The evocative phrase comes from America, of course, and refers to a period of unparalleled prosperity (for some). Industrial production doubled. American politicians had almost finished their self-imposed task of bankrupting Britain and dismantling its empire (it would require another World War to finish the job). It was the time of a huge economic boom accelerated by the new mass market for consumer goods, or gaudy advertising that actually sold the product. The automobile factories worked three eight hour shifts.
There were 8 million autos on the roads of the USA in 1920; 23 million by 1930. In that year one in every five Americans owned a motor car. The electrical industry moved by hydro-electric plants and steam turbines forged ahead. Consumption of electricity in the home doubled as domestic appliances – irons, toasters, refrigerators (5000 a year made in 1920: one million a year in 1930), electric fry pans, mixers and blenders – were plugged in kitchens often not big enough to find room for them all.
Radio or wireless, hardly existent in 1920 became super-important, and with it came radio stars with obscene wages and the National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC), as the first national network in 1926, closely followed a year later by the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS). In 1930 40% of US families had a radio, and they listened to it hour by hour.
Another new industry was aviation, following the first non-stop solo flight over the Atlantic to Irelandby a pilot with film star looks called Lindbergh. Newly set-up American airlines with (formerly) famous names like TWA (Trans-World Airlines) were carrying half a million passengers by the end of the decade. The construction industry changed the skyline of America with buildings with deep foundations that soared upwards to over twenty storeys. They were called, not unpoetically, ‘skyscrapers’. Manhattan and Los Angeles excelled in this new mode of living and office working. The electric elevator was installed in buildings with steel-frame construction.
This huge economic development brought in high employment (unemployment never rose above 5%),there were ever rising wages for all classes, and a great increase in bank credit, with a wicked invention called ‘Hire-Purchase’, or ‘Live Now Pay Later’ encouraging workers to sign away their working lives.
With the bigger wage packets came more leisure, especially at picture palaces or cinemas, as the Hollywood film industry converted ordinary humans into the New Gods, like Charlie Chaplin (left). Dozens of newspapers sprang open in every city. Fortunes were being made (and lost). Going to the movies when you were not glued to the radio became a national pastime.
Even greater crowds than before watched sport in bigger and bigger stadiums. Boxers, baseballers and basketball players became household names. Jazz, which had originated in New Orleans among black musicians, spread right across the country and was taken up by white musicians too. Tap-dancing using special shoes became the rage, though it was difficult and required hours of training.
But the Roaring Twenties were also the cause of a general drop in traditional codes of behaviour. Young women no longer met young men in the security of their home with Mother looming and Father grimacing. They met in cars, and ‘necking’ became popular and rife, frequently extending into something more serious. The uninhibited nature of the jazz dances contributed a great deal to a new immorality, or freedom, depending on your point of view.
Women began to reject their former ‘standards’ and conventional restrictions, especially in their appearance. Skirts grew shorter, every woman wore flaming lipstick. Some women even drank and smoked in public! What a shock! But they had seen it on the big screen, so it was ‘OK’. Actually, women’s emancipation was slow and uncompleted. Women played little or no part in politics. Most girls in their twenties did not have sex before marriage, and if they did it was with a fiancé. Few women broke into all-male professions such as medicine and law.
The Roaring Twenties taught America, especially rustic America, how backward it was! It was also the epoch of the big-time gangster and gangland slaughter on unprecedented scale. In rural districts the Ku Klux Klan had five million members. Prohibition (q.v.) arrived, and huge numbers of Americans of every class broke the law daily. Prohibition also boosted the mobsters; Chicago, Miami and New York became dangerous places to live and work. Al Capone (left) seemed to ‘own’Chicago.
Not everyone benefited by the tremendous boom: farming was depressed, and manpower was less as the young people headed for the big city, anxious to leave the wide-open-spaces to the snakes. Inequality, between men and women, and between black and white, became notoriously worse than before 1920. 60% of families lived during the Roaring Twenties on or below subsistence level. The heedless and moneyed class danced the Black Bottom and the Charleston, while life for the lower classes became bleak indeed. And then suddenly the Twenties were over and the grim Thirties took their place, with a second world conflagration awaiting everybody in 1939.
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