Jazz became prominence during the 1920s, a type of music that came directly from African American culture. It reflected one of the most important movements of population in the inter-war period, that of African Americans from the Old South to the North. Other forms of popular music were accompanied by new forms of dance, such as the “Charleston”, the “Black Bottom” and the “Turkey Trot”. These dances were associated with improvised steps and daring women’s fashion – which included women’s dresses that were at the knee.
In America, the national game was baseball, dominated by the New York Yankees in 1920s, and particular, Babe Ruth who held the professional baseball ‘home run’ record until Hank Aaron overtook it in 1970. College football was also popular, as well as professional boxing. Mass spectator sports benefited through the rising pay cheques and the development of radio and cinema.
The ‘lost generation’ of writers of the 1920s laid the foundation of modern American literature and provided an important insight into life in America. Two most significant writers were F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. They writing epitomised the feeling of disillusionment with 1920s society, writing about the economic boom and those who had been affected by WWI.
An important feature of literary development was the African American cultural renaissance, centred on Harlem, New York, which took many art forms. An all African-American Broadway musical was produced in 1921, and many literature was produced about the blacks. However, African Americans still faced discrimination across America in hobs, housing and education despite the changes.
The 1920s shows these factors as important, because they show that there began a significant social change. Music began to be developing from the African Americans, showing an important movement, and new dances showed that popular music was becoming more prominent rather than the ‘Waltz’, the pre-war concert or dance hall. Sports began to become more popular through the mass of spectators, and literature began to develop from new forms of writing about modern economic and social status. Literatures about blacks were also starting to develop.
With what success did women improve their position within American society in the 1920s?
Women successfully improve their position within American society in the 1920s through having more independence and a change in lifestyle. According to the authors of The Enduring Vision 1993: “The most enduring twenties” stereotype is that of the flapper – the sophisticated, fashionable, pleasure-mad, young women.” The lives of American women in the 1920s were important changes reflected from the ‘Flapper’. New fashion and dance suggested a more carefree, pleasure-seeking lifestyle. The role of woman being one of home making and child rearing became having the opportunity to follow an independent lifestyle, which was not dominated by the need to find a husband. Thousands of women were able to find employment as telephonists, typists, secretaries and clerks in the rapidly expanding American economy.
Clara Bow, the Hollywood film star, known as the “It Girl”, was the individual who symbolised these changes.
Women’s’ cosmetics were the most revealing development. Beauty salons appeared across America, and the cosmetics industry increased its earning from $17 million to $200 million per year. It helped to make Chanel, Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden household names in the USA> Make-up had previously associated with prostitutes, but now women in America were taking control of their sexuality, through the use of cosmetics, shorter skirts and the removal of corsetry.
However, the decade saw the rapid growth of women smokers, but saw the rise in birth control to avoid unwanted pregnancies.
However the Age of the Flapper only reflected one aspect of the life and role of women in American society in the 1920s. There were courses in “Wife, Motherhood and the Family as an Economic Unit” at the prestigious women’s college, Vassar. For many women, this was a decade of unfulfilled expectation. It had begun promisingly with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, giving women the vote. However, a distinctive ‘women’s’ movement never really materialised. It was true that in 1928, the League of Women Voters was able to proclaim that 145 women had won seats in 35 state legislatures, and two had become governors, but these were the exceptions in the male-dominated world of politics.
The National Woman’s Party began in 1923, led by Alice Paul and Rose Winslow, but failed to get an Equal Rights Amendment accepted. They had wanted the Constitution to include an amendment stating that ‘men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States’. This campaign led to conflict with groups who had fought long and hard to protect women during the Progressive Era. If the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) became law, labour laws restricting the number of hours and type of work open to women would be lost.
Why was the development of radio and the cinema so important to most Americans?
The first American radio station was KDKA of Pittsburgh, and this developed into hundred of radio stations throughout the country by the end of the decade. They gave small towns and remote rural areas the ability to hear up-to-date news broadcasts, music, radio plays and comedy shows. These broadcasts were sponsored by private companies and benefited advertising companies. This meant that people across America were able to hear news as well as being able to keep up to date on the latest household gadget.
The cinema became the main form of entertainment for America. Hollywood became the major production centre for the world film industry by 1919. Every small town across America had its ‘picture house’ and film gave Americans to look at life in Ancient Rome, the Wild West, the First World War and of how the rich lived. Fashions that appeared in films were copied by film fans. Although films began with silence, this was considered unimportant, as stars such as Charlie Chaplin were able to provide comedy without the use of language. However, in 1927, through the development of technological advances, Hollywood was able to develop ‘talking pictures’. This made films even more popular and the establishment of the Academy Awards (Oscars) in 1928 gave Hollywood an annual showcase to prove its importance in American society and world cinema.
What do you regard as the most important cultural development in the 1920s? Give reasons for you answers.
I think that all the factors were important in the cultural development in the 1920s. Music, dance, sport and cinemas gave entertainment value to all Americans. Women became more independent and were given the chance to work instead of being seen as ‘home and child carers’. And radio and cinema advances gave Americans to look at history, and to provide fashion development.
However, I think that the change in women was a significant cultural development in the 1920s. At last, women were given some equal rights, and were given the chance to become independent and work for themselves instead of looking and relying on a husband.