizzie Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Josephine Baker and Duke Ellington.
American Prohibition and Gangsters
Prohibition in the United States was a nationwide constitutional ban on the producing, importation, transportation and sale of alcoholic beverages from 1920 to 1933. The Prohibition Gangsters were violent mobsters who extended their illegal activities in the 1920s through the sale of intoxicating liquor which led to organised crime. The names of the most famous gangsters in the Roaring Twenties were Al ”Scarface” Capone, George ”Bugs” Moran, Charles ”Lucky” Luciano, Dutch Schultz and Jack ”Legs” Diamond.
The Wall Street Crash of 1929 ended the Roaring Twenties era, and the Great Depression brought years of worldwide gloom and hardship.

This entry was posted in 1920s.

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