The Roaring Twenties

The Roaring Twenties

The "Roaring Twenties" era was memorable for huge growth in areas from artistic expression and popular entertainment to industry and even crime.

Learning Objectives

Discuss the cultural and social atmosphere characterized by the phrase "Roaring Twenties"

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The 1920s saw an explosion of industrial growth in the United States as World War I veterans returned to the labor force.
  • Government and big business became more closely entwined during the postwar era under the successive  Republican administrations of three presidents: Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover.
  • Facing high  unemployment  and  inflation, President Warren Harding signed the Emergency  Tariff  and Forney-McCumber Tariff to reduce the national debt and taxes, protect the farming industry, and limit immigration.
  • The 1920s saw two major literary movements: The Lost Generation, a group of U.S. expatriates who mostly settled in Paris, and the Harlem Renaissance, an African-American cultural awakening based in New York’s Harlem district.
  • Radio, jazz music, and Hollywood films flourished as the popular entertainment of the era, while Prohibition and speakeasies helped fuel a criminal outbreak.

Key Terms

  • Emergency Tariff of 1921: A temporary measure enacted on May 27 to ease the plight of farmers until a better economic solution could be put into place by the government.
  • Harlem Renaissance: An African-American cultural movement spanning the 1920s and 1930s.
  • The Lost Generation: Americans who came of age during World War I; refers specifically to a group of well-known expatriate writers including Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

The "Roaring Twenties"—a term that characterizes the distinct cultural tone of the 1920s, principally in American cities, but also in Berlin and Paris—was a period of social, artistic, cultural, and economic dynamism. It was not until the Wall Street crash of 1929 that this remarkable era ended and the Great Depression spread worldwide.

Politics and Economics

In the period following World War I, the United States experienced the consecutive Republican administrations of three presidents: Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover. All three took the conservative position of forging a close relationship between government and big business. When Harding took office in 1921, the national economy was in the depths of a depression, with an

unemployment rate of 20 percent and runaway inflation. He subsequently signed the Emergency Tariff of 1921 and the Fordney-McCumber Tariff of 1922 to ease the economic suffering of domestic producers such as farmers. One of the main initiatives of both the Harding and Coolidge administrations was rolling back income taxes on the wealthy, which had been raised during World War I. It was believed a heavy tax burden on the rich would slow the economy and reduce tax revenues.

The improvements resulting from an improved economy included the large-scale diffusion and use of automobiles, telephones, motion pictures, and electricity; unprecedented industrial growth; accelerated consumer demand and aspirations; and significant changes in lifestyle and culture. The media moved away from the hardships of war and focused on celebrities, especially sports heroes and movie stars, as cities rooted for their home teams and filled the new palatial movie theaters and gigantic stadiums. In most major countries, women had the opportunity to vote for the first time. Urbanization also reached a climax in the 1920s, with more Americans living in cities of 2,500 or more people than in small towns or rural areas than at any previous time in the country’s history.

Arts and Literature

The Roaring Twenties was a fruitful period for the arts, music, and writing. The Art Deco movement was popular among designers and architects, fashion for women went in bold new directions, and jazz music became all the rage. In literature, two popular movements or groups of writers arose: The Lost Generation and the Harlem Renaissance.

The Lost Generation were young people who came out of World War I disillusioned and cynical about the world. The term usually refers to American literary notables who lived in Paris at the time, including Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein. These expatriate authors wrote novels and short stories expressing their resentment toward the materialism and individualism that was rampant during the era.

Portrait of F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1921

F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1921: American expatriate author F. Scott Fitzgerald, a member of the Lost Generation literary movement, wrote The Great Gatsby, which epitomized Roaring Twenties culture.

African-American literary and artistic culture developed rapidly during the 1920s under the banner of "The Harlem Renaissance," named for the historically black Harlem section of New York City. At the time, this cultural awakening was known as the “New Negro Movement” and was represented by notable writers including Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Arna Bontemps, and Virginia Houston. Harlem also played a key role in the development of dance styles and the popularity of dance clubs. With several famous entertainment venues such as the Apollo Theater and the Cotton Club, Harlem attracted people from all walks of life, races, and classes.

Art Deco was the style of design and architecture that marked the era. Originating in Europe, it spread to North America in the mid-1920s and developed in a different direction than that of Europe. Expressionism, and later surrealism, were the preferred styles in Europe during the 1920s. Art Deco, already globally popular, found favor among designers in America as the 1920s progressed, culminating with the opening of Radio City Music Hall in 1932.

Young women's fashion of the 1920s was both a trend and a social statement, immortalized in movies and magazine covers, that broke off from the rigid Victorian way of life. Rebellious, middle-class women, labeled "flappers" by older generations, did away with the corset and donned slinky knee-length dresses, which exposed their legs and arms. With this exposure, women in the 1920s began staking claim to their own bodies and becoming sexually liberated. This freedom also extended to their intellectual pursuits, as the era spawned progressive thinkers such as Sigmund Freud and the expansion of coeducational programs in which women took places at state colleges and universities alongside men.

If freedom was the mindset of the Roaring Twenties, then jazz was the soundtrack. Following the war, many jazz musicians migrated from New Orleans to major northern cities such as Chicago and New York, leading to a wider dispersal of jazz as different styles developed in different cities. Because of its popularity in speakeasies and its advancement due to the emergence of more advanced recording devices, jazz became very popular in a short amount of time, with stars including Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, and Chick Webb. Jazz and other energetic art forms also helped with the expansion of mass market entertainment such as radio and film.

Portrait of Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington: Duke Ellington led a renowned jazz orchestra that frequently played the Cotton Club during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s.

Entertainment for the Masses

Radio became the first mass broadcasting medium during the 1920s. Radio sets were initially expensive, but the medium of entertainment and information transmission proved revolutionary. Radio advertising became the grandstand for mass marketing and its economic importance led to the mass culture that has since dominated society.

The "Golden Age of Radio" began after World War I with the first radio news program in Detroit on August 31, 1920, followed by the appearance of the first commercial station in Pittsburgh that same year. The first national radio networks came into being during this period, with the launch of the National Broadcasting Company in 1926 and the Columbia Broadcasting System in 1927. Unsurprisingly, 1927 was also the year that introduced a new era of regulation with the establishment of the Federal Radio Commission, ensuring the government played a role in the growth and oversight of the industry. Radio programming comprised a variety of formats and genres with shows similar to today’s television, including soap operas, quiz and talent shows, comedies, and children’s programs, as well as news bulletins and sports broadcasts.

Hollywood also boomed during this period, producing a new form of entertainment that shut down the old vaudeville theaters: the silent film. Watching a movie was cheap and accessible, creating a profitable market that saw crowds surging into new downtown movie palaces and neighborhood theaters. Even greater entertainment marvels emerged as the decade progressed, the most important being sound synchronized motion pictures, or "talkies," which quickly replaced silent films between 1927 and 1929. Actors and actresses—including Rudolph Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks, John Barrymore, Greta Garbo, and Clara Bow—became household names during the Roaring Twenties.

Portrait of Rudolph Valentino

Rudolph Valentino: Silent movie star Rudolph Valentino was one of Hollywood's first sex symbols, starring in films such as The Sheik before his untimely death at age 31 in 1926.

Prohibition and Crime

Prohibition was a national ban on the sale, manufacture, and transportation of alcohol that lasted from 192 to 1933. The Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution banning alcohol was implemented through the Volstead Act, which went into effect on January 17, 1920.

Speakeasies, illegal nightclubs where alcohol was sold, became popular and plentiful as the legally dry years progressed. The ban led to a groundswell of criminal activity, with powerful gangs controlling the sale and distribution of alcohol and a number of related activities including gambling and prostitution. Gangsters such as Lucky Luciano, Al Capone, Moe Dalitz, Joseph Ardizzone, and Sam Maceo were involved in bribery, extortion, loan sharking, and money laundering. The illicit alcohol industry earned an average of $3 billion per year in illegal income, none of which was taxed, and effectively transformed cities into battlegrounds fought over by various crime syndicates, most notably the American Mafia. Prohibition continued until its repeal in the Twenty-First Amendment to the Constitution in 1933.


Prohibition outlawed alcohol for 13 years, splitting the nation morally and politically while empowering organized crime.

Learning Objectives

Summarize the implementation and effects of Prohibition

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Ratified by the Eighteenth  Amendment in 1920, Prohibition  sparked debate between those who argued the sale of alcohol to be both immoral and unhealthy, and those who saw the ban as an intrusion of rural Protestant ideals on mainstream, everyday life.
  • Enforcing Prohibition proved difficult due to the lack of coordination between  federal  and state law enforcement and the relative ease of crossing America’s northern and southern borders undetected.
  • The institution of Prohibition led to the rise of criminal organizations behind the illegal import and sale of alcohol, most notably the American Mafia.
  • The popularity of jazz  music grew rapidly during Prohibition as a result of the popularity of the music in speakeasies.
  • Understanding the unpopularity of Prohibition, as well as the opportunity for greater tax revenue, Democrats called for the alcohol ban to be overturned, resulting in its repeal in the Twenty-first Amendment in 1933.

Key Terms

  • Al Capone: (1899–1947) An American gangster who led a Prohibition-era crime syndicate. The Chicago Outfit, which subsequently became known as the "Capones" or "Capone Gang," controlled smuggling, bootleg liquor sales, prostitution, and other illegal activities in Chicago from the early 1920s to 1931.
  • Twenty-first Amendment: An article to the United States Constitution that repealed the Eighteenth Amendment and ended the period of Prohibition in 1933.
  • Eighteenth Amendment: An article to the United States Constitution that prohibited commercial alcohol sales and consumption beginning in 1920.
  • American Mafia: An Italian-American criminal society sometimes called simply the Mafia or the Mob.

Prohibition was a national ban on the sale, manufacture, and transportation of alcohol that lasted from 1920 to 1933. A hotly contested issue, the "Dries" who supported Prohibition proclaimed it to be a victory for public morals and health, while "Wets" criticized the alcohol ban as an intrusion of mainly rural, Protestant ideals upon a central facet of urban, immigrant, and Catholic life, as well as a loss of large amounts of tax revenue. Effective enforcement of the ban proved to be difficult, however, and led to widespread flouting of the law, as well as a massive escalation of organized crime.

Volstead Act

On October 28, 1919, the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution banning alcohol was implemented through the Volstead Act, which went into effect on January 17, 1920. A total of 1,520 Prohibition agents from three separate federal agencies—the Coast Guard Office of Law Enforcement, the Treasury Department/Internal Revenue Service Bureau of Prohibition, and the Department of

Justice Bureau of Prohibition—were tasked with enforcing the new law. This effort lacked centralized authority, however, and many attempts to impose Prohibition were inhibited by the lack of transparency between federal and state authorities. The matter of geography presented further complications in that valleys, mountains, lakes, and swamps, as well as the extensive seaways, ports, and massive borders running along Canada and Mexico, made it exceedingly difficult to stop bootleggers intent on avoiding detection.


Detroit police with confiscated brewery equipment: Enforcement of Prohibition was a major challenge throughout the 1920s due to a lack of coordination between law enforcement agencies and the difficulties of detecting and apprehending bootleggers.

While the commercial manufacture, sale, and transport of alcohol was illegal, Section 29 of the Volstead Act allowed private citizens to make wine and cider from fruit, but not beer, in their homes. Up to 200 gallons per year could be produced, with some vineyards growing grapes for purported home use. In addition to this loophole, the wording of the act did not specifically prohibit the consumption of alcohol. In anticipation of the ban, many people stockpiled wines and liquors during the latter part of 1919 before alcohol sales became illegal in January 1920. As Prohibition continued, people began to perceive it as illustrative of class distinctions, since it unfairly favored social elites. Working-class people were enraged that their employers could dip into a cache of private stock while they were unable to afford similar indulgences.

Organized Crime

The rift between the Dries and the Wets over alcohol consumption and sales largely hinged on the long-running, historical debate over whether drinking was morally acceptable in light of the antisocial behavior that overindulgence could cause. Ironically, this dispute over ethics during the "Roaring Twenties" led to a sudden groundswell of criminal activity, with those who opposed legal alcohol sales unintentionally enabling the growth of vast criminal organizations that controlled the illegal sale and distribution of alcohol and a number of related activities including gambling and prostitution. Powerful gangs corrupted law enforcement agencies, leading to the blanket criminal activity of racketeering, which includes bribery, extortion, loan sharking, and money laundering. Illicit alcoholic beverage industries earned an average of $3 billion per year in illegal income, none of which was taxed, and effectively transformed cities into battlegrounds between opposing bootlegging gangs.

Chicago, the largest city in Illinois and of one America’s true metropolises along with New York and Los Angeles, became a haven for Prohibition dodgers. Many of Chicago's most notorious gangsters, including Al Capone and his archenemy, Bugs Moran, made millions of dollars through illegal alcohol sales. By the end of the decade, Capone controlled all 10,000 Chicago speakeasies, illegal nightclubs where alcohol was sold, and ruled the bootlegging business from Canada to Florida. Numerous other crimes, including theft and murder, were directly linked to criminal activity in Chicago and other cities in violation of Prohibition.

Mug shot of Al Capone

Al Capone, June 1931: Alphonse "Al" Capone headed the largest criminal organization in the Chicago area during Prohibition. A colorful figure notorious for a multitude of crimes related to his illegal alcohol operation, Capone was eventually imprisoned for tax evasion in 1931.

To prevent bootleggers from using industrial ethyl alcohol to produce illegal beverages, the government ordered the poisoning of industrial alcohols. Bootleggers combated this by hiring chemists who successfully renatured the alcohol to make it drinkable. In response, the Treasury Department required manufacturers to add even more deadly poisons to industrial alcohols, including Sterno (or "canned heat") and the particularly deadly methyl alcohol. As many as 10,000 people died from drinking denatured alcohol before Prohibition ended.

Jazz and Speakeasies

Prohibition had a large effect on music in the United States, specifically on jazz. Speakeasies became far more popular during the Prohibition era, partially influencing the mass migration of jazz musicians from New Orleans to major northern cities such as Chicago and New York. This movement led to a wider dispersal of jazz, as different styles developed in different cities. Because of its popularity in speakeasies and its advancement due to the emergence of more advanced recording devices, jazz became very popular in a short amount of time.

Jazz was also at the forefront of the minimal integration efforts of the time, as it united mostly black musicians with mostly white crowds. As the saloon began to die out, public drinking lost much of its macho association, resulting in an increased social acceptance of women drinking in the semipublic environment of a speakeasy, also known as a "blind pig" or a "blind tiger." This new norm established women as a notable new target demographic for alcohol marketers, who sought to expand their clientele.

Repeal of Prohibition

The Eighteenth Amendment had outlawed, "intoxicating liquors for beverage purposes" but did not set a limit on alcohol content, which the Volstead Act did by establishing a limit of.5 percent alcohol per unit. The beer that could be legally consumed was essentially a very weak mixture. On March 22, 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an amendment to the Volstead Act known as the Cullen-Harrison Act, allowing the manufacture and sale of light wine and "3.2 beer," referring to 3.2 percent alcohol content. Upon signing the amendment, Roosevelt made his famous remark: "I think this would be a good time for a beer."

On December 5, 1933, ratification of the Twenty-first Amendment repealed the Eighteenth Amendment. As Prohibition ended, some of its supporters, including industrialist and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, openly admitted its failure. In a positive epilogue, however, the overall consumption of alcohol dropped and remained below pre-Prohibition levels long after the Eighteenth Amendment ceased to be law.

Social Change

The Roaring Twenties represented a significant shift in American cultural values, morals, and social roles.

Learning Objectives

Discuss liberalizing trends in social morality in the Roaring Twenties

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Intellectuals such as Sigmund Freud fueled the sexual liberation of women in mainstream society by promoting an understanding that women and men have the same impulses and desires.
  • Women gained a greater voice and experience in middle-class society through enrollment in colleges and universities, although they largely remained in gendered roles.
  • Acceptance of ethnic minorities and homosexuals increased in urban areas during the 1920s as media visibility of these demographic groups increased.

Key Terms

  • coed: Short for "coeducational," the term refers to the integrated education of male and female students in the same environment.
  • Sigmund Freud: (1856–1939) An Austrian neurologist who came to be known as the founding father of psychoanalysis.
  • home economics: The study of homemaking, including cooking, needlework, cleaning, and other skills or tasks that aid in the successful operation of a home and family environment.

During the Roaring Twenties—a decade with a distinct cultural edge—ideas about morality and social roles shifted as much as the booming economy. Young women in the 1920s took part in a liberation of sexuality and education that redefined their generation, while minority groups such as African Americans and homosexuals began to emerge from the shadows of traditional American culture.

Changes for Women

Many of the ideas that fueled the change in sexual thought were already floating around intellectual circles in New York prior to World War I through the writings of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, physician and social reformer Havelock Ellis, and feminist Ellen Key. These thinkers asserted that sex was not only central to the human experience, but also that women were sexual beings with human impulses and desires just like men, and that restraining these impulses was self-destructive. By the 1920s, these ideas had filtered into the mainstream of society, although not without resistance from traditional standard bearers such as conservative religious leaders and politicians.

The 1920s saw the emergence of the coed (short for "co-educational") as women began bucking gender stereotypes by attending large state colleges and universities alongside men. But while these women entered into the mainstream middle-class experience, including higher education, they largely remained in gendered roles within society. At school, women typically took classes such as home economics, referring to the study of skills and tasks such as cooking, sewing, and cleaning employed in the successful operation of a home. Other courses of the time had titles such as, "Husband and Wife," "Motherhood," and "The Family as an Economic Unit." In an increasingly conservative postwar era, it was common for a young woman to attend college with the intention of finding a suitable husband.

Fueled by ideas of sexual liberation, however, dating underwent major changes on college campuses. With the advent of the automobile, courtship occurred in much more private settings than it had within previous generations. "Petting," or sexual relations without intercourse, became the social norm for college students.

A photograph of six young women, standing arm-in-arm in a line

Teenagers, May 1924: The societal expectations and allowances for young women changed dramatically in the 1920s.

Changes for Minorities

Another significant change in the overall behavior of American society began in urban areas, where minorities were treated with more equality in the 1920s than they had been accustomed to previously. This was reflected in some of the films of the decade, as well. Redskin (1929) and Son of the Gods (1929) dealt sympathetically with Native Americans and Asian Americans, respectively, by rejecting social bias. In movies and on the stage, black and white players appeared together for the first time, while it became common in nightclubs to see whites and blacks dancing and dining together.

The 1920s was also a period of more visibility, and somewhat more acceptance, for homosexuals. New York, London, Paris, and Berlin were important centers of the new ethic, and humor was used to assist its acceptability. One popular American song, "Masculine Women, Feminine Men," was released in 1926 and recorded by numerous artists of the day.

The relative liberalism toward homosexuality was publicly demonstrated by the actor William Haines, regularly named in newspapers and magazines as the top male box-office draw, who lived in an openly gay relationship with his partner, Jimmie Shields. Other popular gay actors and actresses of the decade included Alla Nazimova and Ramón Novarro. In 1927, movie and stage star Mae West wrote a play about homosexuality called, "The Drag," which became a box-office success. West regarded talking about sex as a basic issue of human rights and was an early advocate of gay rights.

Portrait of Mae West

Mae West: Screen, stage, and radio megastar Mae West was a vocal proponent of sexual openness and gay rights.

Profound hostility toward homosexuality continued to exist, however, especially in more remote areas. With the return of a conservative mood in the 1930s, the public once again grew intolerant of homosexuality, and gay actors were forced to choose between retiring or agreeing to hide their sexuality, even in the relatively liberal safe haven of Hollywood.

Women's Rights after Suffrage

The National Woman’s Party worked for women’s rights in the 1920s, while Margaret Sanger became a prominent advocate for birth control.

Learning Objectives

Describe the fight for women's rights after the passing of the Nineteenth Amendment

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The National Woman's Party (NWP) was active in its opposition to Woodrow Wilson's presidency, engaging in picketing and hunger strikes to draw attention to its cause. Under pressure to portray himself as a human-rights leader, Wilson publicly called for Congress to pass the Suffrage Amendment, which was ratified as the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920.
  • The NWP focused on the rights of middle-class women, leading to the party's opposition among working-class women and Eleanor Roosevelt, who supported labor unions that feared women workers would lower the wages of males.
  • Margaret Sanger became a well-known advocate of reproductive rights, promoting contraception in her monthly newsletter, The Woman Rebel. Birth-control activism increased across the United States following Sanger's arrest and trial for distributing contraceptives in 1918.
  • Sanger founded the Clinical Research Bureau in 1923 as the nation’s first legal birth-control clinic, and formed the National Committee on  Federal  Legislation for Birth Control to lobby for the overturning of restrictions on contraception.

Key Terms

  • Clinical Research Bureau: The first legal birth-control clinic in the United States, established in 1923 by Margaret Sanger and staffed entirely by female doctors and social workers.
  • National Woman's Party: A women's suffrage organization founded in 1913.
  • Margaret Sanger: (September 14, 1879–September 6, 1966) An American birth-control activist, sex educator, and nurse. She published a monthly newsletter, The Woman Rebel, that provided contraception information.
  • Nineteenth Amendment: Ratified in 1920, it granted women the right to vote and forbade any suffrage restrictions based on gender. The amendment was the culmination of the women's suffrage movement, which had been active since before the Civil War.

The women’s-rights movement made great strides in the 1920s, both in the areas of gender discrimination and women’s health. Groups such as the National Woman’s Party (NWP) worked hard not only to secure women’s continued suffrage, but also to oppose the ongoing mistreatment of women under President Woodrow Wilson ’s administration. At the same time, Margaret Sanger led a movement to promote reproductive rights and contraception for women in the form of a groundbreaking newsletter and the country’s first legal birth-control clinic.

National Woman’s Party

The NWP, founded by Alice Paul and Lucy Burns in 1913, fought for women's rights in the United States, particularly the right to vote. Originally called the "Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage," its name changed to the National Woman's Party in 1917. In contrast to other organizations, such as the National American Woman Suffrage Association, which focused on lobbying individual states, the NWP put its priority on passage of a constitutional amendment ensuring suffrage.

Portrait of Alice Paul

Alice Paul, 1920: Alice Paul founded the National Woman's Party in 1913 to promote women's suffrage and greater equal rights for women.

NWP vs. Wilson

While nonpartisan, the NWP directed much of its ire at President Woodrow Wilson as someone responsible for the poor treatment of women during the era. The party also opposed World War I, and its members staged a suffrage parade on March 3, 1913, the day before Wilson's inauguration, as well as becoming the first group to picket for women's rights in front of the White House. The protesters were tolerated at first, but after the U.S. entry into the war in 1917, they were arrested by police for obstructing traffic.


NWP picket, 1917: Members of the National Woman's Party picket in front of the White House for women's suffrage in 1917.

Many NWP members went on hunger strikes while in jail; some, including Paul, were force-fed to keep them alive. The resulting scandal, at a time when Wilson was trying to present himself and America as being at the forefront of human rights, may have contributed to his decision to publicly call for passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, the Suffrage Amendment. After its ratification, the NWP’s attention turned to eliminating other forms of gender discrimination, principally by advocating passage of the Equal Rights Amendment drafted by Alice Paul in 1923.

The NWP spoke for middle-class women, while its agenda was generally opposed by working-class women and labor unions representing working-class men who feared that women working for low wages would bring down the overall pay scale and demean the role of the male breadwinner. Eleanor Roosevelt, an ally of the unions, generally opposed NWP policies because she believed women needed protection, not equality. After 1920, the NWP authored more than 600 pieces of legislation for women's equality, half of which passed.

Margaret Sanger

In 1913, Sanger worked as a nurse in New York 's Lower East Side, often with poor women who were suffering due to frequent childbirth and self-induced abortions. She told the story of one woman who required care following a self-induced abortion and had begged a doctor for medical assistance, but who was met only with the advice to remain abstinent. Some time later Sanger returned to the woman’s house to find her dead of yet another self-induced abortion. Sanger would later tell audiences at her speaking engagements, "I threw my nursing bag in the corner and announced... that I would never take another case until I had made it possible for working women in America to have the knowledge to control birth."

Portrait of Margaret Sanger

Margaret Sanger, 1922: Margaret Sanger was a nurse and pioneering educator and birth-control activist in the 1920s.

The Woman Rebel

Sanger sought answers to the plight of women in this situation but was unable to find information about contraception in public libraries. In 1914, she launched an eight-page, monthly newsletter titled, The Woman Rebel, which promoted contraception using the slogan, "No Gods, No Masters." Collaborating with anarchist friends, she coined the term "birth control" as a more candid alternative to euphemisms such as "family limitation."

In the early years of Sanger's activism, she viewed birth control as a free speech issue, and when she began publishing her newsletter, one of her goals was to provoke a legal challenge to the federal antiobscenity laws banning dissemination of information about contraception. She was indicted in August 1914, but prosecutors focused their attention on articles Sanger had written on assassination and marriage, rather than on contraception. Afraid she might be imprisoned without an opportunity to argue for birth control in court, she fled to England under the alias "Bertha Watson."

While she was in Europe, Sanger's husband distributed a copy of her pamphlet, Family Limitation, to an undercover postal worker, resulting in a 30-day jail sentence. During her absence, however, a groundswell of support had grown in the United States, and Sanger returned in October 1915. Prominent civil-rights attorney Clarence Darrow offered to defend Sanger free of charge. Bowing to public pressure, the government dropped the charges in early 1916.

Historic Clinic

Sanger opened a family-planning and birth-control clinic in Brooklyn, New York, on October 16, 1916, the first of its kind in the United States. Nine days after its opening, Sanger was arrested for distributing contraceptives. Following a trial in January 1917, Sanger was convicted and sentenced to 30 days in a workhouse. The trial judge stated that women did not have, "the right to copulate with a feeling of security that there will be no resulting conception." A court rejected her first appeal, but in 1918, the birth-control movement won a victory when the New York State Court of Appeals issued a ruling allowing doctors to prescribe contraception.

American Birth Control League

In 1921, Sanger founded the American Birth Control League (ABCL) to enlarge the base of supporters to include the middle class. The ABCL’s founding principles included empowering women to prevent conception if children were not, "Conceived in love… Born of the mother's conscious desire… And only begotten under conditions which render possible the heritage of health."

Using the 1918 legal exemption allowing physicians to distribute contraceptive information to women provided it was prescribed for medical reasons, Sanger established the Clinical Research Bureau (CRB) in 1923. The CRB was the first legal birth-control clinic in the United States, staffed entirely by female doctors and social workers. The clinic received funding from the Rockefeller family, which continued to make donations to Sanger's causes for years, although usually anonymously.

In 1946, Sanger helped found the International Committee on Planned Parenthood, which evolved into the International Planned Parenthood Federation in 1952, soon becoming the world's largest, non-governmental family planning organization. She served as the organization's first president and remained in the role until she was 80.

Sanger died in 1966, about a year after the event that marked the climax of her 50-year career: the U.S. Supreme Court case Griswold v. Connecticut, which legalized birth control in the United States.

The Lost Generation

The Lost Generation was a group of writers and artists, including many expatriates, who helped define a larger, modernist movement after World War I.

Learning Objectives

Identify the group of people described as the "Lost Generation"

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The term " Lost Generation " first appeared in Ernest Hemingway's novel, The Sun Also Rises, which documents the expatriate community in Europe after World War I. Hemingway attributed the term to his mentor and patron, Gertrude Stein.
  • The Lost Generation came of age during World War I, which deeply affected the group's literary and artistic sensibilities. Members included distinguished artists such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, T.S. Eliot, John Dos Passos, Waldo Peirce, Alan Seeger, and Erich Maria Remarque.
  • In France, the country in which many of these expatriates settled, the group was sometimes called the Génération au Feu, or the "Generation in Flames."

Key Terms

  • Gertrude Stein: (1874–1946) An American writer, poet, and art collector who spent most of her life in France.
  • The Lost Generation: A term used to refer to the generation that came of age during World War I.
  • Ernest Hemingway: (1899–1961) An American author and journalist who strongly influenced twentieth-century fiction.

The 1920s was a notable period of artistic creativity, especially in literature, with works by several distinguished authors appearing during this time. This creative outburst was personified by the "Lost Generation," a term popularized by American author Ernest Hemingway that came to identify the group of writers and artists, many of them expatriates, who created some of the most significant works of the period. In a more general sense, the term identified the generation that came of age during and shortly after World War I, leading to the title, "The World War I Generation." In France, the country in which many expatriates settled after the war, the group was sometimes called the Génération au Feu, or the "Generation in Flames."

Modernist Life and Literature

The spirit of the Roaring Twenties was marked by a general feeling of discontinuity associated with "modernity" and a break with traditions. Everything seemed to be feasible through modern technologies, especially with automobiles, movies, and radio programs spreading modernity throughout society. Formal decorative frills were shed in favor of practicality in both daily life and architecture. At the same time, jazz and dancing rose in popularity, in opposition to the horrors of World War I; consequently, the period is also frequently referred to as the " Jazz Age." F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel, The Great Gatsby, is often described as the epitome of the Jazz Age in American literature.


The Great Gatsby: Cover art for the 1925 novel, The Great Gatsby, in which author F. Scott Fitzgerald captures the essence of the Jazz Age and the attitude of post-World War I America.

The loss of identity and the need to "build a self" are main characteristics in American modernism; Gatsby reflects this focus in Fitzgerald’s work. Celebrated modernists also include Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and William Faulkner. While largely regarded as a romantic poet, Walt Whitman is also considered a pioneer of the modernist era.

Lost Generation

The term "Lost Generation" first appeared in Hemingway’s novel, The Sun Also Rises, which centers on a group of expatriate Americans in Europe during the 1920s and epitomizes the lifestyle and mindset of the postwar expatriate generation. Hemingway credits the phrase to Gertrude Stein, who was then his mentor and patron.

Portrait of Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway, 1923: American author Ernest Hemingway, pictured in his 1923 passport photo, coined the term "Lost Generation" to describe those who came of age during, and shortly after, World War I.

In his book, A Moveable Feast, published after Hemingway and Stein were both dead, Hemingway reveals that the phrase actually originated with the garage owner who serviced Stein's car. When a young mechanic failed to repair the car to her satisfaction, the garage owner told Stein that while young men were easy to train, he considered those in their mid-20s to 30s, the men who had been through World War I, to be a lost generation, or "une génération perdue." Telling Hemingway the story, Stein added, "That is what you are. That's what you all are... all of you young people who served in the war. You are a lost generation."


Gertrude Stein and Jack Hemingway: Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway's young son, Jack, in Paris, 1924.

Some of the names linked to the Lost Generation movement were not necessarily among Hemingway’s companions in Paris during the postwar period, but are included because their formative years occurred shortly before or during World War I. In addition to Hemingway and Fitzgerald, the movement of writers and artists also loosely includes John Dos Passos, Waldo Peirce, Alan Seeger, John Steinbeck, Sherwood Anderson, Aldous Huxley, Malcolm Crowley, Isadora Duncan, James Joyce, Henry Miller, and T.S. Eliot.

James Joyce was a friend of Hemingway's during the years both lived in Paris. Joyce was an Irishman best known for A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and his milestone work published in 1922, Ulysses, which reflected the episodes in Homer’s Odyssey. Miller was an American whose most notable works, including Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn, were based on his experiences in New York and Paris and were banned for many years in the United States due to their sexual content. The more recognizable pen name of Thomas Stearns Eliot, T.S. Eliot was a British essayist best known for some of the most recognizable poems written in English including "The Waste Land" and "The Hollow Men." He was awarded the 1948 Nobel Prize in Literature.

Portrait of T.S. Eliot

Thomas Stearns Eliot, 1934: T.S. Eliot was an important figure among the "Lost Generation" movement of writers.

World War Influence

The “Lost Generation” was greatly influenced by World War I. American modernist writers offered an insight into the psychological wounds and spiritual scars of the war experience, a theme repeated in Hemingway’s work and in Fitzgerald’s portrayal of the lives and morality of post-World War I youth in his book, This Side of Paradise.

In that same vein, but employing a perspective outside of the American viewpoint, the 1929 novel, All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, recounts the horrors of World War I and also the deep detachment from German civilian life felt by many men returning from the front. The 1930 film version of the book was nominated for four Academy Awards and won two, including best director for Lewis Milestone.


All Quiet on the Western Front: The cover of the English translation of Erich Remarque's 1929 novel, All Quiet on the Western Front.

Licenses and Attributions