Roaring Twenties: 1916–1929

Cultural Changes of the 1920s

Mass Production and American Consumerism

Following World War I, mass production and the growth of American consumerism—especially with the use of installment plans and credit—grew hand in hand.

When World War I came to an end, a period of recession gripped the country from late 1919 until mid-1921. After the recession, wages began to rise for many people, and the public rebounded with an increase in spending. Exciting new household goods like vacuum cleaners and other electric appliances were big sellers. There was no shortage of products to buy, as mass production increased as well, giving consumers an unprecedented number of choices. As companies produced an abundance of new items, they needed to advertise to attract customers. They also began offering consumers innovative ways to obtain goods.

Products could be bought at chain stores or ordered through the mail, and they could often be had for little money down. Credit—the provision of money, goods, or services to customers with the expectation of payment at a future date—was readily extended to consumers. Customers could obtain credit not only from banks but also from the stores selling the goods. Items could be purchased and taken home right away, using an installment plan, which was a system of purchasing merchandise through small, regular payments. American consumers grew excited at the concept of having immediate access to goods without having to pay for them up front. During Calvin Coolidge's presidency, the government began lifting restrictions on industry as well as encouraging the public to engage in thrifty spending rather than saving extra cash. This introduction of credit created the consumer market, or consumerism—the theory that the public's increasing consumption of goods and services is good for the economy. Consumerism was a goal of the Republican Party. The government was under Republican control from 1921 through the rest of the '20s.
Installment buying became popular in the 1920s for everything from vacuum cleaners to houses. However, during the Great Depression many lost their property when they couldn't pay off their loans.
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-USF33-012490-M4

Impact of the Automobile

Automobiles changed where Americans lived, worked, and played—leading to the growth of larger communities. Businesses took advantage of radio broadcasts to reach customers with on-air advertising.

Before World War I the automobile industry had just begun to interest the American public, and the consumerism of the 1920s helped create a demand for cars. Autos were considered a luxury in European countries. During 1913 carmaker Henry Ford radically changed the situation in the United States when he introduced the moving assembly line to produce his autos. This manufacturing process used conveyor belts to move a partially assembled automobile from one worker to the next, with each person attaching a part to the auto in turn. The procedure greatly sped up manufacturing and allowed Ford to sell his cars for a more affordable price. By 1925 about one in six people in the United States owned an automobile. In 1930 roughly one in five Americans owned a car. Cars began to be viewed as a necessity rather than a luxury for people of every income level. Purchase on credit became a popular way to gain access to a car, even if a consumer did not have the money right away.

Auto ownership gave people mobility to visit stores and buy additional goods. Mobile rural customers visited nearby small towns more frequently, boosting retail activity and prompting community growth. Americans soon flocked to department stores, restaurants, and theaters in growing towns and cities. Because so many people had access to radios, businesses soon made use of this direct line to consumers' ears and their ability to drive anywhere. Retailers concocted elaborate advertising schemes to win over customers. As people came together thanks to this boost in transportation and communication, other cultural and social trends—such as the concept of family vacations—spread quickly. The impulse for personal expression was not lost on automobile manufacturers. They began marketing cars to women as well as men, positioning vehicle ownership as a necessary part of cultivating one's appearance.
Women of the 1920s felt empowered. They had replaced men in the workforce during World War I and could now vote. The affordability of automobiles added to their personal freedom.
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-100382

Mass Culture of the 1920s

Entertainment in the form of new musical styles, radio programs, and movies enthralled Americans and began minimizing regional cultural differences. Boxing, football, and baseball captured the imagination of millions.

With the growth of American consumerism, radios were a fixture in 40 percent of homes. This promoted the popularity of radio programs and allowed people to experience new styles of music—notably jazz—without leaving home. Movies also became popular, with film stars such as Louise Brooks, Rudolph Valentino, and Douglas Fairbanks gracing the silent screen in stories about swashbucklers, sheikhs, and fugitives. A young Greta Garbo was a hugely popular romantic heroine even after silent films gave way to talkies—movies with a soundtrack. Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton were comic heroes on screen and became icons of 1920s entertainment. Chaplin retained his popularity even after the decade ended.

The rise of radio introduced sports broadcasts to homes across America. Fights featuring heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey and other boxing greats first aired in 1920 followed by baseball games in 1921. That October Americans could listen to the World Series right in their own homes. Baseball great Babe Ruth rose from a difficult childhood to become a star left-handed pitcher for the Boston Red Sox and continued his career as a member of the New York Yankees. At the end of his career he had a batting record that remained unbroken for the next several decades. Ruth even starred in a film about baseball, and his name became synonymous with the best the sport had to offer.
President Warren Harding grew up playing baseball in Marion, Ohio, and co-owned Marion's minor league team. He invited Babe Ruth to the White House and on April 24, 1923, watched Ruth hit a home run at Yankee Stadium.
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ggbain-35844

"New Woman" of the 1920s

Following World War I, the flapper became the symbol of the "new woman," who pursued social and intellectual liberation.
In the 1920s women began to rebel against social norms in fashion, art, film, and their financial independence. The repressed social conventions of the Victorian era and the beginning of the 20th century were largely cast aside by the flapper. This was a term used in the decade following World War I to describe a young woman who broke away from conservative Victorian-era values. Flapper fashion was epitomized by film stars like Louise Brooks, with slim, corset-free silhouettes, shorter hemlines, cosmetics, and short hair. The mobility provided by the automobile gave women the opportunity to go where they wanted, and flappers went to clubs at night to hear jazz and dance. They were not shy about their sexuality or indulgence in alcohol, which was still prohibited but could be bought at secret clubs called speakeasies. Since gaining the right to vote in 1920, women were even more vocal about insisting on equality with men. Having experienced the freedom of working outside the home and making their own decisions, women did not want to relinquish that independence at the end of World War I. Larger numbers of young women attended college. In 1928 some 39 percent of college graduates were women. The flapper became a symbol of the "new woman" of the 1920s. She took her freedom very seriously, even if her persona was that of a carefree woman ready for adventure. Far from flighty, the flapper prided herself on being intelligent, a requirement for true independence.
American actress Louise Brooks's iconic flapper style was imitated by many. When directors could not handle her outspoken nature and intellect, Brooks left acting and became a film critic.
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ggbain-32453